HARKING BACK: Amazing story of ice harvesting in Lahore

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Sep 6, 2015

Have you ever thought how our ancestors managed to have cool drinks and ice in the hot summer before the industrial revolution. It is interesting how the little details in the life of the people make such fascinating reading.

Let us today follow the trail of ice and water in Mughal Lahore. Also I will use some material which research has produced, as well as recall a major portion of the description of this trade as given in Sheikh Abu’l Fazl’s classic ‘A’in-i-Akbari’. In this way we will be able to gauge the ice trade over the years as it took place in Lahore.

Many years ago I had researched a piece about the ice pits of Lahore. It might surprise you that below the grounds where today is the Central Model School at Lower Mall next to Karbala Gamay Shah, was an immense ice pit. Just opposite this pit on Rattigan Road was the Sussex-type straw-thatched cottage of Justice Rattigan of the Lahore’s Chief Court. It must have been an exquisite contrast.

But first the ice and water that the Mughal emperor Akbar used while at Lahore. Abu’l Fazl writes the emperor always used water filtered and mixed with ‘holy water’ from the river Ganges from Sorun while he was in Agra, and from Hardwar when he was in Lahore. The mix was most interesting. “His Most Gracious Highness uses a mix of local water and holy waters. Firstly is water from the Ravi which is filtered using saltpetre, then is water from Hardwar or Sorun, and to this is added a few drops of Aab-e-Zamzam”.

For cooking Akbar used water only from Jamna and Chenab, which was filtered and mixed with a little water from the Ganges. Water-tasters always moved with the emperor wherever he went. But ice was a constant trading business. The emperor used ten special boats that constantly brought in ice from Panhar, where ice was loaded in ’12 seer’ bundles firstly wrapped in very clean cotton muslin, over which jute cloth was covered twice over, then it was placed in a wooden box and wood shavings filled in the gaps. They travelled the ’45 kos’ distance by river and landed at Khziri Gate.

Ice was also moved in a similar fashion by land using elephants, and in mountainous terrain by horses. It was a 14-stage route and normally took two days to cover. But the ice always landed in prime condition. So we can assume that the Mughal emperor always had cool ‘holy water’ and clean ice all the year round. But what about the common man?

The Panhar-Lahore boat route on the River Ravi was a very busy route, and inside the walled city Abu’l Fazl claims that there were over 21 ice shops. One assumes that ice shops have not changed much over the last few hundred years. The huge jute bags over the ice with ice picks to cut and the same weighing mechanism. But as far as water goes, the population of Lahore had their own wells, mostly inside their houses, or in the ‘mohallah’.

Now let me move to an amazing fact that when the British came they even imported ice from Northern America. I did not believe this till I researched this crazy man called Frederic Tudor. His antics are described in an interesting book titled ‘The Frozen Water Trade’. The writer Gavin Weightman describes Tudor as ‘when life hands you lemons, make lemonade’ type of Bostonian. He lived in frozen conditions for eight months of the year and struck upon the idea of storing frozen ice blocks and exporting it to the West Indies and Cuba where it always remained hot.

The north-south trading ships needed cargo for their trip back south, and he packaged ice and exported. Initially his venture was a disaster because of poor storage in the south. But he produced ‘cool boxes’ and his trade thrived. He noticed that ice could be stored over a very long period, so he struck on the idea of exporting to Calcutta. In British India he was called ‘the Ice King’.

But parallel to this Lahore had its own ‘ice pits’ located at three important points, at Lower Mall outside the walled city, at where today stands the Lahore Jail, in those days next to the old Sikh Cantonment, and at an open space east of the Shalimar Gardens. These pits initially stored ice from Panhar, but then some bright person hit upon the idea of freezing ice in winter in the open night and storing it. The freezing method was most interesting.

Hundreds of trays five feet by three feet and just two inches high were filled with clean water and left in the open during winter nights. Early in the morning before sunrise, these were emptied and one block constituted 24 layers. This block was covered with clean white muslin, then jute and put in a wooden box and filled with wood shavings. Completely insulated this was taken deep below into the ‘ice pit’. In this way Lahore had ice all the year round.

I have a feeling this ‘ice harvesting’ is much older than most have us believe. In the Holy Quran in Surah Al-Imran (verse 116) there is mention of frozen crops and ice. We also know that in North African deserts, frozen ice in the cold nights has been known for thousands of years.

An article in a French newspaper (sent to me by a German researcher working in Cambridge) claimed that ‘ice harvesting technology’ was introduce by a French traveller who was a guest of General Allard of the Sikh Khalsa Army. The Lower Mall ice pit could have been his idea, though I have my grave doubts. But then I am more inclined to believe that some bright Lahori working in the ice trade at Khizri Gate hit upon the idea on a very cold winter morning.

As a young schoolboy in the 1960s I remember walking to school on winter mornings to find the roads iced up and the grass with dew frozen on them. Mind you climate change was even then setting in. Imagine the environment of Lahore with many more trees and much cooler winter nights. So finding a piece of dirty water ice at road edges was common.

The use of polluted water was always one of the problems in ice harvesting. It was the sheer bulk of the ice that kept it frozen. The wooden boxes had a water releasing vent at the bottom to let melted water flow out, otherwise latent heat would accelerate the melting process. At the top a vent allowed latent heat to be released. In this way the ice remained frozen.

If you recollect, in the 1950s and 1960s trains moved about with ice wagons. Even in the major old hotels of Lahore, ice rooms with heavy doors can still be seen. If you visit old ‘havelis’ in the walled city you will be able to find cool rooms, called ‘thanda kamra’ which had a heavy wooden door. The walls were wooden as was the door of this very small room. But times have changed, the ice wagons no longer ply with trains, the ice boats no longer sail from Panhan. It would be interesting to excavate the old ice pits to see what happened to them.


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