Kolar: A Mine of Stories

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Till not too long ago, 99% of the gold in India came from Kolar. Its mines, located at a jaw-dropping 10,000 ft, were the deepest active mines in the world. The British had founded them way back in 1885, making them the oldest mines in the country. Awed by such statistics and drawn by visions of gold, I left on a whim for Kolar. The name itself conjured up images of nuggets in sand beds, of El Dorado in a time warp, of a frontier town teeming with activity. But when I reached there after a short 66 km ride from Bangalore, it seemed like a person you’d miss even if he passed you by a dozen times. The town was a shanty, the legendary gold mines were 32 km away and what was worse; they had been closed on account of non-profitability 20 months ago. After one whole century of mining, it had ended but a small chapter in Kolar’s modern history. On digging deeper into its chequered past, I was to realize that its Golden Age was not the first… 

Kolar was earlier famous as the first capital of the Ganga Dynasty. It was Madhava (250 AD) who established his capital at Kuvalalapura (as it was known then), until his grandson Harivarma shifted it to Talakadu. In 1004 AD the Cholas annexed Kolar, but soon it came under the sway of the Vijayanagar Empire, before being taken over by the British in 1684. In 1792, the British gave Kolar to Tipu Sultan. His father Hyder Ali’s tomb is in Mulbagal nearby, while the makbara of Fateh Muhammed, the father of Hyder Ali rests in Kolar. Ever since, the town has been balancing its unique synthesis of Hindu-Sufi-folk cultures. But Kolar is like an epiphany of those Russian Matrushka Dolls, where every layer of history you peel off unearths another older one underneath it. Kolar’s story goes back quite a few years before the Gangas. In fact, to the 12th and final battle between the Devas and the Asuras…

The world was besieged by a powerful asura named Kolahala, who had created mayhem all over the world (hence giving rise to the Hindi word ‘Kolahala’ meaning tumult). It was left to Chamundi (a manifestation of Durga) to set things right. Just as she slew Mahishasur at Mysore, Kolahala was slain at this very place, and the place was duly named after him. Over the years, Kolahala transformed to Kolala, Kuvalala, Kuvalalapura and finally Kolar; and the presiding deity came to be known as Kolaramma. 

The bus screeched past and we winced; covering our ears till the bus was a distant wail. It was the year 2002 and not much had changed in Kolahala. In fact, to add to its unfair share of confusion, a strange-looking biker had come into their midst and was trying to dig into its past. The fact that I didn’t know any Kannada (except ‘Kannada gotilla Sir’, Kannada for ‘I don’t know any Kannada’) didn’t make matters any easy. We were all seated inside the Gangamma temple courtyard, where a lecturer and a priest were narrating the ‘Srishti Katha’ in chaste Kannada, a Muslim labourer translated it into Hyderabadi Hindi (Kya jey, phir Shiva Parvati baitha so…), while I scribbled as fast as I could in shorthand. The crowd that had assembled inside the temple precinct chipped in when the labourer faltered for words. It was a tense situation. The slightest noise or loose talk would elicit a snub from all of us, while the drone of the priest went on. By the time the sun had gone down, the entire history of Kolar lay trapped within the pages of my notebook. 

According to the ‘Srishti Katha’ (Story of Creation), the whole world was once an aqueous world and there was no life anywhere. Shiva and Parvati transformed themselves into birds and laid three eggs. Out of the first, emerged the earth and sky, out of the second egg, the human race (man and woman) and out of the third came water, fire and food grains. But after the creation, Shiva – lost in meditation – paid no heed to Parvati, which sort of upset the kama levels of the world and stagnated procreation. It was Kama Deva to the rescue, who after shooting Shiva with his love dart, is reduced to ashes by Shiva’s 3rd eye. Though we all know the chain of events thereafter, out of Kama’s ashes were born the 7 forms of Shakti. Kamakshi of Kanchi, Meenakshi of Madurai, Durgamma of Bejawada, Chamundi of Mysore, Mookambika of Kollur and Kolaramma of Kolar. 

Kolaramma is supposed to represent the ‘ugra roop’ or terrible aspect of Shakti. Such is her power that her idol is not placed in direct gaze of the devotee but in one corner of the sanctum sanctorum, and only a glimpse of her reflection in a mirror is permissible. Kolaramma shares the vestibule with the sapta-matrikas or seven mothers (Brahmi, Maheshwari, Kumari, Vaishnavi, Varahi, Indrani, Chandi). Above them, the image of a scorpion glowers angrily in the diffused light of a red zero-watt bulb. The L-shaped Kolaramma Temple is built in Ganga tradition and is believed to date back to 2nd century, though inscriptions attribute it to Rajendra Chola I (1012-1045). 

