Koh-i-Nur: A Diamond's Incredible Journey

“The Agate on the wearer strength bestows,
With ruddy health his fresh complexion glows;
Both eloquence and grace by it are given,
He gains favor both of earth and heaven.”    

      –  Marboeuf, Bishop of Rennes, (11th century), 
          describing virtues of the Agate.

The most famous diamond of India, Koh-i-Nur, has a colorful history and journey over more than five hundred years.  It has been said that whoever owned the Koh-i-Nur ruled the world.  But there is also a darker side to the story of Koh-i-Nur.  Some who have owned this coveted diamond also have suffered torture and blinding, but yet have refused to part with it.  The Koh-i-Nur is a veritable household name in many parts of the world.
It is mentioned first in Babur-nama, an autobiography by the first Mughal ruler, Babur (1526-1530).  After the battle of Panipat, where Ibrahim Lodhi was soundly defeated, Babur rode to Delhi and Humayun, his son, swiftly rode to Agra, the Lodhi capital.  Here he found Ibrahim Lodhi’s mother taking shelter and also the family of Raja Vikramaditya of Gwalior.  Vikramaditya had fought next to Ibrahim Lodhi in Panipat, where both of them had lost their lives.  To appease Humayun and to curry favor with him, Vikramaditya’s family offered him bundles of jewels and diamonds.  Among them was the legendary diamond Koh-i-Nur. (However, Babur did not know the name of the diamond as Koh-i-Nur.  It was Nadir Shah, more than two hundred years later, who called it by that name).
Babur in his biography called Koh-i-Nur as Ala-ud-din’s diamond.  Babur perhaps was referring to Ala-ud-din Khilji, who had ventured south to Deccan repeatedly during his rule in Delhi (1296-1316).  Even before he usurped his uncle and father-in-law Feroz Shah I, Ala-ud-din had been in Deccan where he had subdued Ramachandra, king of Devagiri.  Whether he came to possess Koh-i-Nur here, or from one of his eunuch General Malik Kafur’s several expeditions to the south in order to plunder and raid is unclear.  Moreover, diamond mines were in Deccan (Golconda – Hyderabad) and Ala-ud-din was the first of the Delhi sultans to venture that far south.  Another historical postulation is that Khilji took the diamond from the raja of Malwa, whom he had defeated.  It is generally believed that Sultan Khilji acquired it in the year 1304.

Koh-i-Nur was an enormous diamond.  It weighed around 186 carats (eight misqals) and according to Babur, its value was enough to feed the whole world for ‘half a day.’  Koh-i-Nur had a reputation of either bestowing its owner the status of world conqueror and ruler, or utter misery, misfortune and death.  Because Babur was the first to mention the diamond in his memoir, it came to be sometimes known as ‘Babur’s diamond.’ Babur says that his son Humayun offered it to him because of its beauty and clarity, but he promptly gave it back to Humayun.

A drawing of the Koh-I-Noor's 
original 186-carat form, 
based directly on various illustrations

"Bikermajit, a Hindoo, who was Rajah of Gwalior, had governed that country for upwards of a hundred years. In the battle in which Ibrahim was defeated, Bikermajit was sent to hell. Bikermajit's family and the heads of his clan were at this moment in Agra. When Humaiun arrived, Bikermajit's people attempted to escape, but were taken by the parties which Humaiun had placed upon the watch, and put in custody. Humaiun did not permit them to be plundered. Of their own free will they presented to Humaiun a 'peshkesh' (tribute or present), consisting of a quantity of jewels and precious stones. Among these was one famous diamond, which had been acquired by Sultan Ala-ed-din. It is so valuable that a judge of diamonds valued it at half of the daily expense of the whole world. It is about eight mishkels. On my arrival, Humaiun presented it to me as a peshkesh, and I gave it back to him as a present." – Translation from Babur-nama (entered in the journal May 4, 1526)

