Ashes and Diamonds. The great film’s title sprang to mind when I read about Delhi’s natural history museum burning down on Tuesday. Among other things, the fire symbolised the futility of demanding the Koh-i-Noor’s repatriation.Whether Gandhi’s spectacles or Tipu’s sword, we want historical artefacts returned to India out of a sense of national pride. But that pride does not extend to valuing the treasures we have, which far outweigh what left the country in centuries past.

I then recalled a pillar with three signs on it, pointing in different directions: Toilets, Torture Instruments, Centre of Education, they said. I was in the Tower of London, among Beefeaters and ravens, seeking the crown jewels and the Koh-i-noor. A short while later, I took my place on a conveyor belt in a darkened room and glided past glimmering showcases at a pace that allowed neither the time nor proximity necessary to scrutinise any exhibit. The tower’s torture instruments, and the history behind them, interested me more than the jewels, although, having come to England on a scholarship funded by South African diamonds, which had in the late nineteenth century eclipsed the output of India’s exhausted mines, I ought to have taken another round on the conveyor belt.

Years after my visit to the Tower, I would examine at greater leisure famous gems from India housed in Tehran’s Treasury of National Jewels. Many of them had come to Iran in 1739, as a result of Nadir Shah’s remarkably successful incursion. Sushma Swaraj made a visit to Tehran last week, even as the Indian government dithered over its stance on the Koh-i-Noor’s repatriation. I wondered why we had made no claim on Nadir Shah’s hoard, considering there are looted Indian gems in the crown jewels of Iran just as there are in the crown jewels of Britain. Among them is the Darya-i-Noor, which is almost twice the size of its more famous cousin the Koh-i-noor.

Complicated history

The history of those stones is complicated, and far from established. Wikipedia states about the Koh-i-noor, “It is widely believed to have come from the Kollur Mine in the Guntur District of present-day Andhra Pradesh, India, during the reign of the Hindu Kakatiya dynasty in the 13th century.” This is unlikely because the Kollur mine was only established in the late 15th century. The confusion is caused because two different diamonds have been claimed as the roughs that gave birth to the Koh-i-noor, and the two are frequently treated as the same diamond.

We can call the first Babur’s diamond. When the Mughal era began after Babur defeated Ibrahim Lodi at Panipat exactly 490 years ago, the new emperor deputed his eldest son Humayun to guard Agra’s treasury. In Agra, Humayun’s soldiers captured the fleeing family of Gwalior’s raja Bikramjit who had died fighting on Lodi’s side. Humayun stopped his guards from plundering the clan members, at which point, Babur writes, they gave Humayun jewels in gratitude, “among which was a famous diamond Sultan Alaudin [Khilji] had acquired… It must weigh eight mithcals. Humayun presented it to me, but I gave it right back to him." Eight mithcals equals about 35 grams or 175 carats, which is about the size of the Koh-i-noor when it got to London and before it was cut to its present shape.

The second diamond was considerably larger, and was presented to emperor Shah Jahan by Mir Jumla, having been discovered in the relatively new Kollur mine. This diamond is described by the European jeweller Tavernier, who was granted a peek at it during Aurangzeb’s reign. The diamond was originally massive, weighing nearly 800 carats, but had a major flaw within it. Tavernier wrote that a lapidary named Hortenso Borgia, who Shah Jahan assigned the task of cutting and polishing, had botched the job. Borgia was lucky to get away with a fine, since Shah Jahan must have been furious at gaining possession of the world’s largest diamond only to find it reduced to a fourth of its original size.

Vanishing treasures

Whether Babur’s diamond, taken by Alaudin Khilji in his southern raids, later became the Koh-i-noor, or whether Shah Jahan’s new find did, or whether it was another rock altogether, nobody can tell for sure. But let’s throw a third emperor and a third diamond into the mix to complicate matters further. Babur’s grandson, and Shah Jahan’s grandfather, the Great Mogol Akbar himself, had a diamond named after him, which was possibly incorporated into the famous Peacock Throne. After being taken to Iran, and then being bought and sold a number of times, the Akbar Shah diamond came into the possession of Malharrao Gaekwad of Baroda. It stayed in the royal family’s possession for decades. And then it disappeared.

It disappeared because it was sold surreptitiously. After 1972, it became illegal to export treasures like the Akbar Shah diamond, but that hasn’t stopped erstwhile royals from smuggling out heirlooms. A decade ago, an exhibition titled Treasury of the World: Jeweled Arts of India in the Age of the Mughals The Al-Sabah Collection toured the world’s most important museums. Viewing it in London, I wondered how many of the artefacts had been sneaked out of India illegally after the Antiquities Act came into force in 1972. The number, I suspected, was uncomfortably large.

The story of the three emperors and three diamonds uncovers the absurdity of our attitude to heritage. We are fixated on a few symbolic objects like the Koh-i-noor. Meanwhile, related antiquities with similar histories such as the Darya-i-noor don’t excite us at all. Even as we demand repatriation, analogous heirlooms like the Akbar Shah diamond have left and are leaving the country secretly. As for treasures that remain, we are denied access to most, and those on public view are threatened by neglect and destruction of the kind visited upon the Museum of Natural History.