The Knight Who Transformed Western Odisha

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The history of Odisha is vast, stretching over the last four millennia and on this huge plain of history a few watershed moments are yardsticks which even modern day technology and people’s grit have failed to recreate or redo. Discussion of Odia history is incomplete without the valour, pride and contributions of the Gadjat states of Odisha or the erstwhile princely states as they are commonly referred to. May it be building first hydroelectric dams or gifting the first state aircraft modern state of Odisha in 1947. The princely states have contributed a lot to the formation and building of modern Odisha.

One such Gadjat state is Bamra which is now known as the Deogarh district with its capital being Deogarh. For the intrepid traveler who is reading this article we have a side note for you. As one visits the district headquarter- Deogarh you cannot ignore the importance that the Pradhanpat falls have. It not only provides drinking water to the citizens of Deogarh but it also makes the visitor feel proud of its scenic beauty and the historicity attached to it, the tale of the former princely state Bamra comes to mind automatically through the music of the cascading water.

Bamra or Bamanda as it was known earlier also boasts of a history of traditional medicinal healers which goes back to thousands of years. Probably because of its strong tribal population who constitute a significant part of the population. Even today many of these traditional healing methods are practiced by these forest dwellers and village folks from neighbouring districts also visit the jungles around Pradhanpat falls to collect rare herbs and medicinal plants.

Bamanda has a number of firsts to its accolades, thanks to its forward thinking and reformist ruler Raja Sir Basu Deb Sudhal Deb, KCIE(Knight Commander Indian Empire) who ascended to the throne at the tender age of 19 in the year 1869 and ruled till 1903. His rule marked a paradigm shift in the thinking of the Gadjat rulers about their own states and also he was one of the first few people who helped kickstart the process of the formation of a modern Odia identity distinct from Bengal.

Sabha Guli – The Royal Durbar meant for the subject of the Bamra State

A forward thinking ruler who was never deterred by the inaccessibility and dense jungles of his state took up the modernization program of his state through various avant-garde projects. Just to give you an impression of what he had to deal with back then we would like to point out that the first regular telephone line introduced in the world was in 1877 between Somerville and Massachusetts, Sir Basu Deb Sudhal Deb introduced the first telephone line in Bamra in the year 1900.

Born in 1850 in the royal family of Bamanda,  Sir Basu Deb had his early education in the village Chatasali.  His eagerness about the world beyond and his knack for languages quickly gave him command over the many vernacular languages of East India apart from Odia, Bengali, Hindi and English. He also learnt Sanskrit and grammar from Pandit Ananda Brahma and acquired knowledge of various Kavyas, Dramas, Vedas and Upanishads from Pandit Purusottam and Pandit Bhubaneswar Barpanda. Tutored in the ways of the old ancient traditions of Odisha, little did Sir Basu Deb know that one day he would be adopted by his uncle Braja Sundar Tribhuban Deb and crowned as King Basu Deb Sudhal Deb and would go on to make a mark in the history of the State.

Bada Bagicha – A garden constructed by Italian Architects for Sir Basu Deb Sudhal Deb

In 1869 Sir Basu Deb Sudhal Deb became the ruler of Bamanda, a princely state with an area of 5149 square kilometers slightly larger than Northern Denmark. A landlocked state which was endowed with natural resources both under and above the ground, Raja Basu Deb quickly understood the importance of his state. Back then it was under the Central Provinces and not a part of Odisha(The state was formed only in 1936) with a predominantly Odia and tribal people being governed under the Central provinces. It caused much consternation to the young Maharaja who had been schooled in the Odia literature and thought that his state needed reforms and that Odia culture and language needed to be developed and supported with a strong sense for scientific temperament and good education amongst his people.

“Maharaja Basu Deb Sudhal Deb was a man who could rightly be called a product of the industrial era rather than of British influence.  Europe had become industrialized by the end of 1850 and now these technological advances were making inroads into British India. Spinning mills, printing presses, telephone-telegraph lines, electricity, geology to name a few all of this which we take for granted today was back then in the late 1800’s a game changer for the Indian sub-continent. Raja Basu Deb Sudhal Deb took advantage of the industrial revolution and quickly modernized his state,” says Rohit Gangadeb, a member of the Bamanda royal family.

