In the 18th century, a Persian King aspires to take over all of Asia. But first, he must get the jewels of the Maharajas. To listen to the episode, click here
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We’re in Ghazni somewhere in southeastern Afghanistan roughly 250 years ago.
Sumit Kumar 0:27
These lands are dangerous for a Hindu holy man. A fakheer like Poorn Puri. He is on a pilgrimage. What a strange man he is. He’s holding his arms over his head as a penance. No, really. He’s traveling across Asia, his hands clasping opposite elbows and forming an upside down “U” over his head. Poorn Puri peers into the distance and sees an army. And hears the thunder of 30,000 men marching. Out of it emerges a king on a black stallion, who spurs on his horse and rides towards Poorn Poor. From whence fakheer are you come?
Okay, we have to break in here. From whence fakheer are you come? I know what you’re thinking… who talks like that, right? Well, this is from Poorn Puri’s original account that we found in a European magazine. It was published back in 1810. Okay, let’s get back to the story
Sumit Kumar 1:26
“From whence fakheer are you come?” The King says. I came from Hindustan, and I’m going to visit the great jwalah, Poorn Puri replies.
The king is Ahmed Shah Durrani, the founder of Afghanistan. He is known for owning a diamond large as a small hen’s egg that is set in a bazuband or armband. The diamond is known as the Koh-i-Noor, the mountain of light. And the other thing to know about King Ahmed is that he has a large ulcer on his face that’s eating away his nose and brains. He usually covers it up with a fake nose made of silver and precious gems.
King Ahmed rides away and that evening, he sends his men to fetch Poorn Puri to his camp. Poori waits at a respectful distance until the king addresses him: “Fakheer, you are a native of India. Do you know any remedy for this disease?”
“I am not acquainted with any remedy that can cure that which has been granted by God. Recollect oh king that ever since thou hast this ulcer, thou hast been seated on the throne,” Purn Poori replies.
Dangerous words, but King Ahmed remains calm. He orders royal elephants to take Fakheer onward on his journey.
Soon, maggots infest King Ahmed face. They drop into his mouth when he eats or drinks. He dies within years, and the Koh-i-Noor passes on to his son, some might say, having claimed it’s latest victim.
This is Episode Two. The Jewels of the Maharaja on Scrolls & Leaves, a world history podcast featuring stories from the margins. I’m Gayathri Vaidyanathan.
And I’m Mary-Rose Abraham. We’re in season one trade winds, a series that explores how trade across the Indian Ocean transformed us. Stay tuned for a wild story about a single jewel that changes hands across more than seven centuries. Dozens of kings and one Queen, at least four countries, literally gets cut down for size, all while harboring a supposed curse. This episode is based on research by William Dalrymple, Iradj Amini and others mentioned on our website https://scrollsandleaves.com. The stories here are nonfiction, but slightly embellished for color.
In 2019 jewels that once belonged to Indian maharajahs were sold at Christie’s auction house in New York.
Unknown Speaker 4:24
Where shall we start? 4 million dollars? 8000 online all the way from China.
Unknown Speaker 4:29
The beautiful Mirror of Paradise golkonda diamond for $5,500,000. The beautiful antique diamond Riviere necklace from Hyderabad 1,900,000, 2 million.
Unknown Speaker 4:45
The ceremonial Sword of the Nizam of Hyderabad at $1.6 million
Unknown Speaker 4:52
It’s the enameled and gem set hooka set at $620,000
Unknown Speaker 4:57
A spectacular Belle Époque Diamond Devant-de-corsage by Cartier 8,500,000, 8,800,000, 9 million, 9,100,000. Sold for 9.1 million! Thank you, sir.
Okay, get this, the auction netted $109 million.
Geez! 109 million bucks?
Yeah, incredible, isn’t it. And these aren’t just objects that are being sold. You know, they’re also vessels of history, South Asian history. Here’s Friederike Voigt, Principal curator of Middle East and South Asia at the National Museum of Scotland,
Friederike Voigt 5:40
These jewels if these were pearls, or emeralds, and rubies, set in heavy necklaces, armlets bangles, I mean, these are expressions of what people thought. And this is what often gets forgotten when these jewellery pieces are sold at auctions. So I want to know the stories that make these objects happen, and I want to know what the people do with it, what people think, not what they possessed.
