Kohinoor: Semiotic entanglements of “The World’s most Infamous Diamond”

I recently read Kohinoor: the story of the world’s most infamous diamond, the new book by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand. In this nuanced narrative, the authors diligently peel through the layers of myth accumulated over the last two centuries to reveal an unbiased history of the (in)famous diamond. What sets Dalrymple and Anand’s narrative apart from most other works on Kohinoor, is their use of hard evidence, rather than emotions, and the academic honesty they bring to the narrative by anchoring it to its cultural and historical contexts.

Kohinoor has a captivating history. This chicken-egg-sized diamond has evoked a complex and conflicting set of emotions, most recently the repatriation demands of four countries, including India. As an archaeologist with a deep interest in how meaning is made through material culture, Kohinoor and its ever complex semiotic entanglements have always fascinated me. This post is my attempt to explore and make sense of Kohinoor and its various meanings with the help of this recent work by Dalrymple and Anand.


The meanings of things
As archaeologists, we are obsessed with the meanings of things we unearth. Things, or artifacts as they are known in archaeology, are not seen as passive things that people use and discard at will. We see the relationship between the people and things as a dialogue: we interact with things by assigning meanings to them, and eventually, we use these objects to define us or make a statement about something. Let me simplify this for an example. No one in their right mind would show up at an interview or a board meeting in their pyjamas. This is because we have culturally assigned meanings to different types of outfits, which determine their appropriateness in various situations. Although you as a person remain the same whatever outfit you wear, your choice to use these conventionally assigned meanings allows you to express one aspect of your character, as is appropriate for the situation.Since archaeologists study objects that were made, used and discarded (or lost) hundreds or thousands of years ago, we do not have the ability to ask questions of those who used them. Instead, archaeologists have to rely exclusively on their own interactions with these old objects to learn things about them. There is a specific branch of archaeology dedicated to studying the meanings of ancient artifacts: Material Culture Studies. Semiotics
Semiotics, or the study of signs, is one method through which the meaning of artefacts is studied. Introduced by the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, semiotics is the technical study of how meanings are created and communicated. Although semiotics has been primarily used in Linguistic Anthropology, it has recently gained momentum in material culture analysis in archaeology.


According to Peirce, humans use signs constantly to interpret the world around us, either consciously or unconsciously. These signs can take many forms: words, sounds, numbers, smells, objects, paintings, photographs, and so on. Peirce categorized signs into three types, based on the way meaning is created through them:
1. Icon: the sign resembles what it stands for in some way, such as the smell of a food representing the taste of a food.
2. Index: the sign points at the meaning in some way, but does not directly represent it, such as the smell of cooking food indicating that it’s almost time to eat.
3. Symbol: the connection between the sign and what it represents is conventional, such as the McDonald’s logo meaning that you can get a certain type of food there.

This brings us to the discussion of the Kohinoor diamond. The iconic meaning of the Kohinoor is that it is a diamond, which is a gem. For a long time, it was kept in its natural, uncut state: its iconic meaning was, therefore, that of an uncut diamond. Later, when it was given facets, it took the shape that we are more familiar with today, and which we can easily recognize as a diamond. This iconic meaning, therefore, has been relatively constant throughout its history. However, the diamond’s constantly changing indexical and symbolic meanings are what made Kohinoor into the world’s most celebrated diamond, capable of evoking such a diverse range of emotions.

The Kohinoor lodged in the British Crown

Kohinoor’s entangled semiotics
An obscure diamond
I was struck by the Kohinoor’s intriguing biography. The diamond remained in obscurity for centuries until its first clear mention by the Persian historian Mohamed Kazim Marvi, who came to Delhi with Nader Shah’s invading army in 1739 CE.

On top of this [the Peacock Throne] was placed a peacock made of emeralds and rubies; on to its head was attached a diamond the size of a hen’s egg, known as Koh-i-Noor- the Mountain of Light, whose price no-one but God Himself could know!
From Mohammed Kazem Marvi’s Alam Ara-ye Naderi, adapted from
Dalrymple, W. and Anand, A. 2016, Kohinoor: The story of the world’s most infamous diamond, Pp: 20, Juggernaut: New Delhi.

After this initial mention, and after Nader Shah had seized the diamond and transported it with other lucrative booties from Delhi to the Afsharid court in Persia, the Kohinoor was released from its erstwhile anonymity and obscurity. The diamond then became a prized possession, worn on armlets by its subsequent owners until its final relocation to England under Lord Dalhousie in 1849 CE.