He soon went on a shopping spree of technology, science and literature. A man of literature and letters he founded the Jagannath Ballav printing press in 1886 in the Sambalpur region which became a crucial unit from where Odia literature was published. It is at this famous press that Pandit Nilamani Vidya Ratna took over as an editor of the famous ‘Sambalpur Hiteshini’ newspaper which published news in the Odia language. Sir Sudhal Deb understood a clear fact that his people were predominantly Odia speakers and the imposition of Hindi (as the state was part of the Central Provinces) did a lot of damage to the intrinsic Odia identity of his people and the Odia culture. To further complicate the matter a lot of published Odia material back then was full of Sanskrit words (a language which had fallen into disuse and not properly understood by commoners), so Raja Basu Deb Sudhal Deb through the Jagannath Ballav press published Odia works which were printed in Odia script but had a very simplified language with more Odia words which made it easier to understand for the common folk. These untiring efforts kept Odia literature alive and soon formed into the Odia language movement with the Utkal Sammillani being the spearhead in the year 1903.

Basant Niwas – The summer palace for Sir Basu Deb Sudhol Deb

The king himself was also a poet and a prolific writer. During his life time he translated a number of books from Sanskrit and Odia such as Dashakarma Paddhati, Mundakopanishad and Kabi Kalpalata. Interestingly the famous Odia poem ‘Janhamamu’ is his creation. His court was regularly visited by the celebrated Odia poets and writers namely Gangadhar Meher, Radhanath Ray, Fakir Mohan Senapati and others. Raja Basudev always had a special place for people of literature and as one incident which was narrated to us by the members of Bamanda royal family is that of when the Mayurbhanj ruler visited Bamanda capital of Deogarh with an entourage of emminent Mayurbhanj subjects( as was the norm back then) who were greeted by Raja Basu Deb Sudhal Deb at the entrance of the capital along with the other members of the Bamanda state. After an exchange of pleasantries Sir Basudev upon seeing Radhanath Ray in the entourage rushed forward and greeted the great Odia poet by bowing down infront of him. This surprised and shocked the ruler of Mayurbhanj who stated that Radhanath Ray was only a subject and that the King should not have broken protocol bowing to a commoner. Unperturbed by this comment on his action Sir Sudhal Deb went on to explain that “He may be your subject but for me he is my Guru, I bow infront of the great ‘Kabiraja’ because his poems have influenced my life greatly and I am honoured that a person of his stature has visited my state and I am sure his visit will enrich us culturally.”

Years later in 1903 the Mayurbhanj ruler Maharaja Shri Ram Chandra Bhanjadeo would recount this incident in the first meeting of the Utkal Sammilani, who nominated him as the first President of Utkal Sammilani, The Maharaja would begin his speech describing the contributions of deceased Raja Sudhal Deb of Bamanda who was a man of virtue and promoter of Odia language. He also went on to reinforce the views of Sudhal Deb for the unification and integration of Odisha and for the development of Odia as a language.

Raja Sudhal Deb always understood the value of education, being educated in the traditional Odia method of schooling at a very young age Basu Deb was proficient in many languages including Hindi, Sanskrit, Perisan, Odia, Bengali and many tribal dialects. When Raja Basu Deb took over the reign of the state, there was only one primary school in Bamanda. He increased the number of primary schools to 28 by the end of his rule. The king also established one high school at the capital Deogarh, in 1882 and it was affiliated with the Calcutta University giving the people of Bamanda access to higher education.

Debagarh Palace

The king kept close contact with veteran educationists of Bengal and recruited good scholars for the posts of teachers in the high school. Always open to new methods of education the king took advice of his friends Iswar Chandra Bidyasagar and Ashutosh Mukherjee, the veteran educationists of Bengal, for progress of education in the state. He understood the pivotal role of good education and always promoted it even when under the heavy scrutiny of the British he would not relent in his mission to provide education to his people.

