A Journey to the Beacon Island – An Early Morning in Chilika

I had lived in various islands of Chilika for months together when I was doing my research on Odisha’s maritime history in mid 1990s. But it was all in the northern part of this vast lagoon, mostly sandy and densely populated. It was only in 2009 while travelling to Berhampur, South Odisha’s largest city from Bhubaneswar, I had spent a night at Rambha as a tourist with my parents and Dhiru, our car driver.

Rambha, the name itself would leave someone in fantasy – how beautiful it would be. Actually Rambha is not beautiful. It is like any other Odishan small town/big village, dusty and messy. But what make it unique are its surrounding – Chilika which forms its southern edge and the hill crops – some of which are islands in the vast and scenic water body.

We reached Rambha at the dusk and stepped into a cosy room of Odisha Tourism’s resort, Pantanivas. Next day much before the sunrise, I was awake as I wanted to lose myself in the calm serenity of the water world. I woke up Dhiru, while my parents were still in the bed. He was equally keen to sail deep into the placid water body and experience its beauty.

Both walked down in the early morning’s magical hours to the bank of the lagoon in search of a country boat. We fixed one with INR 300. Now the destination was Beacon Island, a 30 min sail towards the coast in the serene water of the lagoon. There was early morning breeze which worked like balm calming down the mundane stress. In every turn, the rising sun was playing hide and seek, constantly altering the dark water of the night into golden hues. There were other fishermen boats too, silently sailing through the calm waterscape with hopes for good catch.

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After 30 min of sailing we reached at our destination, a mass of rock boulders suddenly cropping up from the water body. On top of these boulders stood two curious structures, a tall pyramidal tower and a room attached to it, both carrying the legacy of colonial heritage of Odisha.

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These two structures are not of architectural or artistic significance when one compares them with the rich Odishan temples of Bhubanesawr and Konark or the Buddhist remains of Lalitgiri, Ratnagiri and Udayagiri. What make them unique are their picturesque stetting and the history behind them.

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While delving into their history I discovered that they had a dark story similar to the one we see in Laagan, the block-bluster movie – a British man’s exploitation of the locals with regard to tax collection in the late 18th century.

The monuments were built in 1792 by Snodgrass, the then collector of Ganjam of East India Company.

In the late 1780s, the entire continent was shaken by a terrible famine which lasted for 4 years. Environmentalists say that it was an effect of El Niño. The region of south Odisha including Ganjam was not spared killing thousands of lives. As a part of relief, the company had poured some money, which was effectively used by Snodgrass. But the policy of East India Company was centered around exploitation through tax levying. Snodgrass had been instructed in this regard.

Snodgrass had a lot of fascination for Rambha, where he had built a splendid mansion. But the horror of the famine had all spoiled his grand vision. There was unrest among zamindars, who were unable to pay tax as there were no crops growing for a stretch of 4 years. The peasants were equally unrest. Many had died of hunger.

But the treasury had to be filled as part of the company’s policy. The zamindars however had managed but the money meant for famine relief was all grabbed by Snodgrass. He became a corrupt officer and started misusing the funds transferring most of it into his personal account.

This was discovered by the officers of Madras Presidency of the company. An enquiry was set up against Snodgrass and his secretary. It is said Snodgrass dumped all the valuable documents into the water of Chilika near the Beacon Island for his protection. He cooked up a story saying that his boat sank near the island and the documents were submerged. Finally he was escaped and moved to Madras.

After reaching the shore of the Beacon Island both me and Dhiru got out of the boat and spent some time in the premises of the haunted ruins to experience the beauty of the lagoon – a majestic sheet of water with varied, and in parts essentially picturesque sceneries.

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