JULY 10, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 1
A policeman guards the location where the treasure was found in Mandi
Indian village findsand keepsa 4,000-year-old treasure trove
By MICHAEL FATHERS New Delhi
It is 3:30 p.m. on June 1 at Mandi, a nondescript settlement in the Indian
state of Uttar Pradesh about 200 km northeast of New Delhi. Three women
are scraping the khaki-colored topsoil into woven baskets from a low mound
at the edge of the village. The owner of the property, Anil Kumar, 30,
had put the word out several months earlier that he intended to level
the area for sugarcane cultivation, and villagers were welcome to remove
the mud from the mound for their own use.
On that hot June day, Kumar was in Delhi visiting a sick relative. While
he was away, the three women of Mandi uncovered an estimated 500 kg of
gold and jewels dating from the Harappa civilization, which flourished
in the Indus Valley more than 4,000 years ago. It was the rarest hoard
of bullion ever found in India. The discovery sparked a gold rush that
has left the country's archaeological establishment with only a tiny portion
of the buried treasure. The rest has been secreted away by unknown villagers,
shopkeepers, gold merchants, ice-cream vendorsor even melted down.
The sound of the three women fighting over the contents of a copper urn
alerted other villagers. Inside the urn were gold bracelets, necklaces
and thin gold discs. "There was so much shouting that people nearby wondered
what was going on," says Kumar. A landless laborer who lives nearby went
to have a look with his three sons and a daughter-in-law. They allegedly
beat up the women and took the urn home with them. By 4 p.m. other villagers
had muscled in. A husband-and-wife team uncovered a large pottery urn
containing about 40 kg of bracelets and necklaces. Next on the scene was
Kumar's cousin Sudir, a local heavy wanted by police, along with eight
followers. When Anil Kumar's mother asked what he was doing, Sudir reportedly
pulled a gun on her. She fled to an adjacent sugarcane field and watched
as the group bundled up about 60 kg of jewelry and gold pieces and walked
off with three copper urns, presumably also filled with gold.
local transport chief and his bus driver followed, allegedly digging up
some 40 kg of gold. By 6 p.m. most of Mandi's 4,000 inhabitants were crowded
onto Kumar's 500-sq-m plot. "It was a complete free-for-allpeople
were fighting and snatching things from each other," says villager Mahak
Singh, 58, who went to have a look after nightfall. "They were walking
away with shawls filled with those small gold discs. They were spilling
out all over the place."
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The villagers scattered when police arrived around 10 p.m. They grabbed
a young man, Somi Singh, and ordered him to start digging. His father,
Mahinder Singh, says his son unearthed another copper urn filled with
35 kg of gold pieces and the golden scabbard of a dagger. The police took
Somi and the treasure to Muzzafarnagar, the local district town, arrested
him on charges of vagrancy and turned over the haul to the district authorities.
The loot, now lying behind double locks in the district treasury, weighs
a mere 10 kg. No one in Muzzafarnagar can explain the discrepancy. Back
in Mandi, the locals aren't talking. "Of course everyone knows, but no
one is going to tell," says an old man as he sucks on a hookah pipe in
the middle of the village. "Are you mad?"
Last week a squad of armed militia was guarding the plot while a team
from the Archaeological Survey of India examined it for the first time.
A formal dig to determine whether the find is merely a treasure trove
or the site of an entire Harappan settlement is expected to begin in October
after the monsoon rains end. It could provide further evidence that this
Indus Valley civilization spread across northern India down the Ganges
and Jamuna rivers. "We need to dig it up to see what is there. We've never
had a haul of Harappan jewelry, so it's very exciting for us," says survey
director-general Komal Anand.
Anand is disturbed by what has taken place at Mandi. "People cannot be
allowed to loot India's archaeological treasures in this way. The police
should have stepped in immediately and recovered it. They have done nothing."
The villagers have been offered rewards and immunity from prosecution,
but none has come forward. Much of the treasure has been scattered. At
local gold shops, the smallest discsall of them 22-carat qualityfetch
$3, the largest $11. Some of the loot has reportedly turned up as far
away as the state of Rajasthan, 500 km to the west.
Anil Kumar is unhappy he has none of the booty and is about to lose his
land. He thinks he will be compensated by the government, but probably
only up to the cost of buying a new plot. Dinesh Misra, the district magistrate,
believes Mandi will become an important tourist attraction. Anand the
archaeologist is not so sure: if she has her way, any more treasure found
on the site will be transported immediately to the National Museum in
Delhi. The crowds that descended on Mandi in hopes of finding leftover
treasure have disappeared. After all, anything found in India that's more
than 100 years old belongs to the government. If, that is, the government
can find it.
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