Chasing the Mountain of Light: Across India on the Trail of the Koh-i-Noor Diamond

Chasing the Mountain of Light: Across India on the Trail of the Koh-i-Noor Diamond

by Kevin Rushby
Chasing the Mountain of Light: Across India on the Trail of the Koh-i-Noor Diamond

Chasing the Mountain of Light: Across India on the Trail of the Koh-i-Noor Diamond

by Kevin Rushby


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The Koh-i-Noor diamond known as the Mountain of Light, the world's largest diamond, was found in India, traveled from Golconda to the Mughal palaces in the north. Fought over, cursed at and occasionally lost, it finally reached the Sikhs in the Punjab, only to be seized by British agents eager to please young Queen Victoria. It now lies in the Tower of London where some say its curse controls the fate of the Windsor family. In Chasing the Mountain of Light, Kevin Rushby pursues the dramatic career of the Koh-i-Noor on a journey to the heart of Indian culture meeting dealers, smugglers, and petty crooks along the way. It's another adventure from Rushby whom the Washington Post recently compared to William S. Burroughs and Arthur Rimbaud.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312239336
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/02/2001
Edition description: REV
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.62(d)

About the Author

Kevin Rushby is the author of Eating the Flowers of Paradise. He lives in England with his wife and children.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Agra diamond, reputed to have glinted on the
turban of the 16th century Mogul emperor Babur, sold
for £4.07 million at Christie's last night.

The Times, 21 June 1990

Mere carbon, my good friend, after all.

Mr Godfrey in The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

IT was Cedric who made me think about diamonds. We had met by chance in Ethiopia and travelled down to Djibouti, that sweaty little crack in the backside of Africa. Cedric, or Gordon, or Arthur, or one of half a dozen pseudonyms, wanted to recover a car he had abandoned in haste four years before. I was looking for a dhow to take me to Yemen. When I finally escaped Cedric's clutches I understood that he smuggled diamonds in secret compartments inside cars. He had told me how he travelled to the Angola-Zaire border and, through contacts with Jonas Savimbi's rebels, bought stones to smuggle across Africa. Once he had driven across Africa and left from the east coast ports, he would deliver them to Antwerp, Tel Aviv, India or the far east.

    'Diamonds are tellin' no tales,' he said. 'They are small and light and no one can know where they are comin' from. The diamond has no memory.'

    It was the germ of an idea: to find those markets on the border and travel east with the diamond men, picking up stories and characters, perhaps heading out to a grand finale in the docks of Antwerp or the skyscrapers of Taiwan. Then, quite unexpectedly, Zaire disappeared. One moment there wasPresident Seseko Mobutu, conniving in a diamond trade that kept the Angolan rebels supplied with bullets, then he was gone, replaced by Laurent Kabile who had the support of the Angolan government. Not only that but the Angolan government overran the diamond mines. When the telephone rang to tell me that De Beers in London had agreed that I could visit their headquarters, I had almost given the diamond idea up. Cedric had been right. No tales.

    It was a summer's day in London: a thin cold drizzle tickling the pavements. In Smithfield Market a meat porter with a beef carcass on his shoulder was chatting on a mobile phone. Almost opposite, in Charterhouse Street, was the building through which three-quarters of the world's annual diamond production passes, and where jewels worth five billion dollars are stored at any one time. There are no signs to announce the fact, nor any other facts, the building is anonymous, discreetly unidentifiable. Only the plethora of security cameras, both outside and in, suggest anything other than a large insurance company, or a particularly dull branch of government.

    I was taken up through the fortified building to a comfortable reception room where a video introduced me to the world of De Beers; another video watched me, watching them. I was allowed to admire the trays of twinkling cut stones, all neatly laid out on black velvet beneath the spotlights. I heard how they sold their production in monthly 'sights', held in the same building. I learnt that diamonds was a business, an industry dedicated to sharpening the world's drill bits and making brides happy. And I was despairing of finding anything of interest.

    Then the public relations lady took me to a side cabinet. 'These are carob seeds,' she said, pointing to a pile of reddish bean-shaped objects. 'They are very regular in weight and so in ancient times they used them as measures — what we know as the carat.' She had another object in her hand. 'Two hundred and ninety-seven of those make this.'

    It was a yellowish stone, the size of a goose egg. The shape was roughly octohedronal and the surface looked strangely smooth with tiny curving striations. With the light behind it, bringing it closer to my eye — 'You hold the magnifying glass like this,' she demonstrated -- I was drawn into the complexities inside the crystal, the yellow and gold of hidden worlds within, slanting and whirling chaotically, leading the eye ever onward, as though vast distances could be seen and what was a few millimetres could be mile upon mile. When it was too close to focus any longer I pressed it to my cheek and the chill of its touch was like steel.

    It was flawed: presumably that was why it had remained as an uncut showpiece rather than becoming a hundred tiny sterile specks of perfectly formed light. But it was the very imperfection that fascinated me. Somewhere deep in its centre, light seemed to be generated, and yet that centre, like the heart of distant nebula, was hidden. Here, I decided, was a stone worthy of an idol's eye, a Moonstone that could entice men to evil deeds and then curse them for it.

    'There was an Indian lady here the other day,' said the lady when I mentioned the Moonstone. 'She was saying that she would never accept a flawed diamond as a gift — it would bring very bad luck.'

    I moved the diamond away from my eye. 'Do they have many superstitions?'

