Thursday, October 24, 2013

The journey of the Kohinoor Diamond, a guest post by Indu Sundaresan

In the following essay, Indu Sundaresan, author of the newly published The Mountain of Light, traces the detailed historical background of her novel's subject, the legendary 186-carat Kohinoor Diamond, and how she turned its dramatic journey from India to England into fiction.  Welcome, Indu!

The Mountain of Light was published this month by Atria/Simon & Schuster ($16.00, trade pb, 352pp), and I'm looking forward to reading it.


In January of 1850, Lord Dalhousie, Governor-General of India, traveled down the Indus River to Karachi. The usual mode of travel for those times was a ‘flat,’ a barge towed by a steamer, essentially a rectangle of planks strung lengthwise with a bedroom, a sitting room and an outdoor space. The kitchen followed on another flat.

Dalhousie had just left the capital of the Punjab Empire, Lahore, on his first visit as conqueror. A few months before, the Governor-General of India had annexed the mammoth Punjab Empire to British lands in India, and forced the eleven-year-old Maharajah Dalip Singh to sign the Treaty of Lahore, giving up his lands, the massive wealth of his treasuries and one very precious item.

That item, Lord Dalhousie took from the treasury house, the Toshakhana, on his further travels. To keep this safe, Lady Dalhousie stitched a chamois leather bag with a loop. It went around Dalhousie’s belt, tucked under his waistband, and was kept on his person day and night. When Dalhousie slept, two massive dogs, Baron and Banda, were chained to his camp bed, bristling at the sight of anyone approaching the Governor-General or his precious possession.

At Karachi, the Governor-General and his wife embarked upon a sea voyage to Bombay. There, Dalhousie spent a whole month, embedded in the duties of his office—he attended levĂ©es, inspected schools, sat in council meetings, and opened balls at the Governor’s residence. The bag, and its contents, stayed securely around his waist, and other than Lady Dalhousie and his nephew, Captain Ramsay, no one knew it was there.

Lord Dalhousie,
Governor-General of India
(the man who annexed the Punjab)
from 1848-1856.
At the end of February 1850, Dalhousie left for the capital of British India—Calcutta—and just before, he deposited his burden into the treasury at Fort George in Bombay.

Two months later, a Royal navy steam sloop, the HMS Medea carried with it the package, and the two men in charge of it—Captain Ramsay and Colonel Mackeson. The captain of the Medea had orders to escort these two non-naval men, and he knew nothing else.

After the Medea had reached England, the Court of Directors of the English East India Company met their queen in Buckingham Palace and handed the parcel over to her. Queen Victoria opened it—in the palm of her hand was a gold armlet, its central stone a mammoth 186 carat diamond, flanked by two smaller diamonds.

And then the news was splashed forth everywhere, in India, in England. The Kohinoor diamond had arrived safely in England. The Punjab Empire was defunct. The diamond now belonged to England and her queen.

Dalip Singh by London court painter Franz
Xaver Winterhalter.  Commissioned by
Queen Victoria for herself.
In the Punjab, upon Dalhousie’s orders, the heir to the empire, Maharajah Dalip Singh, was escorted from his land to live, essentially, in exile for the rest of his life. He was put in the charge of British guardians, taught to become a perfect English gentleman. He was never again allowed back into his kingdom. The Punjab Empire was indeed dead and dissolved.

All of this happens behind the scenes in The Mountain of Light. The novel itself opens in 1817, when Shah Shuja, king of Afghanistan, comes to Dalip’s father’s court in the Punjab and asks Ranjit Singh for help in regaining his throne. Ranjit Singh, the Lion of the Punjab, the man who had established the most powerful and independent empire in the early 1800s in India, agrees to do so. For a price. He wants the Kohinoor diamond that Shah Shuja possessed then.

As long as Ranjit Singh is alive, the British (in the form of English East India Company) stay out of the Punjab. Upon his death in 1839, and after three successive heirs are killed, only a six-year-old child, Dalip Singh, is left as heir.

The British step in, signing a treaty with the young Dalip—they are there as guardians of the king, promising to keep peace in the Punjab and to rule on his behalf until he attains his majority at sixteen, at which point they will hand over his father’s lands to Dalip Singh. The date set for the handover is September 4th, 1854.

But, six years before this is to happen, Lord Dalhousie annexes the Punjab lands, divests Dalip Singh of his title, his kingdom, the wealth of his treasuries and…his Kohinoor diamond. Why did Dalhousie take such pains to secret the Kohinoor out of India? For the simple reason that his policy in the Punjab, which was so contrary to the previous treaty, was resisted in England and in India—by the man who had been sent to the Punjab as Dalip Singh’s official guardian, Henry Lawrence.

