Gold Fables

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From dead kings who come riding at night to snakes that guard hidden treasure, all the myths come tumbling out in the village of Daundiya Kheda as the ASI looks for 1,000 tonnes of gold

UNNAO ~ Two men in yellow and saffron robes climb up to the temple in Daundiya Kheda village. They have come from Faizabad after hearing about the dream and the gold. They would like to meet the seer, and perhaps ask him to join the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. On the way, they saw his photos plastered on buses and walls. They are convinced he has divine powers.

“Just as the Himalayas stand tall to protect the country, so we sadhus protect dharma. It’s our calling. We have renounced everything,” says Pujari Ram Das, spokesperson and administrator of the Nirmohi Akhara, a Hindu religious institution and a plaintiff in the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid titles case.

“They should not doubt Shobhan Sarkar.” Sarkar is the godman who purportedly dreamt there was 1,000 tonnes of gold under a fort in Daundiya Kheda.

After he has offered his prayers and enough pictures have been clicked, Pujari Ram Das sits next to a broken Hanuman idol outside the Shiva temple in the village, and a man unfurls a calendar with parts of the Hanuman Chalisa written on it. He has come to save what remains of this temple. He says he will return in January, and rebuild it.

Meanwhile, a few feet away, in a cordoned- off space, the State is digging. Slowly and carefully. A bamboo pole that rises above the thicket acts as a marker.

“There, it is there,” shouts a man pointing to the pole. There is no way of getting there. The police are everywhere. They are tired of television crews shouting into their mikes about gold diggers.

It is the seventh day of digging and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has managed to unearth a few things that could be of historical significance. But that isn’t enough to match the hysteria. Sarkar is in his fifties and credited with miracle stories. He lives in Shivli near Kanpur in an ashram and was ordained in Buxar. His followers wrote letters in early September to the RBI governor, Finance Minister and Prime Minister. The seer, the letters said, has communication that 1,000 tonnes of gold lies buried under the fort of Raja Rao Ram Bux, who was hanged by the British in the Uprising of 1857. In the ensuing chaos, it was also heard that Sarkar had had a dream where the former ruler told him that he wanted the country to benefit from the treasure buried under the fort. It made for a bizarre, sensational story.

A few days later, Sarkar wrote to the minister of state for agriculture and food processing Charan Das Mahant, who visited the site on 22 September. Mahant asked the Geological Survey of India (GSI) to conduct a preliminary survey of the site and it said it had found indications of huge deposits of metal—it could be gold, silver or lead. The ASI was roped in after Mahant persuaded the culture ministry to start digging. At first, the ASI protested; they weren’t treasure hunters. But they could dig for objects of historical significance, like weapons used in 1857. Everyone expects them to find the gold. So they dig on. On the seventh day, they unearth what could have been a stove, and pieces of bangles, shards of pottery from the Buddhist era.

“There is gold. I can feel it. Shobhan Sarkar is not an ordinary man. We have researched him. I think God has sent him here to save this country. Only through saints can this country be saved,” says Pujari Ram Das. “There are many treasures in this country; remember, we were called ‘Sone Ki Chidiya’.”

A man sits next to him, and asks another reporter, who is Muslim, to sit elsewhere. There’s no offence. They have exchanged notes in the past. Ram Das is his friend on Facebook. Ram Das looks straight into the camera and continues.

“This is our heritage. The rupee has dropped because people have kept gold outside [the country]. Bless the media. We have come because of the media. We will now go and meet Shobhan Sarkar,” he says. “This temple has no trust. It must be taken care of.”

Ram Das couldn’t meet Sarkar because the seer is refusing all audience.

For this village of about 15 houses, no school and no primary healthcare, it has been a bizarre tryst with fame. At first, residents here were amused. The attention was exhilarating. They had lived in obscurity. Now, OB vans were stumbling in. State vehicles too, and they were expecting a helicopter to follow.

They have their own agenda: school, electricity, a college, and jobs for the youth. In that order. The first casualty of the gold hunt was the village school, run by a man from a neighbouring village. Pramod Yadav ran it on the temple grounds, using up part of the Panchayat Bhawan, which was taken over by the state administration when digging started on 18 October. The school has moved to another temple across the road.

Sushma Tiwari is upset. Her children are missing school. To get there, they have to cross the highway, and it is dangerous because of speeding vehicles.

“Who knows if there is gold, but our school is gone,” she says.

Her mother-in-law Vidya Devi says the gold will turn to iron because the diggers have no faith. “They have disrespected Shobhan Sarkar,” she says. “He was the one who built the bridge to Kanpur.”

Daundiya Kheda consists of four tolas or mohallas. When the British attacked the area, the locals had left, and when they resettled, the village was divided into four parts. A river flows by it. It is a picturesque village. An old temple, a meandering river, a forest beyond.

