Of mysticism, politics and Maharajahs: Unearthing Indian diamonds’ fascinating history
India enjoys a very unique distinction; of being the only country in the world to have discovered and possessed diamonds till about the 1800s. With such a fascinating legacy, is it really a surprise that diamonds form a huge part of our culture?
If you’re ever thinking of a universal symbol for commitment, love, strength, beauty and fortitude, it is highly unlikely you will think of anything but a diamond. If you’re asked to think of a metaphor except for a diamond, chances are you just might never have an answer. With so many inherent qualities associated with diamonds, it is little wonder that this exquisite gem enjoys a special place in relationships as we know them, today.
“In Hindu mythology, it is believed that the wearer of diamonds is safe from ghosts, evil spirits, poisoning, bandits and even fire”
As fascinating as a diamond is to the wearer, it also has an equally fascinating history. Did you know that India’s history would have looked a bit different had it not been for diamonds?
And a diamond was born…
The first diamonds in the world were discovered in India; in the central regions, to be precise. The exact year when the first diamonds were mined is unknown so far, but historians say that the first known record of diamonds dates as far back as the 4th century BC.
Diamonds have always enjoyed an aura of mysticism around them, credited mostly to their incomparable ability to refract light. Each type of culture around the world has its own fable around them. In Hindu mythology, for instance, it is said that the wearer of diamonds is safe from evil, poisoning, bandits, and even fire!
The indestructible currency of ancient India
Our ancestors were quick to understand a diamond’s incomparable value and properties. This indestructible gem was aptly named the ‘Vajra’ (thunderbolt) and ‘Indrayudh’ (King Indra’s weapon). The nomenclature was perfect; it meant indestructibility and irresistible force. It is clear that whoever possessed the diamond was considered wealthy. Soon, it became a part of trade. Treasure vaults unearthed by historians across several dynasties in India have revealed an abundance of diamonds along with the currency of the time.
“The indestructible diamond was aptly named the ‘Vajra’ (thunderbolt) and ‘Indrayudh’ (King Indra’s weapon)”
This aspect of the diamond is beautifully articulated in Kautilya’s Arthashastra, an ancient, in-depth treatise on the state of economic affairs, policy, statecraft and military strategy written during King Chandragupta Maurya’s rule (322 BCE-180 BCE). The chapter titled ‘Treasury, Sources of Revenue, Budget, Accounts and Audit’ clearly focuses on diamonds as a part of a thriving trade culture, emphasising on acquiring diamonds as means to a booming, thriving economy.
The evolution of the modern day 4Cs
Kautilya was especially sharp in foreseeing the value of diamonds and leveraging them for the economic good; he insisted that the chief of metallurgy and mining operations should be well-versed in mining diamonds and in identifying their value and unique characteristics.
TThe 4Cs of diamonds – colour, cut, clarity and carat – while not articulated as the exact standard like they are today, also bore roots in ancient India. In the Arthashastra, Kautilya stressed the importance of the state’s goldsmith to have the knowledge of a precious stone’s colour, weight and formation. The characteristics of an ideal diamond were described by him as: “The colour of a diamond may be like that of a cat’s eye, that of the flower of Sirisha (Acacia Sirisa), the urine of a cow, the bile of a cow, like alum (sphatika), the flower of Malati…”. In subsequent pages, he described how to look for a diamond basis its shape, bulk and weight. Diamonds that had powers to refract light and the ability to successfully scratch the surface of vessels had much more value over others. Modern standards of evaluating diamonds have the same scientific basis as Kautilya’s evaluation back in the 4th Century BCE.
Buddha Bhatt’s treatise from 6th Century BCE, Ratnapariksha, is dedicated to the science of testing gems. It repeatedly lays an emphasis on the grading and overall quality of a diamond. One of its main recommendations states that a diamond that reflects the colours of the rainbow is the aspirational standard for all diamonds.
Digging deep into the Golconda Mines
No amount of learning about India’s diamond history is complete without a look at the Golconda Mines. Today, they are most prominently known for the Kohinoor Diamond, one of the world’s largest diamonds. The Kohinoor was mined in the Rayalaseema Mines during the Kakatiya Dynasty. Another legendary diamond, the Hope Diamond, was also a child of the Golconda Mines.
