What does one of India’s largest irrigation projects – the Hirakud dam in Odisha – have in common with diamonds coveted by ancient Roman emperors and their wives?
The Hirakud dam, on the Mahanadi river near Sambalpur in Odisha, is located 292 km north-west of Bhubaneswar. Inaugurated in 1957, it was one of independent India’s largest and most important irrigation projects. But if you were to travel here and ask ‘what lies beneath?’, the answer would quite literally be ‘diamonds’ and perhaps even ‘gold dust’.
In fact, the name ‘Hirakud’ itself is quite revelatory, for it means ‘diamond island’, as this is the very spot where the famed Odisha diamonds were found, and which were coveted by ancient Romans.
Before the discovery of the South African diamond mines in the 1860s, India was the single most important source of diamonds for centuries. The Golconda mines (Andhra Pradesh) and to a lesser extent Panna mines (Madhya Pradesh) were famous for their diamonds but few know of the famed diamonds of Odisha.
Believe it or not but, in ancient times, Odisha was the most famous source of the world’s diamonds.
The western part of Odisha was then known as ‘Dakshina Kosala’. Ancient Sanskrit texts on statecraft and economics, like Kautilya’s Arthashastra (2nd century BCE) and Varahamihira’s Brihat Samhita (6th century CE) mention ‘Kosala’ as an important source of diamonds.
Odisha’s diamonds were also mentioned by ancient Romans, such as Roman scholar Claudius Ptolemy (1st century CE), who in his text Geographia wrote of the city of ‘Sambalaka’ on the left bank of the ‘Manada’ river, where diamonds were found. Eighteenth-century British historian Edward Gibbon, in his authoritative book on the Roman empire, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, notes that ‘Rome was supplied with diamonds from the mine of Sumelpur in Bengal.’
The ‘Sambalaka’ of Ptolemy and ‘Sumelpur’ of Gibbon was none other than Sambalpur of Odisha. These diamonds were found, not in a deep mine, but in the alluvial soil deposited by the Mahanadi river! Interestingly, the Mahanadi was literally a river of wealth, for apart from diamonds, pebbles of beryls, topaz, amethyst, carnelian, clear quartz and gold nuggets were also known to have washed downstream. These were deposited on a rocky bed, forming an ‘island’ in the Mahanadi, called ‘Hirakud’ or ‘diamond island’ by locals.
From the 11th-12th century onwards, Odisha’s diamonds were completely eclipsed by the famed Golconda diamonds, which were of better quality. So, while Golconda’s diamonds gained worldwide fame, Odisha’s diamonds faded into oblivion. From the 15th century, the region came under the rule of the Chauhan dynasty, which later splintered into the princely states of Sambalpur, Sonepur and Bolangir. We find very few references to the Odisha diamonds during this period.
Oddly, it was the greed of East India Company official Robert Clive (1725-1774) that would spur British interest in the Odisha diamonds. After the Battle of Plassey in 1757, Clive and other East India Company officials had become the de facto rulers of Bengal. They defrauded the East India Company, carried out private trade, took bribes and amassed vast wealth. The problem for these corrupt ‘nabobs’ was how to repatriate this illicit wealth back to England, undetected.
In 1766, Raja Abhai Singh of Sambalpur sent Clive a 16-carat Odisha diamond as a gift. This gave Clive an idea – based in Sambalpur, he would launch a business in the diamond trade, so that he could convert his illegal wealth into diamonds and smuggle it to England unnoticed. He approached Thomas Motte, the Superintendent of Police in Calcutta, to become a partner in this diamond trade and dispatched him to Sambalpur. This is the earliest European account of the Hirakud, published by Motte in an article titled ‘A narrative of a journey to the diamond mines of Sumbhulpoor in the Province of Orissa’.
Travelling deep into the forests, Motte met an officer of the Raja of Sambalpur who was in charge of overseeing the diamond trade. Motte wrote,
‘It was his (the officer’s) business to search in the river Ebe (a tributary of the Mahanadi), after the rains, for the red earth, washed down from the mountains, in which the earth diamonds were always found… he showed me several heaps of red earth, small, some the size of red pebbles, till it resembled coarse brick dust, which had been washed and diamonds taken out.‘
For reasons unknown, Clive’s plans were abandoned. The next account is that of a British officer named Major Ouseley, who travelled in search of the diamonds and published a research paper in the Asiatic Society’s Journal in 1840, on ‘Process of Washing Gold Dust and Diamonds at Hira Khoond’, which was reproduced by the Geological Survey of India in 1881.
Major Ouseley gave a detailed description of the ‘Hirakud island’ and how diamonds were found there. In the centre of the Mahanadi, near Sambalpur, was the island of Hirakud, around 4 miles long and which separated the river into two channels. The diamonds are believed to have been washed down the Vindhyas (in Madhya Pradesh), from the Ebe river, and from the Mahanadi, from as far away as Chandrapur (Maharashtra). The rocky nature of the river bed and the double channel caused by the Hirakud island caused the river to deposit the diamonds here.
On both sides of the Hirakud island were 32 villages of the Jhara community, who traditionally looked for diamonds here. Each year, at the beginning of March, when farm work decreased and the river was at its lowest, around 5,000 people from the Jhara community would raise an embankment on the northern channel and divert the water south. Then, from the stagnant pools, they would wash the pebbles and look for diamonds and gold. The diamonds that they found would be surrendered to the Raja of Sambalpur, while the gold was retained by the locals who found it and sold it at Rs 12-15 a tola.
In 1850, the princely state of Sambalpur was annexed by the British East India Company and the British confiscated all the lands of the Jharas. Surprisingly, Sambalpur’s diamond trade came to a halt and almost completely disappeared from all records. We don’t know why this happened but it had probably become unviable with the discovery of the South African diamond mines in the 1860s.
Around a century later, in 1945, under the chairmanship of Dr B R Ambedkar, a committee was formed to establish a large-scale irrigation project on the Mahanadi river. The most suitable site for the dam was Hirakud island. On 15 March 1946, Sir Hawthorne Lewis, Governor of Odisha, laid the foundation stone of the Hirakud dam. Interestingly, in documents from the 1940s, there is a reference to Hirakud island as the place ‘where diamonds were once found’. It is unclear whether diamonds were still there in the 1940s.
The Hirakud dam was completed in 1953 and inaugurated by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on 13 January 1957. It was among the first mega-dam projects of a newly independent India. Much of Hirakud island would be submerged under the dam’s reservoir and the Jhara villages became the site of the power plant and the HINDALCO township.
Today, few of the thousands of visitors to the dam are aware of its connection with the fabled diamonds, despite its obvious name ‘Hirakud’. One wonders whether there are still diamonds under the Hirakud reservoir, just waiting to be discovered!