The clandestine gold diggers of the Nilgiris – Today’s Paper
It’s an illegal gold mine, deep in the heart of one of the hills surrounding the small, picturesque town of Devala in the Nilgiris, around 70 km from Udhagamandalam.
We crawl through a dark, labyrinthine tunnel with a group of eight local miners, then venture down an 80-foot-deep shaft, lit only by battery-powered torches tied to the miners’ heads with bits of cloth and rope. At the bottom of the vertical shaft are more tunnels that eventually lead to the “seam” — layers of rock, hewn with pickaxes and rudimentary metal tools by the miners.
The men work in two shifts, sometimes up to 10 to 12 hours at a stretch. Tasks are divided between the groups — one for excavating the mine, while the other cooks a quick meal for the team before catching up on some sleep.
Long way from town
The entrance to this damp and claustrophobic mine, excavated over eight months, is a trek of more than five km from Devala. Groups of men carrying rucksacks and little else in terms of equipment, walk along the town’s road before congregating at a tea stall and a provision store at the head of a narrow path leading to the illegal mines.
“It’s an open secret,” says Murali, a lorry driver who has come home for two weeks, and will try his luck in the mines. On the narrow path, the men point out the “pits,” so stragglers don’t fall in.
There are over a hundred such pits along the route, hidden by vegetation and undergrowth. Some are more than a 100-feet-deep, the miners say, used in the past as gateways into the deep tunnels in the hillock. Most have been hollowed out and abandoned, now harbouring snakes and acting as death-traps for large mammals.
Of the numerous mines that have been excavated, around 50-60 in the Devala-Pandalur region are still used regularly, the miners say, though older ones are also routinely prospected by neophytes.