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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 1 New Delhi December 26, 2015

A Mountain of Darkness surrounds Disappearance of the Koh-i-Noor from India

Saturday 26 December 2015, by A K Biswas


This is a mystery of history. Veteran columnist and author Kuldip Nayar want us to believe that the Koh-i-Noor ”belongs to them (British) and that Lord Dalhousie fraudulently took it away from Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s son, Dilip Singh, a minor then during the British rule”. [‘Claims over Kohinoor’ in Mainstream, Vol LIII, No 49, New Delhi, November 28, 2015] In various capacities, for example, as journalist, Member of Parliament and High Commissioner of India to UK, he has been in the forefront of campaigns for return of the priceless diamond to India. During the recent official visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to England [November 12-14, 2015] the media had hyped the issue saying that through his diplomatic influence and skill the Koh-i-Noor would return to India. Nayar believes that the Prime Minister, though received red carpet reception in the UK and dined with the monarch in Buckingham Palace, did not, under the influence of the British Establishment, even mention directly or indirectly about the diamond. Did over-hyped hospitality and show of courtesies by the former colonial masters extended to the dignitary silence him to raise the inconvenient issue?

An unassailable authority offers a different story of how the diamond passed to the British hands. W.W. Hunter (July 15, 1840-February 6, 1900), ICS, the meticulous chronicler of the history of the British empire in India, recorded that “Ranjit Singh bequeathed, by will, the celebrated Koh-i-noor which now forms one of the crown jewels of England, to Jagannath.” [W.W. Hunter, A Statistical Account of Bengal, vol. XIX (District of Puri and The Orissa Tributary States, Trubner and Co., London, 1877] This runs contrary to Nayar’s assertion that “........Lord Dalhousie fraudulently took it away from Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s son, Dilip Singh, a minor then during the British rule.” So the real mystery that shrouds the issue is: did the diamond disappear from Lahore, the capital of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, or from Puri, the seat of Jagannath? Did the latter hand it over to the British? R.C. Majumdar is of the opinion that the peerless gem was seized by the British under the terms of the Lahore Treaty signed in March 1849.

Before we throw the aforecited official document out through the nearest window in disbelief, let us recall that Rabindranath Tagore had paid handsome tributes to Hunter by appreciating his monumental work. The poet observed that if we were to seek information on any aspects of Bengal, Hunter’s account was the unfailing source. This is no exaggeration. Hunter’s 22 volumes of Statistical Account containing 50,000 pages covering all districts of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa are a monumental feat. Information on Koh-i-noor, so critical an issue integral to the affairs of Empire within 30 years of the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (November 13, 1780-June 27, 1839) as recorded by the chronicler in the circumstances, can scarcely be questioned. The historical volume, The Real Ranjit Singh, of Fakir Syed Waheeduddin published by the Punjab University, claimed that the Maha-raja had “willed the Koh-i-Noor to Jagannath Temple in Puri, Orissa while on his deathbed in 1839.” [Fakir Syed Waheeduddin, The Real Ranjit Singh, published by Punjabi University, ISBN 81-7380-778-7, January 1, 2001, 2nd ed.] The supreme Sikh monarchpassed away on June 27, 1839.

He had six successors, the longest tenure being held by Maharaja Duleep Singh (born on September 6, 1838) between September 15, 1843 and March 29, 1849. The tenures of five of his predecessors were short, marked by turbulence and disorder. Two Anglo-Sikh wars—the first in 1845-1846 and the second during 1848-1849. The second war drew a curtain on the Sikh rule in Punjab. By then James Andrew Broun-Ramsay, known as the Earl of Dalhousie (April 22, 1812-December 19, 1860) had served as the Governor-General of India from 1848 to 1856.

The character and contributions of Maharaja Ranjit Singh form an outstanding chapter of the Sikh rule in Punjab. George Eden, the Earl of Auckland, who was the Governor-General of India (1836-1842), was told by the Foreign Minister, Fakir Azizuddin, of the Sikhs in reply to a question, “The Maharajah is like the sun and the sun has only one eye. The splendor and luminosity of his single eye is so much that I have never dared to look at his other eye.” Small pox had damaged one of his eyes. His successors did not possess any of the qualities that distinguished him as a ruler. If we believe that Dalhousie had fraudulently taken away the diamond from Maharaja Dalip Singh, we have to accept that over ten years his successors did not show respect to Ranjit Singh’s last ‘will’ on deathbed. This goes entirely against Indian ethos characterised by abiding love, reverence and cordiality between the father and his offsprings.

On the other hand, the possibility of the diamond passing from the Jagannath Temple, Puri to the British Crown seems pretty high and convincing. The victorious Army of the East India Company that overran the province was not only invited by the clergy of the Puri temple but they (the clergy) handed over its management to the Army in 1803. Till 1841 the Company was in charge of the shrine and the pilgrims visiting it were taxed and its huge proceeds shared and gobbled by both the priests and the Company jointly.1 A shameful nexus bereft of morality and ethics drove them. This is little focused in Indian academic discourses. The obliged priestly class might have handed the Koh-i-Noor to the British bureaucracy to appease the monarchy. This well-kept secret has never been focused in academic discourses lest it opens up muck to shame the whole country for the unholy alliance and honeymoon between a trading company and a Hindu shrine.

Dr A K Biswas

(Retired IAS and former Vice-Chancellor,

NOIDA B.R. Ambedkar University, UP Muzaffarpur)


1. A K Biswas, ‘The Last Devadasi’, Mainstream, Vol LIII, No 16, April 11, 2015. A K Biswas.


  • ‘The Foreign Hand In Puri’, Outlook magazine, August 26, 2013.
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