The state of Odisha, also known as Kalinga, Uthkala or Odra in the past, has been ruled over by several dynasties of note such as the Gangas, Gajapatis, Bhois, Mughals and Marathas. The architectural heritage left behind by these powers is rich and varied. However, the elements of this compound heritage today do not exist in their pristine form. The fort of Barabati, situated in the city of Cuttack of present-day Odisha, is one such historic structure reflecting the glory of a bygone era.
The history of Barabati is intricately interwoven with the history of the city of Cuttack itself. The term “Cuttack” is the Anglicized version of the indigenous work kataka which means a military cantonment or a capital city. Cuttack is strategically located between the Mahanadi and the Kathajodi rivers. It is said that Kataka lay on the crossroads of two historic trade routes which added to the economic significance and the affluence of the region. The city acquired political importance from the 10th century onwards when the Somavanshi dynasty developed it as a military cantonment. King Anantavarman Chodaganga overthrew the Somavanshis in the 12th century and laid the foundations of the Eastern Ganga dynasty and established his capital at Kataka. Historians believe that it was Raja Anangabhimadeva III, of the Eastern Gangas who built the fort of Barabati in the beginning of the 13th century. The fort emerged as the imperial centre of the Eastern Gangas who reigned over this politically significant as well as economically prosperous region. After the Gangas, the fort came under the occupation of several prominent powers such as the Afghan rulers of Bengal, the Mughals, the Marathas and finally the British. The political importance of the fortress continued well into the early modern period after which it suffered neglect and decay under the British.
Legend, however, ascribes a different story of origin to the fortress. Madalapanji, the chronicle of the Jagannath Temple of Puri, gives the year 989 CE for the foundation of the fort. It also narrates an interesting story surrounding its origin. It is said that King Anangabhimadeva III who was then ruling from Chowduar, once crossed the river Mahanadi and landed in the village of Barabati. It is here that he witnessed a very unusual happening- a heron (a fish-eating bird) overpowering a hawk. The King considered this to be an auspicious sign and decided to shift his capital to Cuttack and built the Barabati fort here as his headquarters.
The Barabati Fort, today, physically remains only as a mere shadow of its glorious past. The standing structure presently includes an arched gateway, a moat, a central mound with architectural remains, and a moat. Despite being in ruins, the remains still attest to the existence of a grand complex in the past. The word Barabati is said to have been derived from the word Barahati in which Bara means 12 and Hati represents a local unit of land measurement. Barahati or 12 Hatis represent roughly an area of 102 acres. The plan of the structure is square in shape. The moat surrounding the walls (now non-existent) is lined with stone and is almost 20 metres wide at places. The moat is also popularly known as the Gadakhai. The fort was declared as an ASI protected monument in 1915. Excavations headed by the ASI were begun at the site in 1989. During these, the central mound area of the fort complex revealed the remains of a palace- a pavilion and foundation blocks made of Khondolite.
One of the most widely debated aspects of the Barabati fort is the existence of the Navatala Prasada or the 9 storeyed palace. It is believed that King Bahubalendra Mukundadeb of the Suryavansi dynasty, who ruled over Odisha in the mid-16th century, built the Navatala Prasada. This is attested to by the account of the Mughal royal chronicler Abul Fazal, who visited the region, in his work the Ain-i-Akbari. Abul Fazal gives a very detailed description of the organization of space in the Navatala Prasada. According to his account, while the lower-level floors of the fort were meant for hosting the soldiers, servants and orderlies, the upper floors housed the royal family and the nobility. However, a number of historians also claim that the Navatala Prasada was in fact a structure consisting of nine courtyards arranged horizontally in rows instead of 9 floors piled vertically on top of one another. This assertion is based on Abul Fazal’s use of the term nine ashianas to describe the palace.
After the rule of Mukundadeb ended, Odisha was invaded by Kalapahad, the military general of the Afghan King of Bengal, Sulaiman Karrani. Kalapahad’s invasion is etched in the memory of the people of the region as one that carried great destruction to the land. Barabati was also occupied by the Afghan forces but remained unharmed. Following the invasion of Kalapahad, Orissa was included in the dominions of the Sultanate of Bengal. The Afghans were, however, soon ousted by the Mughals, who then came to rule over the region.
During the reign of the Mughals, some additions were made to the fort. A mosque was added to the eastern part of the fort complex. By the mid-18th century, the region of Odisha passed under the control of the Marathas (Bhonsles) of Nagpur. Under the Marathas, this region prospered as a centre of commercial exchange with the English. The English Merchant Thomas Motee visited Cuttack in 1766 and recorded that the moat outside the Barabati fort was nearly 7 feet in depth and 20 feet in width. He also mentioned that the fort was protected by two clusters of fortification walls- inner and outer.
After the Battle of Buxar in 1764, the English received the Diwani or revenue rights of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. The English were, however, not satisfied and desired the complete annexation of this region to their dominions in India. They finally captured the region by the beginning of the 19th century. In 1803, an English army under Colonel Harcourt stormed into the Barabati fort and defeated the Maratha forces. An account of this battle can be found in a letter written by an English soldier. He describes the Barabati fort as a formidable structure with high ramparts, multiple towers and a deep moat.
After the British occupation, the structure was converted into a prison for keeping political prisoners. However, the fort soon fell into disuse and made way for an era of vandalism and neglect. Stones and materials from the fort were used by the British for the construction of many public works such as roads, bridges and embankments in the city of Cuttack. Although an attempt at preservation was made in 1856 by a British magistrate called Mr. Shore, tremendous amount of damage had already been done and not much could be salvaged.
Despite the fact that the fort lost its prominence and proceeded towards ruin, the city of Cuttack, however, continued to flourish and remained the nerve-centre of the political and commercial life of the region. Under the British, the city of Cuttack was developed as a political and urban centre and came to house important administrative centres, educational institutions, markets etc. The city was also the hub of nationalist activities during our struggle for independence. It remained the political headquarters of the region until Bhubaneshwar was declared as the capital of the state of Orissa in 1948.
Barabati is also well known for the sports stadium which was constructed right beside the historic fort in 1958. It is used primarily for cricket tournaments and is an internationally acclaimed ground. Another prominent site near the fort is the Bali Yatra ground that hosts the annual event of Bali Yatra, a festival that commemorates the ancient Odia merchants and seafarers who travelled to lands like Bali, Java and Sumatra to promote trade and cultural exchange.
The physical structure of the fort of Barabati today lies in ruins. However, the ravages of time have not been able to diminish the glory of the heritage that lies entrenched in its bosom. The proud legacy of Barabati is very much alive and secure in the hearts of the people of Odisha. In this sense it is a truly undying monument.