A Google search of 'magnetic pillars' or 'rice-puller pillars' will yield innumerable links. Most of these are imaginary tales and some are advertisements. Then there are reports in mainstream Indian media about magnetic pillars or rice-puller pillars being used as a ploy to cheat people.
The reports are almost identical. For example, on 9 May 2018 the Times of India published a report about a father and son being arrested for selling rice-puller pillars in the name of NASA. A week or so before this report was published, they published another report about two businessmen being cheated. One of them lost around 15 million rupees (1.5 crore rupees) and the other around 3.9 million rupees (39 lakh rupees). They were lured by news that NASA would pay 370 billion rupees (37,000 crore rupees) for these pillars. Similar deception was carried out in Bangladesh too for decades. Such stories often hit the headlines too.
A probe into these matters reveal that these ploys with magnetic pillars mostly take place in Bangladesh and India. Advertisements are even placed on websites. Recently a website called ricepuller.com directly advertised the sale of six pillars. The advertiser claims that he has six pillars in his possession. These are dated 1818. These pillars, respectively, can attract rice grains at a distance of 11 inches, 22 inches, 12.75 inches, 14 inches, 12 inches and 8.5 inches. In some instances it is said that the pillars contain a metal called iridium which has 'miraculous' powers. It is the iridium that attracts the rice.
There is another narrative about the pillars. It is said the pillars were placed to demarcate the borders. These reportedly were like lightning rods, with the power to prevent lightning strikes. People out of greed removed the pillars and that is why the number of people being killed in lightning strikes had increased.
What is it actually?
According to concerned offices, these pillars had been placed in the ground during the British rule. Land expert and former director of the land survey department Fayekuzzaman Chowdhury, speaking to Prothom Alo, said that a few years after the 1757 Battle of Plassey, the East India Company for the first time took initiative for a land survey. This survey which was carried out for around 70 to 80 years, was known as the Thakbast Survey.
According to Fayekuzzaman Chowdhury, a pillar would be set at every meeting point of three 'mouzas'. It is heard that these pillars had magnets too, so that if the pillars sunk into the ground during heavy rains or floods, other metals could be used to locate these.
The British government carried out two other surveys after the Thakbast Survey. One was the Revenue Survey and the other was the Cadastral Survey or CS. During the Revenue Survey, some mounds of earth were set up and this was also known as the mound survey.
The land expert went on to say that there is no proof of anything miraculous about these pillars or mounds used to demarcate territory. But there are common beliefs in this regard.
Had any efforts been made to prove this anytime? It was learnt that earlier too, the law enforcement had arrested conmen and sent the magnetic pillars or border pillars to the Atomic Energy Commission.
Dr Bilkis Ara Begum has been with the Atomic Energy Commission since 1999 and is a director there now. Speaking to Prothom Alo, she said that since 1999 there had been at least 10 tests in her presence.
Parts of these pillars were tested by means of x-ray fluorescence techniques to determine their composition. So far they have detected the presence of calcium, iron, silicon and titanium. In some there were just RCC rods. There was no iridium.
Is iridium very rare? Professor Kamrul Hasan Mamun of the physics department at Dhaka University, speaking to Prothom Alo, said the use of iridium is limited. It is sometimes used in the amalgamation of several metals to create a new strong metal. It is somewhat luminescent, but it is absolutely false that it produces electricity.
Did magnetic pillars deflect lightning?
Prothom Alo contacted the London meteorological department by e-mail to find out if the pillars could be used as lightning rods. In a reply mail it was said that they did not know anything about these pillars being used for such a purpose. They advised Prothom Alo to contact the British Museum about the matter. The British Museum acknowledged receipt of the letter but till 26 May has not replied to the query.
There are several articles online about the ancient methods used in the UK for protection from lightning. A company called Lightning Strike Limited in its website says Artemis, advisor to the Persian king Xerxes (rule 486-465), was the first to mention lightning bolts and had written about lightning striking the tallest buildings and trees of the city.
The hunt for the 'miracle substance' (iridium) in the magnetic pillars continues unabated. The swindlers also continue to dupe the people.
The first initiative to prevent lightning strikes was taken in 1757 in the Pennsylvania, United States, by Benjamin Franklin. It was he who first came up with the idea to erect lightning rods or a type of metal rod on the top of buildings so lighting would hit it and be conducted to the ground.
In the UK, practical measures in this regard came later on. Between 1803 and 1815, several vessels of the British Royal Navy had been damaged. In this context, a policy regarding lightning rods was adopted after the conference of the Royal Meteorological Society in 1878.
However, the magnetic pillars or border pillars discovered in 2013 in Paikgachha, Khulna, and 2019 in Pirojpur, carried the words 'East India Company 1818'.
Speculations concerning magnetic pillars or border pillars reached such a height that even the Department of Disaster Management in Bangladesh took initiative to verify the matter. Director general of the department, Md Atiqul Haque, speaking to Prothom Alo, said that the Department of Meteorology at Dhaka University, had undertaken a feasibility study on their behalf regarding a project to prevent deaths caused by lightning strikes. They had said that there was no proof that he magnetic pillars or border pillars prevented lightning strikes.
Chairman of Dhaka University's meteorology department, Touhida Rashid, said previously lightning strikes would occur in the afternoons, from March to around May or June. Nowadays there is lightning any time of the day and this occurs from February up till November. The more the temperature rises due to climate change, the higher number of lightning strikes there will be along with increased risk of deaths. This has no connection with magnetic pillars or border pillars.
But the hunt for the 'miracle substance' (iridium) in the magnetic pillars continues unabated. The swindlers also continue to dupe the people. A certain Mr N was asked, why this desperate search? This man who has lost thousands and thousands of taka in this search over the past three decades, says, "99 per cent of the people talk about magnetic pillars to cheat others, but I firmly believe that one per cent of the people know the actual location of these pillars."