When dusk settles over the day, a lone bulb lights up the temple. All around is darkness. Candles flicker and a generator makes a whirring noise.

Ganesh is making tea. He serves it sugary sweet in thin plastic cups to the policemen who roam the wilderness with their batons. A few carry rifles. Through the day, they sit around and drink tea at the two stalls that came up after digging started. To give them company, there are a few reporters. They are all bored. There is no scoop here. They wait to go live on air. The rest is all business as usual. Nothing dramatic. They dig by centimetres— about 42 centimetres a day. They say they are looking for weapons used in the 1857 uprising against the British. Finding gold would be purely incidental.

But Sarkar, the villagers claim, knows there is gold. If they would let him have his way, the gold would be unearthed in a day, and India would be among the world’s richest. It is embarrassing for the State to admit the ASI is here because of Sarkar’s supposed dream that 1,000 tonnes of gold lies hidden under the erstwhile king’s stable.

Dhruv Sen, associate professor of geology at Lucknow University, says he has worked extensively in the Ganga plains. When he first heard about the digging, he thought it was driven by superstition, that there was no scientific basis to the claim there was gold buried here.

“Conditions essential to the formation of gold are absent in Unnao. The kind of rocks needed for such a process are not present in the region,” he says. “Even if we suppose someone buried some treasure, such huge reserves are not possible, considering that it was a small kingdom. If someone says resistivity is high, it may be so because of the presence of iron nodules and calcium carbonate.”

One reporter has finally got a scoop. In nearby Buxar, they burnt an effigy of Sharad Yadav on Thursday, who termed the gold hunt ‘ridiculous’.

Self-proclaimed descendants of Raja Rao Ram Bux have emerged staking a claim to the treasure. But villagers say the ruler only had two daughters, who jumped into the river after he was hanged. But everyone, including the State, wants a share of the gold rush. Even the All India Kshatriya Mahasabha has submitted a claim saying the community ruled the land. The All India Kisan Mahasabha is demanding that the gold be used for the good of farmers. The villagers are on the periphery, hopes held up by Sarkar’s promise that development will come their way.

One reporter, who has been here since it all started, got a tent to camp at the site. “We will stay here. It is difficult to commute from Lucknow every day. I am from a village. I can stay here,” he announces to fellow tea drinkers.

“One day I will write a book about my travels,” he says. “This is like Peepli Live. But we can’t report on ourselves.”

That evening, he returned to Lucknow; apparently his driver said there were too many mosquitoes. Besides, he had done his exclusive on the effigy burning. Others were still at the site when he had gone for tea, and found the exclusive.

He walked like a man who had just had a big meal.

Everything else has been taken care of. The pramukh of the block, Ram Chandra Singh, alias Pappu Singh, has been sending food cooked by women in his village for the media personnel. He has been quoted in newspapers, and on television. It is a return gesture, one of his men says.

“Please eat. It is very good food,” he says. There’s rice, and potato curry, and rotis. They are already asking the media what they would like for dinner.

His men serve food in styrofoam plates. The policemen eat it too. Two kitchens are up and running for the two different sets of security personnel called in to protect the site and maintain law and order in case of a gold rush.

Babloo Singh, who has come from Rae Bareli district, shows some old coins to a police officer. He found those while digging in his fields a couple of years ago. There could be a treasure hidden there, too.

“I came to make sure,” he says.

Soon after the digging started, there was another statement claiming more gold was buried amid the ruins of Admapur in nearby Fatehpur. Police were deployed there too after locals dug up the earth hoping to find gold.

The driver is also on a gold high. His village, he says, was a Rajwara. “You think there could be gold there? Should we dig?” he asks. Here, villagers say they have always known there is a treasure.

Many years ago, there used to be a saint who lived behind the temple. He had seven dogs, and would come to the village to ask for alms. He stayed in the temple, cooked meagre meals, and spoke of treasures hidden here. But he warned that if they tried to dig it, they would die because the treasure, which belonged to kings, was protected by snakes.

Surendra Prasad, 34, is the mukhiya’s son. He remembers the other sadhu, whose name was Prananand Baba. “He lived in these parts for 25 years. We’d make fun of him when we were kids, and he would raise his hands in the air and say he would call Delhi, and one day the sarkar would come to this village,” says Prasad. “Now I know he spoke the truth. He had said a helicopter would land, that police would roam the village.”

A policeman walks by.

“This is a troublesome assignment. There’s no decent cup of tea to be had,” he says.

In this part of Daundiya Kheda, people are poor, and in their words, they are an ignored lot. The village government primary school was shifted 25 odd years ago. There is a post office, though, by way of consolation.

There are about 150 policemen here, from the Provincial Armed Constabulary and the state police. At Mahesh’s tea stall next to the fields, they want pakora and chai. Mahesh scurries to the nearby block to buy packets of biscuit, gutka, cigarettes and other things to stock his makeshift stall.

