Sri Jagannath and the Kohinoor

BY: SUN STAFF - 30.10 2018

Replicas of the Kohinoor before and after it was re-cut in 1852

By Dr. Durga Nandan Mishra for Orissa Review.

A few days before his death Maharaja Ranjit Singh (b. 2.11.1780), the founder of the Sikh Empire, sent the Kohinoor diamond with some precious gold ornaments for the Jagannath triad and money for the repair of the western gate of the Temple (at Puri) through a close acquaintance. Ironically, the Maharaja breathed his last in the evening of asadha amabasya(new moon, 20.6.1839) at Lahore, five days after a paralytic stroke. Being aware of this sorrowful news, the messenger left behind other gifts but returned with the Kohinoor.

The distance between Lahore and Puri is about 1200 kms by road, and it took at least twenty days to cover the distance on horseback. In all probability, this visit might have been performed during the car festival. Moreover, like others, the concerned dignitary might have gone around the Temple before seeing the chaturddha murtties and interacted with his traditional priest.

It may be conjectured, he might have come to know of the theft (1837) of the diamond studded mathamani (jewellery adorning the forehead of the Lord), then valued to be nearly three lac rupees. By the way, it is difficult to date the antiquity of the present one. Silver utensils of daily use weighing close to 45 kgs were earlier lost to thieves, in 1828. These were never recovered nor the thieves punished. There might have been petty pilferages galore causing tolerable consternations. Overall, his experience about the Temple might have been unsavoury and the death of the Maharaja might not have been the only reason for not giving the Kohinoor to the Temple. Anyway, in the first week of July, the Kohinoor, hidden in his pugree or attire, returned to Lahore even after reaching the sanctum sanctorum of Puri Temple. There is a saying, 'the wishes of God get reflected in the deeds of the humans'.

Instead of delving deep into the long shrouded history of Kohinoor, it may be sensible to begin with Babar Namah, where it has been stated that the Turco-Mongol founder of the Mughal Empire came across a strong fort at Agra (5.5.1528, not the present one) in the possession of the troops of Gwalior Raja Bikramjit, who earlier died at Panipat fighting on the side of Ibrahim Lodhi in 1526.

In his Memoirs, Babur has stated, "when Humayun arrived (at Agra), Bikramajit's people attempted to escape, but were taken by parties Humayun had placed upon the watch, and put into custody. Humayun did not allow them to be plundered. Of their own freewill, they presented to Humayun a peshkesh (tribute), 'consisting of a quantity of jewels and precious stones'. Among these was one famous diamond which has been acquired by Sultan Alaeddin (Allau-din-Khilji). It is so valuable that a judge of diamonds valued it at half the daily expense of the whole world. It is about eight miskals (672 carats). On my arrival, Humayun presented it to me as a peskesh, and I gave it back to him as a present (dt.5.5.1526)." (Memoirs of Babur, pp.308-9)

It was generally conjectured that this gemstone was acquired by Allau-din- Khilji, the second ruler of the Khilji dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate, when he invaded the kingdoms of southern India at the beginning of the 14th c., which later passed to the successors.

After his defeat by Sher Shah Suri, Humayun wandered through Rajputana, Umarkot, Persia, and Kabul; and in 1555 finally returned to Agra, after a gap of fifteen years. But through thick and thin, Kohinoor was always with him. Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal Emperor, had the stone embedded to the Peacock Throne. On the instruction of Aurangzeb, it was cut to increase its brilliance by a Venetian lapidarist and consequently, its weight decreased to 37.2 gms (186 carats) from 134.4 gms.

To subjugate and plunder Delhi, Nadir Shah entered Lal Quila on March 8, 1739 and left after nearly two months, causing indescribable misery to the denizen whose exuberance and opulence were ruthlessly molested. Few days before his departure (5th May, some say it is 7th June), on the hints of a eunuch, he got hold of Kohinoor surreptitiously hidden in the pugree of the then Moghul Emperor Mohammed Shah. Curiously, Nadir was the first person to address it as 'Kohinoor'- the mountain of Light. This gem that remained in Babar's family for a little over two hundred years thus came to Nadir Shah.

It needs to be mentioned that before Nadir's conquest, Taimur Lang defeated Sultan Nasiruddin Tughlaq in Delhi (1398) and swiped clean its coffers before killing and maiming nearly one lakh Hindus. During the interregnum of 340 years of two major assaults on the heart of the country, enormous riches accumulated from all over the country, save a few principalities, succumbed to the avarice of Nadir. It is stated that several artisans were engaged day and night to melt the gold and silver utensils to transform them into the shape of grinding stones with holes to carry them easily on the back of animals. Two such ingots each weighing nearly thirty kgs were suspended on the back of nearly a thousand camels. Nadir employed horses and camels as well for carrying away hundreds of boxes filled with ornaments, asrafis, pearls, and gem stones.


