HARKING BACK: When city and river were prised apart

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, apr 19, 2015

When the old bridge built by the British over ‘Budha Ravi’ was knocked down last year to make way for the concrete ‘spaghetti junction’ opposite the Lahore Fort, in a way it forever prised apart the old city of Lahore and the river.

Over the ages rivers and cities have had an almost umbilical relationship, the latter located because of the former. So it was with Lahore. The bloody Partition of 1947 led to water politics which killed off the river. Lahore was effectively orphaned. But then the death of a river not yet fully dry is not possible. The history and the myths that go with what is left of the Ravi live on. The seasons bring it back to life. The changing world climate also makes sure that the annual ‘relative flood’ returns, which the people of Lahore in almost a reflex action rush to see the mellowed rage of the river.

As a schoolboy I remember the river coming up to the GPO as the western portion of the city emptied eastward. It was, in all probability, a farewell visit. Local pundits still say that the river came to steps of Data Darbar to bid him farewell. The saint of the city is known as a ‘jalalli’, and even he must have been unhappy. For over half a century now the river has spared the city of its rage.

But then before the world became motorised, the river provided most of the ‘trade highway’, with the river full of trading boats, with an occasional small flat-bottomed ship making it to Khizri Gate, now known as Sheranwala Gate, where docking facilities existed. If you visit the place even now and stand aside to observe the lay of the land, you will notice a small jetty-like topography. It was from here that the famous Zamzama Gun was loaded on a boat by Maharajah Ranjit Singh to participate in the battle for Multan. It was from a nearby market that indigo was shipped to the west, who developed denim for jeans in France.

To understand the river we have to go back at least 700 years to see how the river flowed, so that we can understand just how it moved westwards, ultimately leaving the city, only to be dealt a fatal human blow. One description of Khizri Gate has been given by the Italian traveller Nicola Mannuchi in 1667 who said that this is where the ferry stopped and off-loaded cargo. He, however, called it Qadri Gate. Just how and when did Hazrat Khawaja Khizr become a Qadri is beyond me. My best guess is that a seer by this name lies buried about a hundred yards inside the city.

At the ferry station the major crops and other essential commodities from the surrounding areas were received and stored in the huge ‘mandis’ that still abound inside the walled city. Every week a larger ferry from Multan and beyond would dock here. One account taken from East India Company documents tell of European goods from ships being off-loaded at Sukkur onto ferries bound for Lahore. In return goods from Lahore were loaded onto European ships. Initially cotton and indigo were the two prized products, as was sugar and smaller quantities of spices and rice.

Let us take a brief look at how the river has moved over the ages. Initially the river, if we are to believe the account in the ‘Mahabharata’, flowed slightly to the east of the city, and it was somewhere north of the city, probably at Mahmood Boti, that the famous ‘Battle of Ten Kings’ was fought, that being the central theme of this epic. At this point it curled to touch the fort and then it its eastward thrust curled around the mound that was to become the walled city of Lahore.

On this alignment it flowed in the pre-Islamic days. It moved just north of the present-day Shalimar Gardens, moved inward (southwards) towards where today is the University of Engineering. It then, because of the mounds there, moved slightly to the north and headed towards where today is Badami Bagh and touched the north-eastern tip of the fort, jutting out near where today is the Lahore District Courts, then moved out and back towards Old Anarkali, and turning and returning near where today stands the Chauburji Gateway. It then took a third loop returning to the west of Nawankot and then proceeding southwards.

Rivers have a natural ability to move according to riverbank erosion, the earth’s circulation and natural phenomena like an earthquake changing the surrounding topography, just like in the case of Sukkur in the 11th century the mighty Indus suddenly changing course because of an earthquake and overnight started flowing between Rohri and Sukkur. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that when the ‘baradari’ of Kamran was built it was in a huge garden, not in the middle of the river as it is today.

Here we see the Ravi turn westwards of all the reasons given, and started flowing by Shahdara next to the tombs of Jahangir, Nur Jehan and Asaf Khan, which when built where far away from the river. In those days the river curled around the walled city, providing it with a natural defence protection. When Akbar expanded the walled city from 1575 onwards, the river did flow around the fort and city, with a few drawbridges in place. The last drawbridge seen in British days was at Mochi Gate.

But then the river had moved westwards again leaving a few traces of its glory days. For example just to the west of the fort and the Pakistan Monument used to be a lake called ‘Budha Darya’. That has now disappeared, but I do remember in our youth when we played cricket in Minto Park, the ‘budha darya’ was very much there. It flowed into the Ravi and was considered part of the river. Such samples, dried that they are, can still be found at three other places to the south and west of Lahore as we know it today.

Once the river had effectively moved away from the walled city, the ferry port moved to the eastern bank of the river just to the west of what is today known as Karim Park. To understand this we have the last river bank brick structures at the point where the road from Sheikhupura via Begum Kot touches the river edge. At this point a boat bridge existed, the few remains of the brickwork at the opposite end can still be seen. It was along this road that goods began to increasingly flow to the walled city ‘mandis’.

With the British came the railways and the new bridge opened up the road to realign with the Sher Shah Suri’s Grand Trunk Road. Of recent with the building of the new road opposite the Lahore Fort, the last remaining bridge over the ‘Budha Ravi’ was knocked down. In Sikh days once the river had moved on, the ferry station went silent and the gateway once known as Khizri Gate came to be known as Sheranwala Gate, after two lions that Maharajah Ranjit had tied there.

Sadly, young children would pelt stones at the lions, who died of their wounds. They were replaced by stone lions, which disappeared because of trader pressure after 1947. The river and the ferry thus left the city. The city changed forever.



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