A great example of how jewels can be vessels of history is the Kohinoor.
It’s in the Tower of London in the Queen mother’s crown. It’s 105 carats, the 19th largest diamond in the world. But in terms of mystique and notoriety, no other jewels surpasses it. It’s even set to harbour a deadly curse.
In this episode. We’ll go through the Kohinoor’s early years and tell you about a Persian king who aspired to conquer all of Asia, the diamond strapped to his arm. Hearing the story should give you a sense of the depth of history of other jewels on the global auction markets.
And in the next episode, we’ll let you decide if the Kohinoor as a powerful and ancient curse, that the diamond will bring bad luck to the men who wear it.
Chapter One, a blemished diamond is bad luck.
Centuries ago, maybe around the 1300s, maybe in a deep dark mine somewhere in South India, where almost all diamonds in the ancient world come from, a worker probably finds the Kohinoor in the rough. It’s big, much much more than 20 carats, which means it must go to the king’s Treasury. But this stone is impure — yellow flecks run through its centre like scar. A marred diamond is inauspicious according to Hindu custom.
The king is probably happy to give the gem away to the newly arrived Muslim rulers in the north. The Mughals.
Wait, why so many properties and maybes?
Well, these are all educated guesses by historians. It’s not written down anywhere. The Mughals are descendants of Timur. Some of you may know him as Tamarlane, one of the greatest military leaders of all time. The Mughals have ties to the Ottoman Empire based in Istanbul and to the Safavid rulers of Persia. All this to say they have royal blood, and boy do they love their jewels. Here’s Ernest Tucker. He’s a historian of the Middle East at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Ernest Tucker 8:26
The jewels of the Mughals had an enormous reputation, the stones are regarded as the tangible evidence of the perfection of nature that was also embodied by these great rulers. They were the pinnacle of achievement, and royalty and prosperity and stability, embodied and symbolized by these jewels. Anyone who wanted to style themselves a great ruler would want one of these. Absolutely,
and a king is being born who will desperately need to prove himself a great ruler. His life will entangle tragically with the Kohinoor.
Chapter 2. An upstart shepherd’s boy with royal ambitions.
It’s the autumn of 1688. We’re in northwest Persia, modern day Iran, near Khorasan, the land of the sun. Remember this place… it’s about to get infamous.
We are with a bunch of nomadic shepherds, and a woman is giving birth to the future king of Persia. Nader Shah. Nader grows up to be a brave and brutal young man. These are life-saving traits in these dangerous times.
Ernest Tucker 9:51
I mean, it was a brutal era, of course, the 18th century. It was a tough time and he was from a society in which there was constant fighting. You know, there’s a very famous game in Central Asia called Buzkashi. It means in Persian, goat dragging. It’s the national sport of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan. It’s where teams of 100 horsemen drag a goat carcass back and forth across a giant playing field. This is the kind of military activity that went on all the time with these people
In the 1720s. Persia is in chaos. Invading Afghan hordes have deposed the Safavid King and his son, the Crown Prince, is wandering around looking for military alliances to take back the throne. And in Khorasan, he hears of Nader and hires him as his chief military commander.
Quite a meteoric rise for a nomadic tribesmen.
Here’s Ali Ansari, a historian of Iran at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland,
Ali Ansari 10:53
There’s a story that he would while sitting on his horse viewing the battlefield, if he felt that any of his subsidiary commanders wasn’t doing well enough, he simply went in with his axe and cut them down and then put his second-in-command in command.
Try closing your eyes and seeing Nader. He’s six-foot tall, strong, tanned, his face is weathered, his beard is black, his eyes are piercing and hooded by thick eyebrows, a mouth with the lower jaw jutting out, his voice is loud and rough. Within years, Nader throws the Afghans out of Persia.
Let’s join him 6 years later. It’s 1736. On the fertile plains of Moghan, in the northwest of Iran, where he’s gathered a Quriltai, a grand meeting in the tradition of Tamarlane, and the infamous Mongol ruler Genghis Khan. This story is based on research by Iradj Amini, the last French ambassador to the Shah of Iran.
