It is known by its shelf mark reference: No.1198, January 1853, OIOC.
For a hundred and fifty years, it has been there in a shelf at subzero temperatures, warmed only by stacks of similar sepia paper turned brittle with age. The memo is just one of a million in the Oriental and India Office Collection of the British Library.
Professor Gautam, at his desk in the ramshackle third floor office in Mogalrajpuram, looked unbelievingly at the bunch of papers in his hands, sent to him by a student. The report was elaborate and detailed, considering the times, highlighted by one Dr. Taylor of the European Hospital at Bezwada, who had treated Bradford, and endorsed the contents of the journal … and more to the point, sanity of his patient.
Gautam switched on the reading light and started turning the pages…
November 30, 1851
I, Charles Archibald Bradford, am an anthropologist in the Survey of India of the Province of Madras. At the instance of my doctor, I am setting here down my experience on the banks of Kistna near Bezwada, in the Province of Madras of Her Majesty’s East India Company.
It began with my meeting with the Chief Engineer of Gannon Dunkerley, the company engaged in the construction of a barrage across the river in the northern districts.
The barrage site is located at the end of a series of hills that forced the river to take a sharp southward turn, creating narrow alluvial terraces in the valleys. The burgeoning town of Bezwada, with a population of over five thousand and a flourishing modern settlement of over a fifty European families, is on one such terrace.
The company had engaged the services of a geologist, to search for deposits of the famed Purtyal diamonds, in the mudflats that may come under the waters of the reservoir, once the barrage is completed. This geologist, a Dutchman in the service of the construction company, had observed the presence of carvings on stone and metal implements, and large brick structures that belonged to some deep antiquity.
At the behest of the company, I had reached Bezwada to survey them. I was accommodated fairly comfortably at the engineers’ mess on the right bank of the river.
It was 19th day of October in the year 1851 of our Lord. On that fateful day, it was our intention to leave early at the daybreak in a canoe and return before the sun reached its zenith. The geologist, Mijnheer Von Trope accompanied me.
The barrage construction was in full swing even at that early hour. Barges carrying stone were everywhere tied to the cofferdams with hundreds of coolies carrying stones on makeshift ramps. Our canoe had to swing around the bustle of humanity under the foot of a sizeable hill, on the top of which stood a popular Hindoo shrine. At the bank of the river was, a throng of half-naked pagans trying to wash away their sins in its waters, a ubiquitous sight at almost every holy place in this country.
Our canoe followed the bank and reached a wide green valley upriver. The boatman tied it up to a tree stump as we made our landing at a precipitous slope.
Layers of gravel greeted us in face as we climbed up to the high water mark. ‘Result of millennia of chipping away of the hills upriver, the gravel is carried by strong currents and deposited in the bend,’ explained Von Trope, ‘Perhaps why the place was called ‘Pecchu-wada’, meaning ‘gravelly hamlet’.’ ‘There is an ancient inscription at the Hindoo temple,’ he said pointing at the hill, still shading us from the morning sun.
Above the flood-line the land flattened out, an undulating expanse of thick shrub and occasional tree.
There was no sign of human presence, not even goat paths that crisscrossed such landscape, in spite of being so close to the town. ‘The townsmen believe that the valley is inhabited by demons, and the Goddess on top of the hill protects the town from them,’ the all knowing geologist said, and guided me through a rough track made by the company gangs to roll down the ancient stones, used as readymade rubble to protect the foundations of the barrage from strong undertow.
An Enfield loaded with buckshot slung over the Dutchman’s shoulder and an oar presently used by the boatman as a walking stick, were our protection against any predators that might be lurking in shadows. I walked between them as we climbed unerringly to a mound topped with large stones. Flags marked the hill-face showed that we were still well below the submergence level, once the barrage is complete and the lake filled.
From that vantage point I looked around.
I could trace the outlines of a city, obscured by a layer of alluvium. Remains of houses, streets, palaces and shrines protruded above the surface to announce their presence, as far as my eye could see.
I was feverish with excitement, couldn’t wait to get back to my lodgings and write to the director Cunningham in Calcutta.
Determined as I was to come back with a crew to explore my discovery, I ran down the way we came, hurriedly followed by my bewildered companions.
The boat, still tied loosely to the stump, was bouncing in a swirling mass of waters rising with every second. Our boatman hesitated for a moment, ‘but once we reach the barrage site the crossing shouldn’t be difficult,’ he said and began rowing.
Occasional wild swings of the oar, when it missed the waves, had not diminished the euphoria of my discovery.
‘How many more secrets do you hide in those dark depths?’ I asked aloud looking at the river.
As though the river had heard me, at that very moment the boat lurched wildly and turned over. I found myself sucked into a vortex of darkness. I had stopped struggling after an eternity, as warm waters engulfed me….
Professor Gautam stopped reading… removed his reading glasses to rub his fatigued eyes. He lit a cigarette and looked out of the window. The road below was almost deserted. Two cars with red beacons zipped by, ‘Hmm,’ he sighed hopefully, pleased with the government that’s working round the clock, at the same time wondering about the capsized boat and, ‘What had happened to Bradford?’
…to be continued next week
The strategic importance of the Bezwada Barrage was dictated by the physical geography of the lower Krishna basin. At Bezwada the river flows through a narrow pass at the end of a chain of medium sized hills, and immediately after the pass the river enters the alluvial plain, where it once used to shift erratically in multiple channels, making it almost impossible to predict its path. Now if you draw a triangle on the map joining Bezwada with the two points on coast, Kalipatnam and Bapatla, it matches what is called the Krishna Delta. You must understand that there was a time when not a single low-lying field or village within it, safe from its floods.
Initially in 1795, a dam was envisaged by Lord Buckingham the then Governor of Madras Presidency to divert water to an inland waterway connecting Machilpatnam and Madras. It was financed by the drought relief fund after one of the most calamitous famines, still alive in the folk memory as ‘Purrela Karuvu’. Ironically after another disastrous famine in 1830s called ‘Gunturu Karuvu’, a few improvements were taken up to increase its irrigation potential. Finally a decade later, the intervention of Sir Arthur Cotton had resulted in a full-fledged regulatory barrage in 1855.
The barrage had converted the delta into a granary but it had one unwanted consequence. The ancient remains of Bezwada whose history goes back to prehistoric times are lost to us, submerged by the lake.