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How Karnataka's fields of gold turned into Little England

Part 3 of a series on Kolar Gold Fields looks at the transformation of the mining region from barren no-man's land into a buzzing British colonial town

The iconic KGF club. (Gita Aravamudan)

By the 1960s, the Kolar Gold Fields (KGF) had changed. The white officers at the top of the pecking order had been the most visible, especially to the outside world. But now they had all gone and everyone from the managing director downwards was Indian, and this included the Anglo-Indians who stayed behind. The half a dozen white consultants who were still there had merged with the population.

In 1891, when mining had just started, the population of the town was 7,085. It grew fivefold in ten years and became 37,964. In the 1920s, when the mining industry was at its peak, KGF occupied an area of 30 square miles and had a population of 90,000. Of these, 24,000 were employed at the mines. Only 400 of these employees were European and another 400 Anglo-Indian. This meant that more than half the people employed by the mines were Indian. The white officers and miners came mostly from Cornwall and Ireland, some from Spain and Italy

And yet, KGF was known as Little England—a sobriquet that suited it just fine. The British mining companies had started their activity in what was barren no-man’s land. But, within 20 years, it had got transformed into a British colonial town, complete with sprawling bungalows, clubhouses and gymkhanas.

Mining was an exciting profession at the turn of the 20th century. Especially for those who had a share in the pickings. It was considered a “modern” activity. Unlike trading or waging war, it required engineering skill and scientific knowledge. For those willing to take the risk, it promised untold wealth. The Mysore government, too, remained enthusiastic. They didn’t get a share of the gold but the royalty paid by the British company came in useful. The royalty was just a meagre 5% of the company’s revenue but the Mysore government was dependent on this for paying the heavy subsidy they were obliged to give to the British. It went towards paying for the “standing army” stationed in the princely state.

KGF was all set to become the sparkling jewel of the princely state. When the legendary engineer Sir M. Visvesvaraya, set up the first hydroelectric plant at Sivasamudram, 200 kms away from KGF, he was asked to make electricity supply to the gold mines a priority. KGF got power in 1902 even before any of the bigger towns. A state-of-the-art power transmission unit was built in KGF. Until 1902, all the machinery was worked by steam power. But the commissioning of the Cauvery Falls Power station in 1902 changed all that. KGF received 4,000 horsepower (hp) of electricity to be distributed through the transformer house to the mines.

The year 1902 was a watershed in terms of the early development of the township. A water purification plant was set up in the nearby Bethamangalam reservoir and the residents got clean drinking water. Robertsonpet, as the town area was called, had some shops. Some non-mining residents like contractors and Marwari moneylenders and shopkeepers began building their own houses.

Other amenities had come up by then. In 1887, a hospital was established in Champion Reefs to cater to those working in the mines. The iconic KGF club, which was open only to white officers, came up in 1895 right in the middle of the mining area, where they lived. Soon it was flanked by Oorgaum Hall a small movie hall where English films were shown. Motion pictures came to KGF even before they reached the larger towns. And there were other basic recreational outlets like swimming pools, tennis courts and football fields. The Oorgaum Dairy, which had its own herd of Jersey cows and a small pasteurizing plant, supplied milk to all the houses in the mining area. There were bakeries which delivered fresh bread to the houses every day. Next to the Oorgaum Hall was a tiny manual telephone exchange with an operator sitting in it.

It was said that the lights of Little England could be seen from Kolar, which was about 20 kms away. They glowed in the dark and there were no other lights in between. A British journalist visiting KGF in the 1930s was eloquent about the modern and progressive township.

They were rough and dangerous times as well. As the mining activity increased in pace and more gold came out, accidents and deaths increased manifold. Most crucial was the cemetery which lay right in the heart of KGF separating the Champion Reef mining area from the town. Many of the accident victims never made it back to the surface again. Frequently, empty coffins were buried, and tombstones were put up in their names. There were separate graveyards for Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Here, too, the whites were buried separately. Their gravestones were more elaborate and descriptive than those of the poor Indian miners, who often had just a simple wooden cross marking their resting places.

