Mountain of light | Irfan Hussain


THE Koh-i-noor is in the news in the UK these days because of a new book on the legendary Indian diamond titled Koh-i-Noor: the History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond.

Speaking about the blood-soaked history of the precious stone at London’s Wellcome Fou­n­dation, the co-authors, William Dalrymple and Anita Anand, wove a fascinating tale of thuggery, torture and treachery as the diamond made its way from the subcontinent to London. The packed event had been organised as a fund-raiser for The Citizens Foun­dation (TCF), the Pakistani charity running 1,400 modern schools for underprivileged children.

In their telling, Dalrymple and Anand demolished many of the myths that surround the Koh-i-noor. Nevertheless, the legend of the stone bringing misfortune and even death to its owner was highlighted with almost ghoulish glee. But what was most compelling was the contemporary political aspect of the story: currently, there are six claimants who have written to the British government demanding that the diamond be returned. Pakistan was the first to enter a bid in 1976, followed by India, Iran, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and even the Taliban.

So what is it about the Koh-i-noor that continues to excite such passions? To the British who grabbed it in 1849 after their conquest of Punjab from Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s 10-year-old son, Duleep Singh, the stone represented their dominance over India, and much of the world.

Why does the diamond excite such passions?

However, this kind of pillage by conquerors and adventurers is neither new, nor unique to the British, even though their wide-ranging conquests gave them access to the treasures of many lands across the globe. Indeed, the British Museum would be pretty bare today had it not been for diplomats, travellers and archaeologists who presented their finds to the museum.

One such are the famous Elgin Marbles, dazzling stone carvings in white marble that rested in the ruins of Athens’ Parthenon until two centuries ago. Lord Elgin, British ambassador to the Ottomans, obtained permission from the authorities to remove the sculptures. They went on display at the British Museum in 1817, and can be seen there today.

Since the 1980s, the Greeks have been demanding their return. But the British government’s position has been that the marbles were legally removed, and by providing them — and other looted items from around the world — space for people from many countries to view their cultural patrimony in a protected environment.

And it is true that we in the developing world have not always been the best custodians of our heritage. The Saudis have systematically destroyed the remains of their pre- and early Islamic past. The barbaric Islamic State group went out of its way to demolish and dynamite every ancient site and object that fell into its hands.

In Pakistan, ancient Buddhist statues and images of Hindu deities have been defaced, and our Gandhara cities and stupas wilfully neglected. Many splendid stone carvings and statues adorn homes in Pakistan and abroad.

As one of my favourite columnists, Rafia Zakaria, informed us in these pages recently, a scam involving the smuggling of Iraqi antiquities was blocked by US Customs. A few days ago, there was a story in the Guardian about an exquisite 13th-century tile from a mausoleum near Bokhara that had been offered for sale in a private gallery. Luckily, this deal, too, was foiled by a sharp-eyed expert at the British Museum.

But such successes are few and far between. In most cases, developing countries place very low priority on their antiquities. Armed gangs maraud at will, crudely excavating scarcely guarded archa­eo­logical sites, and selling what they find to unscrupulous foreign buyers.

One of the questions following the talk on the Koh-i-noor was why ex-colonial powers were refusing to return the treasures they had looted from their colonies. With his refreshing bluntness, Dalrymple asked a counter-question: why were we not demanding that Iran should return the Peacock Throne, together with the thousands of other gemstones Nader Shah had pillaged in Delhi in his bloody attack on the Indian capital? To get an idea of what was carried away from Delhi, the authors cite these figures: “The loot was loaded on to ‘700 elephants, 4,000 camels and 12,000 horses carrying wagons all laden with gold, silver and precious stones’.”

The priceless Peacock Throne, with the Koh-i-noor embedded on the canopy, was broken up following Nader Shah’s assassination soon after the Delhi raid. Years ago, I saw many of these treasures in the vaults of Tehran’s Bank Melli, and was struck by a bejewelled throne, even though it was a shadow of the original Peacock Throne.

So why haven’t any of the regional states asked Iran to return this vast hoard? In reality, conquerors and colonists throughout history have grabbed anything valuable they found as booty. This is a historical feature that predates the British and other colonial powers, and simply underlines the old maximum “to the victor the spoils.”