He makes around Rs 700 a day. His wife Gudiya fries pakoras on a gas stove, and even cooks for the police if they pay her. For the two brothers, this is their gold moment.

“Nobody used to come here earlier. I would sell vegetables and papad. But this gold rush is good for us. We can make some money,” he says.

Mahesh’s father had stumbled upon silver coins long ago. He was in the fields when Ganesh, his other son, found a few coins, which he pocketed to buy toffees in school. Then his father dug more, and they found silver coins with Urdu on them. They were very poor then. His father sold them for Rs 72 a coin, and it saw them through the lean months. That was almost 25 years ago.

This story and more such are being told and retold in the village. Chandranath Tiwari, the village priest, is almost 70. When he was a young boy, they would sit on the banks of the river and tell stories to each other. Around midnight, they would hear horses neighing and running towards the temple. They never saw them. They believe that was Raja Ram Rao Bux coming every night to worship at the temple.

“I was around 12 then. One night, we went to the Shiva temple and there were tents, and there was singing. I was in Class 4 then,” he says. “They were ghosts. They even gave us mithai. I packed some for my mother but when I returned, it had turned to cow dung.”

He never went back to the temple at night. He wasn’t scared, but thought it best to leave them alone. So he says. His father, Brajbhushan Tiwari, would tell them there was a treasure—gold coins and gold jewellery. The villagers worshipped at the temple, whose idols had been vandalised, which they blamed on the British. The villagers wanted to rebuild the temple and reinstall the idols, but there was no money. Every year, there would be a dangal (wrestling contest) at the site. People from nearby villages and towns would flock here, there would be wrestling matches and prizes given to winners.

Beyond that, the village remained anchored in its obscurity. Now, they feel the media and administration will do something about the village. Get the six poles it needs for electricity, and a school, and a dispensary. That is development. They aren’t interested in gold. That belongs to the State, but Sarkar has said part of the gold must be used to develop the village. He has seven demands, including a university in the area. That is their gold high.

Far beyond the site where the ASI is now digging, they say there is a forest and another temple. In the mornings, the locals would always find two marigold flowers at the feet of the idol there. They believe the ghost of Raja Rao Ram Bux placed it there. They still sing in praise of the brave ruler, who stood up to the might of the British, and never surrendered.

Even if history textbooks do not mention him, they have their memories.

Pramod Kumar Yadav was the man who started the school 15 years ago. He says it was not for the money but as a service to the poor because the government didn’t think they would need a school. The tuition is around Rs 100 and there are five local teachers. The school is called Amar Shahid Raja Rao Ram Bux Singh Shri Paramhans Saraswati Gyan Mandir and 200 children attend it. With the police taking over the community centre that housed the school, he has had to shift it.

“I am now running the school from Siddheshwar Mandir. The mission needs to be completed. They are not letting us go there because they are digging. People say there is a treasure. Sometimes during the rains, they have found coins. But what is important to me is education,” he says.

On important days like 26 January and 15 August, Yadav tells his students about Raja Rao Ram Bux. Last week, he went to meet Sarkar in Kanpur to speak about the school. “I asked him to do something for the school. But Sarkar said he couldn’t do much about the police presence in the area. He gave me his blessings and promised to do something,” he says.

“Awadh prant mein ek thha raaj—Daundiya Kheda / Usi nagar mein bhoop thha Raja Ram Rao Singh Sher / Angrezon ko maar giraya mushkil jeena...”

Ram Pyare from nearby Kalyanpur village stands in front of the temple and sings in praise of the ruler. “A war was fought here. I can tell you the whole history. They tried to hang him thrice and the rope broke. Only when he threw away the amulet given to him by saints could he be killed. Such was the power of saints who have blessed this land,” he says. “Of course the ghosts come here. They come to the dargah of Mardan Shah, the king’s general, and sing and dance.”

A policeman is listening to the man.

He walks over, wielding his stick.

“When the police come, ghosts leave,” he says.

Under a tent, a few policemen and ASI officials are waiting for dusk.

It has been a difficult week for them.

“The tough part was managing the media that came and camped here,” one of them says. “We cordoned off the area, but they were pushy.”

He says one channel bribed a digger.

“He gave Rs 10,000 and told him to take photos of the place where they were digging,” he says.

With no gold strike yet, interest is waning.

There are just a couple of reporters left. Other news is taking over. Besides, it is a bumpy ride to the site. Nearly three and a half hours from Lucknow. If Pappu Singh wasn’t so hospitable, they’d have starved by now, says another reporter.

Kamlesh, a constable, says if there is gold, it will be good for the country. Inflation is way too high, so he is hoping they find it.

“This is the first time we have been deployed at a treasure hunt site,” he says.