Is Puri Jagannath Temple the final claimant of the Kohinoor?

So many writings have come up on the Kohinoor diamond by contemporary court chroniclers and foreign travellers like Tavernier and Bernier. Many colonial administrators have also given ample information about the esteemed rock in their accounts. Later, historians and writers interested in the subject have also brought out a great deal of literature on the subject. Out of all these records, only those published from the nineteenth century onwards speak about the Kohinoor-Jagannath temple connection as this leaf of history belongs to that age and that time.

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This story has found credence today because of various reasons whether it was a demand to bring back Indian artifacts from Britain or Queen Elizabeth II’s demise triggering that demand of getting back lost treasures to India. This naturally led to a corollary debate about the rightful claimant to the Kohinoor. If it ever comes back where will it be housed and who can rightfully claim it as their treasure? Phew!!

This becomes a million-dollar question.

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Everyone knows that the journey of Kohinoor started in Qutb Shahi Golconda and reached Mughal Delhi, Persia and Afghanistan and then Punjab was physically passed from hand to hand. The last location in India where the Kohinoor was known to have been was Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the first ruler of the Sikh Empire in the early half of the nineteenth century, from where it was given to the Queen in England to adorn the British Crown.

N.B.Sen’s book published in 1953 titled History of Kohinoor says that “Maharaja Ranjit Singh before his death in 1839 wished that the diamond be sent to the Jagannath temple at Puri. But his sardars of the khalsa darbar which was the court of the Lahore State under the Maharaja refused on the grounds that even the whole wealth of India could not purchase such a priceless stone and thus prevented the diamond from reaching Puri.” He adds, “Had the needful been done at that time the history of the Kohinoor in later years would have been quite different.”

William Dalrymple and Anita Anand’s book Kohinoor: the History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond also mentions in detail the Kohinoor being pledged by Maharaja Ranjit Singh to the Jagannath temple at Puri.

Lady Isabel Burton’s memoirs on her husband’s life as a British explorer, writer, scholar and soldier in India, The Life of Captain Sir Richard Burton written in 1893 also encapsulates the story of how Shah Shuja was forced to give the Kohinoor to Maharaja Ranjit Singh the ‘most powerful and unscrupulous potentate.’ She says, “At that time no native sovereign in India was so great as Runjeet and no kingdom seemed more likely to last than the great Sikh monarchy he had founded, but by a curious coincidence the same ill fate that had always followed the possessor of the Kohinoor pursued it into this great family. Runjeet himself died, leaving the Kohinoor that he valued at 1,000,000 English pounds sterling to the priests of Jagannath (Juggernath) but it was preserved in the Lahore treasury.”

History shows that after Ranjit Singh a competition for the throne ensued and finally Punjab was annexed by the British in 1849 and the property of the state was confiscated by the East India Company and it was stipulated that the Kohinoor should be presented to the Queen of England. Consequently, Lord Dalhousie sent it to England in 1850. After the Great Exhibition of 1851 where the Kohinoor was put up on display, it was Voorsanger, a skilled diamond cutter from Messers Coster’s factory in Amsterdam who worked on the process of reducing the weight of this stone from 186 1/16 to 106 1/16 carats. This exercise was undertaken over 38 days working 12 hours every day.

The information about Ranjit Singh’s death at Lahore and last days of illness when he bequeathed charity money, jewels and property and among the jewels, the Kohinoor, supposed to be sent to the Jagannath temple at Puri, is preserved in a letter written by a British official to T. A. Maddock the officiating secretary to the Governor General. This correspondence is believed to be preserved at the National Archives of India and has been quoted by William Dalrymple in his book Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan.

Now arises the million-dollar question what was the reason that Maharaja Ranjit Singh chose the Jagannath temple to give the precious Kohinoor? The Sikhs had accepted Lord Jagannath as their god after Guru Nanak had visited the gurudwara at Kaliaboda, Cuttack in Orissa as recorded in the Orissa District Gazetteer: Cuttack. The Mandala Panji, the Puri Temple chronicles, also refers to Guru Nanak’s presence in Puri. Many folk traditions also tell us that Guru Nanak while going to Puri rested on the banks of the River Mahanadi at a particular spot and held religious discourses with the mahant of Kaliaboda matha. The mahant asked Guru Nanak to leave something behind to commemorate this visit. So, Guru Nanak left his toothbrush after which this gurudwara came to be known as Gurudwara Datan Sahib in the early sixteenth century. The Mangu, Punjabi and Bauli mathas of Puri are linked with Guru Nanak.

Over a century and a half later, when Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh guru, established the Khalsa in 1699 on Baisakhi at Anandpur Sahib, he asked for five people to sacrifice themselves for the sake of dharma. The fifth person who came forward was Himmat Rai, an Odia water carrier of Jagannath temple. He was renamed Himmat Singh by Guru Gobind Singh. He finally attained martyrdom in the battle of Chamkaur Sahib a few years later. These five people came to be known in Sikh history as Panj Pyare or the five beloved and are held in high esteem in the Sikh traditions. They were the first members to join the Khalsa responding to a call from Guru Gobind Singh for heading different units. They oversaw the amrit sanchar ceremony by preparing the administering of amrit to those who were ready.

These intimate connections of the Sikhs to Orissa first in the time of Guru Nanak and then in the time of Guru Gobind Singh led to Maharaja Ranjit Singh willing the Kohinoor, the costliest jewel in his possession, to the Puri Jagannath temple.

Legitimately, it is the last will of Maharaja Ranjit Singh that makes Jagannath Puri the final claimant of the Kohinoor.

Professor Salma Ahmed Farooqui is Director at the H.K.Sherwani Centre for Deccan Studies, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad.

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