REDISCOVERING THE JAGANNATH SADAK

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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 fifteen hours. Many stretches of the road just vanished with time, it was encroached upon by villages and some lengths now form the NH-16. Today, only 168 km out of the original 510 km of the old road still exists.

The Jagannath Sadak was the old 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.

The Jagannath Sadak 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. This was the road which the conquering armies of the Mughals, Marathas, Afghans and later on the East India Company took to conquer Odisha. In fact, during their tenures, the Marahattas and the Englishmen had implemented a system of collecting toll tax for the maintenance of the road.

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 fifteen hours. Many stretches of the road just vanished with time, it was encroached upon by villages and some lengths now form the NH-16. Today, only 168 km out of the original 510 km of the old road still exists.

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.

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 five 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.

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. The ghosts of the old travellers still haunted 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.

The result of our journey has culminated in a three volume book which is being published by the Odisha State Archives and will be released shortly.

We had written to the Governments of Odisha, West Bengal and the Govt. of India to declare the Road as a heritage trail and to take suitable measures to protect what all is remaining.  The stretch of the NH-16 from Kolkata till Bhubaneswar should be renamed as the Jagannath Sadak.  Unfortunately, many of the old remnants are being systematically destroyed. If urgent steps are not taken we will lose many of these heritage structures.

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