A Priceless Possession

How this diamond came into the possession of the rajas of Gwalior is a mystery that is unsolved.  (It is presumed that when the raja of Gwalior and Ala-ud-din Khilji had a peace agreement, the diamond was restored to the Gwalior family by Khilji).  Humayun came to power in 1530 after the death of Babur.  After a reign of ten years, he had become comfortable in his throne, when an upstart Sher Khan Sur with a well organized army defeated him in a battlefield near Kanauj.  Humayun’s forty thousand men army was thoroughly defeated by fifteen thousand soldiers of Sher Khan Sur.  Humayun barely escaped with his life and became a fugitive in the deserts of Sind and Rajastan.  But he had escaped with his monstrous diamond, which he put to good use in Persia.  Humayun’s own brothers refused to lend him a hand in his attempts at regaining Delhi.   During his wanderings in search of shelter, Humayun was offered a price for his precious cargo by some men.  Humayun became quite irritated by the men and said, “Such precious gems cannot be bought; either they fall to one by arbitrage of the flashing sword, which is an expression of divine will, or else they come through the grace of mighty monarchs."  
Humayun eventually took refuge in Tehran in the court of Shah Tamasp, the Safavid ruler of Iran.  Fortunately for Humayun, the Shah had a fondness for diamonds and Humayun used “Babur’s diamond” as barter in exchange for shelter and military help.  This eventually led to Humayun’s march back to Delhi (with twelve thousand Persian troops) to regain his empire in 1555 from the successors of Sher Khan Sur. However, Humayun had to leave his precious cargo in Persia. Koh-i-Nur had thus passed on to the Shah of Iran.  Koh-i-Nur had thus passed on to the Shah of Iran.  Abul-Fazl in Akbarnama mentions this event in 1547, when Humayun gave the Shah of Persia innumerable jewels as gifts, including Babur’s diamond.  However, Shah Tamasp was said to have not been too impressed by the gem.
What happened to Koh-i-Nur next is not exactly known.  It had somehow slipped back from Persia again into Mughal possession.  There is historical record of Shah Tamasp of Persia gifting a great diamond to the Sultan of Golconda.  This was then presented on to Aurangzeb during his stay as Governor in Deccan (before he claimed the Mughal throne) by Mir Jumla, a Persian adventurer in the service of the Sultan of Golconda.  Mir Jumla had collaborated with Prince Aurangzeb and attacked Hyderabad. Aurangzeb defeated the sultan who was besieged in the fort at Golconda. 

According to traveler Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, Mir Jumla also met Shah Jahan in Agra and showered him with gifts, one of which was the same Babur’s diamond that his great-grandfather Humayun had gifted to Shah of Persia in order to save the Mughal Empire.  

There is some evidence that Jahanara, Shah Jahan’s daughter (and Aurangzeb’s sister), presented the diamond to her father.  (Legend also says that Aurangzeb is reputed to have been responsible for cutting the diamond from 793 carats to 186 carats, largely due to an inadvertent error by an incompetent lapidary).  When Aurangzeb wrestled the throne from his father, killing his brothers, a distraught Shah Jahan wanted to destroy all his jewels and other prize possessions.  Jahanara convinced her father not to do so.  Whether this is myth or fact is not known. 

On November 3, 1665 Aurangzeb showed off all his jewels, including Babur's diamond. The collection was viewed and recorded by Jean-Baptiste Tavernier in his The Six Voyages of Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, published in 1679.  This exhibition was only three months before Shah Jahan  died in February 1666, still under the captivity of his son.

Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, who visited Aurangzeb’s court and wrote the book The Six Voyages of Jean-Baptiste Tavernier in 1679.

