Sunday, 1 September 2013

Sumbhulpore, Diamonds, Dacoits and Distress

Figure 1. Watercolour of the fort at Sambalpur in Orissa, by an anonymous artist for the Gilbert Collection, c. 1825. Inscribed on the front : 'The Fort of Sumbhulpore'; on the back: 'The Old Fort of Sumbhulpore.'

My good friend  Harshawardhan Nimkhedkar recently drew my attention to two beautiful water colours of Sumbhulpore in Orissa from the collection held by the British Library, which really appealed to me. Deciding to see if I could locate this town which I had never previously heard of, I discovered a series of fascinating accounts of events in and around this town which I have decided to post because these accounts vividly illustrate the lives of many of the lesser known middle ranking officials of the East India Company.

"On the following morning we crossed the Mahanuddy river at sunrise, and started for Sumbhulpore. The road for many miles ran through jungles, with lumps of quartz rock strewn about I have since thought that it was a very auriferous-looking place. Approaching Sumbhulpore, we passed through a fine upland country, clear of jungle, but with noble groves of mango, tamarind, banyan and palm trees, forming a scene like an English park. After travelling all night, we arrived at Sumbhulpore on the morning of the 25th December. The town is situated on the left bank of the Mahanuddy river, which " derives its source amongst the mountains of Gondwaneh." It pursues an extremely winding and devious course, which has never been accurately surveyed; even in the parts which are better known there are many errors. In Arrowsmith's map, the towns of Sooree, Narrain, Kurkurdah, and Chunderpore, to the northward of Sumbhulpore, are all placed from twenty to thirty miles distant from the left bank of the river; whereas I was informed by Mr. Babbington, who had resided several years at Sumbhulpore, and was well acquainted with the country, that they are all situated immediately on that bank. Ten miles above Sumbhulpore, the Eeb river, which takes its rise near Jushpoor, joins the Mahanuddy at Buggra. This river is noted for the gold and diamonds found in its bed. A short distance below Buggra there is a rapid in the Mahanuddy, and it is at this place that the diamonds are chiefly procured. In 1836, a large one of fine water was found. It is of a somewhat pyramidal shape, and about the size of a large walnut It is, or was, in the possession of the Rajah of Sumbhulpore. In fact, all the diamonds found in the rapid are his property. Below Sumbhulpore there are numerous other rapids, but it is from the Eeb river that the diamonds and gold are derived, as they are not met with at any of the rapids below the one near Buggra. Small particles of gold are indeed occasionally found in the sandy bed of the Mahanuddy at Cuttack, but they may probably have been washed down from the upper parts of the river.

At Sumbhulpore, the Mahanuddy is about a mile and a half wide in the rains. In the cold season, the bed of the river for several miles, both up and down the stream, presents a very singular appearance, being thickly strewn with masses of granitic rocks from six to ten feet high, and around these the water winds. In some places pools have formed, and in others low brushwood is found growing on the sands, thus giving to the river the appearance of a large lake studded with innumerable little islets. From Sumbhulpore, the Mahanuddy flows nearly due south to Sohnpore, a distance of about fifty-five miles. It then suddenly bends east by north, and after pursuing a tolerably straight course, terminates in the Bay of Bengal, due east from Sohnpore. In this course it receives numerous tributary streams, and gives off several branches, the "largest of which is the Kajoori, and it is in the bifurcation formed here that the town of Cuttack is situated." I may here mention, en passant, that the Kajoori river in the rains is about two miles wide at Cuttack, and in 1834 the waters rose twenty-six feet in one night This may appear incredible, but it is nevertheless a fact correct measurements having been made of the rise of the river.

To return to Sumbhulpore. My host was the postmaster, as well as a merchant, and with his wife and an
assistant were the only Europeans within a hundred miles of the place. The house was situated on the elevated left bank of the river, and overlooked the singular scene I have described. I also observed two ranges of hills running north and south. The hills on the western side were about a mile from the river, and those on the east about four miles distant.

In the evening, I drove out with my host, and by the road-side, within sight of his house, we passed three human heads, quite fresh, and stuck upon a pole one above the other. One head was that of a grey-bearded, savage looking old man; the other two were those of young men, about twenty or twenty-five years of aga It was with a feeling of horror I looked upon this barbarous sight, but my host spoke in the coolest manner imaginable about it, and informed me that they were the heads of three dacoits (robbers), forming part of a formidable band which had infested the country for a considerable time. The Rajahs of Boad, Sumbhulpore, and another neighbouring chief, with their united forces, surrounded the hill on which it was known that these desperadoes had fixed their residence, and, simultaneously advancing, captured the three men whose heads I saw elevated by the road-side. Many others of the gang escaped. After hearing this account I felt much more reconciled to the events seeing that I had advanced, and should be obliged to return, through the very district infested by these robbers; albeit these gentry rarely venture to attack Europeans, but they might make a mistake. Three days after my arrival at Sumbhulpore, the two men whom I had left at the Burmool Pass to look after the madman returned, and reported his death a few hours after my departure.

In my host's garden I found a few cocoa-nuts growing, which surprised me, as it is far beyond the influence of the sea-breeze. There, indeed, they were, and flourishing very well Vegetables in general thrive remarkably well I measured a brinjal (solatium melongena) fourteen and a half inches in circumference; a casuarina tree, planted four years ago, measured sixteen inches round the trunk, one yard from the ground.

