Thursday, 14 November 2019

Rediscovering The Jagannath Sadak

Updated: June 20, 2015 2:45 pm

In 2011, I undertook a bullock cart Journey on the old road, trying to retrace it. The journey was undertaken to highlight the sad plight of this once great and now forgotten road on which the pilgrims traveled to visit the gods at Puri. It was a humble attempt to revisit and revive the lost glory of Kalinga, and to relocate and retrace the road with the help of modern scientific survey equipment

The Jagannath Sadak was the ancient pilgrim road from Calcutta to Puri. It took form sometime in late 1700’s and was the lifeline for all pilgrims who came to the Lord’s abode at Puri. It was, from 1825, known as the Orissa Trunk Road, but for the devotees who descended on this path and made the slow way to Puri, it had always been the Jagannath Sadak. The road wound its way touching Belda, Dantan, Midnapore, Jaleswar, Basta, Balasore, Niligiri, Bhadrak, Jajpur, Dharamshala, Chhatia, Cuttack, Bhubaneswar and Pipili. The travelers covered the distances by bullock carts, hackneys, palanquins, horses, camels and elephants, but most of them trudged on foot.

The road was a well-travelled one with many amenities for the pilgrims and travelers. There were serais, dharamshalas, wells, tanks, culverts, bridges, temples, rest sheds, ghats, orchards etc. Many remnants of these are still visible on the isolated stretches of this once grand road. This was the road that was taken by Sri Chaitanya, Nanak and Kabir when they visited Puri. There are various travellers accounts, from the French, English, Dutch and Persian, travellers. The marauding armies of the Mughals, Marathas, Afghans and later on the East India Company took this road to conquer Odisha. In fact, during their tenures, the Maratahs and the Englishmen had implemented a system of collecting toll tax for the maintenance of the road.

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With the advent of the railways in 1898, the Jagannath Sadak fell into disuse and over the next few years was lost forever. The railways shortened the travel time from three weeks to eighteen hours. Many stretches of the road just vanished with time, it was encroached upon by villages and some lengths now form the NH-5. Today, only 168 km out of the original 510 km of the old road still exists.

The circulation of travelers and the production of travel accounts in the late 1700’s and early 1800 is limited to that those of the missionaries and the East India Company officials, and there was a marked asymmetry of relations and the perceptions that they had obtained and recorded.

Most of the early accounts are missionary reports, with typical stereotyped accounts of idolatry, pagan worship, moral degeneracy, hellish characters etc. and reveal the broad spectrum of opinions and views and were remarkably parallel.

The significance and importance of this road can be gauged by the following which is an extract from a letter of February 27, 1877, written by Father G. de Clercx, a French priest of The Company of Jesus. This letter was written from Balasore where the French had a mission where Jesuit missionaries used to be stationed. He gives a vivid account of the road and pilgrims.11_Page_2

“It is at Jaggenauth, towards the south of Orissa, that one finds the place of pilgrimage the most visited in the whole of India. People come here from hundreds of miles away and even from the districts located on the foothills of the Himalayas. Balasore, which is situated on the route of the pilgrims coming from the north-east of the peninsula, is continuously crossed by a crowd of pagans of all ages; of both the sexes and of all social levels, who visit or return to this place. The largest number comes on foot; some come on horsebacks, on the backs of camels or of elephants, or in carts of all types. When, in January last, I was on the route from Midnapore to Balasore, the number of pilgrims was so -large that it looked like a procession as far as the eye could see. Most of them were full of tiredness; they moved forward painfully; quite a few had blood on their feet.”

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“During the month of February about 3,000 pilgrims stay at Balasore each day. In the eyes of the pagans, even the route going to Jaggemauth is sacred; often the indigenous people taking this route touch the earth with hands and kiss it with respect before putting their feet on that route.”

