India@75: The stones of Golconda still speak

From sparkling diamonds to solid granite, the fort has seen everything. A visit to the once-powerful citadel near Hyderabad today can give you a glimpse of its brilliant history that is rich in in tales whose tendrils connect Mughal emperors, Louis the XIV, Queen Victoria, and Harry Winston!

The city of Hyderabad is all bonhomie and bling. From the bright lights of Banjara Hills to the tap-tapping silver warq makers that add to the bustle of the old city, there’s sparkle everywhere. But, believe it or not, today’s shiny Cyberabad with hints of the past is nothing compared to the ancient capital of the Qutb Shahi kings that once glittered eight kms to the east.

They say it all started when a simple shepherd boy discovered an idol and the Kakatiya ruler at the time decided to build a small mud fort on the spot. Called ‘gollu konda’ or ‘shepherd’s hill’ in the local tongue, this humble hill fort was fortified in AD 1518, a few centuries later and became the grand granite citadel you can still see remnants of even today. Approximately 400 feet high, with three layers of protective ramparts and impressive bastions, Golconda is a marvel even today.

An abiding memory of my first time at the fort decades ago is the cunning acoustic effect where a clap under the Fateh Darwaza can be heard clearly almost a kilometre away in the Bala Hissar pavilion at the topmost point of the acropolis. This cleverly engineered device was an important security feature when this fort was the centre of the empire and tempted many invaders with its legendary wealth. This included Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, who finally prevailed after a siege that lasted nine months and a bribe that got his armies past the imposing walls and forbidding gates with sharp spikes that even kept elephants out.

Golconda, fort, hyderabad, telangana, india, domestic travel, diamonds, history
Majestic fort walls. Image: Priya Pathiyan.
Golconda, fort, hyderabad, telangana, india, domestic travel, diamonds, history
The citadel has many facets. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

On a more recent visit, my knowledgeable guide Suresh Goud brings alive those centuries, with stories of queens and court intrigue in the lush gardens, of the goings on in into the Silah Khana, a three-storey structure of vaulted cellars where they once stored arms and ammunition. He points out the fort’s water-supply system, which used Persian wheels to bring the water to overhead tanks at three different levels, from where it was distributed throughout the citadel through stone aqueducts and earthen pipes.

Here, an ancient baobab tree in a peripheral courtyard whose origins have been lost in the annals of time. There, a mosque and a temple standing in syncretic solidarity for centuries. Stucco work with mythical beasts to add beauty and points of interest as I explore. Climbing up in the footsteps of the kings, walking through breezy vaults where the wind whispers stories into my ears, I get the feeling that the fort holds many secrets.

Golconda, fort, hyderabad, telangana, india, domestic travel, diamonds, history
A ramble through the capital of Golconda brings alive many fascinating stories. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

But what sparks the imagination most are the tales of the magnificent diamonds that were mined in the area and brought to Golconda. Before natural diamonds were discovered in Brazil and South Africa in the 17th century, India, and more specifically the region around Golconda and Bijapur, was where the world’s best diamonds were mined for almost 2,000 years! Its specialty was Type IIa diamonds, which contain no trace of Nitrogen and hence shine with a white gleam. Less than one per cent of colourless diamonds are Type IIa, which is why Golconda’s diamonds, from the clay pits of Kollur and other mines in the Godavari river delta, were (and are) so highly prized.

European traders came here since the days of Marco Polo in the 14th century and the diamond trade flourished at Golconda until the end of the 19th century. Even today, the fort’s vaults, which once contained some of the world’s largest diamonds, are legend. World famous diamonds – the colourless Koh-i-noor in the UK and Orlov in Russia, the blue Hope in the US, the Dresden Green in Germany, the white Regent in France, the pink Daria-i-Noor now in Iran, and so many more with a rich history that are now in collections all over the world – were all in these vaults at some point.

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3D rendering to scale of the biggest and most famous diamonds in the world – Cullinan, Koh-I-Noor, Hope, Dresden Green, Regent, Wittelsbach, Briolette, Tiffany, etc. So many of these originated in Golconda. Image: Shutterstock/DiamondGalaxy.
Golconda, fort, hyderabad, telangana, india, domestic travel, diamonds, history
The fort has many vaults, which once spilled over with everything, from arms & ammunition to precious stones and untold wealth. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

Jewel in the crown

The 105.6 carat Koh-i-Noor, which is now among the British Crown jewels, once belonged here. Acquired by Alauddin Khilji of the Delhi Sultanate from the Kakatiya rulers in the early 14th century, it passed on to Babur in 1526, and was later embedded in the famed Peacock Throne by Emperor Shah Jahan. When Delhi was invaded in 1739 by Nadir Shah of Persia, he exulted in the plunder that included this stone. It had a long and tumultuous journey that took it to Afghanistan, Amritsar, Jammu, and Lahore, leading to much pride and paranoia among the many powerful kings who flaunted it, until it was finally ceded as a spoil of war to Queen Victoria.

Deemed to be unlucky for men, it has since been worn only by women. In 1850, it travelled by ship from Bombay (now Mumbai) to Spithead and then on to London, where it was presented to the queen on the 250th anniversary of the East India Company. She wore it on many occasions, even to her coronation as Queen Consort. Today, you can still see it in the St Edward’s Crown exhibited in the Jewel House of the Tower of London.

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Queen Victoria wearing the Koh-i-Noor as a brooch. Painting: Franz Xaver Winterhalter.

Never saw blue like that

Another diamond, another tale of allure and avarice. There are long-ranging rumours that it was the French gem merchant Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, who stole a huge uncut blue diamond from here, took it to Paris in 1666 where it was named the Tavernier Blue, and sold to King Louis the XIV!

The court jeweller apparently took two years to cut and set the stone in gold, and the king wore it proudly around his neck for important ceremonies, dubbing it the Blue Diamond of the Crown of France. Reset into the Golden Fleece by his great grandson, it witnessed the French Revolution, some even holding it responsible for the guillotining of the king and Marie Antoinette! It disappeared for two decades after that, only resurfacing in London after having been cut into two, where it was purchased by a rich Anglo-Dutch banker named Thomas Hope.

Yes, this is the world-famous Hope diamond we are talking about, which made its way to New York in the early 1900s, then to Istanbul and Paris as the fortunes of its various owners tottered, and many a death followed in its wake. It was bought by sought-after jeweller Pierre Cartier, who in turn sold it to American socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean. It was a highlight of her fabulous parties in the 1920s, where it seems she often made it the focal point of a game, where she would hide it and have all her guests ‘find the Hope’.

On many an occasion, she hung it around the neck of her Great Dane, Mike. It was a love-hate relationship stemming from her discomfort with its history and the belief that the beautiful stone was cursed. In fact, the ‘Heart of the Ocean’ on the pendant you’ll recall from the film Titanic was based on the Hope Diamond! In 1949, it passed into the hands of another famed jeweller Harry Winston, and was later donated by him to the National Gem Collection of the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum in 1958, where it is a hot favourite even today, thanks to its colourful history.

Hope diamond
The blue Hope Diamond is colourful in more ways than one! Image: Courtesy Smithsonian Institute.

You could spend months or even years mesmerised by the intrigue around all the Golconda diamonds, each with as dazzling a tale as its appearance. And the starting point of all these glamorous journeys is always the fortress of Golconda.

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