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Jagannath Sadak, the once holy route from Calcutta to Puri

4 December, 2020 16:53:37
Jagannath Sadak, the once holy route from Calcutta to Puri

There’s a reason why Jagannath Ghat in Kolkata is called what it is. Practically at the base of Howrah Bridge, the ghat, built by millionaire Bengali businessman Sobharam Basak in the latter half of the 18th century (approximately between 1758 and 1773), took its name from the adjoining Jagannath temple that Basak had built at what is 1, Nabab Lane today. A devotee of Lord Jagannath, Basak made annual pilgrimages to Puri to worship at the Jagannath Temple, accompanied by a large entourage of fellow pilgrims. And this ghat was where their journey began.

Beginning sometime in the late 1700s, the ‘sadak’ became the principal route for all pilgrims visiting Jagannath’s abode. From 1825, it became known as the Orissa Trunk Road, but for devotees who had been using it for years, it was always Jagannath Sadak.

But it wasn’t only meant for Basak and his entourage. Apart from being a busy bathing ghat, “the Jagannath Ghat was one of the busiest steam navigation stations on the Hooghly River”, writes Anil Dhir, Projects Coordinator for the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), Odisha chapter. And it is also Dhir who has written about Jagannath Sadak (Jagannath Road), the route from Kolkata to Puri that pilgrims took before the advent of the railways. In the next six months, his book on Jagannath Road is set to be published by the Odisha state archives, the fruition of a project that was launched in 2014. 

Beginning sometime in the late 1700s, the ‘sadak’ became the principal route for all pilgrims visiting Jagannath’s abode. From 1825, it became known as the Orissa Trunk Road, but for devotees who had been using it for years, it was always Jagannath Sadak. The road wound through Belda, Dantan, Midnapore, Jaleswar, Basta, Balasore, Nilgiri, Bhadrak, Jajpur, Dharamshala, Chhatia, Cuttack, Bhubaneswar and Pipili, writes Dhir, and travellers covered the distance in bullock carts, horse-drawn hackneys, palanquins, on horses, camels and elephants, but most often on foot.

This was, of course, the shortest and most direct route between Kolkata and Puri, and one which the railways followed in 1892. From three weeks to 15 hours, that was the difference the railways made to the travel time, so it was no wonder that the once 500-plus km ‘sadak’ fell into disrepair, and eventually vanished from the public mind. What is more unfortunate is the disappearance of the numerous heritage structures that came up along the route, such as temples, dharamshalas or inns, public wells, bridges, and other establishments. 

As Dhir points out, of the more than 500 km of road, about 120 km still exists, in various stretches. What saddens him is the fact that, in the last six years, at least in Odisha, nearly 40 of the 300 heritage monuments along the route that he documented have disappeared. “We wrote to both the Odisha and West Bengal governments to notify them as protected heritage monuments, but to little effect. Since these are not monuments of national importance, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) can’t really step in. However, the state archaeological departments appear practically defunct, so I don’t know how many of these structures can be saved,” says Dhir, and adds that a similar gloomy situation prevails in West Bengal, where construction and roadways projects have destroyed many of the structures along the ‘sadak’.

As Dhir wrote in 2015, “The Jagannath Sadak was the road that was taken by Sri Chaitanya, (Guru) 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.”

For these reasons alone, isn’t it worth preserving whatever remains of the old road, in both Bengal and Odisha? As Dhir says in his 2015 article, several inhabitants from villages along the route have told him that they can still hear bullock carts, their bells tinkling, along the route, or the chants of palanquin bearers, and even cries of ‘Jai Jagannath!’ as one ghostly part of travellers meets another. Perhaps when Dhir’s book is released in the coming days, many more of us will feel encouraged to follow this once holy route, and ‘hear’ the ghosts for ourselves. 

Story Tag:
  • History and Heritage of Bengal

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