The Kohinoor Quandary


William Dalyrymple is a person whose writing I adore. He has a knack for portraying history with a Tolkein-esque flair. “The Last Mughal“, “City of Djinns“, “The Age of Kali“, “Nine Lives” and – most favorite of all – “The Return of a King“. I loved all of them, and believe Dalyrmple to be one of the foremost writers of our generation.

I recently came across this video posted by him –


And I am in disagreement with him.

The diamond was mined in India. Some accounts say that it was mine in the Kollur mines of Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, possible as far back as 3000 BCE. The sources are hazy, but it is definitely known that Alauddin Khalji’s general, Malik Kafur, acquired the diamond during his campaigns of South India (when he went as far South as Madurai and looted the Meenakshi Temple). It finds specific mention in the “Baburnama”, where the Mongoloid warlord Babur writes that Ibrahim Lodi, the Sultan of Delhi, gifted it to him. Nadir Shah, during his plunder of Delhi in 1738 took it to Persia.

This was the first time the diamond went out of India.

It was reclaimed by Maharaja Ranjit Singh – as Dalrymple points out – by force.

In the first half of the 19th Century, following the fall of the Marathas in the 3rd Anglo-Maratha War (1818), and the defeat of Mysore in the 4th Anglo-Mysore War (1799), it was only Maharaja Ranjit Singh who could provide a challenge to the East India Company. It was said that the Company’s army was second only to Ranjit Singh’s in the whole of Asia.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh had willed it to the temple of Jagannath Puri on his death, but this will was not executed by the Company.

It was acquired by the then Governor General, Lord Dalhousie, who treated it as a spoil of war. Writing to his friend Sir George Cooper in the August of 1849, he stated:

…it was more for the honour of the Queen that the Koh-i-noor should be surrendered directly from the hand of the conquered prince into the hands of the sovereign who was his conqueror, than it should be presented to her as a gift—which is always a favour—by any joint-stock company among her subjects…

Dalhousie arranged that the diamond should be presented by Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s young successor, Duleep Singh (aged 13) to Queen Victoria in 1850, who travelled to the United Kingdom to present the jewel.

This much is historical fact, and is undisputed.

The Flaw in Dalrymple’s Argument

William Dalrymple argues that India’s claim is rendered illegitimate by the use of force. It is no one’s contention that neither Maharaja Ranjit Singh, nor the Company (nor any of the previous owners of the jewel) used anything but force in the acquisition of the Kohinoor Diamond.

But the Company’s acquisition hints at something more sinister.

Prof. A. Srivathsan of CEPT University, Ahmedabad, writes that in 1815 European powers agreed that the plundering of national art was “immoral and illegal”. However, this agreement was limited to European countries, while the colonies were merrily plundered.

As is evident by Dalhousie’s letter above, the Company acquiring the diamond wasn’t mere commerce. It was also a product of the colonial sense of superiority, the White Man’s burden being physically instantiated. European powers – while respecting each other’s national heritage – believed that the Colonies were “fair game” in being looted, and there was nothing wrong with the “superior” English man acquiring something of value from the “native”.

Therefore, it cannot be equated with previous instances of the diamond being acquired by force.

And that is why India must reclaim the Kohinoor Diamond. The monetary value of the jewel is immaterial. But there must be a account presented of the heritage looted by colonial powers from India. The British “Empire” must accept it’s own horrific colonial past – and there are far, far worse events that besmirch the *spotless cricket whites of Eton*; the Great Bengal famine of 1943 being one example – and repent.  Returning the Kohinoor Diamond is one tiny step in that direction.

Incidentally, the same argument holds true for Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s Bhavani Talvaar.


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