Adjacent to the Kolaramma Temple is the magnificent Someshwara, a Shiva temple built by the Vijayanagara rulers. It is huge and surprisingly quiet. I wonder ‘What’s a temple like you doing in a place like this?’ The Gangamma Temple, in which I sat listening to Kolar’s story, was dedicated to a lesser deity who belonged to the shudra or lower castes. She had emerged from the ground feet first, and is hence called Nela (earth) Gangamma. Initially a malefic deity, she caused destruction wherever she went. People vomited blood, suffered from boils and no one ventured out late. But all this changed when Adi Shankaracharya came here. Unaware of her presence, he slept in the open under the shade of a tree. Gangamma along with Kolaramma approached Shankaracharya and roused him with the intention of devouring him. He asked them to sit down, and making Kolaramma face north and Gangamma east, he bound them with the Gayatri Mantra (and so they remain, rooted in their respective temples to this day). The goddesses demanded something to eat but Shankaracharya disappeared. Soon, a Muslim came along with his little boy who had only one arm and one leg. Placing him at the altar, he left, assuming that his decaying son would soon be dead. Even as deadly scorpions (Kolaramma’s designated vehicle) inched towards him, the kid magically sprouted arms and legs and ran back to his house. His father came and built a devalaya for the goddesses and urged people from all over to come to this abode of Allah. And so, began the strange amalgam of Hindu-Muslim cultures so evident in Kolar. 

I flicked the malai sprinkled with sugar off the top of my glass of chai with irritation. There’s a limit to the amount of history one can absorb. It’s even more vexing when the fine line between history and mythology becomes diffused. I asked around if there were any empty open spaces where I could rest my throbbing head. With the promptness of an international courier company redirecting a misplaced parcel, I was dispatched to Antargange. I followed a 3 km dusty trail from Kolar towards Kolar Betta, a mountain range that forms the town’s backdrop. A long series of steps through a wooded forest and finally I stumbled upon a pond in the middle of nowhere. It was fed by a stream that emanated from the mouth of a bull. Right in the middle of the pond was a small gopuram enshrining the image of Ganesha. Kids splashed about and screamed hysterically, snatching away whatever holiness this place might have possessed. I espied a flight of stone steps beyond the lake and thought of a possible escape route. Climbing clears up your mind. 

Sometimes the closer you are to things, the hazier they become. Height gives perspective. After a good 15-minute climb, I was far from the noise, no closer to the summit and equally far from any clarity. Saw a baba resting in the shade and walked up to him. Good climb, he remarked in that pure Hindi you only get to hear up north. Yes, he was traveling. Passing through the holy land of Parashuram Kshetra. ‘Kolar?’ I enquired as my tanned face lost a shade or two. Silence. I sighed. The baba gets a far away look in his eyes, clears his throat and commences: “Long long ago, when this hill was known by its original name Shata-Shata-Shringa Parvata (the hundred peaked mountain), Parashuram had come here to atone for his killing of Kshatriyas…” 

To those who might contest that he went to Kerala, a clarification. Parashurama had gone on his killing sprees not once, but 21 times over a period of thousands of years. But ever since he came here, this region has been a punya kshetra. I bid adieu to the baba and walked further up to the extensive plateau on top. Kolar seemed like a white rash on the predominantly green landscape. I sat down, tired as much by the strain of the climb as the weight of knowledge that I carried. The gold reserves had dried out but there was no dearth of stories that Kolar kept throwing up. Strangely, the only thing that remained stuck in my head was not Kolar’s rich history but a gem I found painted on a boulder: ‘Kolar, the Land of Milk and Silk. And Gold too!

Getting there:

66 km from Bangalore on the highway to Madras. Kolar’s defunct Gold Mines are situated a further 32 km at KGF.

Food & Acco:

Sri Shanthi, NH-4. Airy spacious double rooms for Rs.300 in the quiet outskirts. Good view of mountains from top-floor and ‘darshini’ restaurant on the ground floor.

Ravi Lodge. Cheap rooms for Rs.60 and doubles for double. Squalid, but located in the heart of the city. Staple Muslim cuisine available at Lucky Hotel nearby.

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in 2003 in Outlook Traveller magazine.

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