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Ghamelawallahs and The Gold in the Gutters of Kolkata

ghamelawallahs panning gold in gutters kolkata
Adored by millions across the globe, Gold is treasured as one of the priceless possessions of mankind, which not only enriches your appearance, but also serves as a source of relief and security in times of financial turbulence. However, it certainly requires a great effort to carve a piece that allures.

The entire process of jewellery making is undoubtedly wearisome and labor-intensive. Delving deeper enlightens us on its real worth. Apart from this conventional reality involving goldsmiths and jewellers, there lies another significant pillar of the industry, the Gold Recoverer's, whose contribution often goes unnoticed.

Let's take a pick at the fascinating yet overlooked section of the industry in Kolkata that is driven by the core objective to recover gold from the sludge and sewage waste from the gutters.

Origin of the Gold Rush Industry in Kolkata
Kolkata, being the epicenter of Indian Gold Rush, holds a glorious history, which dates back to the erstwhile British rule in India. Dirt Collectors, popularly known as 'Neharawalahs' or 'Ghamelawallahs' in local parlance, migrated to Calcutta from Agra during the pre-independence era and made a deal with the goldsmiths of East Bengal that they would be cleaning their shops and streets in exchange for a meagre remuneration. Little did anyone know that by using their wit and foresightedness, they would emerge as a significant role player in drawing out The Precious from the Filth.

Many of the fact finders have even drawn out the possibility that this intricate and tedious task of gold extraction from dirt and dust outside the goldsmith shops was honed during the Mughal reign as because the craft of Gold filigree mainly bloomed during the rule of Mughal sultans, who were based in Agra with their capital nearby Delhi. It is surmised that the trade or occupation of Neharawalahs typically evolved as an ancillary source during the Mughal rule.

How the Industry Works
Bowbazar - the Gold Traders' Haven in Kolkata is popular across the globe for being one of the oldest gold markets of India. In the process of carving exquisite pieces of jewellery, the goldsmiths unconsciously leave behind gold dust strewn in their workstation, hands and clothes, which get washed away in the streets. These tiniest gold particles are being relentlessly searched for and collected by Dirt Collectors from streets before the dawn strikes the Earth, for extracting gold from the mixture by using the customary technique of American gold panning.

Furthermore, they also used to collect loads of sludge and sewage waste from the manholes and hydrants in the vicinity of the region and sell it to the owners of gold panning workshops, which are mainly based on the abandoned banks of River Ganges. This is the place from where the second phase of gold extraction from sludge starts.

The workshop owners mostly employ a group of hardworking people for conducting the extraction process. It all starts with the drying of mud, after which it is crushed or sieved into a fine-grained powder by using a roller. The next process is separating the gold particles from mud by using the traditional wooden-sluice technology which, was widely used in California during the 19th century. In this procedure, a wooden board with fine sluices is used for trapping the gold particles by adding water to the mud and massaging it gently. Next to it, the workers used to add mercury to the remaining mud and mould it into 'Ranga' balls, which is heated up for driving out the impurities at first and melting the mercury then after. Lastly, the residue is polished or refined by using nitric acid to carve it to original, pure 24 carat gold. So, this is how the tiny lost gold particles are being recovered meticulously and driven back into circulation.

The Concluding Note
Generally, a minute proportion i.e, around 200 - 300 milligrams per 10 grams of gold is being wasted during the making of gold jewellery, which either fall into the floor or stick to the hands and clothes of jewellery makers. This striking fact definitely provides us a glimpse of the returns and prospects rendered by the industry indeed.

Networking is undeniably the most elementary aspect of this trade as the dirt collectors and gold panners connect with each other via a well-structured, streamlined channel. They are extremely organized, diligent and unquestionably the best in what they do. However, alike any other sector, areas of improvement lies in this flourishing segment as well. Adhering the same, introduction of newer technologies and equipment for simplifying the entire extraction process has already ushered the Neharawalahs or Ghamellawalahs to more opportunities for growth and prosperity.
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