Environment Friendly Mining in Ancient Karnataka

by Tushar Gandhi

During my travels through Karnataka and And­hra, I have seen evidence of how our ancestors were very mu­ch aware of the importance of metals and minerals. How to explore them, mine them and extract metals from ore. Ancient Indians were smelting zinc, apart from producing brass, copper, iron, gold and silver, and producing complex alloys long before Damascus became famous for steel. The complex composition of the Ashoka Pillar at Qutub Minar still baffles mo­dern metallurgists.

Last week, I visited a tiny hamlet in Chickmagalur district of Karnataka. Towards the west of the village, on a hilltop there is a temple built by the villagers in memory of a saint who had done penance in a cave on the hilltop for the betterment of the residents.

The man-made cave, in which the sage did penance, was an ancient mine. A mine discovered and developed by our ancestors some seven to eight hundred, or even more years ago. The ancient mine is a well planned and developed, an example of expertise and engineering skills. Ancient Indians had even built a large tank on the hilltop to store water required for mining operations. British explorers have lavishly praised the ancient mine and marvelled at its technological brilliance. The ancient mine was not a gold or diamond mine, it was a mine for zinc, lead and traces of silver.

We went up to the summit of the hill and hugging its ea­stern slope, we walked do­wn tracing the path where anci­ent Indians worked. The ancient mine starts at the peak of the hill, goes across the summit and then down the north slope into the plain. It is not a series of holes in a hillside, it’s not a bunch of tr­enches; it is a well designed underground mine. An ancient geologist had prospected and discovered the mineral deposit and had accurately mapped its occurrence identifying where the rich deposits existed and then sunk a series of shafts, audits and dug out an underground mine. The mine consists of many shafts and a long underground tunnel; a tunnel almost a couple of hundred metres long. The men who designed the mine had calculated how much rock needed to be chipped off so that the did not cave in and crush the miners and yet they extracted the maximum qu­antity of ore. They only st­opped when they hit hard rock, impervious to their pr­imitive tools.

The beauty of the ancient mine is that there are no signs of the mining activity harming the surroundings or causing ecological damage. Today, in not too far off Bellary, Karnataka, one witnesses the devastation caused by modern miners and shudders to see how man’s insatiable greed for minerals and metals is ravaging the environment. Modern Bellary is an example of the devastation caused by mining; the ancient mine I visited is a shining example of how mineral extraction doesn’t need to damage or ravage our environment and leave behind a wasteland. Now, centuries la­ter, the roof of the old mine has collapsed. In ancient ti­mes, when it was a producing mine, it must have been an awe-inspiring site, it still is.

The old mine in Chickmagalur district is not a stray incident of the brilliance of our ancestors. In Gadag district of Karnataka, I have seen many ancient works where our ancestors, many centuries ago, mined for gold. I have climbed a hill that has a large deposit of gold ore; the hill is peppered with holes dug by our ancestors to extract gold bearing ore. One sees no evidence of the gold on the surface, I was accompanied by geologists who showed me gold ore, only then did I realise that I was walking on a mountain of gold. Ancient Indians could identify gold-bearing ore, knew how to mine it and how to extract pure gold from the ore. In another place, where gold ore is available on the surface, I have seen cr­aters where ancient gold pro­spectors patiently ground the surface of the ore-bearing rock, collected the grinds and extracted gold. The rock surface here is dimpled by craters large and small, where ancient miners ground away patiently and extracted miniscule quantities of gold. They knew that the rock contained gold.

In neighbouring Andhra Pradesh too, I have gone down shafts and tunnels dug by our ancestors in pursuit of gold. Ancient India was famous for its diamonds and gems and its mineral wealth, a wealth explored and extracted by those whom we call primitive people.

India was the jewel of the world, a world that lusted for our wealth and our vast kn­owledge. Because of our ancient wisdom and technology, we became the envy of the world. We discovered metals and how to extract them and then lost the technology and wisdom, Europeans recognised the importance of metals and minerals and based on that, ushered in the industrial revolution and conquered the world. We abandoned our ancient wisdom and knowledge; we forgot the technical skills of our ancients and were enslaved.

(Tushar Gandhi is Founder President of Mahatma Gandhi Foundation)

Technical prowess of ancient India

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