It was a regular day at the office for Dibishada Brajasundar Garnayak. As the Superintending Archaeologist of the Archaeological Survey of India’s (ASI) Puri circle, a lot of his work requires detailed paperwork. As he was bent over a document, he received a call from a source.
The person alerted him to earthmovers and other heavy vehicles razing mounds on the southern and western ramparts of Sisupalgarh, a fort city along a kilometre-wide expanse, dating as far back as the 7th century BC, possibly the capital of a province of the kingdom of Kalinga.
Mr. Garnayak’s ASI office is just 2 km from Sisupalgarh, so he threw his lanky legs into his car and headed there. For historians like him, the mounds are a treasure trove of ancient civilisation materials; for the land mafia with bulldozers, it’s just mud, with which money can be made.
The intervention minimised the damage, but “it seems like the ancient fort can no longer hold enemies back”, says Mr. Garnayak with irony, and helplessness. His alertness in the past has saved a 1,300-year-old Buddhist stupa at a mining site near Jaipur, Rajasthan.
Given that the Orissa High Court had in January this year directed that encroachments on the heritage site be removed and vacant lands be handed over to the ASI, this attack on March 1 from land sharks was particularly audacious.
The court had directed a joint survey of the land around Sisupalgarh by the ASI and the local tehsildar within 90 days. This is currently being carried out.
“The land itself stretched to 562.681 acres, across five villages — Sisupalgarh, Badadhanpur, Lingipur, Raghunathpur, and Mahabhoi Sasan — and had been notified (marked to be acquired) by the government in 1950,” says Mr. Garnayak. It never was.
Soon after Independence, Sisupalgarh was among the first prehistoric sites where the ASI had, in 1948, undertaken excavation helmed by Braj Basi Lal, who went on to become its director general and a controversial figure who later claimed that there were temple-like structures under the Babri Masjid.
With the new court order, the ASI is supposed to finally construct a boundary wall after land encroachment is removed in six months, a tall order considering people have been settling here for several decades now. “However, this is the first serious attempt to rescue Odisha’s ancient capital from the clutches of rapid urbanisation seen in Bhubaneswar,” says Mr. Garnayak, who calls it one of India’s first smart cities.
Archaeologists over the years have tried to decode the history and planning of Sisupalgarh from the contours of excavation and edicts. The excavated western gateway shows remnants of a large fort, with massive structures abutting the gateway, a testimony to the elaborate planning that had probably gone into the construction of the structure.
However, the identity of the sprawling ancient fort city has shrunk to just the Shola Khamba, a constellation of 16 monolithic (now 13) pillars, and the western gateway, built with dressed laterite stone slabs. Today, Sisupalgarh’s rich history is buried under hundreds of modern houses that have sprung up over the years. Now, even if the land is reclaimed, a lot of it would already have been destroyed.
Signs of trouble
Paul A. Yule, a 75-year-old German archaeologist who has traversed numerous continents through his career delving deep into the mysteries of the ancient world, loved Sisupalgarh. “I fear my heart will break if I were to return,” says the former University of Heidelberg professor of his work that ended here in 2014. “It was the largest fort in India in that era,” he says, answering the phone in German and quickly shifting to English.
Alarmed at the number of illegal buildings coming up as close as 100 metres from the main structure, Prof. Yule had prepared five elaborate reports on Sisupalgarh between 2002 and 2014. These contained records of the illegally constructed houses, their photographs, and satellite imagery of the locality as it changed. His warnings about a monument of an ancient civilisation being gobbled up by the unrelenting greed of the land mafia fell on deaf ears. “The ASI had no authority over the land. For people, it is easy to get around the law. In fact, people can effortlessly build houses around monuments in India,” he says.
The ancient fortified settlement is believed to have been surrounded by a nine- to 12-metre-high defensive wall and a wide moat to deter invaders. “Excavations in the 1950s revealed the settlement was well planned, with a drainage system and roads crossing each other at 90-degree angles,” says Mr. Garnayak, adding that the people of Kalinga (straddling modern-day Odisha and north Andhra Pradesh) had trade contacts with different parts of the world, including southeast Asia, Europe, and east Africa.
“Sisupalgarh is a quadratic fort city, its construction and occupation lasting centuries. Decay finally set in because it was in the floodplain of three rivers,” says Anil Dhir, a historian based in Bhubaneswar.
