The mysterious case of the three iron chests

In 2007, three iron chests were dug up from 178 Rashbehari Avenue in Kolkata. They were kept at the Gariahat police station while their ownership was disputed. Sudhiti Naskar / Agency Genesis
17 July, 2014

On a sultry Monday afternoon in mid June this year, a group of about three hundred people—journalists, photographers and locals—crowded around the police station in Gariahat, in south Kolkata.

When Umesh, the istriwala, who presses police uniforms in his small shanty adjacent to the thana, stepped out to get a better look at the scene, he saw that the top of the thana’s high boundary wall had been fitted with bamboo poles, between which was strung a cloth screen. He told me that a few intrepid journalists and locals had climbed up on nearby trees to see what was going on inside, while others peeked through a side gate.

The focus of everyone’s interest was three iron chests that were inside the compound. The chests had been unearthed a few years earlier from a plot on Rashbehari Avenue that was being excavated for construction. Since then, speculation had grown about their contents, whetted, perhaps, by recent treasure hunts—both successful, such as at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Kerala in 2011, and comically unsuccessful, such as at Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, last year, launched on the promise of a godman’s dream. True, the Rashbehari chests were old and rusty, but who could say what they might contain? Murmurs of gold and hidden treasure filled the air, drawing more people to the scene. Officers from the Archeological Survey of India and Geological Survey of India supervised the opening of the chests, along with about fifty policemen.

The scene had been equally chaotic on 24 June 2007, the day the three chests were found. Constable Sudip Nayek recounted to me that he had been on patrol that morning, when he came upon construction workers unearthing a chest from plot 178 on Rashbehari Avenue. Nayek promptly informed his superiors at the station, and the police came out to the site. As a crowd gathered, police cordoned off the area. Over the course of the day, two more chests—each chest weighed around 100 kilograms—were dug up and lifted out with a crane.

The Indian Treasure Trove Act, 1878 defines treasure as “anything of any value hidden in the soil, or in anything affixed thereto,” and directs any such treasure worth more than Rs 10 to be handed over to the government. Thus, the chests became government property. Nevertheless, there were claimants to the chests, though their contents were unknown. Mahamaya Pal, a homemaker in her sixties, had recently sold the Rashbehari plot to a Kolkata-based shoe company called Sreeleathers, which had been excavating it. Both Sreeleathers and Mahamaya Pal staked their claim on the chests and were soon embroiled in a legal battle at the Alipore Civil Court.

After a long but inconclusive case that lasted for seven years, in December 2013, the court ordered that the chests be cut open. There was speculation that there would be riches hidden within them, and even archaeologists were hopeful. “I am excited,” said Ashok Patel, superintending archaeologist, ASI, to the Indian Express. “The chests may have anything. I am sending some experts there.”

I met Mahamaya Pal at the Kalighat temple—a place she called her “own”—on a rain-soaked afternoon in late June. The chests had been opened earlier that month, but Pal still spoke of feeling a spiritual connection to them.

Mahamaya Pal, the former owner of 178 Rashbehari Avenue, who sold the plot to Sreeleathers, the company that discovered the chests. Sudhiti Naskar / Agency Genesis

“Nothing but the truth can be spoken in the temple,” she insisted. Her eyes glazed over as she described how, as a child, she had been told stories about Kali and other Hindu deities by her grandmother. Now she believed that the chests had been kept for her by the dark goddess herself. She said that after they were discovered, she had started getting “messages” from “another world” telling her that the treasure belonged to her. “This is all secret knowledge,” she whispered, her face twitching. “This is a mystery of the secret chests that belong to Ma Kali.” Her faith in this belief had been fanned by the astrologers and tantriks she has been frequenting for a few years. She told me that she had spent over one lakh rupees on the ownership case with Sreeleathers, a sixteenth of the sum she got from selling her plot.

Pal’s long wait had come to an end on 16 June, about seven years since the chests were found. That morning, she said a prayer at home, applied a tilak of sandalwood paste on her forehead for luck and went to the police station with her family and lawyer. She waited expectantly, watching the shower of sparks fly from the cutters as the fire brigade personnel laboured at the chests.

Both Pal and Sub-inspector Bireswar Roy, the officer in charge of the case, gave me a recap of the events of that morning. It took two hours for the first chest to be cut open. A diamond cutter was used instead of a gas cutter to protect the “precious” content from damage. But the eager crowd were in for a sore disappointment. Roy told me that the chests only contained a few handfuls of latch needles (used in knitting machines) in polythene bags; a letterhead, dated 1975, of a local business, the Sri Ramkrishna Hosiery Factory; a desktop calendar; four Rs 5 notes with Hindi writing on them; and a lone one paisa coin dated to 1953. One chest was completely empty. “What a waste of time!” a photographer said as he walked away from the scene.

Some bravely maintained that the exercise hadn’t been a waste of time—The Hindu quoted an unnamed ASI official saying, “These needles were made in the 1970s. From them we will come to know how the textile industry functioned during that time. They may have some historic value.”

Roy believes that the location of the chests justified the excitement surrounding them. The plot was close to a Kali temple said to have belonged to “Roghu Dakat”—a famous dacoit—and around which there were rumours of human sacrifice and buried treasure. “There was a possibility that these chests contained jewellery or gold hoarded by the dacoit,” said Roy.

Though the contents of the chest were of little value, Roy still believes something about the situation doesn’t add up. After the outer iron casing of the chests was cut open, he said, the firemen found a layer of fire resistant clay. Within this was another iron casing that had to be cut through before the contents could be reached. “Why would someone put nothing of value inside those chests but take such great care to seal them impeccably?” Roy said.

Pal is equally mystified. “We never had any connection with a clothes business,” she said. “And none of my family members ever dealt with Ramakrishna Hosiery.” She was born in that same house on 178 Rashbehari Avenue to a family of traders and grocers, she said, and has been living there all her life. “The house is eighty years old,” she said. “It was built in 1935. How is a bill from 1975 buried in a chest underneath it without any of us knowing about it?”

Sudhiti Naskar is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata. She likes to document people’s lives in moments of flux. She is regularly published in international magazines. She is currently represented by Agency Genesis.