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Treasure-Lore in India's Great and Little Traditions

October, 1970

by Paul G. Hiebert

Part 2

II. Treasure Lore in India's Little Tradition
Rumours of hidden treasure are common throughout India's villages. Children of the south, looking up at the stars at night, see in the four major stars of Ursa Major (called the Big Dipper in the west) the four posts of the miserly merchant's bed beneath which lie buried his gold. Nearby the three thieves are creeping up to steal it. Old men in the shade of the village tree tell stories of thieves who dug through the mud walls of huts during their own times. Young boys sheepishly recount their futile attempts to unearth pots of gold (lanka bindelu) in some nearby field, convinced that their failure lay not in the absence of these hoards, but in the dawn which drove them from the field before the money was unearthed, or in their failure to divine the right spot.

Carstairs refers to the prevalence of buried treasures in the dreams and daydreams of the villagers in Rajasthan.

"The phantasy of acquiring sudden unexpected wealth was common in Deoli, as it is in the Western world; but here it presented itself in a peculiar form: the characteristic daydream (or actual dream) took the form of meeting a benevolent holy man, or a god-like stranger who would impart the secret of how to become rich, and who would remain an aloof, all-powerful, but beatific figure, disappearing from the scene as abruptly as he came. Most often his instructions would be to go to such and such a place and dig, and treasure would be found. Rumours spread from time to time that this had actually happened to other people, and my informants all believed that this, or something like it, might happen to them one day."

Earlier Wiser noted that in Karimpur, U.P., villagers hid their gold and silver in one of the walls or the floor of their homes.

The science for the location and proper extraction of hidden gold was apparently well developed. Throughout south India this knowledge was frequently recorded in the old palm-leaf books which can still be found in the villages. These manuscripts prescribed the proper procedures for the search for buried treasures. Because such treasures are often guarded by the reincarnation of their former owners, or by evil spirits, certain magical chants (mantras) and charms (yentras) are needed to protect the finder from harm. These magical rites are often spelled out in the old texts. A literal translation from one of the old palm-leaf manuscripts written in Telugu which were found in the village of Amrabad, A.P., by the author during an extended study of the village illustrates the nature of such texts.

Prerequisites for the Exploration of Treasures
Saints of god, ascetics, mendicants, hermits, poets of divine inspiration, and such people are qualified to dig up a treasure hidden underground. Only people void of base impulses such as hatred and pride, those who do not swerve from the path of truth and those who practice penance should venture out for treasures. Swarthy and tall people, abnormally sized ones, physically, are divinely ordained for such purposes. They should be bold and courageous, interested in divine oracles, devotees of Siva, self-controlled. Those who are untrustworthy, filled with guile, unfaithful in religious rituals, covetous and stealthy, gossips and scandalmongers, these should not be taken into such ventures. Moreover, people who sleep during the day, like owls, and keep awake at night should not accompany the devotee on his expedition. Paupers, sicklings and sinners, if they so much as see the ceremony, the treasure will never appear.

Now there are specific places where one can expect a treasure: l) old reservoirs, 2) old and antiquated gardens, 3) burial and creation grounds, 4) places of religious pilgrimage andinterest, 5) places haunted by celestial beings and demi-gods, 6) in rock pillars of old buildings, and 7) caves wherein hermits lived. These are the places where you are sure to excavate treasures.

Particularly one should look in temple ruins where idols lie broken and devastated. In such places, look for these signs to be sure a treasure is present. If the head of the idol is chopped off, look near the hands. Ten marks there will show you that a treasure lies within. If the thigh is broken, search beneath the hand for one of the following signs. Six marks, black spots, somewhere on the body of the image, is a sign that you can find six hundred gold coin within.... If the idol stands on one foot, you can be certain a treasure lies buried beneath it. If the statue depicts the rider of a horse, or has a horse face, undoubtedly it covers a treasure. If there is a fox or a mongoose carved on the idol, sacrifices must be offered before the treasure is removed. An Avis flower must be well ground, made into a lump and applied while chanting the Pundarika mantra. It must be smeared onto the head or onto the ground. Immediately the treasure will be revealed.

If the idol is eight handed, it has a treasure beneath. Certain herbs must be used. The bitter cucumber (bira), the prickly poppie (bhramadani), and the thorn apple (unmmetha) must be ground well and smeared onto the earth. The mantra to be chanted on this occasion is the invoking of the god Ranga. "Om, oh Ranga, presiding deity over treasure, dispeller of obstacles, svaha"....

If the idol is made of white marble or black, treasure is surely at hand. If a holy lotus is carved upon it, there is added certainty. The herbs prescribed are the Avis flower, and the bark of the same plant which has been ground into opium. The chant is, "Om, phut, phut. Break open, oh earth, oh destroyer of the three elements." This must be chanted while applying the ointment, and the stone will break.

If the statue is that of Chinmaya, god of internal bliss, if the statue shows him to be clothed with silk, you must break open the stomach to find the treasure. Apply to the stomach of the figure the following herbs ground into an ointment: long peppers, black peppers, and cow's urine. A mantra should be chanted at the time to give strength to the ointment so that the stomach will be broken. "Om, namo, Bhagavathe (To you, oh god), Vasudevaya (a name given to Krishna), Anjana vishvarupena (Anjana revealed in his universal form), nirgunana gunaathmanaa, chetham bhagavathenaa, paarenaalokadhaarana (Oh Nirguna without form, who takes form at pleasure. Oh protector of the world). Om, svaha." This mantra is used to break the unbreakable.

III. Treasure Tales and Their Function

Folk tales serve certain obvious functions in the Indian culture, namely entertainment and moral instruction. There is no sharp dichotomy between religion and entertainment. Entertainment generally has religious themes and religious activities provide much of the villagers' entertainment. Indian folk tales illustrate well this harmonious merging of entertainment and religious instruction.

A more unique function for treasure tales is suggested by Foster in connection with the "Image of the Limited Good." He suggests that peasants in many parts of the world view their resources, such as land, money, goods and friendships, as limited in fine quantities for which all must strive. Hence one man's prosperity can come only at the expense of others. He becomes a threat to their own positions and must be stopped. In such a closed model, Foster adds, the only socially acceptable ways to acquire more resources is by tapping sources of wealth outside the system, sources such as hidden treasures.

An instance of such validation was recorded in Amrabad. According to the villagers, the grandfather of the very wealthy moneylenders of Amrabad was a pauper, earning his livelihood by carting grind stones from the quarry in the forest to the village for export. While digging foundations for a house, he reportedly came across a pot of gold coins. He kept the matter hid, but by performing the right incantations, he managed to extract the treasure without harm. Today the family of moneylenders is extremely rich. Village lore has it that a rich man may erect a small gold cobra in the family shrine for every lak of rupees he buries in his house. Such wealth can not be used in business. The Amrabad moneylenders have one such cobra. But despite their high interest rates and hard bargaining, villagers attribute their prosperity to a stroke of good fortune.

Treasure tales provide a few with an accepted way to account for their prosperity. For the many, these tales provide a glimmer of hope that they, too, one day will find a pot of gold and enter the abundant life.