    She shook her head. 'I don't know.'

    We were running out of things to say. If only I could be interested in the statistics, the production methods, the global enterprise with its thousands of workers and strong profits. But I could only think of the three Indian fakirs whose malevolent presence brings the first shiver of fear in Wilkie Collins' novel.

    'Is there much of an Indian connection?'

    'They cut and polish eighty per cent of the world's stones. Over 750,000 people are employed.'

    'Do they mine them?'

    'The ancient mines are disused now — but once India was the only source of diamonds.'

    'So all those famous stones — like the Koh-i-Noor — they are all Indian?'

    She nodded and going to a cupboard took out a leather-bound volume.

    'Would you like to see Jean-Baptiste Tavernier's book? We have a first English edition — 1678. He was the first European to leave a detailed account.'

    I reluctantly replaced the diamond on its tray and went and sat at the coffee table, leafing carefully through the old book. There was a slip of paper marking the page where Tavernier visited the diamond mines, and I read his description of the rites performed before the digging begins: 'he brings along with him some little Image of the God that they adore; which being plac'd upright upon the ground, they all prostrate themselves three times before it, while their Priest says a certain prayer. The prayer being ended, he marks the forehead of every one with a kind of Glue, made of Saffron and Gum, to such a compass as will hold seven or eight Grains of Rice, which he sticks upon it.'

    I read more, about the diamond dealers sitting in the trees waiting for buyers and how the poor miners would swallow stones to smuggle them out and, as I did, I forgot about Africa where the diamonds told no tales. India was the source, both of ancient stones and ancient stories.

    Diamonds were certainly being recognised and used as gems as early as the second century BC. A Greek statue from that time has two uncut specimens as eyes. Legend has credited Alexander the Great with discovery of the remote Indian valley where the diamonds originated, a place so deep and inaccessible that the only method of retrieving the stones was bizarre in the extreme. Raw meat was dropped over the cliffs and the diamonds would stick to it. Passing eagles, spotting this free lunch, would then take the meat to their nests where the enterprising diamond collector could retrieve the jewels at leisure. Marco Polo repeats this tale, as do the Arabian Nights; Sindbad's second voyage takes him to a remote valley filled with deadly snakes who lick the diamonds and make them poisonous — another enduring myth. Curiously, however, diamonds do adhere to meat and though not strictly poisonous, they can kill — by lacerating the intestines. Crushed diamond has long been a favourite in the Indian royal poisons cabinet.

    Where the earliest diamonds were found can be narrowed down to only a few possibilities. In Tavernier's day the one non-Indian origin was Borneo, but it was a minor source compared to the mines of Golconda, a kingdom in the central Deccan centred on the capital of Hyderabad. The diamonds were found close to the banks of two rivers, the Krishna and Godavari, which both rise in the Eastern Ghats and flow east, right across the sub-continent.

    Bengal did produce some diamonds in Tavernier's time and there were other mines further south, but the Krishna-Godavari was the main area for mines. And, although individual diggings came and went, the region probably always had been known for diamonds: Tavernier records that Kollur, an important mine, was discovered by a 'Countryman, who digging in a piece of ground to sow Millet, found therein a pointed Stone that weigh'd above twenty-five Carats'.

    What intrigued me was the possiblity that the legendary valley of Sindbad, Marco Polo and Alexander might be that of the River Krishna: my map showed it cutting through a vast gorge to the south of Hyderabad. Such a place might be the source of the greatest diamond of them all, a stone that had come from the southern mines and traced a course of destruction northwards as it passed from hand to hand. It was the stone some Indians believe to have been Krishna's Syamantaka jewel, a diamond in whose depths were mingled the massive forces of creation and destruction, waiting to be controlled or unbalanced according to the nature of the stone's possessor. For centuries it rested in the treasure vaults of Rajput princes before the Mughals invaded and claimed it. Babur, founder of the dynasty, gave it to his son Humayun who promptly lost the kingdom and found himself wandering in Rajasthan, pestered by a diamond merchant to sell his greatest asset.

    'Such precious gems,' he told the man, 'cannot be bought. Either they fall to one by the arbitrament of the flashing sword, which is an expression of divine will, or else they come through the grace of mighty monarchs as an honourable gift.'

    It was the flashing sword that generally prevailed: it had been looted by the Persian Nadir Shah, stolen by the Afghans, reclaimed by Maharaja Ranjit Singh for the Sikh kingdom of the Punjab, then lost to the English and Queen Victoria. It sits now in the Tower of London, temporarily becalmed, planning its next move. The great rulers of three thousand years had looted, loved and lost it. This jewel was the Koh-i-Noor.

    So it was that the most ancient diamond suggested a route across India, from the southern coastal city of Madras to the nearby fabled mines of Golconda, then north into the Punjab, through all the places where it had exerted its malign influence to the place where its ownership remains a contentious issue. The track of the Koh-i-Noor not only spans the landscape of India but it weaves through the history, turning up like Blind Pew's Black Spot in every cursed hand. And there is no doubt that its history is not over yet, though the Jewel House at the Tower of London looks so solid and enduring.

    The more I read of the modern world of diamonds, the more I felt that buried beneath the mountains of cash, the auction catalogues and the business jargon lay a darker corner of the human psyche — one that those industry executives and millionaire collectors might not care to admit to — where the spirit of something greater haunted the stones they worshipped. And the place where that spirit was strongest was in India.

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