Mountain of Light: The History and Lore of the Koh-i-Noor Diamond
One of the most famous diamonds in the world, and once considered to be the world’s largest, the Koh-i-Noor is deeply shrouded in mystery and myth, alongside factual origins. The diamond in its current state, weighing in at 105.6 carats, is the prominent centerpiece in Queen Elizabeth’s crown at the Tower of London.
A Koh-i-Noor replica made by John Hatleberg for the Tower London Display for the Museum of Natural History London “Diamonds” exhibition.
The diamond has conflicting origins. Some say it was discovered in the bed of the Lower Godavari River 5,000 years ago. Others claim the Koh-i-Noor was mined in the Kollur Mine, in what is presently the state of Andhra Pradesh, India, where it became the eye of the Devi, or goddess, in a Hindu temple.
Another story claims it was found in the Amravati hills, a district headquarters of Maharashtra, worn by Raja Karna, who fought in the Mahabharara war with the diamond tied as a talisman around his arm. In the latter account, Karna died in battle, the Pandavas gained possession of the stone, and Arjun, who killed Karna, passed it to his brother, who passed it to Raja Parikshata while preparing for exile.
Bejeweled Nader Shah on horseback in the aftermath of his decisive victory at the Battle of Karnal. (Public Domain)
Then it is said to have fallen into the hands of the giant Porus, who battled Alexander the Great—the Macedonian King—fourteen miles southwest of the battlefield in 327 BC. Dynasties which obtained the diamond after that were the: Maurya, Harsha, Raja Lalit Datta, Khilji, Tughlaq, Mughal, Durrani, Abdali, Sikh, and British houses, in that order.
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Additional accounts of the diamond talk of the Koh-i-Noor being carried to Raja Vikramaditya, as well as it adorning the third eye of Shiva in a temple in Telangana, ripped out by Price Allaudin Khilji’s forces. Lady Login recorded it being in the possession of the Rajas of Malwa, but historians agree that the first reliable recording of the jewel was in the Memoirs of Babar. In the account, the Hindu ruler of Gwalior presented the diamond to Humayan, Babar’s son, who presented it his father, who then returned it to his son as a blessing. Babur, the conqueror, who established the Mughal Empire, renamed the Koh-i-Noor the “Diamond of Babur.” Before that, it had been acquired by the Khilji dynasty, likely from army raids.
A spoil of Indian and Persian rulers and wars, many conquered and gained possession of the Koh-i-Noor, and it frequently was passing hands.
Later on, the Koh-i-Noor was rumored to be mounted on the Peacock throne by Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal), and was later owned by Aurangzeb (his son) who incarcerated his father.
Painting depicting the Peacock Throne in the Diwan-i-Khas of the Red Fort of Delhi. (Public Domain)
In another story, the diamond was found at the Kolar Mine on the Krishna river, and was presented to the Mughal Emperor, Shah Jehan in 1656 by Mir Jumula. The diamond given could not have actually been the Koh-i-Noor though, as gem merchant and traveler Jean-Baptiste Tavernier examined it personally in Shah Jehan’s treasury in 1644.
The Mountain of Light
Whatever the tales, historians agree the diamond passed from Aurangzeb to Nader Shah, a great Persian warrior. In one account he carried off the Peacock Throne in a raid--- Koh-i-Noor diamond, pearl and gemstone encrusted, and all. In a more likely account, Nader Shah used his wiles to trick Aurangzeb into giving him the diamond through an exchange of turbans amongst “brothers”—exchanging his, covered in stones, for that with the Koh-i-Noor hidden inside. Unwrapping the turban in a dark tent, the bright flash of light caused him to exclaim “KOH-I-NOOR”, which translates to “Mountain of Light”—this is how the great diamond got its name.
Portrait of Nader Shah. (Public Domain)
Koh-i-Noor’s Many Travels
In the possession of Nader Shah, the Koh-i-Noor made its way to Persia. June 8, 1747 brought Nader’s death, by an assassin hired by his plotting nephew, Ali Kuli Khan. The diamond then passed through the hands of several generations, to Shah Zaman, who succeeded the throne in turbulent times, with brothers and cousins forming coups and rebellions to overthrow him. Resolving to not let it fall into his brothers’ keeping, he concealed the diamond in the crack of the walls of his room. Later recovered, and in a turn of events, the diamond was returned to India.
Wafa Begam, wife of Shah Sjuja-ul-mulk, promised to give the diamond to the Maharaja in return for saving her husband, who was then a prisoner in Kashmir. Although she and her husband initially went back on their side of the bargain after he was freed, the diamond was ultimately obtained when the Maharaja punished their disloyalty by cutting off basic nourishment.
Under the Sikh Maharajas, the Koh-i-Noor saw life as a sirpesh (ornament) for a turban, the drop of a tolah (Vedic measurement) weight, and as an armlet with a diamond on either side. Maharaja Dalip Ranjit, the last male in the family, ultimately inherited it.
March 29, 1849 saw the British victory over the Sikhs in the second Anglo-Sikh War—terms included the surrender of the Koh-i-Noor to the Queen of England. The stone weighed 191 cts. before being moved to England, where Voorsanger, a Dutch diamond cutter at Messrs Garrads, cut it.
Detail of a portrait sculpture of Queen Victoria of England by George Stuart shown wearing the Koh-I-Noor Diamond in a brooch. (Flickr/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
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A Priceless Diamond
Today, the Koh-i-Noor is still making history. Many consider the diamond’s value to be priceless, while Bill Norton, an appraiser in the diamond valuation and the diamond market says,"The Koh-I-Noor diamond is clearly a priceless gem. It is a one of a kind gem with the most royal of provenances. Sotheby’s sold a 100ct D color internally flawless diamond in 2015 for $22mm, so you could use that as a base price and go from there. Bear in mind that the Elizabeth Taylor ring (a 33ct D VS1 – not as important a stone) sold for approximately three times its pre-sale estimate at Christie’s in 2012, thanks to its royal and celebrity provenance.”
The Koh-i-Noor in the front cross of Queen Mary's Crown, 1911–37. (Public Domain)
John Hatleberg, one of the world’s leading expert on diamond replicas, re-created the diamond for the Museum of Natural History in London, which also commissioned a mold before the stone was recut (see image of his replica above, made for the Tower of London Display for the Museum of Natural History “Diamonds” exhibition). More recently, a group calling itself the “Mountain of Light” is bringing legal proceedings to court in London, attempting to bring the Koh-i-Noor back to India under common law doctrine, arguing the British government stole the diamond.
Truths and myths be told, the beauty, mystery and tales surrounding the Koh-i-Noor only make it that much more enticing to ponder.
Top image: Replicas of the Koh-i-Noor Diamond – The Mountain of Light, currently on display at the Natural History Museum of London. (Flickr/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). Replicas of the historic and modern versions of the Koh-i-Noor diamond donated by Scott Sucher to the Natural History Museum of London.
Gill, Avtar Singh. Maharaja and the Koh-i-Noor. Ludhiana: Central, 1982. Print.
Siṅgha, Nāhara. History of Koh-i-noor, Darya-i-noor and Taimur's Ruby. New Delhi: Atlantic, 1985. Print.
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