Colourful windows, Kolar

Kolar: The Gold Rush In India

Once a thriving town set alight by the glitter of the yellow metal, Kolar Gold Field, on which an eponymous movie was based, is now a quiet place

Against the evening sky, the tall shaft looks somewhat sinister. The town is slow. There is nothing much to see or do, I am told. But someone asks me if I had seen the movie KGF (2018) which was shot here. My head goes in a vigorous ‘no’. For me, the Kolar Gold Fields aka KGF are somewhat of a surprise. However much you hear of abandoned places or mines, seeing the crumbling buildings broken walls, empty homes and thick shrubs overtaking human habitation, is somewhat shattering.

Today, Kolar is just another wayside story in our country but in 1902 it was the first town in India to get electricity. “This is little England,” a villager informs me in fluent English. Only one person tells me he has been down 16,000 ft into the earth to see the world of gold. Dark it was, lit only by the lamps that the miners had. Thanks to the legacy left behind by the British, people here can speak three languages quite well —English, Hindi and Kannada. The town is close to the border of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, so many are fluent in Tamil and Telugu too. It could truly be a case of national integration.

Church in Kolar, Karnataka

I see Christian schools and churches every few metres but I need more time to explore the place. The more turns I take, the quieter the town becomes. Big houses left by the British are inhabited by senior government officials, I am told. Each has a big garden and a lot of space between two houses is visible, no clear walls though. It is only in the smaller villages of Kolar district that people live at close quarters. And those are quaint, colourful homes. The open sky speaks of a simple life, nothing ostentatious about anyone or anything here. The gold has gone but the tales live on.

Old style bungalows, Kolar
Old style bungalows, Kolar

Gold Rush

Mother of Mines, Kolar, Kartnataka

Kolar thrived on gold once, maybe it is there now too, but only in fragmented deposits. We go back to 1871 when Michael Fitzgerald Lavelle, a retired Irish soldier from the British Army, lived in Bangalore Cantonment. By the way, there is a Lavelle road in the city and we stayed in a beautiful hotel, called The Chancery, there. Retirement bored this soldier whose last posting had been fighting the Maori wars in New Zealand. He had now picked up the good habit of reading.

And in the Asiatic Journal he came across a four-page article, which excited him enough to take a 60-mile journey to this town in a bullock cart. The 67-year-old article, dated to 1804, by a Lt John Warren talked about the possibility of gold reserves in Kolar. Lt Warren got an inkling about the gold mines in 1799 when he was sent to survey the lands here. The then ruler, Tipu Sultan, had been killed by the British in the battle of Srirangapatnam. Tipu’s territories were to be handed over to the Mysore princely state. And Lt Warren, serving in his Majesty’s 33rd regiment of foot, on his arrival for the survey heard rumours of people digging gold with their hands. The curious Lt Warren announced a reward for anyone who would show him the location of the coveted yellow metal. Soon villagers landed at his home and office. They had carts full of mud and washed this to isolate the gold powder. The excited Lt Warren came to the conclusion that for every 56 kg of earth, one grain of gold could be extracted. And this was on the basis of the crude methods that the villagers used. He could imagine large gold reserves being extracted out by professionals.

Abandoned shed, Kolarr, Godown
Abandoned shed, Kolarr, Karnataka

In his article, he wrote, “Should we still fancy for the belief that gold occurs only on a narrow region? Why can’t the gold veins under the ground near Maarikuppam extend far beyond?” The gold rush continued from 1804 to 1860, all to no avail. But the daring Lavelle spent two years trying to find the exact locations and was lucky enough to find traces of gold deposits. In 1873, he wrote to the Maharaja of Mysore for a licence to mine. He got permission to mine coal but he insisted on searching for gold, telling the chief commissioner of Mysore and Coorg that the benefits would go to the government. He managed to secure a 20-year lease to mine on February 2, 1875. And that can be called the day when modern mining started in the country.

Lavelle did not have money for deep mining, and soon his savings depleted. In the meantime, author FE Penny wrote a book, Living Dangerously, based on his quest for gold fields and Lavelle had become popular by then. By 1877, he desperately needed funds. Then another army man, Maj. Gen. Beresford of the Madras staff corps in Bengaluru along with McKenzie, Sir William and Col William Arbuthnot formed a syndicate. Several Army officers joined this and it was called ‘The Colar Concessionaries Company Limited’. The syndicate, under pressure from the investors, was compelled to approach a big company —John Taylor and Sons. This company brought in mining engineers from Norwich, England. The game changed and operations in KGF gained speed.

Then the British planned India’s first power plant in Kolar. In 1900, officers from the Royal Engineers approached the Maharaja of Mysore with a proposal to build a hydroelectric plant in the Cauvery river. This would be the second power plant in Asia. For this, Central Electric Company from New York and Eicher Wyss from Switzerland were taken on board to build a 148-km transmission line-then the longest in the world. Machinery was imported from Britain, America and Germany. It was transported in elephant and horse carts to this town. A new era began. By 1902, KGF became the first town in India to have uninterrupted power supply. Gone were the days of candles and kerosene lamps.

