GOLD in the GUTTERS
Feature Articles

GOLD in the GUTTERS

September 21, 2019

If the holy grail of medieval alchemists was turning lead into gold, how much more magical would it be to draw gold from grime-filled streets? Gold, as microscopic particles, has long been known to concentrate on streets dominated by jewellery shops. While there are a set of people who collect gold-laced mud from the roads and obtain milligrams of gold after processing, there is another set of people who look for gold, precious metals and coins deep inside river beds. They are bound together by a common cause — a daily gold or coin rush. This Weekend Star Supplement narrates the stories of these treasure hunters who have made this a profession — a profitable one at that.

Hunting creeks and rivers for Gold and Coins

A 4-inch long gold hairpin once owned by Queen of France Catherine De Medici was found lodged in a community toilet during an excavation of one of the buildings in a courtyard in the Fontainebleau Palace outside Paris. In the cesspit below the latrine, they also found a Gold Virgin Mary Medal and a Jewelled Cross.

Chances are that you are not going to look down drains and rivers near you and find gold and coins. But apart from coins, you just might find gold earrings, gold shirt studs and small gold items that can be worth more than you expect.

Here’s a story that proves the point. 

Treasure Hunters of Cauvery

By R. Amanda Fernandez

Diving is a profession or a leisure activity — quite enthralling and an adventurous experience, to explore and study the unknown water-bed. But for Jayanthi and her community of coin divers, it is not a leisurely activity but bread and butter obtained with hard and gruelling labour. They live in Srirangapatna, a small idyllic, historic and cultural town in Mandya District, 15 kilometres from Mysuru.

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This unique group of women work round-the-year, braving bone-chilling waters of River Cauvery even in winter and monsoon, to collect and retrieve currency coins from the bottom of the river and make a living out of it. These are the same coins that are offered by devotees of temples situated on the banks of Cauvery. 

The devotees, as a ritual practice, take a dip in Cauvery keeping coins on their head or hand as an offering to the deity. Other than the devout, pedestrians, passengers on vehicles, trains and on boats crossing the river too throw coins to the River Goddess. Believing that they will be absolved of all sins, some people fling rings, bracelets and other precious ornaments too into the river. 

Jayanthi, wearing a scuba diving-like mask, looking for coins and other precious items in River Cauvery at Srirangapatna.

The divers say it isn’t bad luck for them to take the coins offered by devotees as they believe that the holy water neutralises all evil things that come their way. Jayanthi and her community who hail from Kuppam Mandalam, Andhra Pradesh, migrated and settled in Srirangapatna many years ago. In her earlier days in the town, she resorted to masonry work around Srirangapatna and Mysuru and later switched to this profession of coin-diving and has been doing it for the past 15 years.

Jayanthi started diving in search of coins at the age of 45 and still continues to do so in her early 60s. She begins her work at dawn, sometimes diving from the bridge and sometimes from the banks, which keeps her busy as long as the sun is in up. 

Each diving session lasts about 20-30 minutes, before she comes out and tries hunting for treasure in another spot. And she uses an eye mask like a scuba diving mask for a clearer vision underwater. On holidays, her grandson accompanies her.

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“Some days I get Rs. 100 to 200 but on lucky days I find small ornaments. I have even found a gold ring,” says Jayanthi. “It’s a feasible and easy way of livelihood,” she claims. 

Jayanthi diving for coins in her routine action

Out of years of experience in the trade, she knows exactly where to find the coins now. For instance, after the train passes on the bridge over the river, she knows the exact spot under the bridge where the coins could be found. Sometimes she witnesses devotees flinging coins into the river and dives in hunt of coins immediately. But it doesn’t make her job seem less rugged.

Interestingly, divers have devised innovative techniques to “fish for coins”. If due to extreme weather conditions they are unable to access the waters, they use a strong magnet which is tied to a string, which tends to attract newer coins.

When asked why she took up this profession, she says with a wry smile, “What can be done, I have to do something for my living. We live near the river, so we keep diving here. Diving for coins is the only source of our income.” 

Since almost two decades Jayanthi and her community have been living as nomads in and around Srirangapatna in tarpaulin huts and most of their kids do not have access to basic amenities. A nomadic way of life is fascinating on its own but it certainly puts forward an alternative vision of life.

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