Raja Sudhal Deb was always weary of the British and had no intention to fall prey to Imperial machinations. Dear readers, we would like to point out here that the British back in 1860’s had gained much inroads into the sub-continent as they went about dismantling the Mughal and Maratha empires after the failed war of 1857. This act had repercussions throughout the sub-continent and for a young Basu Deb the threat of a British takeover of the ancient land of Bamanda was always a threat. Well read and tactful the young Basu Deb used statecraft and science to keep the British away from meddling into Bamanda’s affairs. So, to thwart British aggression the ruler of Bamanda went on a modernization and reformation drive. He immediately outlawed the age old practices of child marriage and dowry, he would also set up one of the first state sponsored scholarships for orphaned children. These reforms earned him respect of his people but also made the British weary of him too. Maharaja Sudhal Deb would play on these aspects to keep the British guessing on his next move and shielding himself and his people while quietly developing a sense of Odia pride and belongingness amongst not just the people of Bamanda but also neighbouring states.

As reformist he understood the importance of land holdings. Sensing trouble with the old mughalbandi style of land holdings in a changing dynamic post Mughal India, he quickly made reforms so that rent could be collected and state revenue was bolstered. He introduced reforms in agriculture which increased the state’s output exponentially.

In his freetime he would spend hours translating books from various languages into Odia so that his people would have access to knowledge in the era of the printing press. He would make sure that many important works in science & technology especially in the field of minerals, geology, astronomy, agriculture, arts, music, electricity production, new inventions were translated.

Enrichment of his state and the bringing Bamanda at par with the world through machinery and industry was his drive. The state was rich in natural resources like iron ore, limestone, and forest produce and during that period Cuttack was not only the capital town but also the main centre for socio-economic development of Odisha. Cuttack was also the main centre for trade and commerce. But there was no such road or route to Cuttack. With an acute sense of commerce Raja Basu Deb introduced a route on river Brahmani for trade and commerce. He had also established a saw mill in his state for commerce. According to an Administrative Report of 1898 addressed to the Viceroy of India : “There are large saw mills in the state and a considerable business is done. This brings much profit to the inhabitants of the state, who are enabled to earn good wages by labour and by carting the timber to the Bengal-Nagpur Railway.” Raja Sudhal Deb always displayed a fatherly care for the comfort and welfare of his subjects. Linkages to neighbouring Princely States such as Bonai, Gangpur, Mayurbhanj were constructed or enhanced in order to extend communication facilities and increase inter-state trade which spurred the growth of the region and also help shape the Odia identity all the while maintaining cordial relations of the British.

Being an excellent administrator of a rich state he was always considered as a rebellious element by the British and many a times his movement inside India was curtailed or outright denied due to petty reasons. His closeness to many of the Eastern & Central feudatory states fuelled the thought that Raja Basu Deb Sudhal Deb was trying to conjure up support for an independent confederacy which would overthrow the British. Sensing this the king quietly continued on with his work, his focus being that of creating a Odia state and even with the restrictions he would travel far and wide in the Indian sub-continent and on one such visit to the Kingdom of Mysore Raja Sudhal Deb fell in love with the idea of creating electricity through hydro power. During his last days he commissioned the first hydro-electric power project in the state (50 years before the Hirakud dam) which was completed by his son and successor Raja Sachidananda Deb.

Raja Basu Deb Sudhal Deb became a very influential and forward looking King who successfully transformed his ancient state into a modern developed Bamanda which was culturally, education wise and scientifically ahead of many Gadjat states across Central and Eastern India. His name and his actions also greatly influenced the formation of Odisha. Such a towering  figure amongst the kings of the Gadjat state could neither be dislodged nor ignored and finally the British awarded him with a knighthood he was given the title of Knight Commander of the Indian Empire (KCIE) on 6th March 1895, for his unrelenting support and services he provided to his people and also the British Empire in general. By maintaining peace and forging alliances with his neighbours he built the foundations upon the demand for a separate Odia state would gain fervour.

Raja Basu Deb Sudhal Deb breath his last on a cold November day in 1903 in Calcutta just a month before the formation of the Utkal Sammillani at Cuttack, Idgah Padia. His contributions during the pre-independent period, would help  future leaders to build upon and create a greater platform for Odia identity and statehood. Odisha has always produced people of great repute and on this literacy day we at Team Coffee Bytes hope that our  glimpse into the past of Bamanda shows light for young minds to pursue literature and scientific temperament. We hope probably in the near future when a giga factory or a chip design lab is opened in Odisha. The present ruler Raja of Bamanda Shri Nitesh Ganga Deb ends it by saying,“Im sure Raja Sir Basu Deb Sudhal Deb will be smiling down upon us, Odias”.

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