Silent Sentinels: Take a tour of ancient India through hidden milestones and markers
In 20 BCE, all roads in Rome led to the Milliarium Aureum or Golden Milestone, a gilded bronze column erected by the then emperor Augustus. The milestone marked the centre of the city and was also the symbolic centre of the city’s road network. The Million Stone, a tetrapylon or a cubic monument nestled within a dome, performed a similar function in Constantinople (now Istanbul), when emperor Constantine had it erected to try and cement the status of his new capital, which he called the Nova Roma, in the 4th century CE.
Mile markers have been around for as long as man has travelled. They have gone from etchings on boulders and trees, to small mounds of stones or cairns, to stone obelisks and now the fibreboard-and-metal signs on our streets and highways. It’s easy to overlook them, as they stand silently at intersections. But look back in time and they can reveal a lot more than distance.
They are markers of a shared history, reminders of how trade, commerce and world politics were altered as the idea of the road was perfected. They are also markers of power, with milestones often a sign of who controlled the thoroughfare and the region.
And the milestones are also a reminder that where you now stand, ancient traders, pilgrims and conquerors trod too. Because roads never really go away.
The Uttarapath, the northern trade route built during the Mauryan era about 2,000 years ago, was rechristened Sadak-e-Azam by the 16th century Afghan invader Sher Shah Suri, and then called the Grand Trunk Road by the British. It now overlaps with a section of India’s National Highway 44.
The southern trade route or Dakshinapath, said to have been around since the Iron Age, roughly coincides with India’s old NH 7 and now overlaps with parts of NH 44. “This gives us a sense of the timelessness of roads,” says heritage activist Vikramjit Singh Rooprai.
Rooprai has spent years researching the 16th century kos minars or heritage mile markers that dot the Grand Trunk Road. They were commissioned by Sher Shah Suri, with additions made by successive Mughal emperors. These markers were 30-ft-tall tapering brick towers set at distances of 1 kos, approximately 1.8 km. Some of the later kos minars even accommodated rest houses, post stations, wells and prayer rooms. Of the 600 kos minars built during the Mughal era, only 110 survive.
By the time the British colonised India, milestones had become a planned, scientific and relatively sleek part of urban infrastructure the world over, says architect Rahul Chemburkar, founder of Vaastu Vidhaan Projects, the heritage conservation consultant for the Mumbai milestone restoration project initiated by the Heritage Conservation Committee of the Mumbai municipal corporation.
Shaped like tiny, squat obelisks, the 19th-century British-era milestones bear Roman numerals denoting their distance in miles from the nearest city centre. In Mumbai, that zero point was the St Thomas Cathedral.
Spread across India are markers of another kind as well, big and small brick and stone structures that shelter stone tablets that played a vital role in the Great Trigonometrical Survey. This massive exercise to try and measure the subcontinent was conducted by British surveyors in the 19th century, with results that included the first scientific estimate of Mount Everest’s height.
“The aesthetics, the thought and the planning put into all these structures is delightful,” Chemburkar says. “These silent spectators of the city have fallen out of use, but they are full of history and beauty. They should be preserved and celebrated.”
Across the country, activist and conservationists are working to protect these pillars, towers and milestones from being lost. Some have been extricated from beneath rising road levels; others restored from a state of crumbling disrepair. Many of the trigonometrical survey structures are lost in forested areas and are being mapped afresh. Take a look at the silent sentinels being uncovered and revived across the country.
A TRIANGULAR CODE preserved in tablets buried across Bengaluru
It’s like something out of a Robert Langdon book. Sprinkled across India are stone tablets, some forgotten and buried in weeds, marking their place in a net of invisible triangles that was once used to measure the subcontinent.
One of those tablets sat within a crumbling mapping observatory built in 1868, and was only discovered when heritage researcher Meera Iyer chanced upon the unusual single-room structure near a friend’s house in Kannuru, a suburb in Bengaluru.
The structure was in ruins and obscured by weeds. But it had played an important role in one of the world’s most ambitious mapping experiments — the Great Trigonometrical Survey (GTS) of India, undertaken by the British East India Company.
It all started when a British soldier and geodesist (or Earth-measurer) named William Lambton proposed in 1800 that the principle of triangulation be used to measure distances more accurately across the Indian subcontinent.
Over the next 100 years, Lambton and his successors would cast a net of invisible triangles across the length and breadth of India — then a colony that included present-day Pakistan, Bangladesh and parts of Myanmar.
The bases of these triangles were manually marked and measured on the ground, using 100-ft-long steel chains. One chain of triangles stretched from Kanyakumari to Mussoorie, roughly along the 78th meridian. This was called the Great Arc of the Meridian and was later used to measure the height of Mt Everest (named after George Everest, superintendent of the GTS after Lambton’s death in 1823).
The GTS began in Madras, now Chennai, in 1802, and proceeded to Bangalore, now Bengaluru in 1804. The Kannuru observatory that Iyer uncovered marks the north-eastern end of the 1868 Bangalore baseline and sits just off Hennur Bagalur Road.
