Give It Back, Charlie: The Colonial History of India’s Most Famous Jewels

The Koh-i-Noor is set in the Royal Crown but missed the recent coronation
The Koh-i-Noor is set in the Royal Crown but missed the recent coronationTim Graham/Getty Images

Remember the collective gasp from the audience when Rose from the Titanic movie lobs the fabled ‘Heart of the Ocean’ diamond into the water? She wasn’t just getting rid of a fancy piece of jewellery but her dramatic gesture was symbolic of her breaking ties with the crude covetousness of her class by restoring the precious stone back where it belonged — to rest with the memory of Jack and her first love. 

Spanning the chronicles of history and folklore alike, gemstones have never been only about the money or their lustre. Wrenched from the innermost recesses of the earth’s crust, adorning ourselves with jewels has long been associated with attributes of power, fertility and good fortune. However, the legacy of mining and smuggling them has been mired in a wasteland of oppression and superstition.

In our collective imagination, we’ve heard whispers about many stolen diamonds that can bestow the wearer with magical abilities, transform the fate of an empire or bear curses potent enough to last generations. Most of these myths of reportedly cursed gemstones serve as a disclaimer — thou shalt not steal or bad luck will follow. The tale of the Delhi Purple Sapphire follows a similar cautionary formula. First of all, it's not even a sapphire, it's an amethyst.

Donated to London’s Natural History Museum in 1943 by scientist and writer Edward Heron-Allen, this “trebly accursed” stone is believed to have been plundered from a temple of Indra in Kanpur sometime in the nineteenth century.

Collecting jewels and displaying them as spoils of war became an obsession for imperialist countries, a sign of their “dominating psychology of colonialism”, as shrewdly pointed out by Tristram Hunt, Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in a 2019 essay for The Guardian. He went on to expound, in the very same op-ed, that museums like the V&A must not arbitrarily give into demands for complete restitution of stolen artefacts because “to decolonise is to decontextualise”.

While the beautiful blue stone that Rose flung into the ocean wasn’t the real deal after all, it was loosely inspired from a genuine diamond called the French Blue (Le bleu de France) worn by King Louis XIV.

Originally extracted from the Kollur Mine in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh in the 17th century, it disappeared sometime in 1791 and then was re-cut and catalogued in 1839 by the Hope banking family. Thereby, it acquired a new name, the ‘Hope diamond’.

The diamond has changed many hands, including American heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean, who was so concerned about the curse it carried that she got it blessed by a priest. Harry Winston, a renowned New York jeweller, who was the last independent proprietor of the Hope diamond, donated it to the National Museum of Natural History in Washington in 1958, where it remains now on permanent display.

The Koh-i-Noor is set in the Royal Crown but missed the recent coronation
Sinister Sparkles: Kanpur's Cursed Amethyst Spooks London

Both the Darya-i-Noor and the Noor-ul-Ain diamonds, which currently bedeck the Iranian imperial tiara, have traversed a long way from the Golconda mines in present day states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. They were Mughal heirlooms until Mohammed Ali Shah was defeated by Persian ruler Nadir Shah. Proposed to be a gargantuan 186 carats in size, Darya-i-Noor was accompanied by other exploits including the Koh-i-Noor (Mountain of Light), the Noor-ul-Ain (Light of the Eye), and the jewel-encrusted peacock throne of Shah Jahaan.

Another cursed diamond, legend has it that only women and God are safe from the misfortunes sure to follow whoever gets their hands on the Koh-i-Noor. When the British acquired control of India’s trading posts, the diamond was wrested from the hands of the boy king Maharaja Duleep Singh as part of the 1849 treaty signalling the end of the second Anglo-Sikh war and presented to Queen Victoria, who wore it in a resplendent brooch. In 1911, she had it embedded in the Imperial Crown, which has since been passed down only to female royals.

On February 14 this year, Buckingham Palace officially announced that the Queen consort Camilla will not be wearing the Koh-i-Noor diamond at the royal coronation. A tactical gesture, given how persistently the Indian government has appealed to the UK Government for its restitution.

The Golconda mines gave the world some of its most eminent diamonds
The Golconda mines gave the world some of its most eminent

The list of Indian origin gems presently owned or showcased by developed countries is practically endless — the Regent diamond discovered in the Kollur mine, the Hortensia diamond that’s now part of the French Crown Jewels, the pale yellow Sancy diamond at the Louvre, the Akbar Shah diamond from Golconda mines now at the Kremlin Armoury in Moscow, the Orloff diamond — and almost all of them are riddled with a turbulent past. The foremost reasons listed by stakeholders for not returning jewels include heritage theft and the need to construct more universal museums that are divorced from the ethical pathways of good and bad.

While the threat of returned assets falling into disrepair or being stolen is very pertinent, this still does not qualify as a strong reason for locking them up in the Tower of London or other international repositories of art and culture. Indian activist and author Anuraag Saxena, who co-founded the Indian Pride Project, also concurs that the Indian government’s systems in place for protecting our cultural heritage may not be up to par but can always be improved upon.

Many diamonds from the Golconda mines made it into worldwide private collections
Many diamonds from the Golconda mines made it into worldwide private

The curse of troubled gems may not haunt anyone under museum-grade glass but the pride of seeing them in our own homegrown exhibitions is crucial for us to be able to reclaim our agency and disentangle our collective psyche from the trauma of colonialism. Our cultural heritage gives us the moral rigour to surmount our present obstacles and envision a future that can emulate the glory of our past.