In January 1850, Lord Dalhousie, Governor-General of India, boards a barge down the Indus River to Karachi. Having just left Lahore, Dalhousie has stealthily taken one very precious item with him from the treasury of the heir to the Punjab Empire, eleven-year-old Maharajah Dalip Singh. To keep this safe, Lady Dalhousie stitches a leather bag with a loop which goes around Dalhousie’s belt. He keeps it on him day and night, and when he sleeps, two massive dogs are chained to his camp bed.
At Karachi, Dalhousie embarks upon the SS Firoze to Bombay. There, he is feted by the Governor, Lord Falkland, sits in meetings, and inspects local schools. The bag stays on his hip—and other than his wife and his nephew, Captain Ramsay, no one knows it is there.
The last thing Dalhousie does in Bombay is to deposit the bag into the Treasury at Fort George. Two months later, the HMS Medea, a Royal navy steam sloop, leaves Bombay carrying Colonel Mackeson and Captain Ramsay—and that little package. The captain of the Medea has orders to escort the two men to England, and he’s told nothing else. Soon after the Medea puts to port, the Directors of the East India Company meet with their sovereign, Queen Victoria. They hand the package to her. Within is a gold armlet, with one massive 186 carat diamond in the center, flanked by two smaller diamonds.
Then, and only then, is the news blazoned forth—the Kohinoor diamond has reached England in the greatest of secrecy. In Punjab, its erstwhile owner, Maharajah Dalip Singh, is conducted out of Lahore in the charge of two British guardians. He will never return to his lands or his people again—the Punjab Empire is finally dissolved and annexed to British India.
The Kohinoor first appears in Indian legend over two thousand years ago, when Lord Krishna gives a mammoth diamond to a devotee. In the 14th century, the stone emerges again, briefly, in the possession of the Turko-Afghan ruler of northern India, Alauddin Khilji. The diamond disappears from all narratives, written and verbal, until Babur storms India in 1526 to set up the Mughal Empire. In his Baburnama, the emperor notes that the Raja of Gwalior gifted his son Humayun with a colossal stone as the spoils of conquest—so valuable, that it was “the whole world’s expenditure for half a day … Humayun presented it to me but I gave it right back to him.”
After Babur’s death, Humayun finds it challenging to hold this newborn empire together, and is driven out of India. He leads a nomadic life for fifteen years until the Shah of Iran helps him regain Qandahar as a stepping stone back into India. The price the Shah demands for his assistance? The Kohinoor diamond.
The diamond resurfaces in the court of Humayun’s great-grandson, Emperor Shah Jahan who displays it in his famed Peacock Throne. It passes on to Shah Jahan’s son, Aurangzeb—and a hundred years later, when the Mughal empire has crumbled into dust, Nadir Shah of Persia sacks Delhi and carts back with him the treasures of the Mughals, including the Peacock Throne and the Kohinoor nestled within it. It is Nadir Shah who gives the diamond its contemporary name. When he first sees the rock, glowing with a white fire within its heart, he exclaims that it is a veritable Koh-i-noor, a “mountain of light.”
The diamond passes from Nadir Shah to the Afghan Durrani kings. This is where The Mountain of Light begins—with Shah Shuja Durrani, deposed of his kingdom of Afghanistan, coming to the Punjab Empire and Maharajah Ranjit Singh for his aid in regaining his lands.
As with most people, I’ve been fascinated by the history of the Kohinoor, arguably one of the world’s most magnificent diamonds. I thought long and hard on how to frame the novel, and how to tell the story of the stone’s tumultuous and bloody past in the people who coveted it, who owned it, who lost it—and consequently lost their lives and their realms.
Given that the Kohinoor is documented over many centuries, I wrapped the timeframe of The Mountain of Light tightly over the last fifty years of its existence in India. Shah Shuja comes to the court of Maharajah Ranjit Singh for his help in 1810—in return, he promises the Kohinoor to Ranjit Singh. This great diamond of India, Persia and Afghanistan is the value of an empire, a kingdom, an entire nation.
