‘KGF’ gold fields will pale before lost treasure in Wayanad’s Banasura dam

It is indeed a fact that mankind fancied gold since time immemorial. The innate quest for the yellow metal continues by following all possible methods including mining and filtering gold from river waters.

History has it that gold was found in Malabar during the era before Christ and that was the time when fine particles of gold glittered in the river waters gushing out from the verdant forest.

People who searched the origin of gold dust in the river reached Wayanad and Nilgiris.

The Banasura Sagar Dam in Wayanad. Photo: Arun Varghese

The Britishers were in the forefront of the hunt for gold. The English who found that there were huge gold deposits in various parts of Wayanad started mining activities to extract the precious yellow metal.

A glance through history would reveal that the earliest migrations to Wayanad could be traced to Thariyode and people from different regions, including Travancore and Malabar, started shifting base to Thariyode. But they were relocated for the construction of the Banasura dam.

If Thariyode were in existence now, it could have been one of the biggest towns in Wayanad. It is noteworthy that bus service, bank and police station were first established in the district in Thariyode.

The catchment area of Banasura Sagar Dam. Photo: Arun Varghese

Like the abandoned gold fields of super hit Kannada film ‘KGF’, the gold region of Thariyode, which is under water, has faded into oblivion.

Gold mining in India

A dilapidated church near the Banasura Sagar Dam. Photo: Arun Varghese

Official records point out that gold mining started in India in AD 200, and the activities to extract gold from Kolar in Karnataka began in the 3rd century. Gold mining became more extensive after the arrival of the British. The British East India Company started to source gold in a big way in Kolar in the 1800s. The other major gold mining sites were Honnali in Karnataka, Ramagiri and Hutti in Andhra Pradesh, Gadag in Goa, and Malabar. It is noteworthy that Kolar is the second deepest gold mine in the world. Gold was extensively mined in Kolar after the British conducted a survey in the region in 1802. John Tyle & Company Mining dug out gold to a great extent in the 1890s and nearly 19.5 tonnes of gold were produced in 1905. During the same period, efforts were on to start gold mining in Wayanad. The documentary ‘Thariyode’, which was directed by Nirmal Baby Varghese and won the State Television Award of 2020, takes a sneak peek into the history of this hamlet with goldfields.

The glittering gold of Malabar

A dilapidated church near the Banasura Sagar Dam. Photo: Arun Varghese

History has it that gold particles were sieved from the river waters in Wayanad and Nilgiris in 500 BC. Gold mining studies were first conducted in Wayanad before they were done in Kolar. When a law was enacted allowing the English to earn income in regions coming under the British East India Company, the Britishers started plantations covering large areas in Wayanad. The Mananthavady club and school grew into European centres.

The catchment area of Banasura Sagar Dam. Photo: Arun Varghese

The Bombay Government noticed the presence of gold in Wayanad in 1798. Tribal people then were sourcing gold from nature in their own crude ways and gold deposits were mainly found on the shores of the Chaliyar River in Nilambur. And later it was found that the source of gold particles flowing in the river waters was Wayanad. The gold deposits find mention in William Logan’s ‘Malabar Manual’ and Samuel Jennings’ ‘My Visit to the Goldfields in the Southeast Wayanad’.

Withers, who came from Australia, started a company by the name of Alfa Gold Mine in 1874 and this was the first company that mined gold in Wayanad. The firm bought close to 1,000 acres of land near Devala for gold mining purposes. After gold deposits were confirmed in Wayanad, many companies in London started to eye their share in the gold rush. During this period, as many as 33 companies started gold mining operations in Wayanad and the mining-related activities were centred in Thariyode, Chooralmala, Thavinjal, Meppadi, Vythiri, Devala, Cherambadi and Pandalur. The European newspapers termed the gold mining operations in Wayanad ‘The Malabar Gold Rush’ and ‘The Malabar Gold Mania’.

A document showing the list of gold mining companies at Wayanad in the ‘Thariyode’ documentary.

