Unnao down under: Despite meagre returns,hunt for gold goes onhttps://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/web/unnao-down-under-despite-meagre-returns-hunt-for-gold-goes-on/

Unnao down under: Despite meagre returns,hunt for gold goes on

The ASI dig has yielded little so far,the 1,000 tonnes of gold playing truant.

The ASI dig has yielded little so far,forget 1,000 tonnes of gold. However,from hangers-on to true believers,try telling that to anyone at the excavation site at Daundiya Kheda,says SURBHI KHYATI. Photographs by Vishal Srivastav

Some pieces of pottery,a few animal bones,several mud beads,toys,pieces of bangles and bricks — even by the standards of its own place in history,Daundiya Kheda in Unnao could have been expected to hold something more substantial underneath it.

Above the ground though,that doesn’t matter. They are coming to Daundiya Kheda from neighbouring villages and Lucknow,streaming in from Delhi and distant Amritsar,and include Shobhan Sarkar’s followers to a group of Buddhist monks — and all they want is own piece of the gold. It may be just reflected glory for some,an extra few hundred rupees a day for others,and the thrill of a treasure for a smattering,but around these parts,every silver lining is golden.

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Till a fortnight ago,a Shiva Temple near Daundiya Kheda’s Raja Rao Ram Bux fort hardly drew any visitors. Built on a raised platform,the temple oversees the Ganga and contains a Shivling apart from some other broken idols of gods.

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Since Sarkar’s claim though that Bux had told him in a dream that gold was buried under his fort (the sadhu now denies it),and since the Archaelogical Survey of India (ASI) began excavation on October 18,the village has become famous. It did help that Sarkar — who has captured the world’s attention despite a declared aversion to being photographed — claimed that the gold amounted to 1,000 tonnes and would solve India’s financial problems.

The state police and Provincial Armed Constabulary personnel,numbering over a hundred,have been camping here since the dig started,with their tents spotting the ground. A generator works round the clock. Daundiya Kheda itself gets only irregular electricity and the houses near the fort none at all.

The security personnel sit in groups,keeping a watch on visitors and mediapersons. Two temporary stalls,for tea and snacks,cigarettes and tobacco,have come up and meet the needs of all,be it policemen,mediapersons or visitors.

No one is allowed into the excavation site though. Fenced off by the ASI,the fort ruins are hidden from view.

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The audience gathered around the fort reflects little scepticism. The air is instead ripe with gossip and talk of legends,all pertaining to treasure,only some of which have to do with Daundiya Kheda. Tea stall owner Ganesh Singh mentions silver coins being discovered from farms near the area,of how treasures were hidden underneath or in walls of houses.

“The treasure is definitely there in the fort. I myself found an earthen cup with 100 silver coins,a gold nose pin and a gold necklace sometime around 1989 in these fields,” says Singh,the eldest of three brothers who own most of the fields around the fort. Their house though is among those without an electricity connection and the brothers survive on rain-fed agriculture.

Over the past fortnight,his family has been busy,running two stalls to serve the crowd and telling their stories to anyone interested. Their only complaint is that the amount of movement in their fields has destroyed their mustard crop.

Mahesh,the younger brother,and his wife Gudiya,who run the second tea stall,are also sure of gold being found in the fort,though not whether it would do them any good. “They won’t give us anything out of the treasure,” notes Gudiya. For now she is happy making around Rs 800 to Rs 1,000 everyday.

Most of the crowd also has an opinion on how the gold can be found — including the policemen. “Every treasure to be discovered,as per Hindu religion,requires a sacrifice,” quips one of the cops. Another has no doubt the gold lies there,because “Sarkar said so,but only if the administration follows what he says”.

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A sadhu,Damodar Tiwari says he has come all the way from Amritsar to see if the digging is being “done properly”. Ninety-year-old Mata Prasad Singh also visited the fort one day with grandson Sarvajeet Singh of Sultanpur. They claim to be descendants of Raja Rao Ram Bux Singh but admit had never visited the site earlier. With the ASI blocking entry,they visited the Shiva temple and returned.

Buddhist monks and members of the Baba Saheb Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar Mahasabha from Lucknow visited the site and submitted a memorandum to the administration seeking an excavation to find the Buddhist history of the area. “It is well documented that Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang came here and Lord Buddha himself stayed in the region for three months. We had been seeking a proper excavation even before this gold hunt,” says S R Darapuri,a retired IPS officer and Dalit thinker,who was part of the team that went to Unnao.

However,the former and de facto pradhan of the village Ajay Pal Singh has been quick to remove the religious flags the Ambedkar Mahasabha put up near the fort. “The problem with this region is that there are too many rumours here,” Singh propounds.

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At 8.30 am everyday,ASI officials do a roll call of the 12 labourers hired for the excavation. Another five to seven stay at the Irrigation Department guesthouse,where the ASI is camping. They arrange the water,cook the food and deal with other chores for the ASI officials.

The labourers were handpicked by the ASI and instructed on how to go about the digging. All of them local villagers,they have strict instructions not to speak to anyone.

