This year’s “Thanksgiving” break wasn’t like the others. We didn’t go to my aunt’s house or host guests. There were no unruly uncles or sugar-crazed children. There weren’t any of my famous rosemary mashed potatoes, my brother’s cranberry sauce or my dad’s family-favorite turkey. Instead, this year we went to Chicago’s Field Museum since I decided to meet up with family in the Midwest instead of flying back to the San Francisco Bay Area.
I loved spending time with my family at the museum. We saw Sue the Tyrannosaurus rex, the world’s largest T-rex specimen ever discovered and debated whether Máximo the Titanosaur, the world’s largest dinosaur, really did grow as fast as the museum claimed it did. Yet, my favorite exhibit wasn’t about the dinosaurs or mummies — it was the Grainger Hall of Gems.
I don’t know what made it stand out. Maybe it was the hypnotic colors, complex patterns or vivacious shine of the gems, but something about that exhibit captivated me. I spent entire minutes just staring at my distorted reflection through the larger jewels and appreciating the blend of colors, precise carving and fine details on the smaller ones. As I aimlessly strolled through the different displays, I noticed that all the gems had a tag labeled “locality” alongside their respective countries of origin. I wondered why gems found from nations around the world sat in an American museum. I was then reminded of a similar gem: the Kohinoor Diamond.
Translated from Persian to mean “Mountain of Light,” the gem is one of the world’s oldest diamonds and can potentially be traced back over 5,000 years. It is speculated that the diamond, referred to as Syamantaka, is first mentioned in the ancient Hindu scriptures Vishnu Purana and the Bhagavata. Since then, its history has remained complicated. Over several millennia, wherever blood was shed, the diamond followed as it passed down from ruler to ruler. Until 1304, the diamond was in the hands of the rajas of Malwa. Afterward, it was in the possession of Alauddin Khilji, the emperor of Delhi, when legend says a curse was set stating “he who owns this diamond will own the world, but will also know all its misfortunes. Only God, or a woman, can wear it with impunity.” In 1526, the next ruler to possess the diamond was the Mughal ruler Babur, who received it as a gift from Sultan Ibrahim Lodi. It stayed with the family until the Persian general Nadir Shah defeated the then-sultan to claim the throne in India in 1739. After Nadir was assassinated by his own troops during his sleep, it was given to his general, Ahmad Shah Durrani, who then gifted it to Ranjit Singh, the founder of the Sikh Empire. Finally, after the Sikh Empire was overthrown by the British East India Company in 1849, the diamond was ultimately stolen and shipped to Britain, where it remains today.
Throughout the past century, the diamond has been recut, losing around forty percent of its weight, and repurposed as it passed through British royalty. Most recently, the jewel was assembled into the crown of Queen Elizabeth II for her coronation in 1937. It is now part of the British Crown Jewels. While the exact value of the diamond is unknown, it is said that “if a strong man were to throw four stones, one north, one south, one east and one west and a fifth stone up into the air, and if the space between these were to be filled with gold, all would equal the value of Koh-i-Noor.” Now, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan all seek claim to the diamond and ask for its return.
So why does an artifact so valuable and rich in the history of other civilizations sit in a British museum? David Cameron, former British Prime Minister, sums it up perfectly. When asked why the Kohinoor diamond wouldn’t be returned, he said, “If you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty. I think I am afraid to say… it is going to have to stay put.”
Even after leaving the museum, the thought of the diamond didn’t leave my mind. Mainly, I wondered whether artifacts, especially the Kohinoor Diamond, should be returned to their countries of origin. The answer is complicated: a list of questions fluttered into my mind. I asked myself, Since these countries had laid first claim to the diamond, shouldn’t they own it? Was the diamond gifted or taken? Some proponents for the return of the diamond argue that its return would be a monumental move to acknowledge and move on from the region’s historically colonial past. Others argue that the artifacts are safer in the hands of the British and Americans.
In 2016, the Indian NGO, All India Human Rights and Social Justice Front, filed a petition asking the Supreme Court of India to direct the Indian government to bring back the diamond, yet the motion was dismissed since the court did not have the authority to ask foreign governments to return the artifact, especially since it was taken prior to Indian independence. In 2015, a petition filed by Javed Iqbal Jaffry in Pakistan also asked for the diamond’s return; however, the petition was unsuccessful. In fact, even the Taliban asked for its return in 2000 after claiming that they were the original owners. So, even if Britain agreed to return the diamond, who would then inherit it? Since India, Pakistan and Afghanistan all claim history with the diamond, the answer isn’t so clear.
As I found myself reflecting on the future of the diamond, I thought back to the very same holiday that I didn’t celebrate this year as I usually did. While stolen artifacts and stolen land are nowhere near equivalent in comparison, I don’t think it is possible to answer these questions without acknowledging the idea of Thanksgiving itself, a holiday fundamentally created as a commemoration and celebration of stolen land and stolen lives. While reparations for imperialism remain yet to be enacted, it is important to learn about the rich history and traditions of the people upon whom colonialism was imposed and to recognize the original owners of the land and artifacts we admire and claim to possess.
MiC Columnist Deven Parikh can be reached at email@example.com.