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Sept. 2000

by Syeda Sara Abbas

The legal battle for the legendary Koh I Noor revolves around Greek marbles, princely descendents and a forgotten Swiss bank account.

The famed 105.6-carat gem, whose name means “Mountain of Light,” has a history dating back to 1304. Generations of Indian monarchs believed an ancient soothsayers prediction that it is cursed; only a woman or king can wear it safely. Sixteenth century Mughal historians judged it to be worth “half the daily expense of the world.”

The gem first came to England in 1849 with eight-year-old Indian prince Duleep Singh. Queen Victoria, was disappointed by its lack of fire and had it re-cut reducing the diamond by 43% to its present size. The diamond graced the present queen on her coronation and then became part of the fabulous British Crown.

But now Indian parliamentarians are sponsoring motions saying the gem should be returned. The recent discussion in Britain on the return of the Elgin marbles to Greece after two centuries fortified hopes.

Some London-based Indian lawyers are also building a legal case for the return of the gem jewel. Barrister Bhaskar Ghorpade, who successfully fought for the return of another Indian art treasure, the Pathur Natraja statue, wants to take the case to the International Court of Justice. His case is rooted in three arguments – geological, political and historical.

He asserts that the diamond is of Indian origin, that a claim for return of cultural property is included in the claim for territorial sovereignty. and that Duleep Singh was a minor in British captivity when he “gave” the diamond to Queen Victoria.

Interest in the diamond flared up in India and Britain in 1997 when the Swiss Bank, while investigating dormant accounts of Holocaust victims, announced the existence of a dormant vault belonging to Catherine Duleep Singh—one of the eight offspring of Duleep Singh. The vault allegedly contained a trunk holding the lost jewels of the Sikh Empire and documents about the Koh I Noor’s transfer into British possession. The news sparked a flood of claims for the Koh I Noor by “descendents” of Duleep Singh in India and Pakistan. After years of investigation, the Swiss Bank only recently declared the vault had only 131,000 Swiss francs belonging to the princess.

Meanwhile, the British have denied the possibility that the Koh I Noor will be returned soon. The Queen Mother’s spokesman said, “If anyone wants the Koh I Noor they would ask us directly. So far nothing has come to Clarence House.”

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