Review of Koh-I-Noor by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand

Updated: Jul 6, 2019

The diamond’s very presence in the Tower of London poses the question: what is the proper response to imperial looting? Do we simply shrug it off as part of the rough-and-tumble of history or should we attempt to right the wrongs of the past?

What is the book about?

Koh-I-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond is written by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand. William Dalrymple is a renowned historian. He is also an award-winning author of many books on the sub-continent including ‘In Xanadu’, ‘ City of Djinns’ and ‘The Last Moghal’. He lives, with his family, in Delhi. Anita Anand is a BBC presenter, journalist and author.

The Koh-I-Noor diamond has a chequered past with a lot of myth associated with it. It has changed hands many times and there is a miasma of bad luck which appears to have followed its owners. Where does the fiction stop and what are the facts? William Dalrymple and Anita Anand have collaborated to give us the first comprehensive and authoritative look at the history of this jewel and the lives of the people it touched.

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What does this book cover?

Koh-I-Noor has two parts. William Dalrymple covers the section which deals with the history of the Koh-I-Noor until it gets to King Ranjit Singh in Lahore. The second section, written by Anita Anand, talks about the history of the diamond from the time Ranjit Singh dies to the modern age.

William Dalrymple starts off by exploring ancient Indian traditions and gemology by looking at the Puranas, the Cholas etc. He then takes us on a journey with the Mughals.  Nader Shah’s invasion and depredation of India results in the movement of the Koh-I-Noor to Iran. We get to see all the tricks and pressure that Ranjit Singh uses to get hold the Koh-I-Noor.

Anita Anand continues the story of Ranjit Singh’s dynasty and internecine strife. After many assassinations, Duleep Singh ascends the throne of Punjab, as a five-year old boy. The British machinations, which culminate in their annexation of Punjab forms the majority of this section. Duleep Singh’s  tragic life after he was deposed is next. The modern era is covered in the final few pages. The sub-continent governments and individuals have made multiple attempts to get back the Koh-I-Noor to its land of origin.

What did I like?

This is a well researched book, which tries its best to give an unbiased history of the Indian sub-continent and Britain. Historical books are usually subjective since they are written from the perspective of the authors who have to rely on the biases of the observers of history. But, I felt that the authors had tried to minimize this as much as possible. So kudos to that!

The history of the sub-continent has been bloody since 900 AD due to various invasions and internal disputes. William Dalrymple and Anita Anand have not glossed over any unsavory or controversial topics. For example: they talk about the practice of Sati during Ranjit Singh’s funeral, the genocide by Nader Shah and the underhandedness of the British in their dealing with Indians. I liked this even-handed approach to both negative and positive aspects of all the people and cultures involved.

What did I not like?

The history of the Darya-I-Noor and the Great Mughal diamond (the companion stones with the Koh-I-Noor) would have been a great addition to this book. The Darya-I-Noor  (which ended up in Iran as part of the Pahlavi crown jewels and the Great Mughal diamond aka the Orlov diamond ended up as part of the Russian crown jewels.

My Recommendation

This book reiterates that India has long been the victim of invasions. Most countries including Britain, owe part of their prosperity to the loot from the sub-continent. At least the Mughals stayed in India with their loot and, consequently, had some positive influence over the area. The others – the Lodhis, the Nader Shahs and the British to name a few – sucked out all the vitality from this prosperous land like vampires and used it to make their lands stronger.

Which brings us back to the quote at the beginning of this review. Who is accountable? Is their hypocrisy, when they preach to us now, unpalatable? Should we get at least some token of recompense? This is a complicated and thorny issue. But this should not be a reason for not solving it. They can be forgiven but not forgotten.

I strongly recommend Koh-I-Noor. I am an avid follower of history. This book is a treasure.It is engrossing and informative.

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