Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, India: In the dark of the night, the men sat outside waiting for the neighing of the horses. The king, they said, would come, riding into the night and roam his fort. But that night, there was only the whirring sound of an electrical generator powering a few odd bulbs in Daundiya Kheda village.
The quiet setting betrayed little of the frenetic activity the nondescript village in the Unnao district of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh had been witnessing during the day: since mid-October, it has been the site of furious digging for gold believed to be lying under the fort of former ruler, Raja Rao Ram Bux, who was hanged by the British in 1857 during the country's first war of independence.
The treasure hunt was triggered by a seer who claimed that 1,000 tonnes of gold lay underneath. At first, it was reported that the seer, Shobhan Sarkar, had a dream where the king appeared and told him his treasure could salvage India from its current financial crisis. Sarkar denied this later, simply saying he had knowledge of the gold and that the authorities should start digging.
Weeks have passed since he made his claim and the initial euphoria over the purported treasure has considerably dimmed. The crowds of villagers descending on the village have considerably thinned. Surprising though, a 12-member crew of the state-run Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is pressing ahead with the excavation - swayed by the prophecy of the seer.
"It's a ridiculous hunt," says Professor Dhruv Sen of the University of Lucknow.
Despite not striking gold, both the ASI crew and some villagers are continuing to dig doggedly. All they have found so far are shards of pottery and bangles and some animal bones.
'Ghosts guarding treasure'
The elderly men of the village believe ghosts inhabit the fort, guarding the treasure.
Chandranath Tiwari, the village priest, recounts a story from his childhood when he had gone over to the temple site with a friend and stumbled upon a celebration. The ghosts were singing and dancing, and later distributed sweets.
"I packed some for my mother but it turned to cow dung when I gave it to her," the 70-year-old says. "I didn't return. We were never scared of ghosts. They were king's men."
He says only Sarkar, the seer, can help the government find the treasure that is worth Rs. 31,000 crores ($4.98 billion). It was his men who wrote to the prime minister, and the finance minister, and later to the federal minister of state for agriculture and food processing, Charan Das Mahant, who happened to be a follower of Sarkar, to communicate to them that the treasure lies there. It could rein in the inflation, and check the fall of the rupee against the dollar.
Mahant reportedly pressed for digging and a survey was done by the GSI (Geological Society of India) that concluded that there were huge deposits of metal. It could be lead, they said. But ASI was roped in. At first they protested the bizarre claim, and the diktat by the state to undertake digging. They weren't treasure hunters, they said. But they eventually started digging after the seer had conducted a ritual worship at the site.
Officially, the ASI is digging only for objects of historical value.
"We are not digging on gold. We don't have such faith in other's dreams," insists ASI's director of exploration and excavation Syed Jamal Hasan.
According to officials, the ASI is only looking for artifacts that would shed light on history.
"We are not looking for anything in particular. Not gold at least. We haven't ever found a lot of gold in our excavations ever," Hasan says.
But few are willing to buy the line amid the hysteria whipped up by the seer's claim.
School taken over
For the time being, the first casualty has been the village school run by a man from a neighbouring village called Pramod Kumar Yadav. He had been running Amar Shahid Raja Rao Ram Bux Singh Shri Paramhans Saraswati Gyan Mandir for 15 years, and about 200 children from other villages came to attend classes that were held near the temple, and in the village community centre. It was a private initiative, but precious for the villagers nevertheless.
Shobhan Sarkar is not an ordinary man. We have researched him. I think God has sent him here to save this country. Only through saints this country can be saved
Their children could study until Class 8 here, and then go to the high school in the other village. Now, the ASI and the police have taken over the building as it lies next to the digging site. Yadav says he now runs the school from another temple but it is in another village. It is difficult to send young children to the new site as they have to cross the road, and it is dangerous, says Sushma Tiwari, a mother of three children.
The ASI digging site is cordoned off, and nobody is allowed near. Every evening they read out the day's findings to a bunch of journalists who are now losing patience with "no gold" updates. At first, the national and the international media had camped in the village for a few days. The OB vans would be parked at all times, and reporters would look for scoops, and exclusive stories. But with each passing day they lose interest.
Brothers Mahesh and Ganesh have opened a tea stall. They make around Rs. 700 ($11) a day serving tea and snacks to the police and media. In the first few days, the earnings were much more. Now, it is mostly the 150 odd policemen who are here to guard the site, and prevent any untoward incidents.
Ganesh says his father had stumbled upon silver coins while they were digging in the fields, but that was almost 25 years ago. They had been very poor, and he sold the coins to take care of the household.
"One coin fetched around Rs. 72 ($1.1) in those days. There were some Urdu letters on them but we couldn't read them," he says. "The gold rush is good because I can make some money while it lasts."
The brothers are daily wage labourers, but ever since the digging started, they have set up a stall that sells biscuits, and cigarettes, and tea, and get their provisions from the small district six kilometers away.
For the villagers, it is good that the media and the administration came along. Their hope is that it will help the village get an electricity connection, and a school.
"It is high time," Chandrakant Tiwari says. "That's enough for us."
Meanwhile, many claimants have appeared to lay stake to the gold that is yet to be unearthed. Among them are self-proclaimed descendents of Raja Rao Ram Bux. But Tiwari says he had no descendants. The king's daghters had committed suicide after his death. The All India Kshatriya Mahasabha - a social organisation representing a particular community - has submitted a claim saying the community ruled the land, and the All India Kisan Mahasabha - a farmers' organisation - is demanding that the gold should be used to better the plight of the farmers.
Shobhan Sarkar has also demanded that 20 percent should be used for development in the village.
He lives in Shivli near the city of and refuses to be photographed. He is also reluctant to give interviews, or speak on television. It is Omji Baba, his disciple, who has said that he is willing to bet his life on the claim made by the seer.
Despite diminishing hope of striking gold, faith in the seer has seemingly survived.
"Shobhan Sarkar is not an ordinary man. We have researched him. I think God has sent him here to save this country. Only through saints this country can be saved,” Pujari Ram Das, who came from Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh, says.
It is such unwavering faith that has kept the gold diggers in Unnao going.