The arrival of Smith Moon

The efforts to extract gold resources from the region got the impetus after Gold Mines India, a company owned by Smith Moon and registered in Britain, started its operations in Thariyode. Smith got close to 1,000 acres of land in Choorani near Thariyode where he and his wife Lizzie Smith built bungalows and quarters for workers. As Lizzie Smith was known as ‘Lady Smith’, the land that was registered for the gold mining purposes was called ‘Lady Smith Estate’. A police outpost, an inn, a church and a branch of the Imperial Bank were opened in the region for the employees and workers of the company.

The mining operations began in Thandiyodu, Vattam, Kattimala and Karimbin Thodu. But the company started to incur huge losses as gold mining in the region was not lucrative. When the company was in the brink of stopping mining operations, Smith wrote to his partners in the Britain for a bail out. He got money from them after exhibiting gold sourced from South Africa as that mined in Wayanad. But when the partners became aware of Smith’s financial chicanery, he was unable to return to his homeland. As the company was not able to extract enough gold, it had to shut shop. The mounting losses were a huge setback for Smith who demolished the bungalow with dynamite and later died by suicide. Before her death, Lady Smith transferred the ownership of the estate to the Madras Government. Later, this region was declared as protected forest and even now one could find many tunnels in the area.

A document referring to the gold mining activities in Wayanad in the ‘Thariyode’ documentary.

The Musavari bridge and the Musavari bungalow were standing tall at 10th mile in Thariyode in the 1990s. There was a European-style bungalow 2km from the Musavari bungalow which was used as an estate office and a gold mining office. But now the bungalow is nothing but a few pillars and floor. One could find a stone-paved path leading to the bungalow. And the hill where the bungalow stood is known as the ‘Bunglan Kunnu’.

Though large-scale deforestation happened for gold mining and putting in place railway infrastructure, it paved the way for the development of the region. Police station, bank and church were established, and many people migrated to this part of the world.

Vythiri police station, which is one of the first police stations in Wayanad, was established in Thariyode under the aegis of Smith. Later, the facility was shifted to Vythiri. The Nedungadi Bank, which came into being in 1899, is considered as the first private sector bank in South India. But there are official records that vouch for the fact that the Thariyode Bank, which was established with the backing of Smith, was functioning in the 1880s.

The lost dream

Though many companies started mining operations with great fervour, they couldn’t literally strike gold the way they wanted. It is said that the mining firms incurred huge losses as the gold had not reached the ‘right maturity’. The studies conducted then found that the gold extracted from the region would reach ‘maturity’ only after 70 years. The mining firms realized that it was not viable to mine gold for commercial purposes with the then available technical expertise. Later, the mining companies moved to Kolar and the gold mining operations there got a thrust in the 1890s.

Underwater gold deposits

The central geological department found that Thariyode had huge gold deposits in 1952 and the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru gave the nod for further studies and research. But mining was never carried out. The central geological department’s current contention is that gold can be extracted profitably from Thariyode with the present modern technology. But the ground reality is that gold mining in Thariyode is never going to happen as extraction of gold causes extensive damage to the natural landscape and ecosystem. Now no one can think of shrinking the size of forest cover for gold mining. Moreover, the gold deposits spots of Thariyode had been gobbled up by the Banasura Sagar Dam project and presently the Thairyode town is under water.

When the dam’s water level dips during summer, one could see parts of the old Kuthirapandi road. It is noteworthy that many buildings, houses, playgrounds and wells are under the dam waters. And deep below the dam is ‘mature’ gold. But mankind is not going to get access to that treasure as gold mining could be done only after demolishing the Banasura Sagar Dam, which is the world’s second largest earthern dam. Moreover, thousands of acres of forest land should be decimated. And for obvious reasons both are near to impossible.

So the huge gold deposits, which are probably bigger than that of the Kolar Gold Fields, under the Banasura dam will always be tucked way under the cold waters of the dam and the verdant forests of Thariyode and will be out of bounds to mankind.  

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