Friday, December 16, 2016

"The Kohinoor did seem to leave havoc in its wake"

The world's most infamous diamond, as authors William Dalrymple and Anita Anand describe it, is believed to come accompanied with a curse that condemns its owner to an early and often grisly demise.
By Jason Overdorf -- INDIA TODAY
(December 2016)

Much that is known about the Kohinoor is myth, rumour or conjecture. The world's most infamous diamond, as authors William Dalrymple and Anita Anand describe it, is believed to come accompanied with a curse that condemns its owner to an early and often grisly demise. Before the Earl of Dalhousie extorted it from the Sikh Maharaja Duleep Singh and it made its way to Queen Victoria in 1851, it's thought to have numbered among the favourite baubles of Mughal emperor Babur. It's believed to have been plucked from the eye of a temple idol in Southern India by marauding Turks. And it's sometimes thought to be the legendary Syamantaka-a gem brought to earth when the sun god Surya removed it from a chain around his neck to bestow it on the Yadava king of Dwarka. Many think it's the largest or most valuable or at least the most beautiful diamond in the world. Yet many of those 'facts' are outright falsehoods, and few of the other stories that surround the Kohinoor can be verified, Anand and Dalrymple learned, even as they uncovered newly translated sources that deepen the sense of magic and bloody intrigue behind the diamond that once represented history's greatest conquest and now stands for its most infamous theft. In separate interviews excerpted below, they spoke with India Today's Jason Overdorf about their discoveries.
Overdorf: With William working on the early history of the Kohinoor and Anita covering its fate after the British finally defeated the Sikh empire in 1849, there's not a great deal of obvious crossover in this collaboration. How did you work together?

Anand: Right from the start, we were constantly pinging each other, saying, "William, I found this, this is amazing." And then he would say, "Look what I've just found from the Persian archive. Look at this translation." In that way, we were terribly in each other's business. Although there are two distinct halves, there are fingerprints of each of us on both.

Overdorf: The book is a bit of a historical detective story. What was the most surprising or interesting discovery that you made?

Dalrymple: There is, in fact, not a single reference to a diamond that is to a hundred per cent certainty the Kohinoor before 1750, which is very late. What's happened is that, retrospectively, because the Kohinoor's so famous, people assume that when a large diamond turns up in a Mughal source or another source that it must be the Kohinoor. We just don't know how the Mughals got the Kohinoor or where it came from. The probability is that it came from a Golconda mine; that seems almost certain, but you can't trace a diamond with crystallography. The strong possibility is that it's the stone referred to by Babur in the Baburnama, which Humayun took to Persia. All we know for certain, and the first reference to it is translated for the first time in this book, is that around 1740 Persian historian Muhammad Kazim Marvi says, "I saw the Kohinoor. It was at the head of one of the peacocks in the Peacock Throne." He saw it in Herat. All the great Mughal experts have known this, but I certainly hadn't.

Anand: I'm a journalist, not a historian, so I go looking for eyewitnesses. A European called John Martin Honigberger, who was there after the death of [Sikh Emperor] Ranjit Singh, was my eyewitness. He wrote about the committing of sati by the queens of Ranjit Singh. At first you hear his deep discomfort at the way in which these queens are burnt alive on the pyre of their husband, and then he sort of mentions in passing that these seven slave girls of Ranjit Singh are also burnt to death-but they're not even named. When you write such things, you just feel a little wiped out from the horror of it.

Overdorf: What was the most striking moment for you in the diamond's history?

Dalrymple: I think there are two incidents, just for the sheer mayhem that this diamond can cause wherever it goes. One is the story of Shah Rukh, the grandson of Nader Shah, who it turned out didn't have the Kohinoor, being tortured to surrender it. He has paste put on his head, and then they pour molten lead on him. It's just like the end of Daenerys Targaryen's brother in the first season of Game of Thrones. Then there's an extraordinary moment when the Medea takes the stone over to England in Anita's half of the book, and cholera breaks out on the ship. It's like another of my favorite movies, Werner Herzog's Nosferatu, when the plague ship arrives in Amsterdam and rats pour off it. The diamond does seem to leave havoc in its wake.

Overdorf: The book covers a great deal of Indian history. What makes the Kohinoor an effective lens through which to view the rise and fall of empires?

Anand: That's the kind of thing I'm interested in anyway: looking at one person and how history radiates out from that one person. With the Kohinoor, it is this pivotal point with history teetering around it. It is a stone that is surrounded by stories of blood, intrigue and murder. It has divided empires. It has pitted empires against each other. And even now if the Kohinoor is mentioned, you will have extraordinarily hot passions running. The British may have cut it to almost half of its size but it still retains all of its power.

Overdorf: Shashi Tharoor re-energised the debate over the question of its possible return to India last year. How do you feel about that question lying in the backdrop to the book?

Dalrymple: It becomes a symbol for colonial loot, a touchstone for the whole question of what do you do about colonial history. Do you try and right the wrongs of the past, or do you just say that history is bloody? There's no question that Ranjit Singh got the Kohinoor by torturing Shah Shuja's son. Shah Shuja's ancestor got it on the bloody night of Nader Shah's assassination. Nader Shah got it by defeating the Mughals. So the diamond, whether or not you believe in the existence of a curse, certainly has the ability to create discord and discontent and division wherever it goes. It could potentially be a major issue in British-Indian relations in the future.

Overdorf: As your book makes clear, India isn't the only country with a claim to the jewel, either.

Anand: I am as interested as everybody else to see what happens next. India wants it back, Pakistan wants it back, Iran has asked for it back, the Taliban has asked for it back. Whatever legal moves will be made, William and I have done a lot of the casework, if you like. Do I think the British will give it back? They have said many times, "Not on your nelly," which is a peculiar British expression that means "No way." They don't want to set a precedent for giving things back. Once they give the Kohinoor back, then the Greeks are going to immediately want their Elgin marbles back and any number of claimants will want other artefacts back. The museums of Great Britain will empty.