Vaidya Sevak carrying dashamula for the convalescing deities 
en route to Jagannath Temple


After the murder of Nadir Shah (1747), Kohinoor fell to his grandson, who gave it to Ahmed Shah Durrani, the founder of the Afghan Empire and its Amir in 1751 in return for the latter's alleged support. One of Ahmed's descendants, Shah Shuja Durrani, wore a bracelet containing it on the occasion of Elphinstone's visit to Peshawar (1808). In a turn of events, when Shah Shuja was dethroned by the ex-ruler Dost Mahmood Shah, the former sought help from Ranjit Singh. After his arrival at Lahore (March 1813), the Maharaja exerted pressure on him to hand over the Kohinoor and after many a cajoling, acquired it on June 1st. Not only that, when he came to know Shah was in possession of more, he forcibly took away some of them. The hapless Shah extricated himself from the intrigue of Lahore by finally paying a ransom of twenty thousand rupees.

Countless treasures gifted to Sri Jagannath by the Rajas, Maharajas, votaries, and rich pilgrims from across the country over generations were plundered by the rulers of Delhi or their regional satraps through sixteen successive assaults, beginning from Ismail Ghori Khan's loot in 1509 to Taqi Khan's raid of 1733. It may safely be presumed that a major portion of this booty was arrogated by Nadir himself.

During the time of Sri Chaitanya, the ratna simhasan was covered with gold and the embellished applique over it enhanced the overall splendour of the Temple. Whatever was misappropriated by the subahdars and their cronies, by not sending the plundered riches from Bengal to Delhi, was finally seized by the British East India Company after the battle of Plassey (June 1757) and carried to Great Britain from Calcutta by sea a few miles off the coast of Puri. And the Temple ironically was a mute witness to the passing ships laden with its pillaged treasures.

The cruelty of the desperadoes spanning more than two centuries is still remembered by the populace: "aila Kalapahada bhangila luhara bada… " As we recollect the recently found riches of Sri Padmanavaswami Temple of Kerala, we can envision the affluence of Sri Jagannath Temple of yore. Sadly, its material status at present is indeed hyped and far distanced from popular myth.

After the Second Anglo-Sikh war, Duleep Singh, the youngest son of Ranjit Singh, in the durbar held at Lahore signed the Last Treaty of Lahore on the 30th March 1849, and relinquished the administration of the state. Article III of the treaty read: "The gem called the Koh-i- Noor, which was taken from Shah Sooja-ool-moolk by Maharajah Ranjeet Singh, shall be surrendered by the Maharajah of Lahore to the Queen of England". The articles of the Agreement were incorporated under the direct supervision of Earl Dalhousie who was not in favour of a trader i.e., the East India Company to hand over the Kohinoor to the Queen but deemed it as a 'spoil of war' to be officially surrendered to her by Duleep Singh.

Kohinoor left the Indian shore on 6th April 1850 and it was formally presented to Queen Victoria on 3rd July 1850 at Buckingham Palace by the deputy chairman of the Company to coincide with its 250th anniversary. In the Great Exhibition at Hyde Park (1851, London), the public were given a chance to see the gemstone.

Under the supervision of Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria, cutting of Kohinoor began (17 July 1852) to lift its brilliance from prevailing dullness and in the exercise, the weight decreased from 186 old carats to its current/metric 105.6 carats (21.12 gms). The stone now measures 3.6 cm (1.4 in) long, 3.2 cm (1.3 in) wide, and 1.3 cm (0.5 in) deep. The Queen wore it often when it was not yet part of the Crown Jewels and was seemingly uneasy about the way of its acquisition. In a letter to her eldest daughter, she was believed to have written in the 1870s that "No one feels more strongly than I do about India or how much I opposed our taking those countries and I think no more will be taken, for it is very wrong… You know also how I dislike wearing the Koh-i-Noor". Not sure about others, but Indians have a long held notion that its owner is eventually doomed.

A couple of times in the past, the Government of India have demanded the return of the diamond but each time, the British government rejected the claims, saying that its ownership is non-negotiable. A British Prime Minister during both of his visits to our country in 2010 and 2013, reiterated Britain's stand not to return the diamond. He once quipped, "If you say yes to one, you suddenly find the British museum would be empty." Incidentally, the submission of the Solicitor General before the Supreme Court of India in 2016 that it was "voluntarily given by Ranjit Singh to the British as compensation" is also deficient of facts.

In view of the changing geopolitics across the globe, it can safely be surmised that Kohinoor would one day return to Puri. Of late, there have been solemn attempts to return the pieces of art, accumulated by unjust means in various museums and auction houses of the developed countries, to the bona fide claimants. The erstwhile bravado that "whatever we have taken would in no circumstances be returned" has now become passé. In the recent past, there was a massive public rejoicing in Iraq when some art pieces were returned to it. Our country is also not an exception to benefit from such demeanours. It may be fervently hoped, the vigrahas of Sun, Ganesh, Bruhaspati, Rahu, Ketu, and Saptabhanjikas etc., which were once taken away from the 13th c. Konark temple and being displayed in the museums across Britain and possibly elsewhere, would return one day to their niches.

It is needless to say, each piece of art, mundane or exceptional, has a soul cloistered therein unquestionably more valuable than the material it is composed of. Kohinoor is similarly a creation with whose soul we continue to have an intense bond despite its changed exterior. Eternal time alone knows when this tiny star would re-enter to dazzle the Abode of Sri Jagannath - the primeval source of a billion suns.