The Curse of Koh-i-Nur
The Koh-i-Nur stayed in Delhi for another one hundred years until Nadir Shah of Persia, after plundering Delhi, carried the diamond back to Persia in 1739.  He had heard of the priceless stone and come particularly in search of it in Delhi.  His initial attempts to find the stone were not successful.  A woman in the then Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah’s harem betrayed the Emperor, and informed Nadir Shah that the Emperor hid the diamond in his turban.  So the shrewd Nadir Shah had to resort to a clever trick. He ordered a grand feast to coincide with the restoration of Mohammed Shah to his throne (which itself was an insult to the Mughal Empire of erstwhile fame and glory). During the course of the ceremony, Nadir Shah suddenly proposed an exchange of turbans, a well-known oriental custom signifying the creation of brotherly ties, sincerity and eternal friendship. Mohammed Shah was taken aback but at the same time was hardly in a position to resist such a request. With as much grace as he could summon, he accepted. Eventually when Nadir Shah went to his private apartment for the night, and unfolded the turban to find the diamond concealed within. He then exclaimed "Koh-i-Nur", meaning "Mountain of Light". The most famous diamond in history now had a name.
Later the diamond was in the possession of Shah Rukh, one of the grandsons of Nadir Shah.  Shah Rukh had suffered immeasurably and was even blinded by his foes, but refused to part with the Koh-i-Nur.  After he was dethroned and blinded, he was allowed to live as the Governor of a province in Persia, but tenaciously held on to the precious diamond.  
A wily warrior Aga Muhammad by name had a penchant for diamonds and was determined to take it away from Shah Rukh.  He crafted a quiet coup on the city and held Shah Rukh’s feet to fire (literally), and demanded that he part with the Koh-i-Nur.  Shah Rukh refused and suffered more inhuman torture which he endured.  Finally he made alliance with Ahmad Shah Abdali, an Afghani ruler, who helped in his dire plight in 1751.  (The infamous Ahmad Shah Abdali had followed in the footsteps of Nadir Shah and attacked Delhi repeatedly in order to fill his coffers in 1756 and againg in 1760).  After Shah Rukh’s death, Abdali took the diamond and it stayed in Afghanistan for the next three generations.  From Abdali it passed on to his son Timur Shah (who moved the capital from Khandahar to Kabul).  Timur was a weak ruler but quite potent in other ways, as he left behind 23 sons to contend for the throne.  Upon the death of Timur Shah in 1793, Koh-i-Nur was inherited by his eldest son Shah Zaman.  A fraternal dispute developed between Shah Zaman and his brother Shah Shuja and the former lost his eyesight as well as the Koh-i-Nur in the ensuing power struggle.
There is an interesting story of the diamond in Shah Zaman’s possession.  The Shah, who had been blinded by his brother Shah Mahmud, had hidden the diamond in the wall of his prison cell.  A guard accidentally brushed his hand against the chipped plaster and discovered the diamond. Thus another brother Shah Shuja, who now was ruling Afghanistan came to possess the diamond. Shah Shuja wore it proudly on his breast and the British envoy Elphinstone (of Bombay) saw the diamond and mentioned it to his colleagues. (After this the British never lost sight of the diamond, as will be seen later in the story).
In any case, Koh-i-Nur did not bestow good fortune on the family of Persians and Afghans who had plundered Delhi.  It only brought misfortune and misery to the grandson of Nadir Shah, in his tenacious clinging on to the rock, despite being blinded and tortured.  It did not fare well with the Afghan family of Abdali either.  His grandson Shah Zaman had been blinded by his own brother and incarcerated, but still refused to part with the diamond.  Shah Shuja himself was later overthrown and forced to seek shelter in India, under Raja Ranjit Singh.
Back to India - A Short Stay
Shah Shuja was evicted and sought shelter in Lahore and was held under the protection of Raja Ranjit Singh, the lion of Punjab.  Ruling from Lahore, Ranjit Singh had carved himself an empire that included entire Punjab as well as Kashmir.  Ranjit Singh was obsessed with acquiring the diamond.  Through starvation and torture as well craftiness he succeeded in getting his information from the Zenana (harem where nothing remained secret for too long).  He was able to make a deal with Shah Shuja.  He offered protection and support so that Shah Shuja could regain his throne in Afghanistan but the diamond shone brightly on Ranjit Singh’s bracelet.  Once again the diamond had been used as a bartering tool to buy protection.
After the death of Raja Ranjit Singh, his kingdom languished with internal strife and inept administration.  When crafty Dalhousie came to India as the Governor-general in 1848, his sole aim was to annex as much land as possible.  After the mutiny in Punjab, the British had used it as a pretext to dispose of its raja, and annex all of Punjab and Kashmir.  The Koh-i-Nur remained in Lahore Treasury guarded by British officers.   An annexation document was promptly produced by Dalhousie and Punjab came under British control after the Treaty of Lahore.
The terms of the Treaty of Lahore also included the surrender of a gem called Koh-i-Nur to the Queen of England.  Administration of Punjab had fallen into the hands of John Lawrence, who misplaced the diamond, only to be discovered by a valet.  Sir John Lawrence had set aside his coat with the diamond in a small box and forgotten about it.  When Dalhousie demanded that Lawrence send the diamond to him, he suddenly remembered about the gem and asked his valet if he had seen the box.  The valet brought the box and Sir Lawrence asked him to open it.  The valet opened the box and found a “bit of glass’ in it and was least impressed by it.  Dalhousie, the Governor-general took great interest in the diamond, and personally transported it from Lahore to Bombay.  He never let it out of his sight, day or night.  He is said to have sewn it into his belt, and then tied the end of the belt to a chain around his neck. The diamond that Elphinstone had laid eyes on more than fifty years ago, was now firmly in the possession of the British.
The diamond was placed in an iron box and shipped to England on aboard HMS Madea.  The ship did not have a smooth sailing.  In Madagascar, the crew contracted Cholera and the locals demanded that the ship leave port immediately or it would be set ablaze.  Even the ship’s captain had been kept in the dark about his precious cargo.  Then the ship was hit with a gale that it barely managed to survive.  Finally the ship reached Plymouth, England and the two officers who were in charge of delivering the diamond to Her Majesty, quickly disembarked and took the iron box over to the East India House and handed over to the Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the Company. 

