Silent Witness: An essay by Dr. Arjun Purohit

August 15, 2011 at 4:10 pm 3 comments

Following item was posted in the Face book page of “BENI”:

I have known for years that there are all kinds of interesting features in the reservoir of Hirakud Dam, among these are some of the submerged temples often creating problems for the boaters but some of them are visible over the water. So when Dr.Tarini Panda, my old student by proxy, suggested to me to have a look at them when I visited Sambalpur couple of years ago, I jumped at the chance. So he took me behind his scooter to the Jamadar Pali Ghat from where we took a boat which took us across the reservoir to the other side, which is known as Lakhan Pur Block. It was a motor boat capable of taking about 40 people but had no roof or no proper seats. I managed to find a place to sit near a little girl of about five years old on the flat bar, one of many along the width of the boat. Tarini had to stand for the whole trip which took about an hour. About fifteen motor cycles and scooters as well about thirty of us boarded the boat. Apparently there was some kind of Adivashi festival going on Gunja Parbat, a rather tall hill with a majestic triangular top which you could see across the water. The crowd was in a festive mood with lots of chatter and laughers in anticipation of lot of merry making in the festivals.

Some twenty minutes after we started, the anticipated temple came to our sight. Suddenly, the chatter and laughter ceased, and the eyes of the whole crowd except the eyes of the five year old on my side were turned on the temple , which I would estimate to be about twenty five feet over the water. The mood was reverent and some folded their hands in Juhar. I simply could not control my tears to the curious amazement of the five year old who kept on staring at me. I must confess that I am given to tears rather easily. I cry at the movies and when I watch mythologies like Ramayan and Mahabharat. When Sita gets abducted I cry. When Duhsasana tries to disrobe Draupadi in front of all the Pandava and Kaurava elders, I cry. But this sight of half submerged temple was something really special and kicked up all kinds of memories which have been lying dormant for years like sediments at the bottom of the lake.

This was the temple of Rampella after all! This is where my cousin Nagara Nani went as a bride. This was where my Badkhama (wife of the elder brother of my father) came from. I knew of a host of my relatives from this large prosperous village. Rampella was one of the 294 villages which went under the water of Hirakud Dam. These were very prosperous villages and were known to be the Bhata Handi(rice bowl) of the district because of the fertility of the land. The old royalties of Sambalpur came from the area. Surendra Sai fought with the British around the area. Though our family never lived in the Budi Anchal(submerged land), we had lands in a village called Basantpur which went under, for which we never got compensated.

The submerged temple began to flood my mind with all kinds of associated memories. First time I was aware of Hirakud Dam was when I was a seventh grader in Borasambar Padampur, where my father was working as a minor civil servant. I saw Harekrushna Mahatab first time ever and probably for the last time, except in photographs. He along with Ranjit Singh Bariha, cousin of the then Jamindar of Padampur and a fresh returnee from England, giving lectures to people of the town on the steps of the local temple regarding good stuff about the future Hirakud Dam. I also saw lot of folks protesting against the dam. When I came back home, I found my house swarming with people from Sambalpur and my mother hastily cooking dinner for all these folks. Couple of months later when I came to my Mamughar in Sambalpur, found the whole town in turmoil. Thousands of people were shouting all kinds of slogans and were marching on the main road. There were large meetings near the Mahanadi bank, and police were everywhere. Later on that evening I learnt that Dr. Janardan Pujari and his wife were arrested and taken to jail. Dr. Janardan Pujari was a revered person of Sambalpur, and was literally worshipped as a saintly figure because of his social service and medical expertise. Next day there was another march; this time ladies including my grandmother joined in. It was an awesome thing to see the ladies in the march because these ladies would not even venture outside unescorted and their heads were always covered with Odhana. And guess what. My grandmother was taken to the jail for a while! For a young boy of my age, this was incomprehensible. I remember of teasing my grandmother for months afterwards about her becoming a kaidi. “What did they feed you in jail, Badkhama?” I would ask. All I knew was that something really big was happening, and I never knew the full import of the event.

Later when I came to Sambalpur to study in G.M.College, slowly I began to understand the enormity of the issues. We saw huge earthmovers which we never saw before these were manned by Sardarjis, many of them were fresh refugees from Pakistan. We also went on our bikes to see how huge machines were hauling cement to a great height to build the dam. During the summer vacation of 1952, four of us including Rajendra Supakar, who currently lives in Chicago, went on a bike tour to have a look at some of the villages to go under water. Among the villages, we saw Samplahara of Rajendra, where we were treated with PaNA after being thoroughly and lovingly reprimanded by Rajendra’s folks for biking all that distance under hot sun risking heat stroke. I also remembered meeting Ayodhya Khosla, the main architect of the Dam and Issac Santra, the local hero, who established a leper colony in Hatibari, who came to our Jharuapara one evening in 1951 looking for Sradhakar Supakar, Rajendra’s father and the M.L.A. from Sambalpur. I did not know the importance of Mr. Khosla but I knew of Dr. Santra but had never seen him before. They asked me to take them to Sradhakar Babu’s house who lived in our gulley but we did not find him home. Both of them then tried to impress me on the importance of Hirakud Dam for the next one hour!

