Barabati Fort of Cuttack: Torchbearer of Odisha’s History

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    Barabati Stadium in Cuttack, Odisha, is one of the country’s oldest cricket venues. Ever since it was built in 1950, the stadium has also hosted football matches and continues to be popular for cultural and other public events.

    Yet not many who come here to cheer their favourite sports heroes realise that the stadium is located within the remains of one of the oldest and most historic forts in Eastern India. Situated on the banks of the Mahanadi River and just 8 km from Cuttack city, this is Barabati Fort and it is spread across 102 acres.

    Built by the Eastern Ganga Dynasty in the 12th or 13th CE, the fortified complex was the seat of power in Odisha for over 700 years. Apart from some stand-out ruins, not much of the fort remains although sporadic excavations occasionally throw up archaeological gems.

    The historical importance of the fort can be gauged from the geographical and strategic location of Cuttack in the distant past. The city of Cuttack is located on a strip of land between the Mahanadi and Kathajodi rivers, not far from where they meet the Bay of Bengal. In ancient times, it was a thickly forested area inhabited by the Kond, Kolah, Sabara and Santhal tribes.

    Geography placed Cuttack at the junction of two major trade routes, which made it a prosperous medieval city of great strategic importance. Archaeologist Parmananda Acharya, in Cuttack And Its Monuments (1949), points out that the inaccessible hills to the west of Cuttack and the wide rivers to its east meant that traders and others travelling between North and South Odisha had to cross the Mahanadi at Cuttack.

    The other trade route was the Mahanadi River itself, which flows west to east and then into the Bay of Bengal. It was one of the biggest and busiest waterways in the region, and traders sailed from here as far as Java and Sumatra in present-day Indonesia, and Malaysia.

    Its location at the confluence of these two trade routes made Cuttack a magnet for people to come and live and work here, and for markets that sold all manner of goods brought here from far and wide. Today, the Bali Jatra, a major trade event in Cuttack’s calendar, is celebrated with great enthusiasm to commemorate the voyages of Odia traders to South-East Asia.

    Origins of the Fort

    It is believed that Cuttack was founded by the Somvanshi Dynasty in the late 10th century CE, the name ‘Cuttack’ being the Anglicized version of ‘Kataka’ or ‘military cantonment’ in Sanskrit. There are references in the medieval Odia texts to ‘Pancha Kataka’ or the ‘five cantonments’ in Odisha, one of which was Bidanasi Kataka. It is this settlement that evolved into the city of Cuttack, with Bidanasi being a locality in the Old City.

    Barabati Fort, however, is traced to the Eastern Ganga Dynasty of the Andhra region. In the mid-12th century CE, the Eastern Gangas defeated the then ruling Somvanshi rulers and incorporated Eastern Odisha into their domain. The Eastern Ganga rulers shifted their capital to Choudwar (now a locality in Cuttack) from Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh, due to its central location.

    The Eastern Gangas built a fortified city with the fort at its centre, from where they ruled the region. Madapalanji, the temple chronicle of Lord Jagannath at Puri, narrates an interesting anecdote about the construction of the fort. Citing folklore, it tells the tale of Eastern Ganga King Anangabhimadeva III (r. 1211-1238 CE), who crossed the Mahanadi River and stumbled upon a village, where he saw a heron jumping onto the back of a hawk near the temple of a local deity, Vishweswar Deva. Considering this an auspicious place, he is said to have laid the foundation of the fort there. The fort was 12 ‘batis’ (‘bati’ is a local unit of measurement) in extent and hence the name ‘Barabati’ Fort.

    While some historians believe that the fort was built in 1223 CE, others date it to 1193 CE, which would predate the reign of King Anangabhimadeva III. The structures in the fortified city were indeed built over time, with renovations and additions being made by dynasties that followed the Eastern Gangas, who ruled Odisha till 1434 CE. They were followed by the Gajapatis till 1540 CE, the Bhoi Dynasty till 1560 CE and then the Chalukyas till 1568 CE.