Sumit Kumar 11:50
The clerics have gathered to decide who will ascend the throne of Persia. Should it be someone from the Safavid dynasty once again? Or should it be their feared military commander, Nader Shah. Nader is behaving like he doesn’t care for the throne. He simply wants to go back home to Khorasan, take a rest. The Sheikh-ul-Islam, who’s the most important cleric or mullah in Persia, suggests it should be someone from the Safavid line. Nader Shah orders his men to bring the Sheikh into the main tent. All the political and religious leaders are gathered. And in front of them all, he strangles the mullah to death. Months later, he is crowned the Shah of Persia.
But Nader isn’t happy with just Persia. He wants to be the Shahen Shah, the King of all Kings in the Muslim lands…Afghanistan, the Ottoman Empire, Hindustan. He sends emissaries to the Ottomans in Istanbul and the Mughals in Delhi suggesting he be their Shahen Shah and haha, they don’t take him very seriously, Ernest says. We met him before. So Nader sharpens his sword and picks off Afghanistan in 1738.
In northern Afghanistan, he captures Kandahar and recruits many Afghani men into his army, including an enterprising teenager named Ahmed Khan Abdali. This is the same Ahmad you met at the start of the episode. Do you remember? Emperor Ahmed with the jewel-studded fake nose with the fakheer Poorn Puri? That meeting actually takes place in the future. We’ll catch up with them again soon.
As Nader builds a ferocious army, his spies bring him good news.
Sumit Kumar 13:48
Delhi is weak. Hindustan is ruled by the Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah. He is a scatterbrain and he has priceless treasures in the Red Fort. His throne…the Peacock Throne is made of gold and covered in rubies, emeralds, garnets, pearls. There’s a large clear diamond called the Kohinoor. And its sister diamond that’s pink called the Darya-i-Noor, and the priceless Timur Ruby. There are four columns holding up the canopy, and each column is shaped into cypress trees and covered in green enamel and emeralds. On the top are 2 jeweled peacocks. The steps leading to the throne are covered in jewels of fine water.
Nader ponders: What if he goes to Delhi like the great Tamarlane did more than 300 years ago. If only he could get the jewels, maybe even the Kohinoor, that would show who’s King of Kings.
Ernest Tucker 14:50
Why is this person on the throne? Because the idea would be implicitly because God put him or her there. And the wealth conveys that. Why else would they have the wealth? ahh, that’s been given to them somehow.
They march out this army of 150,000 fierce Persians and Afghans. They conquer Kabul. They descend the treacherous Khyber Pass, go past Lahore in the north. The plains of Punjab
Ali Ansari 15:16
It was seen as …in terms of a military feat, in terms of a logistical feat, quite an achievement to do that,
and they arrive at Karnal, 120 kilometers outside Delhi. Here are the Mughals. A million warriors and their attendants are amassed into a mighty force that covers 77 square kilometers. If only these men are well trained, this army could overrun the world. But they aren’t. They’re not even paid properly. Like a sloth, the Mughal army moves just eight kilometers a day. They’re no match for Nader’s men, who are so highly trained and armed with armor penetrating, horse-mounted swivel guns. The Moguls lead an undisciplined charge. They hit a wall of fire. And so begins the last years of the Mughals.
In March 1739, Nader rides into Delhi on a grey horse. He stays in the Mughal Emperor’s personal apartments and boots him into the women’s quarters. The next morning, a piece of fake news travels rapidly across Delhi with catastrophic results.
Sumit Kumar 16:23
<Hindi: did you hear? Nader Shah has been killed. Lets get rid of the Persians> Have you heard? The invader Nader Shah has been killed. Let’s get rid of these invading Persians. In hours, 900 Persian troops are killed by the residents of Delhi. Nader Shah is angry. The next morning he straps on his full armor and climbs his horse. He rides to the golden mosque of Roshan-ud-dowla in Chandni Chowk, climbs to the terrace, looks down at the city and orders a slaughter. It begins with military precision at 9am. Persian soldiers movedfrom house to house, killing, stealing rich cloths, jewels, dishes of gold and silver, carry away wives and daughters as slaves. Houses are set on fire. Bodies pile up on streets. Whole mohallas are gutted. It feels like it’s raining blood because the drains are streaming with it. The Mughal officials go to Nader on their knees and beg him to spare Delhi. Nader relents after six hours. He sheaths his sward. The slaughter ends. But can you see the corpses on the street? Can you smell the rotting flesh?
