Koh-i-Noor: William Dalrymple and Anita Anand

★★★½

Back at the beginning of August, I used my summer holidays to play ‘tourist’ in London. My first stop was the Tower of London and, among the ravens, armour and tales of bloody executions, I popped in to see the Crown Jewels. At that point I was already aware of this new history of the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond and wanted to see it for myself. I discovered, as many have before me, that its legend casts a far larger shadow than its reality. Indeed, it looks almost modest alongside the Cullinan I Diamond that sits atop the monarch’s sceptre, or the Cullinan II in the Imperial State Crown. So what was it about this rather unassuming diamond that captured the imagination of generations? With Dalrymple and Anand as my guides, I embarked on an engaging tale of blood, war, ambition, extravagance and conquest.

The book is split into two sections: Dalrymple kicks things off with an account of the diamond’s earlier provenance, along with a general meditation on the importance of jewels as expressions of power in the medieval and early modern periods. His sweeping story takes us through princely courts in India, Afghanistan and Persia, with the proviso that the Koh-i-Noor isn’t mentioned by name until a relatively late date. We therefore follow a diamond which was probably the Koh-i-Noor, which plunges us deep into the territorial wars of the subcontinent and confronts us with the splendours of the Indian and Persian rajahs, with their vast treasuries and elaborate rituals (the description of the Peacock Throne was particularly awe-inspiring). This is a world of which I know nothing and one which felt intoxicatingly, sometimes bewilderingly foreign.

Honestly, I’m not being modest about my ignorance. If Indian history is a sheer, icy rock-face, then I lack even the smallest conceptual crampons for foot-holds. As such, there were points when Dalrymple lost me slightly. Part of the problem may have been that I was reading on a Kindle and so couldn’t flip back and forth to chronologies or maps. I sometimes felt that (with his extraordinary knowledge of Indian history) Dalrymple was generously assuming a certain level of understanding on the part of his readers – understanding which I, at any rate, don’t possess. In retrospect, it might have been wise to come to this after having tackled at least a primer on Indian history before the Raj, which would have allowed me to better understand the different kingdoms and the struggles for power with neighbouring regimes.

Anand then takes over to tell the diamond’s modern story, which I’d feared might be dull in comparison to the romance of its prehistory. However, I stand entirely corrected: with almost novelistic verve, she recreates the historical context of the diamond’s arrival in London in the mid-19th century and the tragic tale of its former owner Duleep Singh. Her account of the diamond’s reception at the 1851 Great Exhibition particularly struck me: fed on tales of the gem’s glamour, the general public were unimpressed. This uncut rock displayed little of the scintillating flare of the cut diamonds they were used to. And so, hoping to drum up admiration, Prince Albert decided to have the diamond cut into the fashionable ‘brilliant’ style: a fateful choice by which the diamond lost almost half its weight, its integrity sacrificed to gain a little more superficial glamour.

There’s always something rather appealing about biographies of things – whether that’s the netsuke collection traced in Edmund de Waal’s Hare with the Amber Eyes, or Peter Watson’s recreation of a single painting’s history in Wisdom and Strength. The object at the story’s heart can often illuminate a much broader story, and that’s what happens here in the earlier half of the book. Yet, as I said above, I sometimes felt that the Koh-i-Noor’s early history was shrouded in too many qualifiers – ‘could have been’, ‘might have been’, ‘may have been’ – for all that Dalrymple does a grand job of sifting through the complicated and sometimes contradictory documentation.

The Koh-i-Noor will continue to beguile, with its legends of curses and mighty princes, theft, recovery and (literally) glittering celebrity. Those who thrill to the gleam of jewels will find much to enjoy here, but don’t be misled by the slimness of the volume: this is a proper piece of history, and you’ll probably enjoy it more if you have some prior appreciation – or information to hand – on India’s rich, dazzling and eventful history.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

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