    Gaze at the fortifications and the architectural prowess of the Eastern Gangas is evident in the ruins of a wide moat known as ‘Gadakhai’, a grand stone gateway, and an earthen mound that contains the remains of a palace, which was one of the most magnificent structures in Odisha at the time.

    Called the Navtala Prasad or the Palace of Nine Enclosures, it was built by Chalukyan ruler, King Mukundadeva, between 1560 and 1568 CE. While the popular belief is that the palace was nine storeys high, this is still a matter of debate. Noted historian Dr Hemanta Kumar Mohapatra from the Utkal University in his article ‘Remembering the Great Barabati Fort’ reveals that, the palace actually takes its name from ‘nine courtyards’ built at successively higher levels of elevation, to protect it from the Mahanadi’s floods.

    Mughal scholar Abul Fazl mentions the ‘Nine Ashianas’ or ‘Nine Palaces’ within the Barabati Fort in his 16th CE work , Ain-i-Akbari, a part of his Akbarnama. He lists its various structures, probably according to their elevation.

    1st enclosure housed elephants
    2nd enclosure housed artillery, guards and quarters for attendants
    3rd enclosure housed gatekeepers and patrols
    4th enclosure housed the workshop
    5th enclosure housed the kitchen
    6th enclosure housed reception rooms
    7th enclosure housed private apartments
    8th enclosure housed women’s apartments
    9th enclosure housed the sleeping chamber of the (Mughal) governor

    In 1568 CE, the Sultanate of Bengal defeated the Chalukyas and ruled Odisha for 8 years, till 1576 CE, when they were displaced by the Mughal army of Emperor Akbar. Barabati Fort became the seat of the Mughal governors, and many buildings, like the Lal Bagh Palace, Dewan Bazaar Mosque and Jami Masjid, were added in the 17th CE.

    After the decline of the Mughal Empire in the 18th century, Odisha, one of the richest provinces of the Mughals, came under the rule of the Nawab Nazims (Governors) of Bengal. Then, in 1751 CE, the Marathas, under the Bhosles of Nagpur, captured Cuttack and annexed Odisha to the Maratha Empire. Barabati Fort was the Marathas’ main garrison in Odisha and the seat of the provincial governor. The Marathas extended the fortifications and rebuilt a number of temples within the fort complex.

    Destruction of the Fort

    Following the Battle of Buxar in 1764 CE, the diwani or revenue rights of Bihar, Bengal and Odisha were given to Lord Robert Clive of the British East India Company by the then Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II. However, even though the Subranarekha River was the boundary between Odisha and Bengal, according to the treaty signed by the Nawab of Bengal, Alivardi Khan, and the Marathas, the latter continued to levy heavy duties on the Company’s imports. In addition, local chiefs would constantly take possession of territories occupied by the Company. As a result, the British were more eager than ever to annex Odisha.

    As the border dispute heated up, the Company made a couple of proposals to the then Nagpur Bhonsle Raja, regarding the possession of lands within the Odisha dominions. In 1765, negotiations to get the possession of Odisha continued till 1803 which also included the exchange of some villages to the Marathi rulers to maintain the status quo. Meanwhile, Some Marathi lieutenants were also involved in harassing Company’s ships reaching the shores of Odisha. This further increased the desire of the British to occupy Odisha. Knowing that the Maratha forces were ill-equipped, the present Governor General of India, Lord Wellesley now brought out the plan for occupying Odisha without any bloodshed.

    In March, 1803, the East India Company under the command of Col. Harcourt along with a civil servant John Melville entered Odisha from Chilka Lake and bribing the guards. Starting from Manikpatna, the British reached towards Ganjam & Puri by Mid- October and by 14 October, 1803, with barely any loss to the personnel of both sides yet heavy damage to the fort complex caused by Company’s heavy bombardment, the British took charge of the Barabati fort. This ended Maratha rule in the region and thus, the entire province of Odisha fell to the British.