In early 2000, two researchers teamed up to interpret Sisupalgarh’s long occupational history and deciphered that life in the ancient city was not so different from what it is today. Professor Monica L. Smith, of Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, University of California, and Professor Rabindra Kumar Mohanty, Department of Archaeology, Deccan College, Pune, found that there were features like pedestrian paths, unique for the time, but an intrinsic part of cities now.
There were also other ahead-of-its-time aspects: “The fort city had eight gateways, two each from each side, a unique feature in a fort of that era,” says Mr. Dhir.
The area around the Sisupalgarh excavation has a mix of people. Some have lived here for generations, while many have come in from other parts of the State over the years to settle around the monument, hoping to stumble upon hidden treasure. The uninhabited land shrunk from 562.681 acres to 0.775 acres, as recorded by the ASI in a settlement operation of 1982-85. In 1994, the cost of the land stood at ₹24 per square foot. Today, a square foot costs ₹3,400, a 141% rise over three decades. The land mafia is capitalising on this.
In 1995, the ASI had written to the Bhubaneswar Development Authority with a request not to issue permission for construction of any kind. Additionally, in 2001, the Superintending Archaeologist, Bhubaneswar, had published a notification to say that for construction, a no-objection certificate from the ASI was needed.
Sanatan Subudhi, who lives in a joint family in the area and is a member of the Sisupalgarh Aitihya Manch, a heritage forum, says residents are often given a bad name for no reason. “Has the State or Central government ever made an attempt to acquire the 562.681 acres notified for Sisupalgarh?” Mr. Subudhi says.
The 45-year-old farmer, who also does odd jobs to earn a living, says the area had 370 native families in 1994, which have grown to more than 700 in 2023. “As joint families were further divided into nuclear ones, the requirement of land increased to accommodate them,” he says.
In the march towards urbanisation, successive governments took their eye off excavation, protection, and preservation. It isn’t clear when the transition happened, but the land use was changed from agricultural to homestead. People who had been inhabitants for generations began to sell bits, while those who had come in from other parts, sensing a business opportunity, employed people who had grown up in the area as middlemen to market the land.
A senior Minister in the Naveen Patnaik government constructed a house in the Sisupalgarh fort area. Several high-ranking bureaucrats, politicians, and members of the powerful real estate lobby reportedly flexed their influence so that authorities turned a blind eye to violations. Many even stripped the fort of laterite stones and used them to construct their own houses.
“Up to 2002, the growth was relaxed. This changed in 2005, particularly in the north-western corner of the fort. Construction of several villas began along the village road and developers started selling 20 houses, which encroached upon the fort area,” says Prof. Yule.
Villagers criticise both the Central and State governments. “The two governments just created mountains of files over Sisupalgarh and blamed each other, without concentrating on what was happening on the ground. During the past 30 years, they have never bothered to hold consultations with villagers, seeking their views on how to protect the heritage site. Villagers had no idea what their role was,” says Abmanyu Samal, a 53-year-old resident of the area.
In the absence of governance, it was easy for the land mafia to flourish. “The State Secretariat is 7 km away and the Bhubaneswar railway station is 5 km from Sisupalgarh. Who would not want to own a house here?” says Gopal Paikray (name changed upon request), who parcelled his land out and sold it to the highest bidder. Now, he does not see any reason for people to part with their property, irrespective of court orders.
“Instead of deploying coercive action, the government must save whatever is left of Sisupalgarh in consultation with villagers. We want our village identity to remain inscribed in history books,” Bamadev Gajendra, another resident of Sisupalgarh, says.
While the ASI has filed over 100 complaints for building violations, with no consequences so far, the last time Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik visited Sisupalgarh and conducted a meeting was in January 2002. Like politicians are wont to do, he issued a directive to stop new construction. The inspection that followed was halted by the villagers. The State government then provided roads and electricity to illegal houses.
A.B. Tripathy, the State convener of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), is sceptical about reversing recent history. “The present court order is difficult to implement. I see little hope for retrieving the remnants of Sisupalgarh, as people have already constructed houses, destroying artefacts beneath the soil,” Mr. Tripathy says.
The High Court order was, in fact, a result of INTACH asking for the protection of Sisupalgarh in 2007. It took 15 years for the verdict.
Prof. Yule feels that conservation is a collective responsibility of the State, the people, and antiquities professionals. “Finally, we all need to see these monuments as contributing to the quality of our daily lives,” he says.
For Mr. Garnayak, there is a sense of regret: “Had the fort city been brought out entirely from beneath the soil, it would have informed people of how skilful their ancestors were. It will be a blot on society if we are not able to save what is left of the fort city.”