The Toshakhana And The Curious Case Of The Missing Koh-e-Noor Diamond

The Toshakhana And The Curious Case Of The Missing Koh-e-Noor Diamond
Most Pakistanis are now familiar with the term ‘Toshakhana’, for better or for worse. But what might not be better known is the case of a missing jewel from the ‘Lahore Toshakhana’. Back in the 1840s, Lahore was ruled by the Sikh Empire, a formidable expanse from Multan to present day KPK and beyond. It stood out as the last bastion and independent kingdom in the East India Company’s own vast empire in India. Ranjit Singh had single handedly commanded respect and the admiration of his people and foe alike. In the process of acquiring territory, he had also amassed a wealth of unique jewels and diamonds, among them the famous Koh-e-Noor diamond.

The history of how the jewel landed in Lahore changing hands in Delhi, Persia and Afghanistan is another topic altogether (readers with interest may listen to ‘The Empire’ podcast by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand on the famed jewel’s journey), however after Ranjit Singh’s death in the year 1839, his successors failed to deal effectively with the rising power in the East, resulting in humiliation, first in the Ango-Sikh war of 1845 and later with the formal annexation of Punjab after the culmination of the second Anglo-Sikh war in 1849. The Sikh empire then was being ruled by an 11-year-old boy Duleep Singh and his mother as regent, Rani Jind Kaur. Article III of the Treaty of Lahore, 1849 signed by the 11-year-old emperor and the East India Company addresses the fate of the diamond in very clear terms. It states that, “The gem called the Koh-e-Noor, which was taken from Shah Shuja-ul-Mulk by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, shall be surrendered by the Maharaja of Lahore, to the Queen of England.” This meant that the gem was treated separately from the rest of the items stored in the Lahore Toshakhana. The treaty and specifically its clause dealing with the Koh-e-Noor now seems like an effort to ‘legalize’ the loot. Conversely, it can also be an attempt to make an elaborate display out of the humiliation, letting the whole world know who has the ‘legitimate power’ now.

In recent years, many western nations have voluntarily restituted the artefacts stolen from host countries at the time of colonialization, because of growing calls for their return. France has returned the Benine bronze to Nigeria, Egyptian artifacts were returned from Switzerland, Babylonian inscription was returned from Germany to Iraq and so on. But the fact of the matter is that the Koh-e-Noor has remained a part of shared heritage and history of various dynasties and countries. India, Pakistan, Iran, and even the Taliban have laid claim to the jewel from time to time. So, who should be able to get the jewel if it is ever returned?

After the recent death of Queen Elizabeth II in September 2022, the Koh-e-Noor started trending on the social media and captivated the imaginations of a significant group of individuals. However, it is not the first time that calls for restitution have been made. In 1976, Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr. Z. A. Bhutto wrote to his counterpart in England, Prime Minister James Callaghan, for the return of the diamond. Pakistani Prime Minister described the Jewel as part of “unique treasures that are flesh and blood of Pakistan’s Heritage.” The reply from the British PM clearly exploits the main point regarding “multiplicity” of claims and Koh-e-Noor being associated with a “confused past.” The Indian Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru also took up the matter with the British as early as 1956. Because of unending interest and public interest litigations, the Archeological Survey of India was forced to admit that return of the Koh-e-Noor did not fall under the UNESCO Convention 1970 covering restitution of cultural property. However, it has been a constant feature of bilateral meetings even in recent times. In July 2010 David Cameron, the British Prime Minister at the time, had to defend his government’s position by stating that “If you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty”.

What is the way forward? In the absence of any strong voice or new treaty making way for the return of the jewel, it is highly unlikely that the Koh-e-Noor may ever be seen again in South Asia. However, if a mutual consensus among the affected parties is agreed upon regarding restitution, it can go a long way in convincing the world over the claims of the return of the Jewel. Next step would be proposing a joint possession not by any one single country but by institutions (UNESCO?) or museums. But why would the British monarch want to give away the Koh-e-Noor at all in the first place? One must acknowledge that it has now become part and parcel of British history and heritage, just like it was once a part of Mughal, Persian or Afghan culture, history and heritage. After all it has remained in the possession of the British monarchy for over 172 years now. There is no answer for now but one can only assume that King Charles III might not fancy the diamond the same way his mother did.

Then there is also the famous ‘curse’ the Koh-e-Noor is known to bring to all its male bearers that may ‘sway’ the new king towards parting ways with the beloved jewel. It all might seem implausible and wishful thinking but the possibility of the Koh-e-Noor being present two months in Lahore Museum, next in Delhi, subsequently in Tehran and even London is so fascinating that I am willing to make that far-fetched assumption here. Let us hope that objects for which kings and dynasties had shed blood and caused mayhem in the past can also bring together nations and people today, by sharing a piece of heritage and history they all consider their own.

The writer is a civil servant, currently pursuing a Masters from the LKY School of Public Policy at National University of Singapore.