Early on the morning of the 3rd of January I left Sumbhulpore, and arrived at Boad on the 5th . No fresh bearers were to be had for love or money; so, with a promise of ample backshish, I induced those whom I had brought from Sumbhulpore to proceed to Burmool Accordingly we left on the morning of the 6th, and when walking a-head of my palkee, as was my custom for ten or twelve miles, I saw a large splash of blood by the road-side, and the tall grass beaten down, as if the body of some large animal had been dragged through it I had no time to stop, but pushed on, speculating on the tragedy that had evidently been recently performed there. On the morning of the 8th, in passing through the Burmool Pass, and walking as usual a-head of my palkee, I perceived the fresh footprints of a large animal proceeding onwards. I took no notice, for fear of alarming my people, but kept a sharp look-out right and left After proceeding this way for a hundred yards or so, my servant who was behind me exclaimed, "Sahib, Sahib, bhag hy!"—"Sir, Sir, a tiger!"—and pointed to the footprints. I desired him not to say anything; but to give him confidence, I sent him to my palkee for a pair of pistols, one of which I gave to him, and advanced myself, sometimes' treading in the footprints of the tiger. The impressions which they made in the sandy path, wet with the morning dew, were nearly, if not quite, as large as a moderate sized cheese plate. This may appear exaggeration, but it is not so; and any one who has seen the footprints of a large tiger would corroborate this statement Our pistols would have been of little use in an encounter, for if the tiger had been lurking on either hand, we could not possibly have seen him, by reason of the jungle and rocks, until he had sprung upon us. By and by, all the people saw the dreaded footmarks, and stopped. I persuaded them, however, to go on, and to keep close together, I, of course, leading the way; and so we went on for perhaps a quarter of a mile further, when we came upon the site of a catastrophe. In the middle of the path lay a couple of small baskets, such as the natives carry on their heads, and a few cowrie shells were strewn about —this was all We saw no more footprints; the bearer of the baskets and cowries had evidently been swept from the path. A short distance further on we found some natives sitting on the ground and lamenting one of their companions, who, they said, had just been carried off by a tiger, in the place where we found the baskets. I must confess that we breathed more freely after hearing this, as there was less chance of the tiger wanting any of us to break his last on. The deed was done, and we could not help it, so pushed on, and soon arrived at Burmool where I procured a boat, and, after rewarding my bearers, embarked with my two servants, and dropped down the Mahanuddy to Kontillo, where I found my tents; and I never felt so heartily glad in all my life as I did then, in feeling that I was, as it were, at home again, and once more within reach of civilized society."

[From Stray Leaves from the Diary of an Indian Officer, published in 1865 in London, page 134.]

Figure 2. Lieut.-Colonel W.R. Gilbert's bungalow at Sambalpur (Orissa).

It is very interesting to compare the picture [figure 2] with Google Earth images of Sambalpur.

There are two rivers which meet at Sambalpur, the larger one is the Mahanadi River, which is a very wide river with banks about 1.2 km apart. It appears that during the monsoon season the river fills the channel from bank to bank, however at other drier periods of the year, the water drops until it fills two low water flow channels, which are each about 200 metres wide.

By inspection of the Mahanadi river on GE it appears that there is a major sets of rapids that could be the ones shown in the painting.  Drying the dry season the flows over these rapids are so reduced that the rocks are exposed to view.

In line with the rapids on the north bank are a concentration of three municiple buildings.  One of which may well be the building shown in the painting.

I think this bungalow must have stood at a location near 21 degrees 27' 36.62"N 83 degrees 58' 25.02" E where there is a slight raised bit of land that appears to have become the administrative centre of the town a little way out of the centre. I wonder if this administrative centre originally grew up around the Collectors bungalow?

Figure 3.  Sambalpur showing the river and the rapids, and there relation to the possible house site.

Figure 4.  A close up of the house that may be Lieut.-Colonel W.R. Gilbert's bungalow.

Does anybody who reads this blog live close enough to Sambalpur to be able to visit the site and to take pictures of the building?

It appears that the building would no longer have such good views of the river, as the town has grown to surround it, during the intervening years.

Figure 3. Location of Sambalpur or Sumbhulpore

Just how tough life could be for European's, and how remote they were from fellow European's is illustrated by the following extract from missionaries who were attempting to set up in the town in the 1850's.

"Sumbhulpore, a native tributary state, lying on the Mahanadi River, two hundred and fifty miles above Cuttack, was at first selected. After a tedious journey up the river, in native boats, which... occupied them nearly a month, a portion of which time was spent in preaching, and distributing Scriptures and tracts among the villages on its banks, they arrived at their station. .

The town of Sumbhulpore, the capital of a district of the same name, and the residence of the raja, is an important town, of some fifteen thousand inhabitants, and is situated in the midst of a populous country. They found but one European family residing there, but they showed them every possible kindness, and rendered them every assistance in their power. Several months were spent in erecting their houses, and in preparing for a permanent location.

They preached and distributed books as extensively as they were able, and there laid the foundation for our boarding-school system. Six starving children were given them by their parents or relatives, and with them our school commenced. Ere they had become settled in their new abodes, they were one by one prostrated by disease. An Indian fever, without medical treatment, and without nursing, is a formidable foe. Our brethren were their own doctors; and, ill as they were, to a considerable extent their own nurses. Few of the comforts of life surrounded them, and their hastily-constructed houses were not sufficient to shelter them from the scorching heat. Strange faces were about them; but sympathizing friends to care for them, anticipate their wants, and relieve them, there were none. Mr. Noyes on one occasion deeming it necessary to be bled, his wife was called up from her sick bed to perform the operation. For a time they were both prostrated together, while groan answered to groan. And, after consigning a beloved child to the grave, and having themselves been brought to death's door, they regained sufficient strength to admit of their being placed on board a boat, and floated down to Cuttack."

From "Hinduism and Christianity in Orissa: Containing a Brief Description of the ... By Otis Robinson Bacheler, page 127.  

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