Gold mines conjure up images of twisted labyrinth deep below the earth in which hunched miners work in the light of safety lamps. I read H Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines as a boy and the images linger in my mind even today. When I spotted the Kolar Gold Fields on a map during a trip to Bangalore, I couldn’t resist the temptation to visit the place. I was prepared to be disappointed as reality is never as romantic as imagination. But the place surprised and delighted me.

I was lucky to be introduced to a long-time resident of the place, Valentine "Valley" Powell, who took me around. He spoke of it in the first person, not as a detached observer, but as someone who saw this place as his own. He embellished the drive around the place with stories and anecdotes of his own. And that is how I thought of telling the story of Gold Fields through the eyes of a sutradhar, or storyteller.

The story that follows is about the birth, the triumph, the decline and the hopeful revival of a chequered past.

A brief history

A hot, dusty concrete highway leads me to Kolar. Its considerable breadth and arrow-like straightness constrains the normally errant vehicles to their lanes. The highway curves off the rocky outcrops at Kaparasidhanna halli and shimmers in the heat of an Indian summer. The tyre of my car deflates after striking debris from the truck ahead and I am helped by Satya, a Kolar native, who is on a break from his job as a wedding photographer in Bangalore. He stays till the mechanic replaces the tyre and helps translates the rapid-fire Kannada, not a word of which I understand. In hindsight, it seems promising that I encounter a heart of gold at the start of my quest for the city of gold.

Things must have been different 150 years ago when Major Lavelle set off to prospect in this region. He would have heard fables and stories of fabulous gold veins running through the earth. Renowned for the wealth that lay below its surface from the time of the Mohenjo Daro civilisation, this place attracted the attention of the Cholas, the Guptas and even Tipu Sultan was known to have made modest digs to exploit its riches.

But it took the steam-powered technology and later hydro-electric power of the British to push the boundaries, which were limited by human labour, to realise its full potential. And with the growing realisation of the considerable wealth at their disposal, this charming, undulating land grew into a bustling town which reached its peak in the 1930s.

The good old days

Valentine ‘Valley’ Powell rummages through his considerable photo collection and smiles with satisfaction when he locates the one he wants. Valley has lived all his life here and continues to live after retirement in his charming house in the BEML Township. His father spent his entire working life as a covenanted officer in the mines while Valley worked at the adjoining BEML factory. He cannot imagine moving away from this place.

Both Valley and his wife Vera have Anglo-Indian roots. “Who exactly are Anglo-Indians?” I ask him. Valley explains that Indian-born Europeans, not necessarily English alone, and children of mixed marriages fall into this category. You would find them at railway colonies, postal colonies and places like KGF where the enterprise was owned and run by the English. There are still many Anglo-Indian families still staying here and they all recall the old days with considerable fondness. It was a life of Saturday dances, Christmas parties and things quintessentially British. The township boasted one of the best hospitals, golf courses and schools.

KGF today is a ghost town shrouded in a tattered and rather frayed gown of nostalgia. There is a constant comparison between the "good old days" and inevitable comparisons with the today. I am stopped at the gates of Edgar’s Shaft by a security guard in a faded blue uniform. Selvaraj is an ex- employee of the Bharat Gold Mines Limited. He worked here for 30 years before the mines were closed in 2001 ostensibly because it was unviable to run operations at the current yield. He now works as an employee of a private security agency entrusted with guarding the crumbling ruins.

Selvaraj’s voice crumbles when he talks about what he considers a betrayal on the part of the government when it closed the mines. He despairs at the Rs 1,000 pension to which he is entitled.

Stepping back in time

But the situation was not always so dire. When mining conglomerate John Taylor & Co took over operations in 1880, it soon became evident that there was a lot of gold to be found. Its rise in importance can be gauged from the fact that KGF was one of the earliest cities in India to be electrified. Power was drawn from the hydroelectric project at the Cauvery Falls Reservoir and supplied to the town. It was used to drive the winches that hauled the miner’s cages up and down the shaft and it was used to air condition the lower depths of the pits. Electric power gave the capability to go deeper and faster. The idea was not so much miner safety and comfort so much as increased productivity.

Valley has spent a large part of his time documenting the mine shafts, the buildings, even the cemeteries and the gravestones. As we motor about, he points out places and relates anecdotes attached to them. Along the way, I realise that what started off as a dry tourist itinerary has taken on the layers of a personal pilgrimage garnished with memories. I now see the place through the spectacles of someone who has lived here, seen it in its heydays, watched it prosper and lamented its eventual decline and inevitable demise. I no longer see crumbling walls and mildewed roofs. Instead, I am now able to see beyond the obvious.

