Tuesday, 12 November 2013


The Koh­‐i­‐noor (which means the Mountain of Light in Urdu) is a diamond that was first shown to the British public at the Great Exhibition of 1851. 

It created quite a frenzy. Said at the time to be priceless and the largest diamond in the world, the political worth of the ancient stone had been proved in various Asian wars, and again when offered as ransom as part of the official peace treaty that concluded the Second Anglo Sikh war - when the boy maharajah Duleep Singh was deposed from his Punjabi throne, in what is now known as Pakistan. 

The Koh-i-noor diamond exhibited in a golden cage at the Great Exhibition, 1851

The diamond is surrounded by myth. One story says that only a Queen may hold it, with any man who does so cursed; his lineage fading from the light. And perhaps the previous owner had indeed been blighted by such a curse. 

The Winterhalter portrait of Duleep Singh

As a teenager, when the exiled Duleep was brought to live in England, he soon became very popular and was quite the gentleman aristocrat. Queen Victoria doted on the prince who she often called her 'beautiful boy', and so as to preserve that beauty she arranged to have his portrait made by the German artist, Winterhalter. It was while Duleep was posing in the White Room at Buckingham Palace that the Queen came into the room one day and told him to hold out his hands – into which she then placed the diamond that had been the sovereign symbol of his lost Punjabi kingdom. 

No doubt she was only testing the young Maharajah’s loyalty. He had the good sense to return the stone and hand it back into her palms. But Duleep’s line did then go on to bear all signs of being cursed. He married and had several children, but no grandchildren were ever born. And then, when in his middle years, when Duleep became disaffected and often asked for the diamond's return, it could have been that he believed in the well-known prophecy that if the stone was returned to its homeland all foreign invaders would be cast out. 

But Victoria's advisors would never consent to giving the diamond to Duleep. They would not relinquish any part of their Indian territories. They knew what the diamond symbolised and, dreading another Mutiny, Duleep was followed by British spies and eventually exposed as a traitor for consorting with various dissidents; mainly those Russians and Irish men with whom he had been making plans to march an army on the Punjab by route of Russia and Afghanistan. In response Duleep was exiled from England as well as India. He was forced to live out the rest of his life on the European continent, where he died at the age of 55 in a Parisian hotel. 

Ironically (even though her own husband had reduced the diamond to almost half its size by having its facets remodelled into the European style) Victoria may well have received the stone’s blessing – while wearing the stone in the clasp of a brooch, or later when it was set in a crown - with it being said that any Queen who owned the stone would rule the world.

She did become an Empress, ruling over the British Empire. And today, despite ongoing requests for the Koh-i-noor to be returned to the state of Pakistan, the diamond remains a spoil of war, locked up in the Tower of London.

The true story of Duleep Singh, and the incident with the Koh-i-noor that took place in the White Room at Buckingham palace, is one of the factual elements woven into the fictional threads of the novel, The Goddess and The Thief - written by Essie Fox and published by Orion Books.


  1. I had heard about the diamond, but not the stories and myths behind it - very interesting post.

  2. Thank you, Liz...there are so many. It was thought to be a sacred diamond, as well as symbolising the power of the Punjabi Kingdom...and many kingdoms before that.

  3. Great post Essie, can't wait for the book!

  4. Fascinating post - I'm really looking forward to reading the book. It's all so tantalising!

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  6. Stunning portrait of Duleep Singh. I had to create a link to my post "Crystal Palace, 1851 and the world's greatest jewel" straight away. Many many thanks


  7. Thank you, Hels. It's so frustrating that although I'm set up on Blogger to get notifications of comments (and I always used to) I don't at the moment - and haven't for some months - so I only find the comments now and then. Bear with me if this happens. I'm not ignoring your wonderful links. Just about to dip into this one...

  8. A fascinating story and I love the Winterhalter portrait1