    Following its capture, Barabati Fort was used as a prison for some time and later abandoned.

    What followed next was a great tragedy. The local administration systematically plundered the fort for its valuable Khondolite stone to pave roads and construct various buildings.

    British Revenue Superintendent, George Toynbee, in his book written in 1873, A Sketch of the History of Orissa from 1803 to 1828, describes the fate of the fort, thus:

    “The Public Works Department has converted this fine building into an unsightly series of earthen mounds and the ground within the fort into a wilderness of stone pits. The stone composing the walls of the fort are now being used to build a hospital. Some of the fort stones were, I believe, used for the lighthouse at False Point and for other public buildings, and the dust of the rest of it is shaken off our feet in the station roads.”

    The plunder continued till 1856, when one Mr Shore, the Cuttack Magistrate, put an end to it with the consent of the then Bengal Governor. Sadly, there was barely anything left to preserve by then, and all that remained of the fort was an assortment of debris, a large mound and the main gate in a poor state.

    Making of the Stadium

    Barabati Fort was declared a ‘protected site’ by the Archaeological Survey of India in 1915 but that didn’t stop the state government from identifying it as a sporting venue – a stadium, no less. In August 1948, a football match was to be played between local teams of Odisha, in Cuttack, and the vacant land inside the fort complex was selected as the venue for a stadium.

    In 1950, Chief Minister of Odisha, Harekrushna Mahatab, laid the foundation of Barabati Stadium on 20 acres of land, at the eastern end of the fort complex. In the late 1980s, more and more matches were played here and the stadium started witnessing cricket matches, including one-day internationals and, in the recent past, even matches of the prestigious Indian Premier League. Even though more stadiums and sports complexes have been built in Cuttack over the years, but Barabati Stadium remains a landmark for every sports enthusiast and cultural performer in Odisha.

    Archaeological Excavations

    Barabati Fort is a treasure trover and excavations at the site have been sporadic, at best. The ASI began excavations here in 1989, and the findings have added plenty to our understanding of the history of Odisha.

    Initial excavations into the mound inside the fort revealed evidence of a palace built from Khondolite stone along with sand and rubble. Trenches were also unearthed and the remains of a temple on the north-eastern corner of the mound. Archaeologists have also found the ruins of a citadel wall built of laterite blocks. Outside this wall, arrowheads, cannon balls, sculptures of gods, and Chinese porcelain and beads were also recovered.

    Excavation and restoration work at the fort have been plagued by bureaucratic delays and it has dragged on in isolated spurts. In 2011, when the ASI was removing silt from the moat, the statue of a lion sculpted from Khondolite stone was recovered along with some ancient idols at Gadakhai.

    In 2014, the Bukhari Baba tomb inside the fort complex was renovated as part of an INTACH project. The tomb was built in the memory of Bukhari Saheb, a saint from Akbar’s era. The tomb has been the centre of worship for both Hindus & Muslims since then. In 2015, a tunnel-like structure was found in the Kathagadi Sahi locality of Cuttack when a sewerage pipeline was being laid. The tunnel is believed to be part of the Barabati Fort complex.

    In late 2018, the Odisha Tourism Development Corporation announced a project to renovate the Barabati Fort complex and build some infrastructure on site for tourists. Construction material had been hauled to the site and the project was approved by the ASI in August 2019.

    Work had been progressing at snail’s pace till September 2020, when the Government of Odisha proposed a Rs 200-crore project to further develop Barabati Fort as a major tourist destination. This includes facilities such as boating, a musical fountain and a bridge across the medieval moat.

    Will a mega project like this benefit one of Odisha’s priceless archaeological sites or would it have been better to restore the fortified complex and let the past rest gently in the present for us to savour?

    Cover Image: Barabati Fort - Ruins of the Nine Storied Complex and Elephant Stables


    Yash Mishra is a Delhi-based writer with a passionate interest in cinema and Indian history.

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