What caused this sudden emergence of Kohinoor from obscurity and its subsequent attainment of legendary status? It is the change in its indexical and symbolic meanings, as determined by the cultural behaviour towards diamond among its post-Mughal owners. During the Mughal period, Kohinoor was never named; along with other, comparatively more famous diamonds (e.g. The Great Mogul & Darya-i-Noor) and other precious stones, it resided in the Mughal treasury. Although diamonds were clearly important to the Mughals, they were not their most prized precious stones. Dalrymple and Anand point out that the Mughals actually prized rubies the most; while contemporary Mughal writings describe rubies in detail, the diamonds in the treasury only find a passing mention. In contrast, in contemporary European accounts of the Mughal court and, even earlier, for the Vijayanagara court, diamonds often find special mention. To the European eye, diamonds were the most valuable of the precious stones. For example, the 17th century French jeweler Tavernier eagerly waited for days in the hope of convincing Emperor Aurangzeb to show him the Great Mogul Diamond from the royal treasury. Once receiving this permission, he meticulously described the diamond and produced the earliest surviving sketch of it.

Kohinoor set as an armlet of Ranjit Singh and his successors. This was how it was relocated to England in 1850. (Source: Wikimedia commons)

The body of the King
After the diamond passed into the hands of Nader Shah, its indexical meaning seems to have undergone a massive transformation. Earlier, when it was lodged in the Mughal Peacock Throne (as an eye of one of the peacocks, accompanying three other diamonds), the Kohinoor was inaccessible to the public gaze. In the Mughal court, the throne was placed on a high pedestal and, besides being lost among the other precious stones embedded in the throne, this particular diamond could not have stood out in contrast to the Emperor and his bejeweled outfit. When Nader Shah detached the diamond from the Peacock Throne, he started to wear it publicly with other important gems plundered from the Mughal treasury. Once Nader Shah started wearing this stone on an armlet, it not only became more visible, but its value increased exponentially. It soon became an integral part of the symbols of sovereignty used by Nader Shah.

Owning and wearing the Kohinoor, therefore, became an important semiotic medium by which subsequent rulers expressed their sovereignty and legitimized their often precarious holds on power. This transformation in the semiotics of Kohinoor also meant that it became the single most desired object for those competing for political supremacy; as a result, the quest for Kohinoor left a bloody trail of torture and murder. Immediately after Nader Shah’s assassination, Agha Mohammad, a court eunuch and principal conspirator in the assassination plot, tortured and killed Nader’s grandson Shah Rukh by pouring a jug of molten lead on his head, in order to discover the whereabouts of the diamond. Later, Shah Zaman, the Durrani ruler of Afganistan, was blinded by his step-brother and usurper Mahmud Shah for the same reason. In the penultimate chapter of its Indian biography, Maharaja Ranjit Singh put Shah Shuja, the deposed ruler of Afghanistan, in a cage and tortured the Shah’s eldest son, until he agreed to hand over the diamond. After Ranjit Singh’s death, the fate of the Kohinoor remained undecided; as the Sikh Empire fragmented, his successors squabbled over the ownership of the diamond.

As the Kohinoor became a coveted ornament that inspired cruelty and treachery, there was a sudden eruption of eyewitness accounts, stories and speculations surrounding the diamond. This was the beginning of the myth of Kohinoor, which accumulated for over a century until they were collected and written down by Theo Metcalfe, a bright East India Company officer who was asked by Lord Dalhousie to compile whatever he could about the history of this famous jewel. Once published, Metcalfe’s flawed report – based on Delhi bazaar gossips, speculations, and myths – went viral in a modern sense, and in many ways was the foundation of how the diamond is perceived today. The diamond’s indexical and symbolic meanings were transformed yet again, from a prized possession that gives one the right to rule, to something more arbitrary and ambiguous. To the Sikhs, the loss of Kohinoor and removal of Duleep Singh became symbols of a major tragedy and the loss of their sovereignty. To the East India Company, conveniently aided by the British press, possession of Kohinoor was the symbol of their final victory, and afforded legitimacy to their rule in India. To Lord Dalhousie, the acquisition of the diamond represented a personal triumph and achievement that saw him attain a Baronetcy. To the ill-informed British public far removed from the realities in India, Kohinoor was not only a symbol of their national pride but also indicated the success of the Empress and their British Empire’s “civilizing mission.”

Kohinoor’s fame ebbed soon after its arrival in England. The stories of its bloody history started to circulate in the English press, much to the scorn of Lord Dalhousie. The fact that the ship carrying it was devastated by cholera and lost in a heavy storm did not help matters. Within a few hours after the Kohinoor entered British territorial waters, Robert Peel, the most trusted adviser of Queen Victoria, died in a freak accident. The Queen herself was attacked with a stick by Robert Pate and received a prominent cut on her head. The British press was quick to associate these events with the arrival of the “infamous” diamond in England, which quickly a reputation for being “cursed.” This added another layer to the already complex indexical meanings of the diamond: while its public appeal increased, it also became a symbol of misfortune.