Nader Shah is not interested in ruling Hindustan. His heart is back in the wilds of Khorasan. All he wants is 348 years of accumulated treasures from the Mughal court. He tells Emperor Muhammad Shah
Ernest Tucker 18:06
you can still be Shah, the ruler of the Mughals. You can still be Mohammed Shah. I am now Nader Afshar Shahenshah. And the key thing was, he said we also need to transfer the Mughal treasury to my treasury that I’m building in my fortress on a mountain plateau back in Khorasan
Ali Ansari 18:29
I think in modern currency, it was worth something like $70 billion. Such was the loot that it, I mean, even at the time, people were sort of slightly aghast at it
In the Red Fort, Nader sees the diamond for the first time. The Kohinoor embedded in the Peacock Throne. It’s next to its sister, the pink Darya-i-Noor, and the Timur Ruby. Legend says the gems call out to him
Ernest Tucker 18:53
It is said that when Nader saw this, he said Ah! en-Kohinoor! Kohinoor…this is a Mountain of Light. And I think that the idea was that the gem was so rare and so unique that it encapsulated somehow a divine sense of uniqueness and rarity that he wanted to be associated with. It’s very interesting. The name Nader means rare and unique. So a rare and unique jewel for a rare and unique person.
Nader leaves Delhi after two months, having packed an immense treasure chest from Hindustan. Several 100 large diamonds, including of course the Kohinoor. Horse harnesses studied with jewels, weapons, the fabulous Peacock Throne, and other thrones. Depending on which historical account you believe, a massive caravan of 700 elephants, 12,000 horses, 4000 camels and slaves all carrying jewels,
100 eunuchs, 130 scribes, 300 masons, 200 blacksmiths
100 stone cutters, 200 carpenters, musicians, dancers wind their way out of Hindustan
Some of the jewels on the global auction markets today, and some in the crown jewel and private collections around the world are from this ancient loot.
Oh Like what?
Well, the Iranian crown jewel collection is full of these stones, including the Darya-i-Noor. Then the great Mughal diamond in the Russian crown jewels, it’s called the Orlov now. The Shah diamond is also in Russia. The Great Table diamond, the Golconda d’Orr in Australia, the Timur Ruby
Chapter three. Nader Shah goes mad.
Ali Ansari 20:47
After his return from India, he was a changed man because in terms of power corrupting, his success in India got the better of him and he basically he then becomes more and more carried away with himself really as this sort of charismatic, world conquering hero. Not only does he get more and more ambitious… I mean one could call it megalomania, to be honest… about further conquests with the Ottomans and others. But where people were saying that they were happy to follow him to India for instance, and to follow him in doing all these sort of grand things, the country needed a break. And it needed time to sort of recoup, redress itself. And he started also to get paranoid. India had had effectively… effectively driven in mad.
Could this be the curse of the Kohinoor, you know, that it brings bad luck?
Maybe… if there’s such a thing as a curse. Nader wears the diamond strapped to his arm like a talisman. And it’s certainly true that after he gets the diamond, Nader becomes paranoid.
So getting back to Persia, the people are tired of war and they approach Nader’s eldest son Reza Qoli and complain
Ali Ansari 21:58
and of course Nader Shah viewed this very unfavorably… sort of see the son being a bit presumptuous, almost having a court of his own. And the great tragedy of it is that he saw his son as a threat.
So two years after India, Nader is riding through some woods near Teheran when someone shoots at him. The lead bullet narrowly misses him and hits his horse instead. And Nader thinks his son Reza ordered the hit.
Ali Ansari 22:21
And as a consequence, had his son blinded,
his men bring him his son’s eyeballs on a platter. And seeing it,
Ali Ansari 22:28
of course, he regretted it,
he cries, shakes with grief, screams.
Ali Ansari 22:32
I mean, he regretted it very much because his son was a very capable individual. But the great tragedy of of Nader Shah is he wanted to create a dynasty. But actually, in the pursuit of his dynasty, he was so paranoid, he basically demolished the chances of that happening by blinding his firstborn son, who was probably the most able of his offspring. So you know, all that leads to a sort of a paranoid downward spiral, which… the very assets that made him such a powerful leader, if brutal, basically worked against him through the 1740s,
Nader becomes so ruthless that he orders his troops to
Ernest Tucker 23:07
kill all these people, take the skulls and create these towers of skulls
outside his fort is a warning: Do not mess with me.
