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JULY 10, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 1

P. Panjiar/Livewire Images.
A policeman guards the location where the treasure was found in Mandi Village, India.

Stealing From History
An Indian village finds—and keeps—a 4,000-year-old treasure trove

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 vendors—or 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.

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The 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-all—people 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."

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 discs—all of them 22-carat quality—fetch $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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