Dalhousie tried to calm fears among the British and attempted to dispel the myth that Koh-i-Nur brought misfortune to its owners.  In a letter dated September 1, 1850 he wrote: "I received your letter of 16th July yesterday. The several sad or foul events in England on which it touches have been mentioned by me heretofore, and they are too sad to refer to you. You add that you knew this mishaps lie at my door, as I have sent Koh-i-Nr which always brings misfortune to its possessor. Whoever was the exquisite person from whom you heard this...he was rather lame both on his history and tradition...As for tradition, when Shah Shoojah [Shuja], from whom it was taken, was afterwards asked by Runjeat's [Ranjit Singh's] desire, 'What was the value of Koh-i-Nur?' he replied, 'Its value is Good Fortune, for whoever possesses it has been superior to all his enemies.'  I sent the Queen a narrative of this conversation with Shah Shoojah, taken from the mouth of the messenger."

The Crown Jewel

An aerial view of the Crystal Palace, built for the 1851 exhibition. The building was 1848 feet long, 408 feet wide and 108 feet tall at its highest point. It burned down in 1939.

The Koh-i-Nur was presented to Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace by the Deputy Chairman of the East India Company.  A stone faced Queen Victoria received the diamond nonchalantly on June 3, 1850.  The public got its first chance to see the diamond in the Great Exhibition held in Hyde Park.  It was the star attraction of the Exhibition.  However, the Koh-i-Nur could not be well exhibited as the light was inadequate and the cut of the diamond was thought to be imperfect.

Prince Albert, the Queen’s cousin and husband took keen interest in the diamond.  It had been crudely cut by the Indian cutters centuries ago and did not show the luster properly.  This disappointed Prince Albert immensely.  Experts from Amsterdam were brought in for consultation and finally a design was chosen to re-cut the Koh-i-Nur and placed on the mill in July 1852.  Before being re-cut the diamond was valued at 140,000 pounds.  8000 pounds had been spent to re-cut it.   However in terms of its history and colorful legacy, the Koh-i-Nur will ever remain priceless. 

Mr. Voorsanger, a Dutch national, cut the stone and reshaped it in thirty eight days, working twelve hours a day.  The diamond shone brighter but lost another eighty carats and reduced to 106 carats, much to the dissatisfaction of the Prince Albert.

There were other criticisms about the design and the waste that the diamond suffered in its new form.  Koh-i-Nur was an oval, flat stone and was not conducive to be re-cut with the design chosen without enormous waste and loss of precious carats.  Moreover it had several faults that made re-cutting treacherous in respect to its size and weight.  Prince Albert had been warned about this well in advance by many experts.
The Koh-i-Nur is kept in Windsor Castle, out of view of the Queen’s subjects.  A model is kept in the Tower of London museum to satisfy the curiosity of people who are interested in the legendary stone, only to remind us of its sanguinity, romance as well as the misery and misfortunes it bestowed upon its royal owners.

A drawing of the Koh-i-Nur's facet pattern. This cut is called a 'stellar brilliant' because of the extra facets on the stone's pavilion. The actual diamond's facet layout is somewhat less symmetrical than this drawing. 