The main site of the dig,a 10×10 m area on the mound that houses the ruins of the fort,is about 35 feet above ground level,with a flight of steps leading up to it. The fort and temple area is said to be spread over about 40 acres.

The district administration has placed four CCTV cameras,while an ASI camera at the pit records the excavation.

After roll call,the labourers proceed to a makeshift store to pick up their tools —pickaxes,scrappers,hand brushes of all sizes and shapes,trowels,spades,shovels and pans to carry the soil away.

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“Once we enter the pit,our first job is to clean it with a brush,after which officials take photographs to document the scene early in the morning,” says a labourer,who did not want to be named.

Now that the pit (where the ASI struck loose pebbles) is more than 4 metres deep,labourers use ladders to get in. Not more than three people can work simultaneously,and a maximum two people if they are using pickaxes,says the labourer. “We take turns to dig every half an hour or so.” After every dig,the floor of the pit is smoothened using a scrapper and brushes are used to further smoothen the surface. Once the soil is loosened,under the eyes of archaeologists,the lumps are broken for closer examination using pickaxes. Sometimes the soil is also sifted through a screen mesh to spot artefacts.

ASI officials do three-dimensional recording of each artefact,says Indu Prakash,Deputy Superintending Archaeologist (ASI,Lucknow),who is in-charge of the excavation. That records the exact spot where the artefact was found. Photographs of the artefacts are also taken. The labourers have been trained to dig in a straight line parallel to the walls,and to stop at the slightest sound of an axe hitting something. The idea,says Prakash,is to minimise any damage to the artefacts.

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Once documented,an object is cleaned before being sealed in a polybag and marked for documentation. “There are times when a piece is stuck in the soil and to remove it,we are asked to use only brush or a small trowel or knife from the sides. Most of the time,the officials take over the job,” says the labourer.

The materials discovered need to be examined more closely,says Prakash,to determine their age and other details,but only after the excavation process is complete. However,he admits,after about 1,170 man hours,in the 4.25 x 4.25 metre trench,the ASI has only struck loose stones,pieces of pottery,bones of dead animals,a mud stove and what looks like a brick wall structure.

By Friday,the archaeologists had dug another 15 cm in the first trench and also started excavation in a second. The second trench is 2.10 m x 4.25 m,and chosen as per the advice of experts from the Geological Survey of India,who visited the site Thursday,said Vijay Shankar Dubey,ADM,Bighapur,Unnao.

At around 12.30 pm daily,the archaeologists and labourers take an hour’s break to have lunch. They then continue work till 5 pm. When the work ends in the evening,the pit is again cleaned with a brush and photographs taken to document the day’s work. It’s only after this that the archaeologists and labourers leave.

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Hardly 3 km away at his ashram in Buxar,Sarkar sits unfazed at how his prophecy has turned out so far. With hundreds of followers in the region,he claims to have put his neck on the line by giving an affidavit that he is ready to be punished by law if proved wrong.

The sadhu,who owns a private steamer that he uses to commute on the Ganga,also claims to have spent at least Rs 20 lakh so far on the Daundiya Kheda affair,including Rs 10 lakh on a team of geologists that he claims to have called in from IIT-Kanpur and the Indian School of Mines,Dhanbad. The team was not granted permission to visit the site by the administration,Sarkar says.

As for his rule that he not be photographed or any video or audio recording be made of what he says — he forbade journalists from even taking down notes at a press conference — Sarkar claims he had sworn off this when be became a hermit. However,pressed by mediapersons,he agreed that should he be allowed to visit the excavation site,a video could be made as well as his photographs taken.

Bowing to the pressure of the villagers,the administration incidentally agreed on Friday to permit four people of the village to visit the site.

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While no person appears to doubt that Sarkar is a “chamatkari (miracle maker)”,the best miracle they can remember him having pulled off is saying that a bridge would be built over the Ganga,connecting the districts of Unnao and Fatehpur,which came true.

Ajay Pal Singh,the husband of the actual sarpanch of Daundiya Kheda,Sheela,concedes that Sarkar said that the bridge would be made and got the materials required to the area. But adds that the government rushed in after this and finally got it made with its funds.

Saurabh Pandey,an 18-year-old BSc student and a resident of Daundiya Kheda,won’t be dissuaded by these facts. “Sarkarji had said that the bridge would be made and it was made. He says the gold is here,it means the gold is here and it will be found.” A science student,Pandey agrees that logically,gold treasure cannot be found like this,but his faith in Sarkar is stronger.

Strong enough to even withstand the sadhu’s other claims of gold being buried elsewhere,or that only his presence can sniff it out when all of the ASI’s scientific measures have failed.

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Clearly though,he is enjoying the attention. Sarkar calls himself a “mahatma”,“sitting in a dark hut and meditating quietly”. At other times,he jokes,his situation is like that raunchy Bollywood number: “Raziya gundo mein phas gayi (Raziya is caught amongst ruffians)!” Mahatma or Raziya. A dark hut or an assembly of ruffians. Either way,the one having the last laugh is him.