From a king’s turban to a queen’s crown, R.V. Smith traces the tumultuous journey of the good old Kohinoor.

The sale of the Nizam diamond for $4.5 million at an auction house abroad recently set tongues wagging in Dariba Kalan, the historic gem and jewellery market where all such sales cause great excitement, for there are shops here dating back to Mughal times. This being the silly season when there are fewer tourists and potential buyers far away, trying to beat the heat on hill stations or in places like Kashmir and Switzerland, there is not much left for jewellers to do than indulge in gossip. The talk veered to the best-known diamond, the Kohinoor (Mountain of Light) and how it was lost to India.

Would you believe it that it was a dancing girl who was responsible for this? The famous courtesan Nur Bai disclosed the whereabouts of the Kohinoor in a Rs.4,000-ghazal to invader Nadir Shah in 1739. One rupee in those days was equivalent to about Rs.500 now, so you can calculate the amount she pocketed. The house in Chawri Bazar where she lived is untraceable. As a matter of fact, no courtesan has a kotha there because in the 1930s and 1940s the Red Light area was moved to nearby G.B. Road.

Nur Bai was both beautiful and clever. After making Nadir Shah fall in love with her she gave him the slip. When the time came for the invader’s departure, she went and hid in the house of an old lover of hers in the Lal Kuan area and the Persian troops couldn’t find her. Nadir Shah was upset but perhaps consoled himself with the Kohinoor, which he had got in the crafty exchange of turbans with Muhammad Shah, the Mughal ruler, on Nur Bai’s tip.

Muhammad Shah Rangila’s court was like the “swarg” of Raja Indra. There were dancing girls galore to make the evenings redolent with wine, dance and song. Among them Uttam Bai had been designated as Nawab Qudsia Begum, whom the dandy emperor had married and brought into his harem. He was probably inspired by the fame of Lal Kanwar, who had been made Begum Imtiaz Mahal by his uncle Jahandar Shah and virtual Mughal queen – something Jahangir as Prince Salim dreamt of doing as the culmination of his love for Anarkali. But Akbar had put his foot down, saying he wouldn’t allow a dancing girl to become the future empress of India. The latter Mughals however had no such qualms.

Nur Bai was Qudsia Begum’s arch rival. They were naturally both jealous of each other and though she gained the queenship, Qudsia Begum suspected that the emperor might one day replace her with the craftier and more generously bestowed Nur. “Bulbul ki awaz, hoor ka sarafa” (bulbul-voiced with houri-like appearance) were among the praises heaped on Nur Bai. But then fate struck and the courtesan’s betrayal of her patron spelt her doom. Some say that she had prevailed upon Nadir Shah to take her away to Kabul so that she might escape the wrath of Muhammad Shah over the loss of the Kohinoor but it is generally believed that her wish was not fulfilled. Even the ruthless Nadir Shah was scared that Nur Bai would betray him too. She had seen Muhammad Shah taking out the Kohinoor from his turban every night that he made love to her and got to know the secret. What was the surety that she would not play the same trick on her new lover?

The story that after Nadir Shah’s murder, on his way back from India, Nur Bai could not capture the heart of his successor, Ahmad Shah Abdali and, as a fallen from grace prostitute, solicited customers at the Afghan capital gate is to be taken with a pinch of salt. Nur Bai had not acquired her cunning for nothing. She did not expect Nadir Shah to be forever beholden to her and so ditched him.

But did Muhammad Shah spare her for the breach of trust she had so blatantly committed? The sex-siren with a tooth dislodged by a slipper thrown in Chandni Chowk during the shoe-sellers’ riot of 1729 had continued to excel in her charms for the next 10 years. Besides the Kohinoor, Nadir Shah also took away the fabulous Peacock Throne (Takht-e-Taus) and a hoard of other diamonds but still much remained in the royal treasury for the first Nizam to get his share of gems for services rendered to Aurangzeb and his successors.

The Mughal gem presented by Hollywood legend Sir Richard Burton to Elizabeth Taylor on her 40th birthday 40-odd years ago was one of the jewels taken away from India. Burton boasted at his actress wife’s birthday party that as he could not buy the Taj for her, he had done the next best thing in giving her a diamond which was said to have been a present from Shah Jahan to Mumtaz Mahal. It could have left India after the fall of Bahadur Shah Zafar. Incidentally, it is recorded that during the tumultuous post-Mutiny period, Armenian and Jewish merchants were busy buying Mughal gems in the Amsterdam and Paris markets.

The Kohinoor, however, forcibly gifted by Shah Shuja, the ousted Abdali ruler of Kabul, to his host Maharaja Ranjit Singh and after the latter’s death presented to Queen Victoria by Prince Dalip Singh of Punjab under coercion, is part of the British Crown Jewels. But how many know that it found a place on the crown of the present queen, where it seems set to stay despite the efforts of crusaders like Kuldip Nayar, because of the mischief of Nur Bai? Surely her house, if it had been identifiable, would have been an eyesore. The jewellers of Dariba Kalan, fanning away their summer blues, think so too!