But we need to contextualize his brutality. Nader was no more or less brutal than other rulers of those times, whether in Asia or in Europe,
Ali Ansari 23:25
he’s in quite good company, really. Even some of the Safavid kings before him were not exactly pussycats in this regard. And certainly nobody could be considered to be a champion of human rights in this period.
So he’s essentially going off his rocker– becoming incredibly paranoid. His senior officers never know when he’s going to suspect them of something or the other, and you know, add to that pile of skulls. So one night in 1747, as Nader is sleeping in his tent, his body guards and senior officers creep in and stab and behead him.
Ali Ansari 23:57
It’s a pretty ignominious end, I have to say, for someone whose military career was so dramatic. But eventually, you know, people decided that there was no future with him and in 1747, he’s murdered in his tent by his bodyguards. But it’s also a classic moral tale in that sense that your paranoia begets paranoia. It’s a self fulfilling prophecy, isn’t it?
All told, Nader’s ruled for just 11 year: 1736 to 1747. This is the last time the Persians will ever rule a vast empire. Ali says that if only Nader could have kept his paranoia in check, maybe the course of history would have been very different.
Ali Ansari 24:30
I think for those of us looking at the history of the non-European world, we’re always sort of thinking when was the moment that Europe became very dominant, and gunpowder empires, be they the Persians, the Ottomans and the Mughals, when did they succumb to that superior European technology, military technique. And were there opportunities, were there times when that, when that trajectory could have been different? And I think Nader Shah does represent that sort of possibility that things could have been different had obviously certain other things developed– had he not been assassinated by his guards, had he not blinded his son.
Chapter four. New owners.
The Mughal jewels that neither took scatter across Central Asia. People kill for them, and of course, the power that they represent. The grandson of Nader takes the other diamond from the Peacock Throne, the Darya-i-Noor, the sister jewel to the Kohinoor. He is caught by an enemy of Nader, named Agha Muhammad Khan, and is brutally tortured. Agha Mohammad demands the Kohinoor, which the grandson doesn’t have. So Mohammed ties into a chair, shaves his head, builds a mould, and then pours molten lead into it.
So where’s the Kohinoor?
Remember that young man Nader recruited back in Kandahar? Ahmad Khan? King Ahmed with the fake nose? After Nader’s murder, people are plundering the Mughal treasures. And Ahmed happens by the fallen king’s tent and takes the Kohinoor and some other jewels. He rides back to Kandahar, and there in a tribal council, he’s crowned Emperor of Afghanistan. His name becomes Ahmed Shah Durrani. He’s just 24 years old. And this is the founding moment of the nation that we know today as Afghanistan. The Kings first task is to replenish his coffers. Like his mentor, he looks down the Khyber Pass. What else does Hindustan have to offer?
And we’ll leave you back at the start of the episode, with King Ahmed a few years after his plunder of India. At the military camp near Ghazni with Poorn Puri. To learn what happens next to the Kohinoor and to its various owners, and whose and what histories persist, tune in next time.
You were listening to Episode Two jewels of the maharajahs
Next time on Scrolls & Leaves, the diamond will find its way back to India in the “Curse of the Kohinoor.”
Our sound designer is
Nikhil Nagaraj 27:13
the storyteller is
Sumit Kumar 27:15
This episode was produced by Gayathri, Mary Rose, with assistance from
You were listening to Scrolls & Leaves in collaboration with the archives at the National Center for Biological Sciences.
Our thanks to Ernest Tucker, Ali Ansari and Friederike Voigt. Thanks to our episodes supporter, the Yale Mellon Sawyer seminar, the Order of Multitudes — Atlas, Encyclopedia and Museum, and Anjana Badrinarayanan of NCBS.
For more information and past episodes, visit scrollsandleaves.com. Or you can follow us on Twitter at @scrollsleaves, or an Instagram at @scrollsandleaves or like us on Facebook, and subscribe wherever you get the podcasts. Thank you for listening