Maharajah Ranjit had established the most powerful, extensive independent empire in the early 1800s, even as the English East India Company was fast expanding its territories in India. When Shuja approaches Ranjit, Peshawar and Kashmir belong to Afghanistan. Ranjit, unbothered by niceties, conquers both, does not give them to Shah Shuja, and also acquires the Kohinoor diamond from the Afghan ruler.
Some twenty years later, the British Governor-General of India, Lord Auckland, comes to Ranjit Singh’s court with his extremely articulate sisters, Emily and Fanny Eden. Auckland comes with an entreaty—for Ranjit’s help in invading Afghanistan, and putting a puppet ruler on the throne. Emily and Fanny Eden document this visit in detail in their published collections of letters and mention that the Maharajah, old and ailing, was still a power to reckon with, and that he had sent the Kohinoor diamond to their tent for them to examine.
Ranjit Singh dies in 1839, and in quick succession, three of his heirs are shot down, leaving, in 1843, the six-year-old Dalip Singh as heir on a quaking throne, under a regency consisting of his mother and her alleged lover.
This tenuous state of affairs leads to the first Anglo-Sikh war—the British stay out of Ranjit Singh’s empire while he is alive; upon his death, they find an excuse to invade Punjab. In The Mountain of Light, Henry Lawrence comes to Lahore after this war as Resident and guardian to Maharajah Dalip Singh. It’s supposed to be a temporary arrangement—the British will retreat once the Maharajah reaches his majority, leaving Dalip in control of the empire his father has created. This also is Henry Lawrence’s intention, but he’s thwarted by a new Governor-General—Lord Dalhousie—who seizes Punjab and annexes it to British lands in India.
Dalhousie grabs the Kohinoor and sends it to England on a Royal Navy ship—however, in The Mountain of Light, the diamond travels aboard a commercial steamer, the SS Indus, filled with a slew of passengers panting for a sight of the Kohinoor, wanting to steal it. Do they?
In 1854, the sixteen-year-old Maharajah Dalip Singh reflects upon that first voyage, how he is treated kindly by Queen Victoria, how much he dislikes Lord Dalhousie, and how he’s finally come to realize that nothing makes up for the loss of his Kohinoor, his crown, or his Punjab Empire.
The Kohinoor, today, whittled down to 105 carats from its original weight, is set in the Queen Mother’s crown and can be seen in the Tower of London.
Indu Sundaresan is the author of the bestselling Taj trilogy, Her sixth work of fiction is The Mountain of Light.
Different Colors, Same Jewel
THE MOUNTAIN OF LIGHT by Indu Sundaresan. Washington Square Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York. $16.00. 352 pages. simonandschuster.com, indusundaresan.com. Published October 8, 2013. Available as a trade paperback, an audio book, and for digital readers.
The Kohinoor, once a stunning 186-carat diamond and still impressive at a truncated 105 carats, is an inorganic entity, a hard rock over which empires, countries, and people fought, shed blood, and died. It traveled the known world for centuries, a symbol of conquests and glory, a prize of immeasurable worth. In The Mountain of Light, author Indu Sundaresan focuses on the most intense portion of the Kohinoor’s story and once again has written an historical novel that dazzles and captivates the reader from the first words.
The Mountain of Light chronicles with clarity how the Kohinoor traveled from Maharajah to Maharajah and eventually into the hands of Lord Dalhousie, who deviously sealed Britain’s hold on the subcontinent.
The novel begins in 1817, when Afghanistan’s Shah Shuja Durrani, living under the Maharajah’s roof in exile, is duped by Singh and loses the diamond to him. From that point on, Sundaresan provides a thought-provoking hopscotch history of the diamond’s travels through a turbulent time of change and subterfuge.
India’s collective history is filled with conquests and conquerors, heroes and victims, emperors and changing civilizations, yet only the Kohinoor remains a constant throughout much of it. In the hands of a less-skilled, less-visionary storyteller, the Kohinoor’s story might be coated with a dull sheen. However, with Sundaresan’s passion for history and talent for turning it into an enjoyable lesson, The Mountain of Light sparkles sharply and brightly like the Kohinoor itself.
