With two hours of daylight left, there was still a chance that the river bed would yield a couple more grains of gold. The men were tired but they had little choice in the matter. Besides, the Subansiri was in a generous mood, and when they called it quits at the end of the day, she had rewarded them with almost half a tola, or 5 gm, of gold dust.
On an average day, the Sonowals would pan a couple of grams of the precious metal from the river bed. On good days, this could go up to half a tola, or 5 gm.
It is hard to imagine today, but for hundreds of years, Assam had a thriving tradition of ‘gold washing’, wherein the Sonowals, a community of ‘gold washers’, would extract gold from rivers and streams at the foothills of the Himalayas, brought down from the mountains over millennia.
They did not collect it for personal gain; most of it was turned over as tribute to the Ahom King. It was a system that worked very well for the royal family, for in the mid-19th century, the King collected as much as 4,000 tolas as tribute, sometimes going up to as much as 6,000 to 7,000 tolas!
So where did this gold come from? Nineteenth-century British official William Robinson in his book A Descriptive Account of Assam (1841) mentions the probable source of this gold. The mighty Brahmaputra, after entering Assam via Arunachal Pradesh, runs through its entire length before flowing into Bangladesh. In its long and fascinating journey, this snow-fed river is joined by a host of tributaries. Many of them, mostly the ones joining the Brahmaputra in its upper reaches, are auriferous, or gold-bearing.
A vast proportion of the gold in Assam’s rivers comes from the degradation of tertiary rocks in the Himalayan ranges. It is assumed that the source of gold in the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra is the crystalline rocks that the river passes through during its long course. The precious metal is washed down into the rivers by heavy torrents.
Of course, the quantum and quality of gold varies greatly across rivers, with those in Eastern and Central Assam yielding the most gold dust.
– The amount of gold also depends on the origin and course of the river. Those originating in the Himalayas, especially those that pass through the Siwalik Hills, carry more gold than the others. The best gold is said to be found in the more meandering rivers and those with very strong currents.
Some of Assam’s famous gold-bearing rivers are the Brahmaputra, Subansiri, Burhi Dihing, Dikrang, Borpani, Dhansiri, Dihong, Digaro and Joglo. The gold of the Joglo – deep yellow in colour – is considered the purest and best, and the jewellery of the Ahom royal family was made of it.
The Subansiri River, which rises in Tibet before meandering into the plains of Assam in Lakhimpur district, has long been associated with gold. In fact, its name is derived from ‘Swarna’, the Sanskrit equivalent of ‘gold’.
Retracing Assam’s Gold
The oldest recorded mention of the gold of Assam is found in the Mahabharata. Sabha Parva, the second of the 18 books that comprise the epic, mentions people from the banks of the Lauhitya, the ancient name of the Brahmaputra, bringing gold as a gift for Yudhishthira.
17th-century Mughal chronicler Shihabuddin Talish in his text Tarikh-i-Assam mentions how gold was found in the sands of Assam. Similarly, Alamgirnamah, the chronicle of the early years of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (r. 1658 – 1707), mentions the practice of gold washing.
Likewise, Jean Baptiste Tavernier, the famous French gems merchant as well as traveller, fleetingly mentions the “gold mines of Assam” in his travelogue Travels in India.
The Gold-Washers of Assam
Gold-washing or the extraction of gold from the river sands was a very complicated process, and known only to a few. The hereditary expertise lay with the Kachari community, one of the earliest known inhabitants of the state.
The Kacharis, who belong to the Bodo tribe, used to rule over a vast territory in Assam before the advent of the Ahoms. In the 13th century CE, their kingdom included three-fourths of the modern-day districts of Sivasagar and Charaideo, and even stretched halfway across the modern Nagaon district. Interestingly, most of the gold-bearing rivers flowed through their kingdom, which explains their mastery over the profession.
However, when the Ahoms expanded their territories westwards, at the expense of the Kachari kingdom, those auriferous rivers became part of the Ahom kingdom. The Kacharis became subjects of the Ahoms and were appointed as gold-washers, who were organised into a khel or a guild.
Thus, members of this khel came to be known as ‘Sonowal Kacharis’ – Kacharis who practised the art of ‘gold washing’. Although no longer associated with this profession, they continue to use the surname ‘Sonowal’ with a sense of pride as well as nostalgia.
Maniram Dewan, one of the most celebrated Assamese of the 19th century, explains the gold washing process of the Sonowal Kacharis in his book, Native Account of Washing for Gold in Assam (1838).
– The gold-washers, after choosing a favourable site, began their operations by passing the river sands through a sieve to wash away lumps of clay and stones. It was then collected in a wooden trough, with an inclined plane, and having a narrow outlet at one end.
Water was then sprayed over the sand to let the dense gold mixed with fine sand lodge in the trough. Quicksilver was added to the residue, for it to blend with the gold, while water was poured over the sand to keep it moving. Once the gold adhered to the quicksilver and formed a solid mass, it was placed over a charcoal fire for the quicksilver to evaporate. What was left was thrown into a pot of water, and the pure gold sank to the bottom.
End Of An Era
After the British occupation of Assam in 1826, many British officials including Captain Hannay and Captain Dalton tried to revive the gold-washing industry, but to no avail. Interestingly, the reasons are socio-political as well geological.
The gold-bearing sandbanks regularly shifted with the change in the course of rivers. As a result, it was impossible to extract gold from the same place and new places had to be found each year. It was an extremely labour-intensive process.
With the advent of British rule, a new revenue system was imposed in Assam. For instance, from 1855, the ancestral gold-washing industry of the Sonowals was subjected to bidding by the British. This meant that the cost of extraction substantially increased, as contractors were extremely exploitative. Another possible reason is a shift in focus away from gold-washing to developing tea estates following the discovery of tea in the third decade of the 19th century.
By the late 19th century, the process was no longer economically viable. Tea was already a thriving industry in Assam and oil was discovered in 1901. Not just this, new gold mines had been discovered in South Africa and South America. There was no longer any interest in gold prospecting in Assam and the practice of gold-washing was discontinued in the beginning of the 20th century
In today’s times, the fascinating history of Assam’s golden rivers seems surreal as well as downright tempting. As one harks back to those golden times, one can’t help but wonder whether we can resume that quest for Assam’s gold.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Izaaz Ahmed is a communications expert with a profound fondness for past and antiquity.