Most of the world’s legendary diamonds can largely be traced back to these mines; it is quite natural then, that Golconda was a power centre of South India and always under the threat of an attack. The city was also flush with rivers, trade, palaces, forts and a state-of-the-art water supply system.
“It was believed that whoever controlled the Golconda diamonds was the supreme ruler”
Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb laid an eight-month-long siege around the famous Golconda fort during the Qutb Shahi dynasty. It is obvious that Aurangzeb was after the Kollur Diamond Mine in Golconda, the only known mine at the time. After Aurangzeb won the siege against Golconda Fort, he received some of the biggest and most precious diamonds in the world: The Hope Diamond, The Great Stone Diamond, Kara Diamond, Darya-e-Nur, the Wittelsbach Diamond and The Regent Diamond – diamonds whose legacy is so rich that they are worth billions of dollars. Naturally, the possession of these diamonds made Aurangzeb the richest and most powerful ruler of his time.
Till as recently as the end of the 19th century, diamonds from Golconda were considered the best among the world, making the place synonymous with its diamonds.
With the kind of power, value and economic importance attached to diamonds, they quickly became the symbol of status and opulence for rulers in India. It was this opportunity that Jacques Cartier, a French jeweller (of the now world-famous Cartier empire) tapped into on his travels to India. Indian rulers bought diamonds and diamond-embellished jewellery not for their significant others, but to enjoy wearing for themselves. It was a time when men were buying all the jewellery.
“Jacques Cartier was besotted with the Indian way of making jewellery, and of course, India’s incomparable diamonds.”
Emperors were attracted to designs from Europe. The rajahs wanted to exclusively own all the exotic French and European designs Jacques had for them, and in turn, he took back with him a lot of diamonds, jewellery and inspiration. The value attached to diamonds from brand Cartier today largely has its roots in Jacques’ Indian connection. He was besotted with the Indian way of making jewellery, and of course, India’s incomparable diamonds.
Outlined below are some pieces of diamond jewellery once owned by Indian royalty, that have gained historical significance for their sheer opulence, weight of the diamonds and supreme craftsmanship, and have stood the test of time.
- Maharaja Bhupinder Singh Yadav of Patiala’s diamond necklace created personally by Jacques Cartier. The piece had 2390 diamonds and weighed cumulatively 962.25 carats. The biggest diamond, ‘the DeBeers’ weighed 234.65 in its setting. This neckpiece disappeared from the Patiala treasury in 1948 but was bought by Cartier in 1998 where it had some diamonds missing. The brand restored it after four years. Pictured here is Maharaja Bhupinder Singh Yadav’s son Maharaja Yadevendra Singh. (Image credit: https://www.livehistoryindia.com/forgotten-treasures/2017/04/26/a-necklace-so-grand)
- Pictured here is the Krishnaraj Wadiyar IV’s famous diamonds, pearls and emeralds necklace that was said to sparkle brilliantly in the sun’s rays. (Image credit: Wikimedia commons, public domain)
- Diamond jewellery that originates from the Mughal era has several distinctions. For instance, this glorious emerald necklace has small holes drilled to the side of the gem. Historians claim that these were to affix the emerald securely to a turban or a tunic, in case the owner wanted to sport it as an accessory. What elevates the already beautiful emerald, however, are the sparkling, rough cut and round diamonds surrounding the stone. In this piece, their collective weight adds up to an astonishing 50 carats. (Image credit: Ken Larsen)
As a people, we Indians inherently tend to hold our culture and roots very close to us. Considering this trait, our love for diamonds is hardly surprising. Our country has been home to diamonds for thousands of years now, and cherishing their legacy and upholding their values comes very naturally to us. We have an emotional connection with our diamonds; they mean several things – they are modern-day heirlooms, a token of love, and symbol of special moments on the most normal of days. A diamond is whatever it is you want it to be, and backed by its rich history and inherent values, it is only obvious why it is our favourite gem in the world.