Myth and Controversy
The Koh-i-Nur has wrought misery to many of its owners, especially the ones who plundered Delhi and took it back to Persia and Afghanistan.  It has also been used as a tool to entice alliances and support.  The prediction that it would either bestow rulership of the world or miserable death to its owners was not entirely a myth.
Diamonds have been relegated almost divine status in India from centuries.  They fare prominently in many mythological stories.  A stone such as Koh-i-Nur could easily be an object of worship.  Legend has it that the stone was first recovered from the beds of River Godavari by Karna, the legendary warrior in Mahabharata.  He had worn this diamond as a talisman.  
But the journey of Koh-i-Nur is more or less documented after Humayun was ‘gifted’ it by the fugitive family of Vikramaditya of Gwalior in Agra.  Its final resting place seems to is in the Windsor Castle, as a priceless crown jewel.  It was acquired by the British monarchy during the apogee of the British Empire.  However, the sun has set over the British Empire and there is no guarantee that the Koh-i-Nur will never again embark on another journey.
The story of Koh-i-Nur is not devoid of controversies.  How many of the stories and anecdotes are true and how many are fiction?  There is no agreement that the diamond Humayun acquired from the raja of Gwalior’s family that Babur mentioned in his memoir is the same diamond as the one Nadir Shah called Koh-i-Nur.  ‘Babur’s diamond,’ as it was called before Nadir Shah laid his eyes on it, may be a different diamond all together.  If the diamond that Babur wrote about belonged to Ala-ud-din Khilji, how did the rajas of Gwalior come to possess it?  Was it restored to the rajas by the Sultan Khilji after a peace treaty?  This is an unlikely occurrence because of the well known reputation and disposition of the Sultan.
How and when did Aurangzeb get the diamond back from the Sultan of Golconda?  Aurangzeb had attacked Hyderabad with the help of Mir Jumla in 1656.  That was only two years before he incarcerated his father and proclaimed himself as the Emperor.  Was the diamond that Mir Jumla gave Aurangzeb the famed Koh-i-Nur?  Or did Mir Jumla give it directly to Shah Jahan in an attempt to convince him to attack Golconda?  Did the wily Mir Jumla give two diamonds, one each to father and son?  Was the diamond that Aurangzeb had cut by a Venetian lapidary, a different diamond than Koh-i-Nur?  Another diamond that was called ‘the Mogul’ has now disappeared and its whereabouts unknown.
Were the Mogul, Babur’s diamond and the Koh-i-Nur one and the same?  Koh-i-Nur and Babur’s diamond have been described by various observers.  Their weights and cut seem to be the same.  
Just over a century later we are in a better position to evaluate some of the famous diamonds of history. We now have details of the treasures amassed by the Czars, Shahs and other monarchs. We know for sure that there are three diamonds in existence, which have a direct bearing upon the questions raised concerning the identity of the Great Mogul, Koh-i-Nur and Babur's diamond. They are the Orlov, weighing 189.62 metric carats, now in the Kremlin; the Darya-i-Nur with an estimated weight of between 175 and 195 metric carats and presumed to still be among the Iranian Crown Jewels; and the Koh-i-Nur, whose former weight before it was re-cut, was 186 carats, equivalent to 190.3 metric carats. 
Regarding identifying truly historic diamonds with gems that we know exist today, the suggestion that Koh-i-Nur and the Great Mogul once formed parts of the same stone is impossible: the Koh-i-Nur is a white diamond where as the Orlov - if we assume it to be the Great Mogul (which it most likely is) - possesses a slight bluish-green tint. So, the Daryai-i-Nur has been identified for sure as the largest fragment of the Great Table Diamond; a very strong case exists for identifying the Orlov as being cut from the 280-carat Great Mogul; and a less-strong, but nevertheless valid case can be made for identifying the Koh-i-Nur as Babur's diamond.  
These questions probably will never be answered fully to a researcher’s satisfaction.  There are not enough historical records available to answer them.  But in the interim, the glory and the myths of Koh-i-Nur lives on and has been recognized as one of the world’s greatest diamonds
Koh-i-Nur’s 700 Year Journey

  1. In 1304, Ala-ud-din Khilji came to possess the diamond, presumably presented to him by the Deccan king.
  2. The diamond came into the hands of the raja of Gwalior from unknown sources.
  3. In 1526, Humayun was ‘gifted’ the diamond in Agra by the family of Vikramaditya, raja of Gwalior.
  4. Humayun offered the diamond to his father Babur, who promptly gave it back to Humayun.
  5. In 1540 Humayun lost his empire and fled to Persia with the diamond.
  6. Humayun presented Koh-i-Nur to the Persian ruler Shah Tamasp in exchange for support in regaining his empire.
  7. Shah Tamasp gifted the diamond to the Sultan of Golconda – date unknown.
  8. Mir Jumla, a Persian adventurer in Hyderabad gave the diamond to Aurangzeb, when he was the governor of Deccan.
  9. Aurangzeb gave the diamond to his father, Shah Jahan that became one of his priceless possessions. (circa 1630’s)
  10. Nadir Shah of Persia invaded Delhi and stole the Koh-i-Nur (and the Peacock Throne), and transported it to Tehran c.1739.
  11. Nadir Shah’s blind grandson, Shah Rukh gave the diamond to Ahmad Shah Abdali (circa 1751).
  12. Shah Shuja, Abdali’s grandson gave the diamond to Raja Ranjit Singh of Punjab, in exchange for protection (circa 1813).
  13. As part of the Treaty of Lahore, Dalhousie took possession of Koh-i-Nur in 1849 and presented it to Queen Victoria in 1850.
  14. The diamond was re-cut under the directions of Prince Albert and now resides out of sight in Windsor Castle.
India, A Brief History: John Keay
A New History of India: Stanley Wolpert
A Brief History of India: Alain Danielou
Internet sources  


More by :  Dr. Neria H. Hebbar

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