The Town Today

Abaondoned telephone exchange, Kolar
Abaondoned telephone exchange, Kolar

Seeing the crumbling structures, the corroded shafts, it is slightly difficult to imagine the days when Kolar was shining. It makes one reflect and realise that neither the good nor the bad are permanent. Now the clubs and homes left by the British are under the government. On one side of the road are the big homes and on the other, the broken homes, the small round spaces where the miners lived. Some call them ‘coolie lines’. Most of these were migrants from Tamil Nadu. And more than one family occupied one shed. This was also the space rats invaded and it is said that the workers killed over 50,000 rats every year. The hospital is abandoned, too, and in a building some boys are idling away their time. We walk in though a broken part of the wall to take some pictures, somewhat scared of being caught. Bats slept on tree branches —is the place haunted or just abandoned? But whatever it is, the place, the ghostly silence of the evening is somewhat eerie.

Coolie lines, Kolar
Coolie lines, Kolar

No More Gold

Abandoned hospital, Kolar
Abandoned hospital, Kolar

With the passage of decades, the gold reserves began to deplete. The senior British officers left in search of greener pastures. The Central government took over all the mines in 1956 but the nationalised mines no longer had enough gold. In 2001, Kolar Gold Fields were shut down permanently. No one can enter the mines, the guard says. You can get special permission to enter but I have just an hour with me and I know no officer would allow me at such a short notice. They say the mines are flooded with water and unsafe. But I can’t say for sure as I don’t see them. The precious metal hasn’t entirely disappeared but the cost of extraction vis-a-vis the amount that comes out is not worth the effort. Even Earth needs its share of peace, I say to myself as the car takes the road to the Bengaluru airport.

Mine shaft, Kolar, Karnataka
Mine shaft, Kolar, Karnataka

Templescape

They say there were once many temples in the area. Among the famous religious spots are Somnatheshwar Temple, Kolaramma Temple and Antaragange. Some say Maharishi Valmiki, the author of Ramayana, lived here. Others trace the roots of sage Jamadagni to this place.

The story of Antaragange is very interesting. To the west of Kolar is a hill called Shatasringa Parvata or Hundred Peaked Mountain. Legend says that King Kartavirya Arjuna (Sahasrarjuna) and his army visited Jamadagni, Parasurama’s father. The king was struck by the magical cow, Surabhi, which Jamadagni had. He wanted the cow but the sage refused to give it. Then the king sent his soldiers to get it but Parasurama killed them all, including the king, with his axe. Now, the king’s sons beheaded Jamadagni.

Parasurama  took an oath to behead the entire Kshatriya race and his battle took place on this hill. This has a temple now which gets water through an underground path and it comes out of the mouth of a stone bull. History says the roots of Kolar lie in the Western Ganga dynasty. Konganivarman Madhava built it as his capital around 350 CE and ruled for around 20 years. His son Madhava I succeeded him.

Kolar was also known as Kuvalalapura or Kolahala Pura. The Ganga kings built the temple of Sri Uttameshwara temple in Uttanur Mulbagal Talluk. There are more interesting tales and more interesting people but maybe another visit with more time would open that treasure trove.

Colourful Village, Kolar
Colourful Village, Kolar

How to Reach Kolar

You can hire a taxi from Bengaluru, it is around 50 km from there. The only exploration is a walk around the area as one is not allowed inside the buildings and near the shafts. Bengaluru is easily accessible by road, air and bus from all major cities of India.

Kolar, December 2019, Exotica magazine

This story was first published in the December 2019 issue of Exotica magazine.

14 thoughts on “Kolar: The Gold Rush In India

  1. There probably is still gold in Kolar, but eventually the cost of extracting it becomes higher than what it’s worth. Sad to see so many beautiful brick buildings abandoned completely!

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  2. I love visiting old mines and industrial heritage sites. First time I hear about the Kolar Gold Mines. Very interesting that they shut them down as late as 2001 and that there was mining acitivity for more than 100 years. Another place for my India bucket list for sure!

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  3. What an interesting history of this gold town of Kolar. Like so many other towns that thrived when gold was plentiful. I am sure seeing the crumbling structures and abandoned mines make it hard to imagine what things once looked like.

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  4. Great post on the history of Kolar gold mines. It’s sad to know the Kolar gold fields were shut down in 2001.Also it was nice to learn about the legends of Parshurama and Antargange associated with this place which makes it significant.

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  5. What a fascinating history, and sad to see a town that was once thriving is now deserted and in need of repair. Hopefully there is a future rebuild to revive the buildings and breathe life back into this town.

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  6. I was smitten by the way you have crafted this piece. One thing that saddens me is when I see places that used to have that glory and grandeur. It’s a great metaphor and reminder in life. I agree, nothing good or bad is set in stone.

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  7. It’s strange, but I love abandoned places because there are so many lessons you can extract from them. Based on the shots, the Kolar town imprints an impression on me of regret, guilt, and rue. I wonder what the town looked like back in the day. Though it looks eerie, there is still that charm.

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  8. This is such an interesting read. I am really glad you wrote about Kolar. There are so many interesting towns/villages such as Kolar in our big and diverse country which we Indians don’t even know exists. Would love to visit and explore more of Kolar.

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  9. What a lovely read. I honestly did not know the story behind the Gold rush and to think, it is right next door to where I stay. Kolar definitely merits a visit now. Thanks for sharing such a gem.

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