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Queen Consort Camilla won't be wearing the Kohinoor diamond at Charles' coronation

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

This Saturday is King Charles III's coronation. You'll see lots of pomp and tradition at the ceremony in London. But this next story is about what you won't see. The royals have decided to leave out one of their most glittering crown jewels. It's a famous diamond from India. Some say it was a gift to Queen Victoria. Others call it a 100-carat symbol of imperial plunder. NPR's Lauren Frayer begins this report in southern India.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Centuries before humans began mining diamonds deep underground, gems were discovered only when they worked their way up to the Earth's surface in places like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

FRAYER: A muddy tributary of India's Krishna River. This is where, legend has it, 800 or so years ago, someone stumbled upon what was then the biggest diamond in the world. My guide Mohan Devarapalli (ph) explains.

MOHAN DEVARAPALLI: In the earlier times, people used to go to the rivers and take baths. And there were no soaps or no any cosmetics at the time. So they used the wet clay, which is next to the riverbanks. While pulling the clay, they found the diamond.

FRAYER: It was the size of a coconut, and they brought it to their then-rulers, the 12th century Hindu kings of the Kolkata dynasty. At the time, India was full of warring states, and the kings, needing to keep their diamond safe, hid it in plain sight...

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL CHIMING)

FRAYER: ...Inside the statue of a Hindu goddess in a temple that still stands today in the southern city of Virunga.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).

FRAYER: Saffron-robed monks are chanting prayers around a big, golden deity of the goddess Durga. She has these deep, black holes for eyes. And for centuries...

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL CHIMING)

FRAYER: ...One of those eyes was filled by the diamond.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).

DEVARAPALLI: So one of the eye was the diamond, which no one knows except the kings. It looks like glass.

FRAYER: Yeah.

DEVARAPALLI: Even the priests - they were not knew that.

FRAYER: So it was a top secret.

DEVARAPALLI: It's a top-secret place to hide the diamond.

FRAYER: It worked for a couple centuries at least. But rumors spread about this giant diamond guarded by a goddess, and it became the object of violent conquest.

WILLIAM DALRYMPLE: It's the nearest thing to the ring of power in "Lord Of The Rings." Wherever it goes, it stirs up anger, greed, murder and bloodshed.

FRAYER: Historian William Dalrymple co-wrote a book about the diamond and all the mysteries, even curses that surround it. We can tell from its geology that it did come from this one part of India.

DALRYMPLE: But beyond that, its history is enormously disputed. There's almost no record of it until it's on the top of the peacock throne, which is built in the 1640s by Shah Jahan, who's the same guy who builds the Taj Mahal.

FRAYER: By this point, much of India has been conquered by the Mughals, Muslim emperors. One of them, Shah Jahan, puts the diamond on his peacock throne, his seat of power. And that is around when the diamond becomes known as the Kohinoor, which means mountain of light in Persian.

DALRYMPLE: An Iranian leader called Nadir Shah defeats the enormous Mughal army. From Iran, it enters the hands of the founder of Afghanistan.

FRAYER: The Kohinoor passes through Mughal, Persian, Afghan and Sikh empires. All of their rulers covet the diamond. One of them strapped it to his arm in battle, another to the front of his turban. And all of them met grisly deaths - murdered, betrayed, defeated.

DALRYMPLE: And that is where this whole mythology of cursed diamonds begins.

FRAYER: So by the time the British arrive on the scene, the Kohinoor is thought to be cursed, at least for men. But there is one person they thought might safely wear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

A N WILSON: She was queen of Great Britain. She was Empress of India.

FRAYER: In the mid-19th century, British diplomats befriend a 10-year-old sick prince, Duleep Singh, who'd inherited the Kohinoor. And they basically take this little boy's diamond in a treaty and give it to Queen Victoria. That loss is felt, memorialized, in India to this day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What an enormous diamond.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Look at its brilliance.

AMITABH BACHCHAN: Can you tell me what this diamond is called?

FRAYER: In a sound-and-light show at the 11th century Golconda Fort, the voice of Bollywood's biggest star, Amitabh Bachchan, bemoans the Kohinoor's fate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BACHCHAN: The Kohinoor is still in Britain. This is just a replica. Diamonds from the mines of Golconda, good enough to...

SAUDAMINI SHARMA: I have very strong feelings about this.

FRAYER: Saudamini Sharma is an Indian tourist I met at the fort.

SHARMA: The British never apologized about anything. They're the ones who came and tried to, quote-unquote, "civilize" people. But civilized people don't steal and don't take away stuff and never return it.

FRAYER: There are growing calls to return the diamond. But to where - India, Pakistan, Iran, Bangladesh? It spent time in all of those places. Even the Taliban claim it's theirs. Meanwhile, the British sell tickets to see the diamond...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The exhibition explores the importance of the crown jewels to the British monarchy.

FRAYER: ...And advertise it as a symbol of conquest. They've done so since 1851, when the Kohinoor was the star attraction at the World Exhibition in Hyde Park, London. It was for that exhibition that they cut it down, lopped off at least 85 carats.

ANITA ANAND: And to Indians, it's actually a perfect, perfect metaphor for what India went through. It was reshaped and recut and diminished into something that suited a British palate and British needs.

FRAYER: Historian Anita Anand is Dalrymple's co-author and co-host of their podcast, called "Empire."

ANAND: We don't really learn about the history of empire. It's painted as if it was something very long ago, not really interesting. And yet it shapes the world that we live in today. It's always glimmered in my life. I mean, if you are a British Asian, you know about the Kohinoor.

FRAYER: Last year India and Pakistan celebrated 75 years since they won their freedom from the British crown. But for many, the story is incomplete. The British crown still has their diamond. It's still only worn by women. The last Queen consort wore it to her coronation in 1937. Tradition says Camilla would wear it this weekend.

It's a few days before King Charles' coronation, and I'm at the Tower of London, where the crown jewels are kept. There are hundreds and hundreds of people waiting in line to see the jewels.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You are about to enter the Crown Jewels exhibition, which was recently...

FRAYER: So I'm on, like, a conveyor belt people-mover that you have to stand on as you whizz past the crown jewels - pearls, diamonds, crosses, rubies, emeralds. And I think that's the Kohinoor. Yes. And it's just sparkling. It's amazing. It's, like, the size of a walnut against a purple velvet crown.

RUTVA DHANALIYA: Yeah, one of the reason to come here is the diamond from India, so we would like to see it here.

FRAYER: That's Rutva Dhanaliya. Behind her is Anjit, who goes by one name. They and me and almost half the people in here have just landed from India.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Are you here to see it?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Yeah. Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: That's what we want to see, actually. It's some part of Indian culture. Maybe we should get it back.

FRAYER: The Indian government has asked for that repeatedly. This winter Buckingham Palace made a quiet announcement. Camilla will not wear the Kohinoor to her coronation. The diamond will remain locked in the Tower of London this weekend, firmly on British soil but too sensitive to parade around. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADANNA DURU SONG, "POP!") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer
Lauren Frayer covers South Asia for NPR News. In 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.