“When I was in high school in India, a junior, in the 8th grade, I learned about the Kohinoor diamond in history class,” Sundaresan told me in an e-interview. “Even after so many years, the Kohinoor touches a chord within all of us, maybe because it was a mammoth diamond, but I think mostly because of the way Punjab was annexed summarily by Lord Dalhousie, and the diamond was secreted out of India. Some histories you never forget.”
That’s certainly true, but I wanted to know what compelled her to tackle this particular history.
“For me, personally, I’ve wanted to write about the diamond for a while now. It is just a rock, an inanimate object, but its history is what is fascinating—the people who owned it, who coveted it, lost their kingdoms and their lands for it—at one time, the Kohinoor represented India, he who owned it was the supreme ruler of the land. There’s so much emotion vested in that stone, even today, that I had to wrap this new novel around it, and tell its stories in the people who possessed it.”
After four years of research, evaluation, planning, and writing, The Mountain of Light is a crown jewel in Sundaresan’s growing bibliography of finely-crafted Indian historical novels. Because of the time period covered in Light, primary sources were available and seemingly plentiful. These bolstered the color and the faceted day-to-day proceedings between the countless people whose lives are woven into the diamond’s chronology.
“Most of my research came from 19th century books and collections of letters written by some of the main players in The Mountain of Light,” Sundaresan explained. “Lord Dalhousie, Governor-General of India, who annexed Punjab, allowed his letters to be published fifty years after his death—he’s very candid in them. Lady Login, Maharajah Dalip Singh’s guardian, published at least three diaries of her time with him [Dalip Singh], and about her husband’s relationship with him. The Eden sisters left letters, and their nephew wrote about the Punjab court.”
Her desire for fact, meaning, and detail is evident in each chapter, each paragraph, each sentence as she leads us on the path from a king’s exile, to a maharajah’s empire, into the British camps where India’s future was plotted, and ultimately to the court of Queen Victoria. The Kohinoor rarely rested easily in anyone’s hands, no matter whether they held it, sequestered it, wore it, coveted it, or stole it.
Sundaresan, author of the Taj Trilogy, a novel set during the Quit India movement, and a collection of short stories, took a bold step forward as a writer when she began her work on Light.
The history itself was cut with challenges she hadn’t encountered before. One such challenge was the evaluation and subsequent handling of the plethora of people around the Kohinoor decade after decade. Sections of the book jump years in advance and introduce new “players” in the saga of the diamond, but the past is never forgotten.
“This book was tough to write,” Sundaresan admits, “because it is littered with characters all of whom step onstage briefly or for a longer while, and each of whom is influenced by the diamond, or who influences the fate of the diamond. In a larger context, they influence India’s eventual fate—within eight years of the diamond leaving India, the country is colonized and becomes part of the British Empire.”
Skillfully unfolding this history, Sundaresan makes every character—major or minor—an essential contributor to the diamond’s long and illustrious journey.
“I know each character intimately, of course, but I didn’t have the space to sketch out their personalities in length, yet they are each important in the telling of the story. So, for me as a writer, this was an exercise of my craft. Could I make the reader vested in these histories, even the brief ones? Could it tell the story so that the reader would see the larger picture? Where do I tell more, where less? And will it all fit together into a seamless whole when I’m done? This isn’t straightforward storytelling, and I worked very hard to make it all come together, like a puzzle, if you will.”
That puzzle resulted in a superbly-written book with all the political backstabbing, self-serving desire, and patient masterminding one would expect of a history involving the finest gem on earth.
“In the end,” she added, “if the reader walks away with a sense of the value of the diamond, not monetary, but emotional, and connects with the characters as I have—then, I’ve done my job.”
Set in the crown worn by the Queen of England, what is left of the Kohinoor resides in the Tower of London. On the Tower’s official web site, there is a link to “Prisoners at the Tower.” Text on the page reads “For nearly 900 years, traitors, kings, queens, saints and sinners have been held here against their will.”
Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where she freelances in advertising and public relations. Between assignments, she writes fiction, enjoys wine, and heads to the beach as often as she can.
Title reference: “You don’t want a million answers as much as you want a few forever questions. The questions are diamonds you hold in the light. Study a lifetime and you see different colors from the same jewel.”—Richard Bach