Like other famous gems, the Koh-i-Noor diamond has its share of mystery, intrigue, and curses attached to its long history. This gem has the unusual distinction of never being sold, only won in the course of bloody rebellions, wars, and uprisings. Even its beginnings are a subject of debate. Ancient Sanskrit writings claim the magnificent gem was mined in India 5,000 years ago. Yet another source places its discovery in a river bed in 3200 BC. Whenever it was mined, the location where it was found can be narrowed to an area that was one of the earliest regions in the world to produce diamonds; the Golconda Kingdom in India. Upon his ascension to the Delhi throne, Ghiyas ud din Tughlug Shah I sent his son to conquer Warangal in the Golconda Kingdom. The subsequent plunder of Warangal in 1323 AD resulted in the victors bringing a wealth of gems – including the Koh-i-Noor Diamond – back to Delhi.
Its ownership changed royal hands from one successive ruler to another until it became the property of the first emperor of the Mogul Empire, Babur, in 1526 AD. Believed to have weighed 793 carats, its original magnificence was forever lost when – for whatever reason – an unscrupulous jeweler named Borgio reduced the massive gem to a fraction of its former self at 186 carats. Angering his Emperor, Borgio paid heavily for his stupidity, having all his worldly goods confiscated by the Crown.
The now-reduced Koh-i-Noor diamond remained with the Moguls until 1739 when India was conquered by Nadir Shah of Persia. According to legend, the Mogul emperor, wishing to remain in possession of the gem, hid it in his turban. But Nadir Shah became wise to the defeated Mogul Emperor’s scheme and outsmarted his Mogul counterpart without resorting to violence. Nadir Shah suggested to the conquered Mogul Emperor that they partake in the Oriental custom of exchanging turbans as a symbol of eternal friendship. Since refusing such an offer would have been viewed as a great insult to his conqueror, the Mogul Emperor had no choice but to exchange turbans, giving up his prized possession. Nadir Shah took the gem and returned to Persia. It is while the gem is in the custody of Nadir Shah that it is referred to by its current name, Koh-i-Noor, meaning “mountain of light”.
With the death of Nadir Shah, the diamond came to be in the possession of an Afghan chief named Ahmed Shah. Upon establishing himself as King of Afghanistan, Ahmed Shah used the diamond as the symbol of his authority. Eventually, through a series of political upheavals and rebellions, the diamond found itself back in India, under the possession of Indian princes.
By 1849 the British confiscated the Koh-i-Noor Diamond as compensation for the Sikh wars. According to Sir John Lawrence, Governor General of India, the Sikhs handed him a small tin box containing the gem. Inexplicably, the box was somehow misplaced and – worse yet – soon forgotten. It was not until later when the British Government in London made inquiries about the diamond that a search was conducted. Fortunately, the Koh-i-Noor Diamond was found by a servant in a tool shed in the same tin box!
Upon reaching London, the British Royal Family was disappointed in the lack of beauty in the diamond. A re-cut was attempted to try to gain brilliance. Again reducing its size, this cutting took the Koh-i-Noor Diamond from 186 carats to just under 109 carats. It’s during this time that a curse is first mentioned in association with the gem, claiming that misfortune would befall whoever wore it. Obviously, the curse did not bother the British Crown, for the Koh-i-Noor Diamond was set in a tiara for Queen Victoria, and later used in a new crown at the coronation of Queen Mary. In 1937, the gem was used as the centerpiece for a crown created for Queen Elizabeth, wife of King George VI and mother of Queen Elizabeth II. Besides having the distinction of bearing the Koh-i-Noor Diamond, centered in a Maltese Cross motif, it is the only British royal headpiece made of platinum. This crown rested atop the Queen Mother’s coffin as she lay in state in 2002.
Many countries have laid claim to the Koh-i-Noor Diamond. The Sikhs in India demanded the return of the Koh-i-Noor diamond to India on the occasion of a State Visit by Queen Elizabeth II. Beant Singh Sandhawalia, the last descendant of Duleep Singh has also requested that Buckingham palace return the Koh-i-Noor Diamond. Even the Islamic extremist Taleban have demanded that the diamond be returned to Afghanistan. They assert that the gem is still their property and that their claim outranks that of India. Because of the number of competing claims, true ownership cannot be established and it, therefore, remains in the Tower of London as property of the British Crown.
Update April 20, 2016
India’s highest court is once again pondering the fate of the Koh-i-Noor as the result of an Indian NGO petitioning for the diamond’s return. The effort continues despite the fact that India’s own Solicitor General, Ranjit Kumar, reportedly notified the court that the Koh-i-Noor was a “gift” from the Punjab rulers to the East India Company of the United Kingdom and “neither stolen nor forcibly taken.”