So the memories kept flooding in. The little girl beside me looked at me with her big eyes and asked,” Why are you crying? Are you alright?” I wiped my tears and smiled and patted lovingly on her head and gave her a chewing gum. She looked at her mother for permission to accept, and after getting the nod; she took it and smiled back. The boat kept going, and back came all the chatters as the temple receded from our view. After a few more minutes, we saw another temple. It must have been a small one because we could see only the very top, the Chuda. This time, the sight of the temple did not evoke as much emotional response as before. I really do not know what kind of temples were they. Were they Vaishnavite or Saivaite ? As you can see from the picture, the Chuda of the temple has lost its crown. Saivites have Trishul and Vaishnavites have Chakras as crown. My hunch is that the Rampella one is Saivite judging from experience in other Koshalite villages. Almost always they have a Saivite temple especially near a bathing ghat but we do have Vaishnavite temples as well but not very often, and they are of recent vintage when they occur.

As we approached the other shore, I found lot of thick vegetation through which a path for the boat has been cut out to reach the shore. Tarini explained that this was because of the silt accumulating in the reservoir. Apparently 27% of capacity of the reservoir has been used up by the silt. When we reached the other shore, Tarini took out his scooter and we toured some of the villages including his own Kumharbandh. It was so close to the reservoir that I suggested that ground water would be available only a few feet in well and would be great for agriculture. Tarini told me that there is coal only five feet down, not water. Apparently sponge iron companies are already buying up land for future expansion of their enterprises. On our return trip we went to another spot to catch a boat to go back to Sambalpur via Rengali. While waiting for the boat, I asked Tarini whether Bikram Khol was not very far from that spot since we were in Lakhanpur block as is Bikram Khol, which I visited few years back. He confirmed that indeed it was close but behind the Dugree( hills are called Dungree in Koshali) on our left. In order to go there we had to go to Jharsuguda and then we would have to take the road on the other side of the Dungree to take us to Bikram Khol. That meant going back to Sambalpur by late evening. So we decided not to take the trip to Bikram Khol. Incidentally, Bikram Khol is very interesting site which has large flat stone wall on top of a small hill and has inscriptions in Brahmi and Mahenjodaro scripts. Apparently, it is about 4000 years old, and the writings are yet to be deciphered.

Tarini also told me about another interesting site within the reservoir which our boat did not go by. It was Cattle Island. Apparently, because the confiscated villages were ordered to be vacated at gun point the villagers could not take some of their cattle with them these animals found shelter in an island in the reservoir, and have become wild after a few generations. When the locals try to capture them they become very aggressive, and hence are left alone.

Finally the boat to take us to Rengali came. This time boat trip was much shorter. As we scooted towards Sambalpur on Jharsuguda-Sambalpur road, which is part of very busy National Hjghway, I noticed the chains of sponge iron factories. One could not but notice the thick haze of smoke coming out of the chimneys of these plants which are made worse by the fly ash coming out of coal fire power plants of Jharsuguda. Apparently, Pollution Control Board has already declared the whole corridor as an ecological disaster. Sitting behind Tarini’s scooter as he drove towards Sambalpur which took us about half an hour, I was still thinking about Rampella Temple. I wondered what this half submerged temple, which still stands as a silent witness, is a symbol of what? Is it a symbol of sacrifice of well settled vibrant community for the protection of coastal area of Orissa from floods? Or of utter callous and contemptuous treatment of the Orissa government towards the oustee families, 7000 of them yet to be compensated even after more than half a century? Or of beginning of industrial age for the region? Or of loss of innocence and simplicity of a bi-gone era ? To me it is all of the above.

Photo courtesy: Shri Tarini Panda


Entry filed under: Agriculture and Irrigation, Hirakud, Region watch, Sambalpur.

Eminent Sanskrit and Kosli language scholar Dr. Harekrishna Meher has been conferred on ‘Nilamadhab Panigrahi Samman’ Sindol protesters mull single platform: The Telegraph

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Bimal Prasad Pandia (@bimalpandia)  |  August 16, 2011 at 8:04 am


    So realistic description of a sordid avoidable tale ! My heart filled with a lot of sorrow.


    Bimal Prasad Pandia

  • […] Announce Anything here Found this interesting essay about Hirakud Dam. Silent Witness: An essay by Dr. Arjun Purohit Kosal Discussion and Development Forum __________________ Don't show off; it […]

  • 3. RAJ KISHOR PRADHAN  |  September 24, 2011 at 10:36 am

    A very good and realistic desription.I have also visited this submerged temple and feel nostalogic.A lot of sacrifice has been given our people.But the succesive Govts has not able to fully compansate the outsees of the Dam is really pathetic.


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