The 2000-Year-Old Gold Mines At Kolar

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The winding engine at the Champion Reef Mine (one of the biggest in the world. Image: Photos Division/ Public Domain
Kolar's famed gold-mines are silent today. But for millennia, they were the epicentre of a gold rush.

The year is 2008, and India’s oldest gold mine has a barren look. Bang in the middle of the town of Kolar is a set of serrated hillocks resembling plateaus – known as the Cyanide Dumps.

The slag from a century of gold mining accumulated into these piles, which gained their name from the use of cyanide in the mines. With the mines long shut, the slag piles are now a tourist attraction. When the winds are high, they blow dust particles and allergens into the town. Locals frequently fall ill, and reports suggest that the piles spread radiation.

You’d imagine that the residents of a gold town would disapprove of having a mine and its dumps so near to them. But a visit to the railway station at six in the morning paints a harsh reality – thousands of young adolescents boarding trains to Bangalore, nearly 70 kilometres away. They’re looking for work – and many are relatives of the 4345 families who lost their livelihoods when the mine was closed in 2001. At one point, the mine employed around 40,000 workers. When Bharat Gold Mines Limited (who had run the mine since 1972) closed shop, the locals lost their supply of water, electricity, and livelihood.

Many of the young adolescents were girls, working in garment factories in Bangalore’s suburbs. Come nightfall, and they all return by the 9 pm train to Kolar – risking sexual harassment along the way. The Kolar gold rush was over, and if the youth wanted work, they had to chase after Silicon Valley.

It wasn’t always this way. Jewellery from the Harappa Civilization (2500 B.C.) shows properties being sourced from Kolar – where the gold contains a distinct mix of silver. Little is known about the mines of ancient India, as mythological texts mention only their products. But Kolar was mined to a depth of at least 50 metres during the Gupta civilization. Several kingdoms since have made use of the mine – leading to stories and legends told about it.

In the days of Muziris, gold from Kolar even made it as far as Rome during the time of the Chera empire in 1st century B.C. According to Dr. S. Srikumar in ‘Kolar Goldfields (Unfolding the Untold)’, Indian gold was shipped to Rome where it was smelted into coins and returned.

Many empires made use of the field – it’s said that the Vijayanagara and Maratha empires each had a presence in the mines. But from 600 A.D., reliable records of mining operations are lacking. It was in 1804 that the first official record of mining (ancient and current) was registered – by Lieutenant John Warren of the East India company.

Tipu Sultan’s defeat led to a British survey of his territories to restore to the Wodeyar kings. While surveying the Kolar region, Warren heard of ancient gold mines in the region. Writing in the Asiatic Annual Register in 1804, he laid down the first seeds of interest in the gold mines of Kolar in recent times. The locals demonstrated indigenous methods of gold extraction, such as washing ore from the mud using their bare hands. Noting the Englishman’s incredulity, they added a few stories to the mix – that the spot one sights a peacock at will have veins of gold buried underneath. It may be true, however. Srikumar writes that the locals were Paraiyar of the Dheroo sect. Small-scale mining had been their occupation for generations.

Warren explored the region, finding some of Tipu Sultan’s unsuccessful shafts. He was unable to develop a mining operation, but his efforts renewed interests and rumours about the ancient mine.

One such rumour reached the ears of a retired Irish captain from the British Bangalore Cantonment, in 1850. Michael F. Lavelle had concluded his military career and decided to prospect for gold in Kolar. He made the 70-odd-kilometre journey in two weeks by bullock cart – and found a sleepy little town, filled with old mining equipment and abandoned pits. With the help of the locals and permissions from the Mysore government, he set about digging for gold. At first, he found little. But the wily Irishman realized there was potential in the mines – and sold the rights to mine it for more than what he’d got by selling the gold.

His name adorns one of Bangalore’s most upmarket roads now (host to the skyscraper of erstwhile billionaire Vijay Mallya).

The British firm, John Taylor and Sons bought the mine in 1880. They began building long shafts, among which was the Champion Reefs, going down 3.2 kilometres below sea levels. It was one of the deepest mine shafts in the world (the other contenders all located in South Africa). Altogether, 1350 kilometres of tunnels were dug beneath the mines.

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Champion Reef mine shaft at Kolar Gold Fields: Image Public Domain

The British presence fostered a thriving Anglo-Indian community, leading to townships like Robertsenpet and Andersonpet. A thriving industry emerged to serve the leisure of British and Anglo-Indian officials – including a golf course. Culinary historian Bridget White recollects and documents these days in her book “Kolar Gold Fields – Down Memory Lane: Paeans to Lost Glory.”

Following independence, ownership changed hands to the Government of Mysore in 1956 – and then to the Government of India. There wasn’t just gold to be found in these mines, but neutrinos too. Scientists traveled 2.3 kilometres deep into the earth to observe ‘unusual events’ – that demonstrated the presence of cosmic neutrinos and perhaps even dark matter. The experiment had implications in physics – exploring possibilities beyond the Standard Model of fundamental forces.

In 1972, the mining company became the Bharat Gold Mines Ltd. The government inherited the mine in its prime, and until 1997, extracted half a tonne of gold from it each year. By 2001, the mine had produced 800 tonnes of gold in total. It was no longer financially feasible to run – and so it shut.

But technologies have evolved since 2001, and the very cyanide heaps that once represented the waste and hazard of mining could be a source for up to 20 tonnes of gold – worth much more than what their value before. Kolar’s age-old legacy could be poised to return as India seeks to tap the 90 percent of ‘unexplored’ mineral resources. For a country which imports up to 974 tonnes of gold in 2015, the need to tap existing reserves is great.

But can a 2000-year-old mine exist without endangering both miners and locals? The mine has suffered many accidents since its inception. 20 were killed in 1952 after a rockburst – where collapsing rocks blocked the passage to many of the shafts, cutting off air supply in the process. Rescue efforts were abandoned with “hardly any possibility of any of the 20 missing persons being alive.” 10 more died the same year in a similar accident two months later. Locals grew accustomed to the sounds of air blasts and rock bursts, as Bridget recollects.

For the youth of Kolar, the mine could bring back memories of India’s erstwhile gold rush. International mining outfits have expressed interest in restarting the mines – and using new techniques to find gold. Induced Polarization would see wires running electricity into the shafts, charging gold reserves so they can be detected from above. And if gold can be extracted from the slag pits, Kolar could get rid of an unwanted and dangerous tourist attraction.

Whether the town can return to its old days of mining glory remains to be seen. All mines run out eventually – and the people of Kolar will need to see what glitters beyond gold if they want a long-term shot at sustaining themselves.

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