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How an Irish soldier’s dreams of gold shook a Karnataka town

In 1956, when the Kolar gold mines were nationalized, they were trailed by a fabled history—from Roman writer Pliny to episodes from the Ramayana

Champion Reef mine shaft at Kolar Gold Fields.
Champion Reef mine shaft at Kolar Gold Fields. (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1956, nine years after Independence, the Kolar gold mines were nationalized. The John Taylor family, which had been involved with these mines for 75 years, were packing up to leave for good. I had been to their large gracious bungalow a couple of times for birthday parties or to play with Anthea and Patrick, the children, who were about my age. And now they were going away “for good”, like many of my other English friends.

Most of the English families, and many Anglo-Indian ones too, had already left. Most went to the UK. Many went to Australia or New Zealand. To me, their departure was what mattered. I didn’t know or care about what nationalization meant. But the fact that so many of my friends were going away “for good” and their dogs, whom I loved, were all being “put to sleep” made me very sad.

In the last six years we had become part of a warm and close-knit community. Our friends were white and Indian and Anglo-Indians. At school, we had an equal number of Indian, English and Anglo-Indian kids in our class. My mother played mahjong with her mixed group of friends and my father wore his white tennis shorts and went off to the KGF Club every Wednesday evening for a game. It was a calm and beautiful life on the surface.

On 29 November 1956, S. Nijalingappa, the then chief minister of Mysore state, took over the mines with all their assets and liabilities from John Taylor and Company. Many years later, I read newspaper reports of that milestone event in the archives. Too little too late, some reports said. The government had just nationalized some “holes in the ground,” another scoffed. Many were happy that at last we had got our valuable asset back, depleted though it was.

The GPT (grammes per ton) was less than 10.23 in 1956. A drastic drop from the 47.51 GPT at its peak. The best ore had left the country a couple of decades ago. But who was to blame? Should the Mysore Maharaja, who had leased the land to the British in the 19th century, have been more thoughtful when signing the contract? After all, it was barren useless land at that point. Or, when he realized all the gold was going out, could he have cancelled the lease? Did he not bother because he was getting a good royalty from the company and knew he could not work the mines on his own?

In the meantime, impervious to the drama around nationalization happening around us, my best friend and I were busy with a secret project of our own. In a corner of our garden, we had found a stone with a shiny streak of gold running through it, and we decided we would dig our own gold mine right there! If we dug hard and deep enough, maybe we would break into one of the many ore-bearing tunnels that ran beneath our feet. We were two nine-year-olds, but we had our own dreams of gold. And it helped us to forget that she would be soon leaving KGF forever.

In a way, our dreams of gold were similar to what an Irish soldier named Michael F. Lavelle had (after whom Lavelle Road in Bengaluru is named). In the 1850s, Lavelle was recuperating in the salubrious Bangalore Cantonment after fighting the wars against the Maoris in New Zealand. That was when he heard of some "native mines" around Kolar. And that’s when he began to dream of finding gold. He went exploring in Kolar and got excited when he found abandoned pits that sometimes went down to about 250ft and more. He even found foot notches in the mud walls and some ancient mining equipment. There were signs of the wood fires that the miners had used to heat the walls of the pits. But there were no miners and there was no gold. Lavelle was obviously not the first prospector for gold in this area. In 77AD, Roman historian Pliny, who passed through this region, had written about extensive gold and silver mining activity. Perhaps these pits were dug by those ancient miners.

Gold ore.
Gold ore.

There were old vessels, digging implements, and remnants of fire inside those pits indicating that those miners had used a traditional method called “fire-blasting” to crack the rocks and dig out the gold ore. They would light a fire against a rock face to heat the stone. When the rock got hot, they would douse it with water, causing the stone to fracture by thermal shock. This was as good as using dynamite. Fire-blasting had been used till the Middle Ages, until explosives came into the picture. It was dangerous and many miners would have died in the process, but dreams of gold were always irresistible.

The gold from Kolar is fabled. The Harappa and Mohenjodaro excavations unearthed some coins made of gold which could be traced to this region. There is even a tale from the Ramayana associated with this gold. When Rama killed Mareecha, the rakshasa who had assumed the form of a golden deer, every drop of gold he spilled is supposed to have become golden ore. And then there is the story of Tipu Sultan, who, while galloping through the area, found his horses hooves were covered with gold dust.

But these are apocryphal tales. It took Lavelle and a British consortium of investors, whom he persuaded, to start seriously prospecting for gold. Lavelle was a tenacious man. He made several trips to the area without finding anything of value. Finally, he came to Bangalore (now Bengaluru), determined to stay until he found his golden vein. On this prospecting expedition, he came on horseback carrying basic equipment and food and tents in bullock carts. In 1875, he made one last-ditch effort, armed with an exclusive lease from the Maharaja of Mysore, which gave him the right to prospect for gold in Kolar.

Lavelle found nothing even then and didn't have the money to carry on. But he was convinced there was plenty of gold to be found. In 1877, he sold his rights to a consortium of rich army men, who floated a private limited company. Over the next couple of years, at least 11 private companies were floated. Most of them closed down.

In 1880, The Mysore Mine Company hired the British engineering firm, John Taylor and Sons, who had successfully established gold mines in Africa. In 1883, finally they struck some serious gold. And what gold! The veins were so rich and extensive that the consortium decided to sink four shafts.

The fields of rich ore were located at the southern portion of a gold-bearing region that extended for about 60 kms. The productive beds, which were about 6 km long and with an average width of 6 kms, were the ones targeted by John Taylor and Sons in 1880.

Within three years, four main veins were opened. The Oorgaum mine was the first one. Then came Champion, Mysore and Nandidorog. Champion, the deepest mine went down to 10,500 feet below sea level. According to one more legend, when the first shaft was sunk, the deeper they dug, the more gold the miners found. The Oorgaum shaft was to become the heart of the mining town. It was from here that the deep tunnels extended in all directions.

During the early years, many mining companies were floated. Some failed. Others were merged with the more productive ones. By 1956, there were only three operational mines: Champion Reef, Nandidroog and Marikuppam. Oorgaum was merged with Champion reef.

When the mines were nationalized, KGF was a thriving township. Every amenity was in place. The functioning of the mines was streamlined. The British handed over the beautiful town they had built intact. The earth had been ravaged for 75 years and more, but there was still some ore left in the mines. Bharat Gold Mines Limited (BGML) continued mining here for another 35 years. But when they finally wound up their activity in 2001, all that was left was a ghost town.

This is the second 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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