Henry Lawrence:  Maharajah Dalip Singh’s
guardian in Lahore, Punjab.
Lawrence appears in The Mountain of Light, in the chapter titled ‘Love in Lahore,’ in this capacity. He’s to maintain the Punjab for the then eight-year-old Dalip, and to be his guardian. Dalip insists that he is still lord of his lands, but Henry (and the reader) knows that the downward slide toward annexation has already begun. It doesn’t stop Dalip from forming a deep affection for Lawrence, something he will carry with him for the rest of his life.

In The Mountain of Light, the diamond does leave India, so secretly, in 1850. But, it travels aboard a commercial steamer to England, not a Royal Navy ship. And because it does so in my fictionalized account of its voyage, I have the opportunity to introduce a slew of criminal characters, wanting a sight of this fabled diamond, perhaps wanting to steal it. Do they?

The novel ends with Dalip Singh following his diamond to England in 1854. It’s the year he’s supposed to have complete control over his Punjab according to the initial treaty he signs with the British in 1846. Instead, he’s sixteen years old, long dispossessed of his Punjab Empire, a king, a maharajah, in just name. In the last chapter of The Mountain of Light, a much older Dalip reflects upon that first trip to England, how he’s feted and petted by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and the entire English upper crust…until he realizes that nothing makes up for the loss of his lands, his wealth, and his Kohinoor.

The Kohinoor diamond as it is today,
at 105 carats.
The Kohinoor diamond has a long reach into Indian history—according to Hindu mythology, it belonged to one of the gods in the epic, The Mahabharata, some two thousand years ago. And then it surfaces, about once in every century, from the 14th Century onward, owned mostly by the kings of India. During its brief departures, the kings of Persia and Afghanistan hold it.

I read all about the Kohinoor, in each of its appearances in the historical timeline, and in writing The Mountain of Light decided that the best way to tell the story of this legendary diamond was to focus on the last fifty years of its existence in India. And, that’s how the novel took shape. It’s a detailed history of those times, something even I had not been aware of until I began reading. But the story of the diamond, which is, after all a rock, an inanimate object, then became vested in the emotions of the men who possessed it…and lost it all.

There’s supposed to be a curse on the Kohinoor diamond—that no man can hold it, and his life and his kingdom, and that only a woman can safely possess it. Until it went to England and Queen Victoria, all of the Kohinoor’s owners had been men. Since it went to England, no male ruler has worn the diamond in his crown.

Today, whittled down from its original 186 carats to 105 carats, India’s celebrated diamond is set in the crown of the Queen Mother, and can be seen among the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London.

Kohinoor in the Queen Mother’s crown, showing how it’s
currently set.  (It's the round stone at the bottom.)


The Mountain of Light is Indu Sundaresan’s sixth work of fiction. She’s also the author of the Taj trilogy (The Twentieth Wife; The Feast of Roses; Shadow Princess) set in India during 17th Century Mughal India, The Splendor of Silence, set in India in May of 1942, and a collection of contemporary Indian short stories titled In the Convent of Little Flowers. Her work has been translated into 22 languages to date.

The novels of her Taj trilogy are being filmed for television in India, beginning with The Twentieth Wife, which is due to air early November 2013 on a new history channel called Epic.


  1. Wonderful post but how distressing that this famed gem ended up in the Crown Jewels. Too bad it can't be returned to India!

    1. I know. Gorgeous as it is, it doesn't belong there.

  2. Fascinating story! I wonder what will happen to the diamond – will Kate someday possess it?
    Terrible that it’s been cut down so much, and worse that it was looted in such a way. But, conquest is the way of the world, and to the victor goes the spoils, as they say.
    Love reading about India, so I'm going to look for this author at the book store and library. Thanks!

    1. The story is fascinating. The late Queen Mother was the last Empress of India, so I assume that's why the jewel currently resides in her crown. I also found an article from Reuters (via the Huffington Post) that mentions that if the Duchess of Cambridge "eventually becomes queen consort she will don the crown holding the diamond on official occasions." And that Britain won't be returning it to India. The article's from February 2013, so the controversy still exists!

  3. Anil Prasad10:35 PM

    Appreciably, lot of research has gone into the creation of "The Mountain of Light"; I look forward to reading this interesting novel. Indu Sundaresan needs to be congratulated on providing the readers a very interesting story based on historical facts.

  4. I just read and reviewed this book and found the research amazing. The wealth of historical detail was so much that I loved to follow not just the history of the Kohinoor but at the same time the saga of the Ranjit Singh dynasty.

  5. Fascinating story ... thanks

  6. The book sounds great - it's going on my towering list!

  7. Thanks everyone for commenting. I couldn't resist the book either and will be reading and reviewing it soon.

  8. Extremely adorable research.i congratulate you ma'am.
    As you are have good knowledge about the facts of koh-i-noor.what's you opinion about the ownership of "The Mountain of Light".?