Takeaway

Striking gold in Kolar

Zac O' Yeah | Updated on March 20, 2020 Published on March 20, 2020

Once upon a time Of 1890s’ vintage, the KGF Club is where Kolar’s British community went for recreation images: zac o’yeah   -  ZAC OYEAH

The ghost mining town near Bengaluru is a delectable slice of colonial history

The journey from Bengaluru to Kolar Gold Fields (KGF) takes barely two hours but I feel transported a hundred years away into a weird twilight zone of colonialism. Lavish bungalows — some inhabited, others utterly ruined — and quaint churches that date back to the 1800s dot the quiet landscape. For a century, KGF was India’s biggest gold mine and it now feels like some corner of rural England but, strangely, this ghost-town-in-the-making has stayed off the tourist radar.

Shutdown: Most mines in Kolar can only be viewed through steel gates   -  ZAC O YEAH

 

Yet, KGF is reachable by loop line from what used to be known as the Bowringpet station, now renamed Bangarapet. Incidentally, the KGF rail hub’s main claim to fame is the availability of addictive chaats, including a unique version of panipuri with a carrot-and-peas filling. The train to KGF — Swarna Passenger — is rumoured to be the longest in the world because, after the closure of the mines two decades ago, thousands commute to Bengaluru for work.

For guide I have Basav Birdar, who’s filmed a documentary on the settlement and runs Historywallahs tours to make Karnataka heritage-conscious. He’s trying to access archives locked up in various offices for a book he’s writing and I’m tagging along to light his cigarettes while he’s searching. It’s a great hunt: The goldfields is 30 sq miles, including two market towns — Robertsonpet and Andersonpet, both named after colonial officials — along with ramshackle workers’ lines, forlorn shaft heads concealing rusting mine hoists, everything somewhat covered in scrub and shrub.

We first head for Bullen Shaft near Oorgaum station, one of the abandoned mines, except it’s the only one which, unaccountably, they forgot to shut. The others are fenced in and guarded by watchmen, who are least likely to let tourists in. Even here, we must fight our way through thorny weeds and, before we know it, we almost step into a bottomless pit. It’s scary since the mines reach up to 10,000 ft down, putting KGF on the ‘Top 10’ list of the world’s deepest mines. Even if I survive a fall, would I find my way out through the 1,300-km underground maze?

Next, we unsuccessfully try to enter the 1890s’ vintage KGF Club, but it opens only at 6pm. We spot, through a grimy window, a rotting piano in a once-fine ballroom with a wooden floor dying to get waxed. Out of the many clubs that filled colonial leisure time, only two remain — KGF and the Cosmopolitan Club in the Victorian-style King George Hall, which has miraculously preserved its billiards table and English-made wooden cues. I’m told there are Anglo-Indian aunties, descendants of foremen and other mid-level mining staff, who still breakfast on vodka in their bungalows before heading to these clubs for nightcaps.

We stop at a mansion perched on a hummock from which the mining boss viewed the entire goldfields. Its ceilings have collapsed and the halls that were once furnished with mahogany tables, upon which butlers set down cucumber sandwiches while the tea boy poured Darjeeling from a silver pot, are empty. Only the plushly polychromatic floor tiles remain. This could be turned into a world-class mining museum — to save it from the activities (alcohol consumption and ‘illicit’ non-vegging) of antisocials. Subsequently, we explore the KGF beverage situation.

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Old-timers we chat with tell us about a KGF brewery that produced a beverage with the simple but striking brand name ‘Beer’. Life was easier when things were called by their true names, and all of KGF had only one beer shop. Somebody points out its site on BM Road — now occupied by a nursery school and a small chapel, standing side by side. The anonymous informant is unable to decide which structure used to be the historical shop (which could be linked to memory loss triggered by overconsumption). Birdar clarifies: “In the early 20th-century Mysore princely state, liquor could be sold only through authorised shops. In KGF, there was only one shop called the beer shop, so Beershop became the local name for Andersonpet, according to the gazetteers of the time.”

