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Kohinoor and me

Now, don’t think I have gone insane.  Please! I have no craving for it. Even if a benevolent yaksha (a category of the divine beings) gives me all the money I need to buy this diamond and further assures me thatunlike the great Maharaja Ranjit Singh, I will never lose sleep worrying about its safety,since he will take care of it for me, I will never bother about it. I will plead with him with folded hands to spare me of his generousity and give thediamond to some monarch, since it is only a monarch who can make use of it. If the monarch happens to be a king and if he knows its story, he will give that female-friendly diamond to his queen to wear.

Kohinoor (also spelt “Koh-i-noor”, meaning “Mountain of Light”) entered my life when I was ten years old and was in Class VI in my village school. One day our class teacher told us about it. To give us an idea of it, he drew a crude picture on the blackboard, which was as depressing as the figures our geometry teacher drew in our geometry class. He told us thatits owner, a king of Punjab (he pointed to Punjab in the old, half-torn, pathetic-lookingmap of India hanging in the class room) wanted to gift it to Lord Jagannath but it fell into the hands of the British. He said that Queen Victoria was the first British queen to wear it and that now, Queen Elizabethwas wearing it.All this was meaningless and boring andwithin days, I forgot about it all, except for the Lord Jagannath bit.That was the only thing I could relate to, there being a Jagannath temple in my village.

Kohinoor returned to my life when I was twenty three years old and was teaching English at SCS College, Puri. That morning I had gone to the Temple for darshan of MahaprabhuJagannath. By the way, in ordinary usage, “Jagannath” in this context is a cover term for Lords Jagannath, Balabhadra,Subhadra and Sudarshana. It was the sahanamela time, when without paying a fee, the devotees could go into the sanctum sanctorum to have darshan of the Deities. A slightly elderly servitor saw me and took me to a place close to the wall of the sanctum sanctorum from where I could see Jagannath directly in front of me.  He said “Look at the forehead of Jagannath. Inside the golden ornament on His forehead (a large leaf-shaped ornament,called chita in Odia), there is a diamond. Just have a glance of it. Don’t stare at it for long. You will feel giddy.” He said this and left me. Later he asked me whether I could see the hira (diamond). I told him that I did. I didn’t really try very much to trace the hira in the ornament. So whatever I saw, I saw.

The thing is that when people go for darshan, their concentration is on the Deities, not on the jewels that They wear. I have heard umpteen times servitors telling the pilgrims, especially those from outside Odisha, to look at the gem the Deities wear: Jagannath, a diamond, Balabhadra a sapphire and Subhadra, a ruby. I don’t think anyone really cares. People say that these days, compared to RathaJatra and BahudaJatra, the number of people who come to Puri is to see the sunabesha(gold dress) of the Deities on the Rathas (Chariots) is noticeably larger.But make no mistake, people come to have darshan of the Deities dressed in gold, not to see the beautiful, huge and brilliant golden crowns, garlands and other ornamentson the Deities.

One evening, during a leisurely talk, my young servitor friend asked me if I knew that Kohinoor was to be mounted in thecentre of the forehead ornament of Jagannath where there was now an ordinary diamond. I said I had heard of it. There was no more talk about it at that time or during our numerous conversations thereafter. It didn’t interest us.

About fifty years later, in 2013, I went to England. I was keen on seeing the diamond but a young friend of mine told me that I shouldn’t take the trouble. It involved a two hour train journey to London, then a taxi drive from the railway station to the Tower of London and a fee to see the diamond. Then I would be allowed to see it for just a minute or so. The whole thing would cost me quite a bit of money. And most importantly, it was something entirely unacceptable, he said, that an Indian would have to spend all that money to see an Indian property that had been taken away (“stolen” is the word that has also been used in this context) unfairly from India by the East India Company. That decided it for me.

Incidentally, Kohinoor today is not the largest diamond on earth, arguably Cullinan diamond is; nor is it the most shining, arguably, Sirius is. But no diamond is a symbol of prestige and power as Kohinoor is. And no diamond has as gripping a history, in which fact is headily mixed with fiction, as this jewel has.

It came into my life again in 2016 through the fascinating book “Kohinoor (the Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond)”written by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand. Here is a book, I thought, from which I would know all about the link between this diamond and Lord Jagannath. I wasn’t disappointed. Maharaja Ranjit Singh was dying and was not able to speak although he could understand what was said to him. It is mentioned in his court chronicle, the authors Dalrymple and Anand tell us, that “By a sign the Sardar (Ranjit) pointed out that …the stone should be sent over to Jagannathji (p.92)”. After the Maharaja passed away, his chief treasurer said that the jewel did not belong to the Maharaja personally and that it belonged to the Sikh state; sohe had no right to gift it away. So it stayed with the Sikh state. Soon Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s ten year old son, Maharaja Duleep Singh, signed a document of surrender with the East India Company and the following was part of it: “…the Kohinoor… shall be surrendered by the Maharaja of Lahore to the Queen of England (p. 128)”. Soon the diamond left the Indian shores.

Post-Independence, the Government of India demanded that Kohinoor be returned to India. The British Government flatly rejected that demand. It asserted that the diamond had been gifted to Queen Victoria by the Maharaja of Lahore, who was its “rightful owner”. The gift was entirely legal; so India had no legitimate claims over it, they asserted. In 1976, Pakistan Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, wrote to the British Government that the diamond must be returned to Pakistan because it belonged to Pakistan. After about a month’s wait, he received a letter of rejection of his demand. The following year he lost his premiership because of a military coup and two years later, his life. In 2000, the Taliban demanded that the diamond really belonged to Afghanistan and that the British Government must return it to them.

Something happened in April 2016, which would appear rather bizarre. As the authors of “Kohinoor” point out, ignoring details, the solicitor general, Ranjit Kumar, representing the Government of India, told the Supreme Court of India that the diamond had been gifted to the East India Company by its rightful owner (pp. 196-97). The Government of India distanced itself completely from Ranjit Kumar’s statement and said it most emphatically that the gem was India’s and must be returned to India. Only months later,RanjitKumar resigned on personal grounds.

Oh, one thing I have left out in my narrative of demands and denials. In 1947, the (Congress) Government of Orissa (this was how “Odisha” was spelt then), led by Dr. HarekrushnaMahatab, wrote to the British Government that Kohinoor must be sent to Odisha so that in deference to Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s wish, it could be given to the temple of Lord Jagannath – an entirely understandable act on the part of the State Government, one might think. The reply of the British Government was the same as that to the Government of India. I am not sure but it seems to me to be the first case in independent India when a constituent state of the country dealt with a foreign governmentdirectly. But going by the intentions of the State Government which were unquestionably honest, one cannot perhaps be too censorious towards the Government of Orissa for what one might consider to be a violation of political propriety.

Now to conclude: For the coronation of King Charles III last year, Queen Camilla did not wear the Kohinoor. Setting aside the tradition, she did so, so as not to offend the “political sensitivities”, as reported. It was very thoughtful of her, to my mind at least.

(The views expressed are the writer’s own)

Prof. B.N.Patnaik

Retd. Professor of Linguistics and English, IIT Kanpur

Email: [email protected]

(Images from the net)

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