Kohinoor displayed in a secured cage at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. (Source: Wikipedia)

Where is the shine?
At the Great Exhibition of 1851 CE in London, the Kohinoor initially failed to impress. The root of this lay in the different diamond cuts that were valued in Europe and in India. In India, diamonds and other precious stones were valued for their material rather than their shine and generally were kept in their original shapes. The Mughals and other previous owners of Kohinoor had retained its original, slightly uneven shape. After the invention of the Brilliant Cut technique in Europe in the 17th century, preferences about the shape and look of diamonds began to change in Europe. The Brilliant Cut technique was a method that allowed the cutting of a diamond into numerous facets, thereby maximizing its brilliance by increasing the light returned through the top of the diamond. Kohinoor, along with other famous diamonds from the subcontinent, were often criticised by European observers for their lack of brilliance and uneven shape in comparison to those cut using this new technique. In the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Kohinoor was met with curt comments about its dullness and unattractive features. A special contraption to direct light onto the diamond was created by Prince Albert to make Kohinoor shine. Finally, in 1852 the British Royalty ordered the diamond to be re-cut to release it from its dullness. In this way, the fundamental differences in how “ideal” diamonds were defined and perceived in two very different socio-cultural contexts almost consigned the Kohinoor to another era of obscurity.

Personal meanings
Apart from the public meanings assigned to the diamond, of proclaiming sovereignty and legitimacy to rule, the owners of Kohinoor must have interacted with it on a personal level. Maharaja Duleep Singh, one of Ranjit Singh’s sons and the last ruler of the Sikh Empire, seemed to have mourned the loss of the diamond after he ceded it to the East India Company along with his empire. Kohinoor, for him, was not only a symbol of his royalty but also of his family and community heritage. In a moving scene from 1854, wonderfully described by Anita Anand in her portion of the book, Queen Victoria offered to show the diamond to young Duleep Singh. Duleep Singh took the diamond to the window where he examined the recently-cut Kohinoor in detail in the light of the sun. After a protracted moment of anxiety for all those present, a visibly emotional Duleep Singh finally conjured up the strength to give the diamond back to the Queen as a “loyal subject.” Up to this point, Queen Victoria had not publicly worn the Kohinoor out of guilt for the way it was taken from Duleep Singh when he was a child in 1849. After Duleep had himself given the diamond to the Queen, she finally wore it for its public debut.

The husband of Queen Victoria Prince Albert also had a personal stake in the Kohinoor. Albert came from a family of lesser nobility in Germany and was looked down upon by the English Parliament. The Parliament did not even allow him to use the title of Prince Consort. When Kohinoor arrived in England, Prince Albert was preparing for the Great Exhibition of 1851, which, he supposed, would give him the recognition and prestige he deserved. Kohinoor was to be the highlight of the exhibition. When the Kohinoor initially failed to “shine,” he personally arranged for a contraption to direct more light towards the jewel. However, even this failed to win over the public. This was when Albert decided to recut the diamond and unveil its true brilliance. The re-cutting started with much press hype and fanfare, and when it was finished, although it was considerably smaller, the Kohinoor had achieved its perfect shine in the eyes of the British.


Final thoughts
After Indian and Pakistani independence, the Kohinoor again attained a different semiotic significance. It became, and has remained, a symbol of the national identity of India and Pakistan. In the surge of nationalism immediately after Independence, the Kohinoor’s presence in England also became a symbol of colonial exploitation and the drain of wealth from the subcontinent. As a result, in a symbolic gesture to ask for Colonial reparations, both India and Pakistan has asked for the repatriation of Kohinoor, as have Afghanistan and Iran. In India, the Sikh community, the Jagannath Temple in Puri and the states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh has all claimed their rights to the diamond. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, has shown the Treaty of Lahore as a legal document, on the basis of which the Kohinoor was transported to England. The British Government has denied that the diamond was taken during looting and would not like to set a precedent by repatriating such a powerful symbol as the Kohinoor, in fear that this would start a domino effect of repatriation claims from other former colonies. The British public remains mostly ignorant about the history of British colonialism and denies the need of repatriation.

In India, apart from being a powerful symbol of the nation and colonial wrongdoings, Kohinoor has become a symbol of royalty, class and high quality. Several brand names, most notably in food products and condom manufacturing, has used the semiotic values associated with the name “Kohinoor” to successfully market their products to the Indian public.

It is not certain whether the repatriation claims for the diamond will ever be successful. However, it is certain that Kohinoor, with its complex semiotic entanglements, will continue evoking a host of diverse passion and emotions in the future and produce confusing literature and heated debates. What sets Dalrymple and Anand’s book apart from this confusion is that the authors took a step back from the clutter and tried to make sense of it. That, in the present circumstances, is a big achievement.

Post Script: All the historical information used here is taken from Dalrymple and Anand’s book, which I strongly recommend.

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