The scant facts I ferret out suggest that this semi-mythical shop owned by Anderson & Co was founded in the late-1800s as an offshoot of Bengaluru’s budding brewing industry. At the time, this was merely a rural market serving the adjacent Champion Reef mines and its nickname was apt because of the number of beers it sold. In 1904, the township was formally christened Andersonpet, a name that lacks the universal appeal of Beershop.

The beer shop doubled as a tavern and later supplied liquor (“grog” in KGF lingo) as well as the native staple arrack until, by the 1960s, it had turned into a downmarket toddy shop, which was perhaps shut down when Karnataka banned the sale of traditional palm wine. Men still called the town “Beershop” while women preferred “bishop”. I imagine the conversations that must have taken place: “Dearest, I’ll pop over to Beershop to purchase pig mutton.”

“Will you ask the bishop for blessings, too?”

While Birdar is busy researching, I find two boozers around the corner in the O Daniel Road bazaar — named after the erstwhile local doctor O’Donnell. New Lucky Liquors and Littar Flower Wines carry on the Beershop heritage, despite being archetypal stand-up guzzle dives. A pint costs ₹90, but the beer is no longer brewed locally — it’s from Bengaluru. Post refreshments, one can get entertained across the street at ’20s-style picture house Lakshmi Talkies, which miraculously survives in this era of streaming and downloading. If a new Tamil blockbuster starring Rajinikanth is released, tickets go for 10 times the normal rate and constables resort to mild lathicharge in order to rein in the excitable audience.

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Although one would think that a town called Beershop would deserve a pub scene, its economy suffered when the mines shut down. Some say the gold fever started during the Harappan era — Pranay Lal writes in Indica: A Deep Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent that “archaeologists believe that the Kolar Gold Fields have been mined since ancient times, perhaps even from the time of the Indus Valley civilization”. Certainly, India’s gold industry was known to ancient European scholars such as Strabo and Pliny; the latter described how gold-hungry ants “the size of Egyptian wolves” carried the precious metal out of caves. Because of this, Wikipedia believes that Pliny actually visited the goldfields, but the man had merely noted down hearsay recorded by the 5th century BCE historian Herodotus, who, again, had never been to India.

Mining continued with the use of old-fashioned methods such as hand-digging (no ants) until the big gold rush in the 1880s. The fields became a hotspot, getting electricity as early as 1902, when colonial capital Calcutta was being powered up. After Independence, production went down since the slavery-like exploitation of labourers came to an end. This resulted in a corresponding decrease in the gold output.

Like the legendary beer shop, vintage stores such as the English Warehouse — where everything English from Colman’s Mustard to corned beef was sold — closed in the early ’60s as there were only three Britishers living in KGF by then. Today, KGF serves up none of the Anglo-Indian cuisine that nostalgic foodies wax lyrical about: Dinner rolls with masala chops, brinjal bakes, devil chutney or the ox tongue roast that I read about in Bridget White’s Kolar Gold Fields: Down Memory Lane. But this otherworldly place could be revived. Imagine if, instead of flying to London, one took the train to KGF to breakfast on scones at bungalows-turned-heritage-B&Bs, followed by a round of golf (yes, there’s a course) or underground adventures in the mines, and if craft pubs in old clubs offered Anglo-Indian grub. KGF is a potential goldmine for the tourist industry.

Fire up: A 100-year-old oven at the New Imperial Bakery

 

Eventually, we stop at New Imperial Bakery, which used to produce hot-from-the-oven loaves every day at 4pm and is possibly the only remaining shop that hasn’t changed. These days the demand is low, so the jolly baker fires up the huge oven only occasionally to prepare items such as the fabled Kolar muffin. He’s proud to show it off; the firewood is stacked neatly ahead of the next baking day. A lazy cat lounges between glass jars on the hundred-year-old counter, but there are no more stickjaw toffees or curry puffs, so I make do with orange and pineapple-flavoured biscuits. For a bite of that historical bread I have to return to KGF soon.

Zac O’ Yeah   -  BUSINESS LINE

 

Zac o’yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist; Email: zacnet@email.com

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Published on March 20, 2020
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