The Maratha Barracks are among the oldest surviving buildings of the ancient city of Cuttack. Few of the residents of this millennium city know the relevance it has in the history of Odisha. Today, they house the 6th Battalion of the Odisha State Armed Police, tucked away at one corner of the city.
The Maratha administration of Odisha effectively began from 1751. Raghoji Bhonsle became the master of the territory and a new system of government was put into operation. The Marathas divided Odisha into two broad political divisions known the Mughalbandi and the Garhjatareas. More than one third of the State was covered with thick jungles and had been unexplored.
The general administration was under the Subedar who had been appointed directly by the Raja of Nagpur. He possessed both the civil and military power with him. The Marathas, being Hindus, repaired and restored the temples that had been destroyed by the Mughals and Afghans. The worship of Lord Jagannath at Puri received special attention, and a number of villages and lands were assigned to the temple to meet the expenses of the rituals and ceremonies. The internal stability, peace and security during the Maratha rule attracted pilgrims from Bengal, Benares, Rajasthan and the Central Provinces to Puri. Due to their patronage, pilgrims came in large numbers to Puri.
The Marathas improved the communication in their territory. The Jagannath Sadak connected Bengal with Puri and passed through Midnapore, Jaleswar, Basta, Balasore, Jajpur, and Bhadrak and entered Cuttack. The road was made into a highway, bridges and ghats were made. The Marathas had built serais, mutts and temples all along the road. They dug wells and ponds for the pilgrims and gave rent-free land grants to Brahmins.
The Maratha Barracks were built soon after the occupation. Rajaram Pandit started the work in 1775 and it was completed by Sadasiva Rao in 1793. Spread across a vast patch of forest land on the outskirts of the city, the place was infested by tigers, panthers, snakes and other wildlife. The forest was cleared except for some ancient trees, which are still standing tall. The domed structures were solidly built with local materials. Kiln baked bricks and lime mortar was used. There were big wells in the compound and underground cells. Separate stables for their horses and elephants, magazines for storing gunpowder, living quarters etc. were made. The barracks housed the artillery, cavalry and infantry forces. The Marathas had as many as 2,000 soldiers in the barracks. There was a thick wall around with watch towers, none of which now exist.
The Maratha rule lasted in Orissa for a brief period of half a century. However it had a lasting effect on the socio-economic development of the region. They introduced proper land records, translated many classical Odia texts, and persuaded many Kings, Queens and rich Zamindars to endow lands to the Jagannath and other temples. Under the Marathas, Odisha enjoyed a simple judicial and revenue system.
The East India Company was aware of the strategic position of Odisha, situated as the land between their emerging power in Bengal and Madras. They had started their trade in the early years of the 17thCentury, and had established their factories and acquainted themselves with the land and its people, while simultaneously making assessment of the strength and weakness of the ruling Marathas.
On the 17th December 1803, Raghoji Bhonsle II signed the Treaty of Deogaon and handed over the reins of the province of Cuttack to the East India Company. After the Maratha forces abandoned the barracks, they were occupied by the Englishmen. However the Company officials built houses near the Barabati Fort and shifted the troops to the centre of the city. During the Great Famine of 1866, the barracks were used to store food grains. Later the barracks were used as stables. It is also said that a race course was made inside the compound and regular Sunday races were held. The few Englishmen in Cuttack even had fox hunts in the place.The East India Irrigation Company used it while they were working on the canals in the region.
Half a dozen rows of the old barracks were torn down a few years ago because of structural instability. However, one continuous row of 70 rooms still exists and is being used by the OSAP as their headquarters. A visit to this awe-inspiring and imposing old edifice takes one back in time. There are huge banyan, jackfruit, mango and neem trees. The arched verandas that skirt the domed rooms give it an old world charm. There are huge manicured lawns and a parade ground where ceremonial parades are held. Many of the old louvered doors and windows have been replaced with newer ones, but one can still see the holes in the walls forthe punkahs strings that were pulled by the orderlies. Many of the small alcoves in the walls that were used to keep the lamps have been made over.
Amiya Bhusan Tripathy, the former Director General of Police of the State and the Convener of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritageis of the opinion that the Maratha barracks should be converted into a museum. During his stint as the State’s Police Chief, a Police Museum had been set up in Cuttack with many interesting displays.However it was soon shut down and has remained closed for years. The barracks are one of the last original remaining structures and an unique example of the synthesis of Maratha and Orissan architecture. You can visit the place any working day; only take permission of the Commandant, who is only too happy to allow visitors.