My favourite traveller account was that of Yenugula Veeraswamy whose Kasi Yarta Charitra is a detailed history of the Sadak. Veeraswamy was a scholar who had joined the board of trade under the East India Company and was the head interpreter and translator in the Supreme Court of Madras. With a party of hundred, he had set out from Madras on the 18 May 1830 and for the next one year three months and five days travelled with his entourage on a circuitous pilgrimage passing through Rayalseema, Hyderabad, Nagpur, Jabalpur, Banaras, Calcutta and Odisha. In Odisha he went to places such as Balasore, Bhadrak, Jajpur, Cuttack, Puri, Chilka, Ganjam, Chattrapur and Berhampur.

Veeraswamy maintained a journal in which he recorded his experience. He was a keen observer of even minute and common place things. His travelogue ranks high in the literally historical account of any traveller who visited this part of India. The Telugu edition was translated by the Andhra Pradesh Government Oriental Manuscripts Research Institute in 1973 and has been published as “Enugula Veeraswamy’s Journal”.

It was sometime in late 2009 that I did my first recce of the Jagannath Sadak. I traversed the distance from Jaleswar to Balasore, spending time in each village on the way, exploring the remnants of the old road. I met the villagers and was greeted with amused curiosity, many of the people I spoke to just did not know anything about the road at all. Some of the old folk recollected the early memories of the Sadak and others literally put me on the road by directing me to persons who would have more knowledge. The two weeks that I spent in the area, I gathered that searching the road would be no easy task, there were very few of the old generation left who had recollections of the road.

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The oral history of the Jagannath Sadak is still rich and varied. There are many tales, fables and episodes which are still prevalent in the villages that were on the path of the old road. Popular ditties and limericks (called dhagas) are still sung. The Jagannath Sadak, the ancient travelers and pilgrims, the invading armies, all find mention in the songs, bhajans and religious texts of coastal Odisha.

The road was still called the Jagannath Sadak but few knew of its ancient history. Jaleswar was a sleepy town, more influenced by the neighboring Bengal then Odisha. However the 70 kilometers patch that I had picked up for my first recce of the road was the original road, and in places had remained unchanged since the last two centuries. I made notes on all that I had gathered and while spending the nights in the Old Dak Bungalows and the Circuit houses, I would go over these notes, unraveling the mysterious road that had disappeared with time.

In the next few months I covered other patches between Jajpur and Dharamshala, Chhatia to Cuttack and nearer home in Bhubaneswar itself. The old Jagannath Sadak just gave the ancient old town of Bhubaneswar a pass and skirted on the eastern side of the town. However there were two good roads which branched off it and ended at the Lingaraj temple. I had gathered from the old accounts that the travelers inevitably made their way to the old temples that encircled the Bindusagar pond.

I had managed to get facsimiles of good maps from the British Library at London that showed in detail the road as it was in the year 1845. Other maps which figures in reports of the Famine Commission too made mention of the Jagannath Sadak. I also got many old maps of the areas through which the Sadak passed from the Asiatic Society, National Archives, Government Record rooms at Cuttack and Calcutta and a few from private collections. My to these places had by now generated curiosity amongst the villagers who stayed on the route of the Sadak. Many school teachers and college lecturers whom I had met in my reconnaissance surveys were now giving me tidbits and snippets of what they had gathered about the road. In six months, I had collected enough material and decided to make a trip to retrace the Jagannath Sadak. In 2011, I undertook a bullock cart Journey on the old road, trying to retrace it. The journey was undertaken to highlight the sad plight of this once great and now forgotten road on which the pilgrims traveled to visit the gods at Puri. It was a humble attempt to revisit and revive the lost glory of Kalinga, and to relocate and retrace the road with the help of modern scientific survey equipment.

We took a bullock cart, canopied it in the traditional style and put the three lords on it. We had with us a two pairs of bullocks, a cart man, a farrier (to nail on the horseshoes) students from the history, archeology and geography departments from the Utkal University and a group of 25 bhaktas. We started one morning from the Jagannath Ghat at Calcutta and for the next two weeks walked the entire distance. We would walk the whole day, stopping to meet the villagers who were drawn to the bullock cart by sheer curiosity, and at night would camp at the small temples that dotted the road.

