The INTACH Warrior of Orissa: Anil Dhir

‘Traveling—it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.’

– Ibn Battuta

Orissa is often in the news for all the wrong reasons – a cyclone, famine, political issues. Living outside Orissa for many years, I have often found friends and colleagues clueless about the cultural and historical significance of this ancient land. So, this year I was planning to travel to Bhubaneswar for a longer duration and was keen to explore its cultural footprint.

I wanted something beyond the touristy articles listing Khandagiri, Udaygiri, Puri, and Konark. I asked friends, family, and searched online for authentic travel books on Orissa.  This search led me to Mr. Anil Dhir; a commercial pilot, who left the corporate world to explore his passions, which are wide ranged – from philately to art and architecture. He is an active member of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), a tireless researcher, an avid traveler, author of numerous books on Orissa, and a wonderful storyteller. His off-beat travels have taken him to far off corners of Orissa. He is indeed a one-man encyclopedia on the cultural heritage of Orissa.

A matter of chance, that he happened to be a close friend of my uncle’s, Mr. B.S. Pani. And I was absolutely delighted to travel with him and my uncle to a hidden temple on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar – the Chausat (64) Yogini temple.

We had an eclectic conversation on the way, peppered with stories about the temple. Having read his articles and posts on social media, I was aware of the ‘Jagannath Sadak Sagada Yatra’ that he had conducted in 2011, followed with more research and a book being published recording over 350 archaeological remains related to this route. (Jagannath Sadak is a 512-kilometer long road created during the 1700’s for pilgrims traveling from Calcutta to Puri).

During the drive, he narrated stories from the yatra – how the team literally recreated the ancient pilgrimage on a bullock cart from Jagganath Ghat in Old Calcutta to Puri in 2011. They camped overnight in villages, spoke with elders to gather stories and memories of the Jagganath Sadak. I found it fascinating that the towns along this route had absorbed the culture of the travelers, leading to unique cuisines, songs, and folk performances.

“The final report contains a listing of 200 monuments which besides temples and mutts, also has a listing of 5 Churches, 8 Mosques, and three Gurudwaras, which all have associational significance with the old Sadak. There are the listing of 21 bridges, 20 wells, 15 tanks and scores of old Dharamshalas, rest houses, buildings etc.”

-Anil Dhir, Rediscovering the Jagannath Sadak, November 2015

Anu Patro Kothi

A few days ago, I had read Anil Dhir’s article about a 140-year-old house, called Anu Patro Kothi. On our way back, he and my uncle were very kind to let me stop there for a while in Hirapur, so that I could see the house and take a few photographs. This house was built by Anadi Patro, a farmer who migrated to Calcutta and made a fortune there. As a Jagganath devotee, he was sympathetic to the tribulations of the pilgrims and built this rest house for them. It was first identified by Mr. Dhir, who along with others from INTACH, is trying to save it from destruction.

Orissa, Historical Monument
Amongst so many old houses, this one is special because of its connection with the Jagganath Sadak.

We entered through a beautiful arched doorway to a large stone courtyard with a two-storeyed neo-colonial house. Its carved doors and windows looked unused. Construction material was piled beside the staircase. I had read that it had a well, a pond, as well as temple for the pilgrims. Mr. Dhir mentioned that there is plenty of ancient furniture inside.

Orissa, Historical Monument
Silent poetry of the unused things ….

In spite of the grimy edges, dust, and desolate air around the house, there was something very special about it. It stood silently, perhaps remembering its days of glory when pilgrims trekking to Puri rested here. I wanted to sit under a tree and sketch the house for a while; perhaps step inside to explore the kind furnishings one would use for pilgrims on a long journey. In my imagination, I could almost hear the echoes of ‘Jai Jagganath.’

A Shard of History Hidden in the Moss

Orissa, Historical Monument
A bridge to the past.

On our way back, Mr. Dhir asked us to pull over on the Cuttack-Puri Bypass road, just before Kesariya Chaka. I was curious what could be worth stopping on this nondescript highway.

He pointed to an old, symmetrical stone bridge which was a part of the Jagannath Sadak. We walked up to the bridge and Mr. Dhir pointed out the grooves made on the surface by the thousands of bullock carts that passed over the stones. I was awestruck that something so old could survive for over 250 years, now unused and neglected by a city that is busy becoming a ‘smart city.’

What could be smarter than this beautiful, perfect, slice of a bridge made to precise measurements at a time when there were no sophisticated machines? The engineers who built this bridge used an ingenious arrangement of stones in such an intricate manner that it held strong through sheer gravity. One can imagine devout pilgrims, canny traders, perhaps services providers … undertaking the arduous journey. Maybe the river that once flowed here revived them on a hot summer afternoon.

Orissa, Historical Monument
When the monsoons set in …

We were astonished when Mr. Dhir mentioned that the 250-year-old structure was to be demolished during the construction of the bypass. He intervened, motivated the local community to protest, and ensured the bypass was rerouted; thus, saving this slice of history. Listening to his stories, I relized that there is so much to discover in my hometown and, that we need such warriors who bring history alive through their writings, journeys, and storytelling.

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