In the quest of yet another Koh-i-noor

Prospectors flock to Kollur mine area as the KL Sagar waters recede

April 22, 2017 09:51 pm | Updated 10:34 pm IST - KOLLUR

Hidden treasures:  A precious stone collection of one of the prospectors at Kollur.

Hidden treasures: A precious stone collection of one of the prospectors at Kollur.

While India’s battle to reclaim the Koh-i-noor diamond continues, summer has given a new lease of life to the mines along the Krishna river that spawned the crown jewel.

They have surfaced after months under the waters of the Pulichintala irrigation project in Guntur district.

And as the deserted villages in the 2.4 lakh sq. km. catchment area reappear, prospectors flock to the area, hoping to find another Koh-i-Noor.

The Kollur mine, the ‘Eldorado’ that yielded the enigmatic diamond and the eponymous village in Andhra Pradesh lie in a forested region some 100 km from Vijayawada, enveloped by Pulichintala project or the Dr KL Rao Sagar project on the Krishna river.

The region has been home to diamond mining for centuries, reaching its zenith under the Qutub Shahi dynasty with their capital Golconda a global hub of the trade. Millions of carats of diamonds are believed to have been mined from Kollur between the 15th and the 19th century.

The Koh-i-noor was mined during 16th century and was sold in Golconda. The mines along the Kollur-Paritala belt were active till the 1830s but were gradually given up. Kollur and the region along the Krishna river surfaced in public attention again in the 1990s when the Maoists held control of the region and distributed close to 1,000 acres to the landless poor.

And then in 2004, the Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy government initiated the Pulichintala multipurpose irrigation project under the ambitious Jalayagnyam programme to tap the waters of the Krishna. After a decade of mass evacuations and migration from the affected villages, including Kollur, during the construction, the project was inaugurated by the former Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Kiran Kumar Reddy in 2013. At present, the entire region remains submerged under 50 feet of water in most of the year.

Undeterred hunters

But through the years, economic, topographic and demographic changes have not stopped diamond prospecting in the area. And as the deserted villages surface during the seasonal ebb of the river, lay enthusiasts, serious diamond traders, historians, authors and movie makers flock to the villages hoping to find the next treasure in the rocky terrain.

“Search for diamonds is common for anybody living here. They may do anything from farming to cattle rearing [but] prospecting is always a side business. I’ve been searching for the precious stones past 40 years and I have my own collection which I try to capitalise on whenever traders come here,” says Satya Rao (name changed upon request), who makes a living from quick commercial crops in Kollur when the project waters recede for a couple of months. Mr Rao and other villagers in the project site recall the chequered history of the trade and prospecting passed down in oral traditions.

On contract

For the the villages in the submerged area of Pulichintala, prospecting is a regular source of income. Traders from across the country and enthusiasts engage groups of workers for guidance on the best locations and also for digging. While some traders offer a share in the find, others pay daily wages.

“The contracts are given for a week, within which the working group is expected to dig and collect the stones. The traders make the payment when the sorted stones are handed over,” says a villager from neighbouring Bellamkonda.

Desperate bounty hunters dare the rocky terrain, impossible roads and deserted villages with the fields around Kollur and Bellamkonda pockmarked with prospecting pits and discarded stones. The traders and contractors prefer to work with local people, says Vatte Siva Reddy, former sarpanch of Bodhanam village, five km from Kollur.

“The first question we encounter is on important locations. Hilly slopes and locations along river streams are the favourite places preferred for exploration,” says Mr Siva Reddy. While some are willing to spend time in villages, others are based in the nearby towns of Guntur and Vijaywada and give their visiting cards and mobile numbers to locals so that they are called when there is a valuable find, he says.

Not a joy forever

But finding a valuable stone does not always ensure happiness for the villagers. Given the legal tangles and the ignorance of locals about the quality of the precious stones, many are often don’t reap the true benefits of their finds.

“One of our village girls found a really precious diamond which was initially valued at ₹7 lakh by a trader after being tested by electronic equipment. There was a lot of hype about it in the entire region within no time. Soon there were threats to her life. Ultimately she could barely get ₹30,000 with the police also involved in the final trade,” recalls Muneamma (name changed upon request), a sheep rearer and prospector from the village.

After several such unsavoury experiences and even serious sabotage, most villagers are now happy working for traders on a contract basis, she says.

History buffs

As the villages go under, the interest in the area and the number of visitors has picked up, say the villagers. Recently a team from Germany visited the place and took documented the region for a project on diamond mining, said Sadanand, (name changed) a villager who was engaged by the team for local assistance. “Crossing thousands of kilometres, they came with a lot of enthusiasm to feature the historic mines. They are also seen worried about the possible disappearance of the place,” he said.

Authors William Dalrymple and Anita Anad’s ‘Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond’ was published in December 2016, giving the fascinating new insights into the place where it was mined, its travel from the Mughal court to Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s durbar in Punjab to the Crown of the Queen of England. Crews with large movie cameras are often seen shooting here, say villagers.

While the evacuated and rehabilitated people from the project site find these visits to the deserted villages remunerative, all activity in the submerged area, from mining to farming, is illegal as the project site is out of bounds for people. The government can prosecute persons indulging in such activities in the region, warn legal experts. The government machinery, however, prefers to turn a blind eye to the activities given the vast terrain and lack of access.

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