A mineral museum

Print edition : August 29, 2003

Nashik can boast of one of the world's best museums for zeolities - Gargoti, founded by K.C. Pandey.

VERY few people would use the phrase "feminine beauty" to describe a rock shaped by volcanic forces. K.C. Pandey, the founder of Gargoti, the museum of minerals in Nashik, is one such person. He uses the term repeatedly while speaking about the 65-million-year-old zeolites that dominate his life. In fact, the phrase is part of the jargon that zeolite lovers worldwide use to describe these rare finds.

Inside the Gargoti museum.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The word zeolite is derived from the Greek words zein and lithos, meaning boil and stone respectively. A zeolite - an ethereal creation of breathtaking colour and fragile structure - is formed as the result of a process in which a group of silicate minerals expel water when heated.

Pandey's 25-year-old obsession with zeolites began when he was 16. He recounts the moment when he was shown a zeolite by his brother. "It was like teenage love," he says, remembering the milky white apophyllite and orange stilbite minerals that were fused together. Enthused, he began hunting for zeolites around Mumbai and also pursuing his career as an Aviation Officer in the Indian Navy.

In 1994, he participated in the Gems, Mineral and Fossil show in Tucson, Arizona, the world's largest fair of its kind. With his diverse collection, Pandey made an impact at the show. The visit was a turning point for Pandey, who opted for early retirement from the Navy and concentrated on trading his collection in the international market.

A 9.7 kg aquamarine, before it was sold to a European museum.-

A year later, Pandey initiated plans to set up a museum exclusively meant for zeolites. He chose to build it in Nashik partially because of the location. Nashik forms part of the Deccan Trap, one of the world's largest volcanic provinces and hence a perfect hunting ground for zeolites that are an outcome of ancient volcanic activity. "Maharashtra is famous worldwide for minerals. I used to spend my holiday searching for them," he says recalling the days when he frequented stone quarries, road building sites and blasting sites, slowly imbibing the knowledge that he is now known for. "Zeolites are usually about 60 to 65 million years old. Their capillaries have a high water content and immediate changes occur when they are exposed to the air." Despite being forged by extreme heat, zeolites are "very delicate and need to be nurtured". Excessive heat or cold causes rapid decay. The museum, named Gargoti, takes care of the `needs' of the zeolites. Humidity levels are controlled to maintain the `health' of Pandey's 27-year-old collection. In Marathi, the word Gargoti means common stone or pebble. Why choose a name that is exactly the antithesis of the marvellous display in the museum? Pandey says it is actually a subtle way of saying that every pebble has the potential of great beauty - a reference to the fact that many zeolites are found only when rocks are split open.

Pandey's claim that Gargoti is one of the best zeolite museums in the world is backed by independent opinion. The World Wide Web has numerous articles about the not-for-profit museum and Pandey's dedication to it. Pandey achieved his teenage dream of a space dedicated to the display of the zeolites in 2001, at the age of 41. "It was seven years in the making and just the building cost me Rs.6 crores." The most prized piece in Gargoti is a rock of apophyllite, stilbite and calcite measuring 2.2 x 2 feet and worth about $100,000. The entire collection is valued at about Rs.20 crores. But, Pandey says, "Zeolites per se have little value since they are soft and lack durability. Their value lies in their delicacy and the rarity of a find." Since there is no mining for zeolites, most are found when a site is blasted or the ground is dug in the course of an archaeological excavation. Pandey says that 90 per cent of zeolites are lost because of such random mining.

A green apophyllite.-

Pandey wants this random mining of zeolites to change. "I perfectly understand why there is no commercial mining of zeolites. Their deposits are very random, making it difficult to locate them. But people like me, who have been in the business for so long, know where to look. The government should have an indigenous policy for careful mining of zeolites. They are a national treasure and I believe that it would be possible to eradicate the national debt if we carefully mine this treasure." The claim is not as far fetched as it sounds when Pandey mentions the price zeolites bring in the international market. A 9.7 kg aquamarine that he recently sold to a private museum fetched him 250,000 euros. Mined in Karur, Tamil Nadu, the aquamarine was purchased by Pandey at some risk to his life. Apparently, the area continues to yield a cache of aquamarines, but Pandey says it is under the control of a mafia that smuggles the crystals to gemstone markets all over the world.

Apart from being popular among mineral collectors, zeolites can be at the centre of a lucrative commercial activity as is proved by the annual turnover of Rs.6 crores of Pandey's company, Superb Minerals India Private Limited. Owing to their unique porous properties, zeolites are used in a variety of applications with a global market of several million tonnes a year. The most well-known use is in water softening techniques. They can perform ion exchange, filtering, odour removal and gas absorption tasks.

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