A Glimpse into life in Bhubaneswar in 1830s

In my previous post, I had recalled my childhood memory of what I had heard on Bhubaneswar of 1960s from my mother and my own experience in 1970s and 1980s. But it has always puzzled me what Bhubaneswar looked like much before anyone’s living memory, in the era that was 5/6 generations ago from now, when there was no photography, no motorized vehicles and any modern means of communication that we are used to.

There is no doubt that throughout last 2,300 years of history, from the time of Ashoka till now, Bhubaneswar has always been a city of excellence. It was a centre of excellent craftsmanship, a centre for religious tolerance and powerful humanistic ideas that have shaped the humankind’s destiny towards peace and prosperity.  To cite an example, more than 2,300 years before the birth of the United Nation, it was Bhubaneswar, where Emperor Asoka after transforming himself from being a cruel king to an emperor of compassion and kindness had inscribed for his newly acquired territory that all men are my children. It was indeed the first evidence of human rights and peace, for which in 21st century hi-tech era, we are longing so much.

But that was all thousands of years ago, and both historians and archaeologists have talked in length about those far-off eras. However, what about the life in Bhubaneswar in the time of East India Company? Though it was not a city or even a town, but it definitely dazzled with its temple gems. There were also a dozen of tiny villages, which are now shadowed beneath its modern buildings, roads and malls. But most of our popular literatures are silent about this era. As my curiosity grew, I used my history expertise and researched on colonial literature. I found the best source is no other than the Journals of the Asiatic Society of Bengal.

While surfing the journals of 1930s, I came across the reference of Makham Kittoe, an East India Company officer, who was commissioned to explore Orissa for searching coal, a much sought after commodity for the industrial revolution in than Great Britain. In the middle of 1937, Kittoe had arrived in Bhubaneswar, then a vast jungle, not for searching coal, but to explore and document the archaeological relics including the caves at Khandagiri and the edicts of Ashoka at Dhauli.

He was one of the earliest to document his experience in Bhubaneswar and its surrounding. The following is his diary…

‘I left again at 5 A.M. for Khandagiri and owing to the insolence and perverseness of the bearers, who wanted to take me in spite of every remonstrance to Bhubaneswar, I did not get there till 1 P.M. I had only 10 miles to travel, yet as late as eleven A.M. (six hours), they only took me eight miles, when they set me down and went away to cook their meals. I was then oblised to lock up my palkee, and taking my drawing materials and pittarchs on collies, I walked the rest of the way in the heat of the sun. The bearers brought the palkee up a few hours afterwards. In the mean time having got some milk and a few plantains to refresh me, I set to work to draw all that was most worthy of notice, I commenced work at one P.M. and continued till long after dark, using a torch: I regret that I lost so much time owing to the conduct of bearers, and that I could not remain another day…’

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The above account shows his frustration on the attitude of local people, a character which continues even today. Though the descendents of palkee bearers now may be driving cars or auto rickshaws, and using cell phones, but their attitude has remained same. In my own context, whenever I visit Bhubaneswar, I often find our driver without any intimation bunk his duty. So are the maids. The account also gives idea about the commuting time in the region 175 years ago. Kittoe left Khurda at 5 AM and reached Kedargauri at 1 PM. It was six hours of travel in palkee and 2 hours walking. I do not know still which route he followed, probably the old Jagannath Sadak that linked Khurdha Garh and the Brahmin settlements of the Old Town.

The diary continues:

At 10 A.M. I started again for Bhubaneswar and reached that place at two A.M. I arose at daybreak and set to work to copy an inscription in the temple of Kedareswar and tried to take of impressions several times, but not succeeding, I copied it accurately in pencil, and found that in spite of all my measures and efforts that the Brahmins would not allow me to enter the great temple to copy the numerous inscriptions here; therefore I set to work to draw the sculpture of some of the elegant temples around me, but it coming on to rain hand I was obliged to give it up, not however, till, with the shelter of a chatta and a sheet, I completed a Ling Raj temple with the Bindusagar tank and buildings’…

The above description shows the institution of pandas, a major hurdle for Kittoe in his academic pursuit. He was not allowed inside the temple, because of his non-Hindu tag. The same practice and institution is still followed to these days, although the world has transformed dramatically. I remember in 1990s when I was studying in Pune I had visited Lingaraj temple, with a friend of mine, a Buddhist monk from Thailand. Though Hinduism and Buddhism are two branches of one tree, he was denied an entry. These days we often come across incidences referring to mishandling of foreign visitors in Odissan temples, the latest may be the misbehaving to Ileana Chitaristi, the noted Oddissi dancer in the chariot of Lord Jagannath at Puri.

The diary follows:

‘The rain still continuing, I left at four P.M. for Cuttack where I arrived at ten A.M. the following morning, after passing a very stormy and wet night and being thrown down in my palkee frequently; on my arrival I received a letter from my friend, the secretary, informing me of his discovery of the name of ANTIOCHUS in the Girnar and Dhauli inscriptions, and requested me to recompare my transcriptions and correct my errors. I instantly laid my dawk and left at SIX P.M. for Dhauli which curious place I reached before day break, and had to wait till it was light, for the two bear cubs which escaped me there last year, when I killed the old bear, were now full grown and disputed the ground. At day break I climbed to the Aswathama and cutting two large tucked boughs of a tree near the spot, placed them against the rock, on these I stood to effect my object. I had taken the precaution to make a bearer hold the wood steady, but being intent on my intensity task I forgot my ticklish footing; the bearer had also fallen asleep and let go his hold, so that having over balanced myself the wood slipped and I was pitched head foremost down the rock, but fortunately fell my hands and received no injury beyond a few bruises and a severe shock. I took a little rest and completed the work’…

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This account tells us Kittoe’s zeal and adventure. He would not have realized the significance of his discovery and recording of what he saw on that particular day of his adventure to Dhauli. But it later turned out to be an event of history changer, the discovery of Asoka’s inscription at Dhauli, which I intend to write in another post.

Truly, Kittoe’s account not only takes us to the serenity of 1830’s Bhubaneswar, but it also tells us the attitude of local people as a whole. It gives us an idea of mode of commuting, the ways of recording/documenting through sketching and writing, in a nutshell the scientific temperament of the British people, which we Indians even today take things for granted. However with the passage of time all of that hardship and adventures have been forgotten from the human memory.

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