Nestled in the hilly, forested terrain of Nayagarh district about 100 km from Bhubaneswar, Udaipur’s topography is marked by thatched houses and adjoining cattle sheds curving along the narrow pathways. Farming, the chief source of livelihood, is constrained by the vagaries of nature. Women still trudge at least 4 km everyday to draw water from the only functional tubewell in the region. It is typically bucolic India.
But there is one big difference. Udaipur harbours materials as diverse as stones from the moon, bricks from Third Century BC, fossils of prehistoric animals, weapons and ammunition, along with a treasure trove of palm leaf manuscripts and books.
It’s all contained in a two-storeyed structure, still smelling fresh of construction, a seat of learning, arts and culture. It’s a museum, library and a repository of rare palm leaf manuscripts and illustrations — the work of one man, Dasarathi Pattnaik.
Popularly known by the villagers as Dasia Aja (grandfather) Pattnaik single-handedly put together the institutions and transformed them into marvels. Aja is no more. He died in 1997 at the age of 90. But he left behind a legacy which would educate and enrich later generations.
The library holds more than 40,000 books, most of them old, rare publications from across the world in different languages. It has more than 65,000 magazines, periodicals and journals and 2,500 backfiles of newspapers.
The museum has sections on archaeology, natural history, numismatics, armoury, mining and geology, art and craft and anthroplogy. The museum could be one of the handful of places in the world to possess original stones from the moon. The stones take their place beside the treasures of Mohenjodaro and Harappa in the shape of fragments of clay pottery, toys and jewellery, a clay seal from the Mesopotamian era, bone of a dinosaur, fossil of a rhinoceros and other archaeological excavations. You also have soil from post-atom bomb Hirosimha in a wooden casket, volcanic ash in a small urn, a floating rock that is believed to be part of the mythical Ram Sethu.
A large number of silver, copper and metal coins dating from the ancient, medieval and modern eras are on display. The museum has a section on tribal lives sequencing a change in lifestyle through clothes, jewellery, weapons, etc over a period of 100 years.
The crowning glory is, however, the collection of palm leaf manuscripts and illustrations. There are over 3,000 manuscripts depicting epics like Ramayana, Mahabharata along with treatises on Ayurveda, religious rituals, astrology and astronomy, tantra and mantra, veterinary treatment, and literature. There are 68 manuscripts that depict narratives of the Dasavataar and the Krushna Leela through colourful pictures that are etched on leaves.
All this was collected by one man. He didn’t have much formal education (he dropped out of school in class six). But he developed an addiction for reading and devoured whatever came his way.
The seeds for a library were sown in his mind by his school teacher and Dasia Aja set off with five books in a trunk. Fifty years old at the time, he bequeathed his farmland to his wife and mother and travelled across Orissa looking for books, magazines, antiques and other collectibles, says his grandson Dipak Pattnaik, who now manages the institutions.
He became an icon. His attire — a loin cloth, his bare chest covered by a shawl laid on the shoulder and a turban — became a trademark. He travelled from place to place in quest of rare items and materials. His mild and pleasant demeanour attracted every one and soon he was known to all as Dasia Aja.
Recalls one of his foremost disciples, Purna Chandra Pattnaik, “He was subjected to humiliation and rejection many times. But he did not waver. For the floating rock, which he got from a couple in Balasore, he stayed outside their door without food or water for about a week, moving them into submission.”
The library was set up in 1959 and the museum in 1973. In the course of his visits, he came across many individual collectors, who also parted with several items from their collections. Among them are Prof Dr Bikram Das of Cuttack, who donated the moon rocks to the museum and Dr Nrusingha Charan Sahoo of Jajpur. Prof Das got the rock from a scientist friend in London, Purna reveals.
The museum has been declared a tourism spot by the state government but voices are being raised now in favour of according it the status of a National Rural Library and Museum.