Iyer, who is also a convenor for INTACH (the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) in Bengaluru, now heads the INTACH team that is conserving the observatory in Kannuru and a related triangulation station at Sampigehalli, Bengaluru, about 3 km away.
“To restore the Kannuru observatory, we had to dismantle part of the structure,” says Iyer. “Each stone was carefully numbered so it could be put back together correctly.”
It is great that such a historic monument is being conserved, says G Prakash, joint director of Survey Settlement and Land Records, Bengaluru division. “It will help people know more about this interesting survey that was conducted years ago.”
Years of subsequent triangulation were based on these baseline measurements. “Incidentally, some of Bengaluru’s roads were named after the people who worked on the GTS. Norris Road for example, is after an OY Norris who worked on the survey in the 1860s,” Iyer says. “There’s history all around you. All you need to do is look.”
TELL-TALE TOWERS in Kolkata
Across West Bengal, a series of 50-ft to 80-ft towers shoot up from the ground. They functioned as survey stations when the British were mapping the Calcutta longitude in the 1830s and ’40s.
The Calcutta baseline was set up along the Barrackpore Trunk Road, as part of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. From here, four series of trigonometrical chains going north, south, east and west shot out across the city, linking the baseline to a wider network of chains laid and measured across the subcontinent.
The reason for the concentration of survey towers in Kolkata is interesting. “In southern and central India, hills, hillocks and mountains could be used as survey points. But since eastern India is relatively flat, GTS surveyors had to construct towers to view large areas from a point of elevation,” says Rangan Datta, a professor at St Xavier’s College, Kolkata, and a heritage enthusiast who has tracked down 12 of these towers so far.
Datta has been documenting the GTS towers spread across Kolkata for two years. He locates towers by checking an 1890 government report titled Result of the Operation of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. Volume 12 chronicles GTS survey stations in Kolkata.
Next, he uses the satellite view on Google Maps to find the towers. Then he visits them in person and takes notes and photographs, and writes about them on his blog (rangandatta.wordpress.com).
“I like asking locals what they think about a tower in their area,” says Datta. The answers are usually a mix of legend and lore. One tower in Hooghly is said to have served as a watchtower so that Mughals could keep an eye out for invading Marathas. (The towers were constructed a far bit later than the last Maratha invasions.) Often, the towers are mistaken for old churches and are called girja, the Bengali word for church.
One of the towers has been nicknamed Boroline by locals, because a hoarding for the antiseptic cream was pasted across it a few years ago. Another, just outside Kolkata, has acquired the nickname Bhalki Machan or bear platform. “Locals say the zamindars of Burdwan used this tower when hunting bears,” Datta says. Locals also say an underground passage once linked the tower to the Burdwan palace nearby (no evidence of such a tunnel exists).
While such legends certainly add to the charm of these heritage towers, Datta wants people to know the true story behind them, so they can appreciate their real significance and perhaps be motivated to protect them.
Most of the GTS towers in Kolkata are in various states of ruin. At the moment, only a handful are being maintained by government bodies, Datta says. “Last year, when Cyclone Amphan struck, it got me thinking about how a natural disaster could completely wipe out these already rickety structures. They took years to build but could be destroyed in minutes.”
POINTS OF ORIGIN in the heart of Pune
Until about three years ago, a significant monument in Pune lay half-buried in a concrete footpath near the Pune railway station. The plaque bore the words Zero Stone. Its only significance to locals was that it made a good spot for street vendors to showcase their wares.
The Zero Stone is a heritage milestone that was installed in 1872 or ’73 by the British, to mark the exact centre of the city after the Great Trigonometrical Survey was completed. The Pune Zero Stone served as a starting point from where distances to nearby towns and cities such as Nashik, Solapur and Bengaluru were measured.
About 80 such Zero Stones were installed across India, all of them outside General Post Offices (GPOs). Many have been lost or buried.
In 2018, a series of stories in the Hindustan Times highlighted the sad state of this landmark. Discussions were subsequently held with civic officials about the need to restore and protect the structure.
That same year, architect and conservation expert Kiran Kalamdani and his wife Anjali Kalamdani, also an architect, were approached by the Pune Municipal Corporation’s Heritage Cell to work out a proposal on how the Zero Stone itself could be preserved. Based on their recommendations, it was freed from the concrete around it and restored.
The names of the towns and cities engraved on the stone — Purandhar, Singhad, Alandi, Nasik, Ahmednagar, Sholapur, Bangalore — were highlighted in gold, and the stone was carefully replaced in the spot where it had originally been erected.
Since then, additions have been made to the area around the restored stone too. Marble memorials and bronze busts of British and Indian surveyors who worked on the GTS have been erected nearby. A tombstone pays homage to surveyors who lost their lives mapping the subcontinent.
While this has definitely put this heritage milestone back in the spotlight, Kalamdani believes that a significant part of its history still remains out of focus. “The Zero Stone is one part in the greater establishment that is the Pune GPO,” Kalamdani says. “GPOs were important structures for the British administration.”