Opposite the angular structure of the shaft headgear and on the corner of a gracious boulevard stands a low-slung, whitewashed bungalow. Thick undergrowth surrounds the plinth and a bovine serendipitously ambles across the front porch. "This is the house I grew up in. And that was my bedroom," whispers Valley. "When I was little, they built a concrete culvert and while the cement was still wet, my brother Kenny and I etched our names into it."

We stand over the side of the road and peer into the culvert. The initials are still there, eroded with time, faintly discernible in the light: VP, KP and MP. “MP? Ah, that stood for Mummy Powell," Valley laughs heartily. Across the road stands the Gifford shaft, the deepest single drop shaft in all of Asia. It dropped 7,000 feet in one swift swoop and ultimately went down to 14,000 feet. Valley has been inside it. "Was it claustrophobic?" I asked him. "Oh no, once inside it was like being in a large room – well ventilated, brightly lit and as the depth increased, even air-conditioned," Valley replied.

KGF was the crown jewel in the British possession, a treasure trove to be tapped at will. Viceroys and Governor Generals have photographed themselves against glowing bullion bars fresh from the smelters.

Blanket of Englishness

At Oorgaum stand the derelict ruins of what appeared to be a once magnificent main town post office. The slats on the monkey top have all but crumbled away. Valley has in his possession the original of a telegram that was received at this post office. Dated September 3, 1939, and sent from London, it breaks the news of the impending war in Europe. This telegram is dated a day before the news broke in the Americas and is an indication of the importance the British felt this place possessed.

Like an army cantonment, the township was self-sufficient and self-reliant. Elite English medium schools catered to the children of the workforce, and pretty, red-tiled gymkhanas nestled in the rolling greens of the 18-hole golf course. An invisible blanket of Englishness mantled the township. It called for Christmas dances and summer balls. The balmy climate and rolling green countryside and the stone-turreted buildings added to the surreal feel of an English town nestled on the Deccan Plateau.

But it didn’t quite camouflage the fact that the 40,000-strong miner workforce was mostly overworked and underpaid. Working conditions were harsh and wages low. The dichotomy in the lifestyle and privileges between the management, particularly the English and the Anglo-Indians, and the local workforce could not be more evident.

Through the shackled gates of the general hospital campus, I can see a gracious building in a state of decay. A vacant-mouthed guard stares at me in disinterest. "I spent six months here as a boy for a leg injury," reminisces Valley. "This was the best hospital in the entire state and it would receive patients from as far away as Madras and Hyderabad."

The stately mansion of the Chairman of the KGF is situated at the highest part of the estate. Built in a severely formal style, it sits in a large compound approached by what must once have been a grand driveway. This driveway has now been reduced to a mud track and is hemmed in by a press of acacia shrubs that scratch the paint of my car as I pass through it. The ground slopes away and if Valley were to be believed, the Chairman would have been able to see the lights of Robertsonpet, the commercial hub of KGF, situated some eight kilometres away from his bedroom.

A painted board at the entrance today proclaims it to be a school for underprivileged children. The roof has long gone and the windows bereft of the wooden frames look like the sunken eyes of a corpse. A hundred-year-old banyan tree stands a little distance away, its roots spread over a large area. The whole of the township is filled with towering, ancient trees, their age evident from their girth and canopy. The road from the National Highway that flanks the railway tracks similarly is lined with an avenue of trees.

Anticipating a revival

In the 130 years of commercial production of gold at KGF, approximately 1,000 tonnes of gold have been produced. Enormous quantities of gold-bearing rock is brought out to the surface, pulverised, treated with chemicals including cyanide and the gold, if any, is extracted. The large quantities of the spoil are piled high into towering man-made mountains, popularly referred to as cyanide dumps. These artificial hillocks are distinctive in their shape and colour. Neatly ridged, serrated in profile and bereft of any vegetation. they present a distinctive feature to the town.

But today, only hope abounds in this town. A global tender has been floated to restart the mines and the contract stands to be awarded any time soon. New technology now allows gold to be extracted even from the waste of the cyanide dumps. This thought is echoed by Basheer, now retired, whom I notice sitting on the verandah of his large home within the housing colony.

Surrounded by his menagerie of turkeys, goats, and chickens, Basheer is hopeful of a turnaround in the fortunes of the place and its revival to its former glory. His son is employed as a security guard at KGF and he hopes that he will be absorbed into the permanent cadre once the revival plans come through. And that is the recurring motif that I encounter in the two days I spend there: a belief in the place and the turnaround of its fortunes. One is forced to see beyond the obvious, the mine shafts and the gymkhanas and see the cultural framework that defines the place.