During the journey I discovered many remnants of the great road. I interacted with the villagers on the way and visited the ruins that dotted the terrain of the route of the Jagannath Sadak. I have located more than four hundred archaeological remains of this road. Most of what remains is in ruins, but nevertheless they still resonate with what the ancient pilgrims underwent while on their way to Puri. Many of the old structures are still upright and can be restored. Most of them have fell into disuse and decay or have been converted into Government offices, police stations, Dak bungalows etc. We also discovered marker stones, survey pillars, remnants of British era factories, encampments and mutts etc. which were scattered all along the old road.

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I and my team spent two weeks in the villages on the route. We met scores of villagers, farmers, herders, traders, housewives, way side temple priests, holy men, revenue officials, government land record section employees etc. and gathered valuable information of the ancient road. We took photographs and interviewed many of the old folk who had recollections of the old road. The culmination of the journey was a soul stirring experience for all of us.

I shall never be able to relate or pen down all that I gathered on the pilgrimage. The ghosts of the old travellers still haunt the road, many villagers told me that they still hear the tinkling of the bells of the bullock carts, the chanting songs of the palanquin bearers and the cries of ‘Jai Jagannath’ which the pilgrims broke into on seeing others.

Looking back, I recollect the small incident that had put me on the quest for searching the Jagannath Sadak. It was sometime in December 2007, I was traveling to Kolkata after an overnight stopover at Balasore. We had started early in the morning, before dawn, as I wanted to reach Kolkata and finish my work and come back the same day. There was an early morning mist which hung low, rising from the wet fields on both the sides of the road and getting thick and dense as we approached river bridges.

Somewhere near Jaleswar, I realised that visibility was pretty low, the headlights that had been switched on reflected back from the milky miasma. I asked the driver to stop at a lay by near the road and wait for sun up as the mist would have cleared with the sun. As I stood on the highway, I could make out a small group of persons who had climbed onto the road. They were farm labourers, as a few of them were carrying their tools of the trade on their shoulders. I saw them clamber up the road and then immediately a few of them prostrated on the road, the rest just bent over and touched the road with their finger tips and then touched their foreheads. This all happened in that flash of a few seconds, they all scrambled over to the other side and descended the embankment and disappeared into the mists.

It took me a few seconds to comprehend what had happened. The scepter of a dozen ghostly figures appear, prostrate on the road and then away they go. Somehow I could not fully comprehend and my curiosity was aroused. I looked around for some shrine of sorts that usually occur on the roadside in this part of the country. It is common to see a small rock smeared with vermillion red or orange representing the Goddess Durga or Hanuman under a big tree every half a kilometer on the highway. In some places a trident is struck on the ground and a small shivaling kept. Most of these spots have a small collection box affixed in the ground or chained down with a lock. Many of the truck drivers stopped to and drop a coin and take a smudge of the vermillion or orange “sindoor” which they applied to their foreheads for ensuring a safe journey.

However I could not see any such shrine in the vicinity. My curiosity got the better of me, and soon I was scurrying behind them. They had already covered a good distance and I had to jog a bit before I caught up with them. I called out to them, the group slowed and a few stopped. The rest kept up their hurried pace. I was huffing and puffing by the time I got to the stragglers. The trio had curious, exasperated, and enquiring expressions on their faces. In these rural parts people do not liked to be called from behind, usually when they are off to work.

“Why did do prostrate on the road? I enquired. They gave an incredulous looks.

“Don’t you not know that this is the Jagannath Sadak, the road which ends at the Singhadwar at Puri”.

“Yes, I know that this is the road to Puri, but why worship it.”

“It has been always done, babu. We are poor folks; we cannot go to Puri so we take the Lords blessings from his road. How are you not aware, you have come from Puri”?

They were a marked impatience in their voices, and I did not want to irritate them anymore. I stood there still trying to comprehend fully the explanation that they had offered. They soon disappeared into the mist, talking about my stupidity in being unaware of the Lord’s Road. Later on when I looked back, I realised that there was no reason why I had stopped, I normally attacked inclement weather, and be it rains or fog, and I would plod along. Somehow it was some divine providence that had made me stop and put me on the road of the discovery of the Jagannath Sadak.

By Anil Dhir

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