Monopolising communication was an important prerogative for the East India Company, adds Swati Pandey, India Post’s postmaster general for the Mumbai region. “The integrated postal system benefitted them economically and politically as it gave them complete control over a nation’s communication systems.”
The GPOs therefore embodied the political dominance of the British. That is part of the reason they were built on such a grand scale and located so centrally in cities across India.
The Pune GPO is also an imposing structure, of columns, arched windows, balustrades and high-ceilinged halls. It sits on a 2-acre campus. Sadly, while the Zero Stone has been revived, the grand heritage gem that stands just behind it is still neglected and fading.
A PILGRIMS’ PATH to Puri
The Jagannath Sadak is an ancient pilgrim path that stretches from Kolkata in West Bengal to the Jagannath temple in Puri, Odisha. It’s a route that took 20 to 25 days on foot, and was walked barefoot in devotion and penance.
The road was first mapped by Dutch cartographers in the early 1700s, but researchers believe it existed at least as far back as the 14th century. Of the 512 km, only 130 km is in use today (some of that overlaps with today’s NH 16). With the advent of the Calcutta-Puri rail link in the 1890s, the rest fell into disuse.
Sadder still, the stone markers that once dotted it, telling pilgrims they were on the right path, are being lost too. Among these are obelisk-shaped rasta khunti or road boundary markers that indicated where the road lay when it was inundated with water from the Subarnarekha River.
“A tea stall owner now uses two of these markers as part of a bench for his customers,” says Anil Dhir, a researcher and projects coordinator for INTACH in Odisha. “He believes these stones were uprooted and cast aside by an enraged elephant who wanted to drink from the Subarnarekha.”
Dhir has spent years documenting the monuments and stone markers along this path. It is a road of immense significance and not just from a spiritual perspective, he says. “Buddhist remains have been found here. The Marathas, Mughals, Afghans and later the British East India Company took this road to conquer Odisha. It was also an important trade route as Odisha did brisk business exporting salt, rice, saltpetre and garments.”
Dhir has documented about 350 monuments so far, which he has chronicled in a three-volume book titled Jagannath Sadak set to be released by the Odisha State Archive in May. This list includes the remains of caravanserais, dharamshalas, temples, culverts, bridges, wells and other infrastructure set up along the road for pilgrims. Such amenities were set up every 5 kos (9 km), and so the old road also came to be known as the panch-kosia rasta or the 5-kos road.
“As an archivist, I am happy that, through the book, people will get a chance to learn more about this ancient road and its rich history,” says Lalatendu Das Mohapatra, deputy director of the National Archives of India in New Delhi, who has helped Dhir with his research for the book.
Dhir is now campaigning for all the monuments to be notified as protected, and the entirety of the road restored and opened up to pilgrims again. “This route was sacred for people of many faiths,” he says. “Kabir, Namdev, Guru Nanak, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Ramanuja have all walked it. It would be a tragedy if we let it, and its rich history, slip into oblivion.”
A GRAND EFFORT
* Many of the silent sentinels forgotten and crumbling across India today relate either to roads that have been in use for centuries, or to one massive project — the Great Trigonometrical Survey (GTS). This was a 19th-century effort by the British East India Company to map and measure more accurately their territories on the subcontinent.
* The project was first proposed by a British soldier and geodesist (or Earth-measurer) named William Lambton, in 1800. Work began in 1802.
* Many Indians worked on the GTS too. Perhaps the best-known is Radhanath Sikdar, a mathematics student who joined the project at 19 as a computer or a person in charge of the computations, and led the team that calculated the heights of several Himalayan mountains, including Everest.
* Incidentally, until it was measured, Mt Everest was known simply as Peak XV. In an act of unsurprising colonial appropriation, it was then named after George Everest, the man who succeeded Lambton in heading the GTS.
* GTS survey teams typically contained up to 800 people, as well as elephants, horses and bullock carts. The work was gruelling, stretching through the year and across uninhabited regions where the risk of injury and illness was significant. Numerous lives were lost in these early surveys.
* The trigonometrical survey depended on a series of baselines that needed to be as straight as possible. Setting up such a baseline in the early 19th century meant physically laying 100-ft-long steel chains on the ground.
* A gigantic theodolite, which weighed half a tonne, was then used to measure angles on the ground. Telescopes were used to correlate these angles with the positions of the stars, to correspond with existing measures of latitude. Surveyors would sometimes spend days in one place, waiting for the skies to clear so they could make these observations. The theodolite, incidentally, has been preserved and now sits in the Survey of India museum in Dehradun.
* “In 1868, they could only measure about 130 metres to 400 metres a day. The 1868 baseline is about 10.99 km long, so you can imagine how long just that one baseline must have taken,” says Bengaluru INTACH convenor Meera Iyer.
(With input from historian and conservationist Udaya Kumar PL and history enthusiast Anmol Dhawan)