The author's home in Kolar Gold Fields
The author's home in Kolar Gold Fields (Gita Aravamudan)

Places of worship had come up, too. Most of the British and Anglo-Indians were Catholic. The oldest was the Catholic Church dedicated to Our Lady of Victories. It was built in 1884, destroyed in the 1952 rock burst, and rebuilt again in 1953. The 6ft-tall statue of Our Lady of Victories, standing on a pedestal about 15 feet from the church floor, was the only statue left untouched then. It still towers above the altar in the new church. One more church dedicated to St. Anthony was built by 1912.

The Anglican St. Michaels and All Angels Church came up in 1905 after the original St. Paul’s Church built earlier by a Missionary organization acquired cracks due to mining activity. This new one meant exclusively for the white congregation was built close to the KGF Club, abutting the golf course. It had pews with names of families inscribed on them The Company gave some land in Robertsonpet for the old St. Paul’s church to be built for the Indian Anglicans.

Close to the KGF mining hospital stands an ancient temple dedicated to Uthandiammal, whose reputed powers of healing attracted people of all religion. The origins of this temple are unclear but it stood there even before the mining activities started. People from all faiths could be seen praying there, especially for their loved ones being treated at the hospital. Even as the mining town crumbled all around in later years, these places of worship stood strong.

This was the town we had inherited from the British. By 1960, the KGF community had become amalgamated and grown deep roots. The line between religion and caste had become blurred. The labourers’ huts often had small altars containing a crucifix and a Virgin May statuette flanked by pictures of personal Hindu gods. On All Saints’ Day, the day for honouring the dead, Hindus, Muslims and Christians mingled in the graveyards. Death, they understood, did not differentiate.

A plaque at the convent.
A plaque at the convent. (Gita Aravamudan)

In the 1950s and 60s, Christmas was also different. It belonged to everyone. There was music in the crisp winter air and Christmas parties, carnivals and dances galore. Dressed in our best, we kids would have our fill of riding on swing boats and merry-go-rounds and trying our luck at games like coconut shy and lucky arrow. We would get our presents from jolly white-masked Santas. I went to a ball for the first time with my parents when I was 16. My parents and I, all dressed in our best, sat with other Indian officers at separate tables. We didn’t dance. I still don’t know why! The British officers, my friends told me, danced, but only with each other.

I watched my Anglo-Indian friends having a great time on the dance floor. Entire families would be out there dancing, from nanas and grandpas to frilly-frocked little girls and bow-tied little boys. The KGF bands were superb and so were the dancers, both young and old. New Year’s Eve was the grand finale when hunchbacked “Old Father Time” would come on stage carrying a clock. At the stroke of midnight, little New Year in a beautiful dress would dance onto the stage and chase him away.

And then came the beautiful and unforgettable moments when the entire hall would link hands and sing Auld Lang Syne followed by a big round of everyone hugging and kissing everyone else.

As teenagers, we walked and cycled everywhere. To the club to play tennis or badminton, to the dairy for an ice cream, to school, to the movies, to the shops, to our friend’s houses. My brother and I walked often across the fields to the Ulgamadi caves with our daschund Tipu running ahead of us.

The Jain ascetic Pavananthi Munivar, who lived in this area in the 13th century, is supposed to have written his great work Nannūl on Tamil grammar while meditating in these caves. We would hang out on the rocky boulders inside this cave while Tipu basked in the warm sunlight outside. At the back of the cave there was a narrow, scary dark tunnel full of bats.

Where did that tunnel go? Was it natural? Manmade? Dug by some ancient miner? I never found out.

This is the third of a six-part series on life in the mining township of Kolar Gold Fields, from the 1950s to the present day.

Gita Aravamudan is an author and journalist based in Bengaluru. Her books include Colour of Gold, a murder mystery set in the KGF mines, Disappearing Daughters: The Tragedy of Female Foeticide and Baby Makers: The Story of Indian Surrogacy

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