As a boy, Ram Sagar listened to legends about untold riches that were said to lie beneath the very ground he was now clearing with a shovel. The stories said there was an enormous hoard of gold, the lost treasures of a king who had risen up against British rulers and been hanged for his dissent.
They were just stories, of course, shimmering, fantastical tales passed down from one generation to the next. No one actually knew.
But today, Indian government archaeologists are to begin excavating the site and start searching after a religious leader told them he was certain 1,000 tonnes of gold was buried here. A minister subsequently ordered a geological survey – which suggested there may be metal under the ground.
News of the unlikely endeavour has sparked feverish interest among villagers, who every year visit the memorial of the king on the anniversary of his execution to offer their respect. They are already demanding that 20 per cent of whatever may be found is spent to develop the area – schools, a college, a clinic. Everyone is sure the guru’s prediction will prove true.
“I heard stories as a child,” said Mr Sagar, hired to clear the ground ahead of excavations. “We are hopeful.”
The godman-inspired gold hunt is taking place in the village of Daundia Khera in Uttar Pradesh. Here, amid the birdsong on the banks of the flat Ganges river, are the remains of a fort built by Rao Ram Baksh Singh, a local ruler who took part in the 1857 revolution against the British.
When the revolution failed, Singh was captured and hanged from a large tree. Next to the fort’s ruins is a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Shiva.
The village headman, Ajay Pal Singh, said there had always been speculation gold was buried here. Other villagers said people occasionally found coins near the fort but that they usually brought bad luck to the finder. Most people stayed away.
But last month, word got out that Swami Shobhan Sarkar, a local Hindu leader who has established several ashrams, or retreats, had experienced a dream in which the dead king came to him and asked him to recover the gold.
The godman was apparently concerned by reports about India’s flagging economy and plunging rupee. He said there could be as much as 1,000 tonnes of gold here and more nearby, which government could use to boost its gold reserves and help tackle its account deficit.
“People treat the swami like a god,” said Mr Ajay Singh, the headman. “I am 100 per cent certain.”
The imminent excavation, to be carried out by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), a government agency established in 1861, has turned the usually peaceful village of Daundia Khera into something of a beehive. People are flocking for a sight of the fort and local television channels have gathered in anticipation of the start of the digging.
Quite what the long dead king, Rao Ram Baksh Singh, would make of the fuss is unclear. There is no record of what happened to his body after his execution on December 28 1857, but in 1992 the authorities established a memorial next to the spot where he had been hanged.
Reports suggest that, in recent days, people claiming to be descendants of the king have arrived at the village, hoping for a share. Yet locals say the king had just two daughters who committed suicide after his death and left no heirs.
Aside from the excitement, the undertaking has led some to pause and ponder the very nature of modern India. Why is the supposedly secular Congress party-led government spending public money to launch a treasure hunt on the say-so of a seer?
It appears the government sprang to action with surprising speed at the behest of Charan Das Mahant, a junior minister in the Ministry of Food Processing Industries, who had received news of the godman’s vision through a mutual acquaintance, another swami.
Mr Mahant was apparently so taken by Mr Sarkar’s prediction that he twice visited him. He then asked that a report be conducted at the site by the Geological Survey of India (GSI), another government agency. In turn the ASI was asked to excavate.
Dr BR Mani, a senior ASI official, said work was due to start today. He said the team was interested to excavate the historic site and had been directed to do so after the GSI conducted a preliminary inquiry which found there was “something” there. “We are not treasure hunters,” he insisted.
A spokesman for Mr Mahant, the minister, said he was too busy to respond to inquiries. Yet in an interview with The Indian Express, he said that after meeting Mr Sarkar he had informed the Prime Minister’s office, the finance and home ministers, the mines’ minister and various agencies. He also sent word to Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, the mother and son team who head India’s Congress party.
“When I met [Mr Sarkar], he told me about the reserves,” said the minister. “He said the quantity was so huge that if the government can excavate it, it could be handy since there was a crisis with the rupee.”
Perhaps as a result of the flurry of publicity, Mr Sarkar, the religious leader, has moved out of Daundia Khera and is staying at the second of his ashrams, located 70 miles away at Sheoli, near Kanpur.
When The Independent visited, it was dark and Mr Sarkar, clad in orange robes, was sitting in the darkness, receiving devotees and shining a flash-light into their eyes. He insisted that his photograph not be taken. He offered a blessing and a banana but said he would not talk about either the excavation or his predictions. “Please go away,” he demanded.
Yet the guru has appointed a much more media-friendly spokesman, a bare-chested devotee with a grey beard called Swami Om. Mr Om denied reports Mr Sarkar has received a vision of the gold in his dreams, saying he had always known it was there.
He said the guru decided to try and help the Indian government after reading recent reports of its economic problems. “He said ‘ask the prime minister how much gold he requires’,” he said.
He said Mr Sarkar believed there were similar caches buried in other villages. He said the gold would be enough to allow India to match the reserves of the US Federal Reserve, which reportedly holds 8,133 tonnes. “It is because of the mercy of a saint,” he said, referring to Mr Sarkar.
Asked what would happen if the excavation found nothing, Mr Om showed a copy of the recent, unpublished GSI report.
A sentence in the report’s conclusion said a site inspection had detected that a “prominent non-magnetic... zone occurs at 5-20 metres depth [and there is] indication of possible gold, silver and/or some alloys”. It recommended further investigation by means of an excavation.
Some have speculated any gold at the site may be associated with the neighbouring Hindu temple rather than the fort. Many temples across India have huge treasures given by devotees. One temple in Kerala is believed to possess £14bn of gold and the government recently contacted various temples asking them for details of their reserves.
Mr Om said Mr Sarkar was confident of success but had offered to pay for the costs of the excavation if nothing was actually discovered. He said: “If there is nothing there, send us to jail.”