I remember learning about the Koh-i-noor diamond in history class. That fabled diamond whose name means ‘Mountain of Light’ and whose fate was mixed up in a parade of invasions and colorful dynasties. Thought to have been pried from the earth in the mines of Golconda for a forgotten raja it eventually surfaced in Babar’s kingdom, who set its worth at “the value of one day’s food for all the world,” then left it to his son Humayun, who set it bouncing between the hands of emperors and sultans, several of whom were overthrown by ambitious offspring. Like Shah Jahan, in whose hands the Ko-i-noor twinkled for a bit before tumbling to Aurangzeb, his infamous son and captor. What a fickle life it led, this glittering rock. Gifted to hospitable Shahs, hidden in harems, sewn into turbans, serially stolen, traded for thrones, signed off in treaties, routinely tangled up in palace intrigues, ritual blindings, and mightily cursed. “He who owns the diamond will own the world, but will also know all its misfortunes.” There’s a catch for you.
In 1813 after decades of fighting, the Koh-i-noor returned to India (from a country that would become the country we now know as Afghanistan,) in the hands of the Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh. By this time it was so much more than a ridiculously large and beautiful gemstone. It was a dramatic symbol of unassailable prestige and unstoppable power. Singh’s plan to bequeath the diamond to a sect of Hindu priests after his death, was not well-received by the British empire. An anonymous editorial of the time lamented that, “the most costly gem in the known world, has been committed to the trust of a profane, idolatrous and mercenary priesthood.” But good (or at least expensive) things come to empires that wait. England waited. Four violent years followed Singh’s death, four years in which his throne seated and unseated four different rulers of Punjab in quick succession. At the end of this gory period, the only living heirs to the throne were a boy-king and his mother. The mother was exiled, and the son persuaded to amend a treaty, effectively relinquishing his rights to his kingdom and signing the diamond into the hands of the British empire. To be fair to the Brits in charge, the young king was only ten years old at the time, and most likely supremely disinterested in diamonds and kingdoms. I wish I could tell you they gave him back his mother, and threw in a shiny blue bicycle to sweeten the deal. But that is not what happened. Not by a long shot. But let us leave that, at that.
Before sailing to England and being cut down to size and set in a late Queen’s crown, where it winks to this day, this adventurous bit of bling is recorded to have been 186 carats and the size of ‘a small hen’s egg’. I don’t know exactly what the size of a small hen or her egg is, but I recently learned that a carat is a measurement of weight equivalent to 200 milligrams. As such it is not all that interesting. But what is interesting is that the word carat comes from the Arabic quirat which refers to the carob bean that was part of the ancient Mediterannean system of weights and measurements. And I don’t quite know why, but the image of bygone traders and merchants holding up scales weighted with gold and gemstones on one side and little brown seeds from a local carob tree on the other, pleases me greatly.
Perhaps this is where your interest in the Koh-i-noor diamond ends. But not everyone’s.
There is an attorney in Pakistan for instance, who has written more than 786 letters petitioning the Queen of England to return the Koh-i-noor diamond to his country. [“More than 786 letters” strikes me as a very specifically general number of letters to write. I wonder if the journalist who was researching the matter just got tired of counting]. Prime Ministers of India ,and MPs too, have made polite and repeated requests of their own. Not to be left out, direct descendants of the various rulers who came into possession of the diamond at different points in its tumultuous history also come forward with fierce regularity to stake their own serious claims. To no avail.
Let us now ponder on what an elusive creature fairness is. Un-summonable, capricious. Now you see it, now you don’t. As a child I believed fairness was a law unto itself, like gravity. I believed there were forces that kept it in play, that there were no loopholes, no exceptions. I believed grown-ups would always set things right, that grown-ups could always set things right. This is why as a child, it made no sense to me, that the Koh-i-noor diamond is ensconced in the Tower of London. I remember hearing from relatives that, when they visited as tourists, the guard winked at them and said, “It’s ours now. We’re not giving it back.” Telling the story, my family laughed. But my young heart was silently appalled.
I did not know then, and do not know now, what to make of it all. This is the trouble with delving into history. Told from enough points of view it’s sometimes (not always) hard to tell the right from the wronged. Acquisition and ownership are troublesome enough, even without empires. How we, with the limited powers vested in us, participate implicitly in wresting things from the depths of the Earth. How we foolishly call them our own. How we build our individual kingdoms of selfdom, and do not stop nearly often enough to wonder who we belong to, if not to this beautiful, besieged Earth, if not to each other, and to that ineffable something which lights us from within. Rendering each one of us into diamonds of note. Each one of us, into a mountain of light.