South Chilika Coast – Back in Time

It was a sultry September night of 1996 and I was camping in a government dak bungalow in a small town, Huma in Odisha’s Ganjam District. I, along with my mentor Prof K.K. Basa, was surveying the southern coast of Chilika Lake in a village called Gaurangapatna. That night, a ceramic piece depicting a boat motif crunched beneath my feet. A major archaeological find indeed but it was just a dream. In the morning when I revealed this to Dr. Basa, he laughed and dismissed my dream. But my heart was onto it and waiting for a miracle. Around 4.30 pm the same afternoon, I happened to pick up a ceramic piece with a stamped boat motif, from a field on the foothills of Ghantasila. I was thrilled and so was Dr. Basa. It provided a tantalizing evidence of what may have been a fishing or a ship building guild of early medieval India. Immediately we dug a trial trench to test the site’s potential. Our discovery of turquoise blue glazed pottery from Persian Gulf dated approximately between 8th-10th centuries CE confirmed Gaurangapatna as a flourishing port of medieval Odisha on the South Chilika coast.

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Chilika Lake and Bay of Bengal

Chilika, India’s largest brackish water lagoon was once a part of Bay of Bengal. Due to the progression of the littoral drift, over a period of time, it got separated from the sea and eventually became a shallow lagoon. Today the lake is separated from the Bay of Bengal through a 8 km long tidal inlet. The lake is hemmed between the mountains and the sea and near Gaurangapatna.

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Brahmanada Purana, a 10th century CE text describes Chilika as a prominent harbour. Ships having a number of masts and sails were often sheltered in the lake. Some of the ships had curvilinear towers with three to five levels and used to sail to Java, Malaya and Ceylon from Chilika. The lake was very deep and through a wide opening mouth was connected with the sea. Ptolemy, the ancient Greek geographer referred to Palur port near Gourangapatna as the point of departure for ships bound for various Southeast Asian countries. Gaurangapatna, today, is a small fishing village and the archaeological site we dug up way back in 1996 is under cultivation.

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Gaurangapatna Fishing Village

In Gaurangapatna, what draws immediate attention is its two hills, Ghantasila and Dipadandia on the shore of Chilika. Both the hills are marked by massive stone alignments on their foothills and are separated from each other through a narrow landmass for about 700-800 m. It is believed that these stone alignments act as breakwaters for safe anchorage of ships. The length of the breakwaters is about 700 m with a height of 9 m and a depth of 1 m each respectively.

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Gaurangapatna

The Google Earth Image of Gaurangapatna

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Breakwaters

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Dipadandia – a Medieval light house

The port of Gaurangapatna did not survive for a long period in history as it was vulnerable to the destruction caused by periodic cyclones that lash the Bay of Bengal. Also the strong littoral current that blows from southwest and northeast deposited huge amounts of sand on its shore. Some historians also believe that a weak economy and repeated attacks by neighbouring kingdoms led to the decline of Gaurangapatna port.

16th century saw the revival of the south coast of Chilika and the neighboring Rushikulya River under the Qutb Shahi rulers of Golkonda. Much is not known about the region during this period except that it was a frontier post of the Qutub Shahis. However, in the 18th century it became prominent as a part of the Madras Province of East India Company.

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Rushikulya Estuary

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Potagarh Fort on the bank of Rushikulya River

Potagarh near Ganjam on the mouth of Rushikulya River today stands as a mute testimony to this glorious past. The fort was constructed in 1768 CE by Edward Costford, the first resident of Ganjam. The star shaped fort is spread in a vast area and encompasses the history of Ganjam, Northern or ChicacoleCircar, French Government, Madras Presidency, Bengal Presidency and the history of East India Company.

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It is believed that Mohammed Khan, a Fauzdar of the Qutub Shahi Dynasty erected a fort near Potagarh for the administration of Chicacole Circar under the Golkonda Kingdom. In 1753 CE, ChicacoleCircar was granted to the French. Monsieur De Bussy, the French commander of the province functioned from Potagarh. Near the fort, one can see two French tombs indicating the existence of a French colony.

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Inside the fort, there are remains of three residential buildings each with a different architectural design. The one belonging to the Qutub Shahi is in a ruined state. There are also two passages on the eastern side of the compound wall opening to the river. One was probably used as a secret passage to escape to the sea and if a local myth is to be believed, the other passage was meant for the Queen to go to the river unseen, for bathing.

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Towards the end of 18th century, Potagarh had a new resident, Thomas Snodgrass. He was fascinated with Rambha, a town near Gaurangapatna, and built a lavish mansion for himself there. According to a report, he had over 300 servants to look after his domestic needs. The servants served as cooks, tailors, water bearers, palanquin boys, poultry keepers, gardeners, boatmen and a few entertained his guests.

Snodgrass spent most of his time in building mansions and in excursions to various islands on Chilika. He was a highly corrupt bureaucrat and spent a large chunk of his official time converting the islands of Chilika into a park for his tamed wild animals. One of the landmark structures he constructed is a tall pyramidal tower with a room attached to it. Seen from a distance these curious looking structures, built on a rocky outcrop, are about a 30 minute ride in country boat from Rambha and a major tourist attraction.

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Beacon Island

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I had spent a night in Rambha in 2009 with my parents in the state tourist resort. Rambha, the name itself would leave someone in fantasy as to how beautiful it would be. But Rambha is like any other small town/big village, dusty and messy. The only feature that makes it unique is its surrounding – Chilika, which forms its southern edge and the hill crops – some of which are islands in the vast and scenic water body.

Next day, in the magical hours of dawn, I walked down to the bank of Chilika lake in search of a country boat. I fixed one for INR 300. My destination was Beacon Island, the location of Snodgrass’s curious pyramidal structures. The early morning breeze worked like a balm calming down frayed nerves and I lost myself in the serenity of the lake. At every turn, the rising sun playing hide and seek was constantly altering the dark water of the night into golden hues. There were other fishing boats too, silently sailing through the calm waterscape with hopes of a good catch.

The setting of the colonial structures on Beacon Island is nothing less than dramatic but it has a horrid past. In the late 1780s, the entire continent was shaken by a terrible famine that lasted for 4 years. Environmentalists felt it was an effect of El Niño. The region of south Odisha including Ganjam was not spared either and thousands were reported dead.

As said earlier, Snodgrass was fascinated with Rambha, where he had built a splendid mansion. But the horror of the famine had spoiled his grand vision. There was unrest among both the zamindars and the peasants who were unable to pay tax as there were no crops growing for a stretch of 4 years. Many had died of hunger.

The British were very strict about their tax laws and the treasury had to be filled as a part of the company’s policy. The zamindars however managed to pay while the money meant for famine relief was siphoned away by Snodgrass. He transferred most of it into his personal account. This was discovered by the officers of Madras Presidency. An enquiry was set up against Snodgrass and his secretary. It is said that Snodgrass dumped all the related documents into the waters of Chilika near the Beacon Island drowning all evidences against him. When faced with investigation he concocted a tale saying that his boat sank near the island. Snodgrass was let off for the lack of evidence and eventually moved to Madras.

Stepping onto the Shore of Beacon Island, I spent some time among the haunted ruins that reverberated with the sordid tale of Snodgrass and his lust for money.  But the still morning became pleasing the moment I set my eyes on the majestic sheet of water in front of me. The blue lagoon called Chilika Lake.

Author – Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at jitumisra@gmail.com

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