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When a gold mine became the world’s deepest physics lab

The KGF mines have provided wealth to medieval kings, enriched British fortune hunters, and even helped scientists study rays originating in outer space

The KGF mines have been a source of wealth to everyone from medieval rulers to modern-day governments (Jingming Pan/Unsplash)

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In December 1990, a small team from the British Museum arrived in Karnataka’s Kolar Gold Fields (KGF), home to some of the world’s richest gold mines, to take a look at archaeological remains and try piece together the history of the region’s mining.

The team, there at the invitation of the public sector Bharat Gold Mines Ltd (BGML), which operates the mines at KGF, found small rocks used as hammer stones and larger ones with worn out hollows. These ancient rocks indicate that medieval rulers depended on the mines for their wealth. The team also found old “trench mines” that ran as deep as 30 metres, indicating that the early miners took their excavations quite far.

At one end of the property, they met some local women panning for gold in the silt near abandoned mineshafts. The women said their families had panned for gold—digging up promising lumps in the silt, crushing them against rocks, and washing the remnants in the hope of finding gold deposits—for generations. They told the team that they earned 10-20 a day. A miner employed by BGML earned 1,500 a month at the time, writes one of the team members P.T. Craddock in a paper titled Old Ways in the Kolar Gold Field.

This very basic form of mining for gold had been around for several centuries and will perhaps continue for many more. It had a minimum impact on the land and gave minimum returns.

It’s likely that all the gold used in ancient India was extracted by such small-scale miners. Since the technology of the time did not allow exploitation of natural resources beyond a point, the gold inside the earth remained untapped for generations until the men with the big machines came along.

A British Musuem team met women panning for gold in the silt near abandoned mineshafts in 1990. The women said their families had dug up promising lumps, crushed them against rocks, and washed the remnants to find gold for generations.
A British Musuem team met women panning for gold in the silt near abandoned mineshafts in 1990. The women said their families had dug up promising lumps, crushed them against rocks, and washed the remnants to find gold for generations. (Courtesy: Gita Aravamudan)

In 1990, the KGF mines were more than 100 years old, some shafts ran three kilometres deep under the earth. The shafts had some of the largest hoists in the world to lower the lifts, or cages as they were called, into the depths. All the equipment used in these mines was complex, sturdy and built to last. The wire rope, for instance, which had been used for over 100 years, was made up of over 900 individual wires. There were heavy-duty pumps to prevent flooding by underground water.

The hoists or winding drums, which were made in Manchester at the turn of the century, were still in good working condition in 1990, according to the British Museum team. “The industrial archaeology of the mines deserves study and preservation in its own right,” Craddock wrote.

In the 1960s, I went down the mines a couple of time in the famous cages. Even though I knew I would only be going down to the safe visitor’s level, my heart was in my mouth as we hurtled down into the pitch blackness. The level I went to was air-conditioned and visitor friendly with well-lit passages. I could only imagine what it was like before the lifts were introduced, when men had to climb up and down the deep shafts in that intense darkness to reach their workplace.

Every time I went down, I would remember the stories Ratnam, our gardener who was an ex-miner, told us. He brought that underground world alive for my brother and me with his descriptions of the darkness, the strange, musty smells, the cries of a miner who stumbled and fell down a deep shaft, the fear that engulfed him while crawling down narrow tunnels in the light of a flickering oil lamp. He would enact everything.

Ratnam’s most dramatic and scary story was about the accident underground which had rendered him unfit to be a miner. After a rock blast and a fire, he had lain next to a dead, white man for hours, or maybe days—he’d lost track of time, unable to move, as his leg was pinned under a rock. Around him other colleagues lay charred beyond recognition. When he came to his senses in the mine hospital, he believed the ghost of the white miner had entered him and he could talk of things he had never known about!

Above ground, the huge, busily spinning hoists, the heavy-duty wagons and lorries carrying ore, the hillocks of cyanide and quartz dumps gave our town its unique character. The ore was taken to the large, noisy mechanized mills where it was crushed and sifted on vanning tables and treated with cyanide and other chemicals. The separated gold was washed thoroughly and put through a process called smelting, where it was turned into liquid at very high heat. This liquid gold would be poured into moulds and converted into bars. The gorgeous sight of that liquid gold pouring out of the furnace is unforgettable.

The sight of liquid gold pouring out of the furnace can be unforgettable.
The sight of liquid gold pouring out of the furnace can be unforgettable. (Gita Aravamudan)

The residual ore from which the gold had been extracted was dumped on the roadsides. Over the 100-odd years, the mounds had grown into hillocks. The quartz dumps, which were made up of rocks, were less polluting unlike the cyanide dumps, which comprised fine sand-like particles of powdered ore, cyanide and other chemicals. Even today, during the windy season, this dust flies all over the town creating large-scale pollution. The chemicals in the dumps have also poisoned the land.

Many longtime residents of KGF have developed silicosis, even if they have never been down the mines. Over a century and more, the cyanide dumps developed huge rifts created by the water trickling through the soft sandy substance. To a newcomer, they look like Roman ruins. To young KGF lovers, they provided a safe niche away from prying eyes. To children, they were forbidden playground. More recently, they’ve formed a backdrop for filmmakers, as they do in the song Manmatha Rasa from the Tamil film Thiruda Thirudi.

By the 1960s, a project to study cosmic rays was set up inside the Champion Reef mine, which, at a depth 3,200 metres, was at one point the world's second deepest mine. Cosmic rays, which originate in outer space are very difficult to study when they reach the earth because of the speed with which they move. The Champion Reef mine's special topography facilitated the study of these rays underground, where their speed was considerably reduced by the presence of rocks.

The Kolar rock also had special characteristics in terms of density and chemical composition. By 1964, neutrino-related experiments were started in KGF. By the 1970s, the study expanded to cover neutrinos generated by cosmic rays. But, by 1992, as the mines teetered towards closure, the world’s deepest physics laboratory, situated at a depth of 2.3 kilometres underground, was also forced to close.

We always knew that the mines had a finite supply of gold and that one day they would close. In what was considered a sign of foresight, Bharat Earth Movers Limited (BEML) was established in May 1964 as a public sector undertaking to make railway coaches, spare parts and mining equipment in KGF. It was supposed to absorb retrenched labour from the mines and provide employment opportunities for young residents of KGF. But soon it became evident that the new factory’s requirements did not match the skill-sets of the mining families.

By the 1990s, panic had reached a peak. The future seemed bleak for the residents. Their worst nightmares came true when in 2001, the mines closed suddenly.

This is the fifth 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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