Historian William Dalrymple on his book on the Koh-i-Noor

Historian William Dalrymple on his book on the Koh-i-Noor ...
thehindu.com 10/12/2016 History

Keywords:#Afghan, #Afghanistan, #Babur, #Britain, #British, #Delhi, #East_India_Company, #Game_of_Thrones, #Herat, #India, #Iran, #Koh-i-Noor, #Kohinoor, #Koohenoor, #London, #Mughals, #Nader_Shah, #Norway, #Pakistan, #Peacock_Throne, #People, #Persian, #Pictorial, #Punjab, #Roman, #Shah, #Shah_Jahan, #Sri_Lanka, #Supreme_Court, #Taliban, #Tamil, #Thehindu.com

Historian William Dalrymple speaks about attempting to separate history from myth in his latest book with journalist Anita Anand
The story of the Koh-i-Noor continues to arouse passions among its five claimants — India, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and the Taliban. What is it that makes it the most coveted as well as the most cursed diamond in history? Why is it that the Solicitor General of India submitted in the Supreme Court in 2016 that the Koh-i-Noor was a “gift” by Maharaja Ranjit Singh to the East India Company?
Diamond Koohenoor Mountain of Light British Crown Jewel

* * * Filling the gaps in the tumultuous journey of the diamond from the Peacock Throne of the Mughals to Queen Victoria’s crown, historian William Dalrymple and journalist Anita Anand join forces to separate history from myth. Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond (Juggernaut) reminds you how truth can be stranger and more brutal than fiction. “There is a gap in the historical understanding of the Koh-i-noor. We do not know anything about it in clear terms till the 1740s, when one of the historians of Nader Shah, Muhammad Kazim Marwi, mentions that he saw it clearly when he was in Herat, attached to the head of one of the peacocks in the Peacock Throne.”
It debunks Dalhousie’s trusted official, Theo Metcalfe’s long-standing theory that Nader Shah acquired the Koh-i-Noor through a turban swap with Muhammad Shah Rangila. “He did his best. His job was to talk to the royal family, but it was 1849. The diamond left Delhi in 1739.” There are many references to large diamonds in sources from Vijayanagar, Babur’s diary and Humayun’s diary, but Dalrymple, who has sieved through previously untranslated sources in Persian, to remove the miasma around the diamond, is not sure if they are specifically referring to the Koh-i-noor. “People have evidence of how the Koh-i-Noor became the great rockstar of gems in 1851 when Victorians made it a symbol of their loot in India, when three million people lined up to see it in London. Ever since, people wanted to create history for it, and so, any reference to a large gem was assumed to be that of the Koh-i-noor. The only thing we know is how it left India. Many people believe it is the largest diamond in the world when it is not even in the top 90 any more.”
In the book, “we have laid out the case, as clearly as we can. Future generations can use our book as an evidence, as we present history by clearing the fog of mythology”, says Dalrymple. Interestingly, the opening chapter deals with the Indian pre-history of the Koh-i-Noor, where Dalrymple talks about how Hindus began to equate the diamond with the Syamantaka and the legends of Krishna. “Dalrymple admits it was a very frustrating process. “The Jahangirnama is full of stories of diamonds, but nothing in that is clearly the Koh-i-Noor. It is frustrating for a historian , but mystery stories make for good reading.”
Kohinoor has taken two years to shape up, and the rich bibliography reveals the amount of research that went into it.
“The Afghan material was the difficult part. I used the same sources as in Return of A King, but what I didn’t know was the Nader Shah sources. A wonderful scholar in Britain called Michael Axworthy has written a biography of Nader Shah. He introduced me to Marwi. It was the breakthrough moment.”
The book also traces the varied taste for gemstones in cultures. “Diamonds were hugely valuable, but the Mughals loved rubies best. Pictorial representations of Shah Jahan have him holding a ruby. Abu’l Fazl, the historian of Akbar, says the first treasury was of rubies, and the second had diamonds and emeralds.”
According to Dalrymple, there is a literary aspect to it too. “Persian poetry is all about rubies, where the red stone signifies the setting sun.” Size mattered to the Cholas and Mughals, but the Europeans loved symmetry and glitter, and cut gems heavily. That’s why when the British first saw the stone at the Great Exhibition, they were disappointed.”
While the Mughals are known to be fashionable, you don’t associate such a craze with Maharaja Ranjit Singh. But it was during his reign that the Koh-i-Noor acquired singular status. “For him, it was a symbol of conquering the Durranis,” reasons Dalrymple.
The narrative of Kohinoor sucks you in with its thrilling storyline. “I loved writing it. Some of it reads like Game of Thrones. Nader Shah’s grandson had molten lead poured on his head...”
This takes us to the curse associated with the Koh-i-Noor. Dalrymple says, “You can’t say it is cursed, but many people who held it had terrible luck. Nader Shah was assassinated, Ahmed Shah Abdali had his face eaten away by maggots. Shah Zaman was blinded. Shah Shuja was deposed and his son tortured in front of him. Five of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s successors met a violent death. There was an outbreak of cholera on the ship that took the stone to London. The Duke of London who began cutting it, died. The present Queen has not worn it even once.”
The book is full of interesting characters, but Dalrymple’s favourite is Nader Shah. “All the other kings inherited power. Nader Shah was the son of a shepherd who worked his way up. Having said that, he was a very puritanical and unpleasant character.” Dalrymple recounts how John Lawrence kept it in his pocket and forgot about it. “Before that, it was used as a paper weight by a maulvi.”
Dalrymple was two years into the book when the issue came up before the Supreme Court. “There were two errors. It was not Maharaja Ranjit Singh and it was not given. It was a spoil of war. The Second Anglo-Sikh War was fought, and part of the terms of surrender was the handing over of Punjab to the East India Company and the diamond, specifically, not to the Company, but to Queen Victoria.”
On his collaboration with Anand, Dalrymple says she is an expert on Duleep Singh, and it was clear the book would have two parts. “I would deal with The Jewel in the Throne and she would write about The Jewel in the Crown.” On whether India should reclaim it, Dalrymple says, “It is an interesting, intellectual question, because it leads to the wider issue of what to do with the loot of colonialism. Should there be reparations or should you just say that history is full of violence and injustice? Should the English file a lawsuit against the Italians for the Roman Empire? Do we charge Norway for the Vikings? Should Sri Lanka file a suit against the Tamil Nadu government for the Chola raids? I don’t know the answers.”
(The book is available in book stores and on www.juggernaut.in)

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