Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Shah Daula Bridge

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An idyllic countryside with golden wheat fields spreading as far as the eye can see, a winding road shaded by shisham and acacia, buffaloes wallowing in roadside ponds of mud while paddy birds watch from the side with a sternness that does not match their poor demeanour, blue skies above without a cloud and a meandering stream called the Degh. Here, some twenty kilometres northwest of Muridke (on the Grand Trunk Road between Lahore and Gujranwala) the perennial Degh or Devka Nadi, as it known near its source in the Jummu hills, is spanned by a massive-looking arched bridge. They call it the Shah Daula Bridge and attribute it to the generosity of this saint buried in Gujrat.

Indeed, the little village by the bridge has no identity of its own and is called Pull Shah Daula. To me it seems there was no village here when the bridge was built and when over the years the habitation grew up around the bridge keeper’s house, it took the structure’s name for the sake of simplicity. No surprise, then, that even today the bridge looms large above the village – not so much physically as figuratively. And legends regarding it abound pushing real history into the amorphous periphery of human understanding.

As I moped about the bridge of Shah Daula, I was joined by a trio of local teen-agers. I asked if they knew that we stood on the Grand Trunk Road as it went long before we attributed it quite wrongly to Sher Shah Suri and even longer before the British re-aligned it in the 19th century. They hadn’t a clue, but they had heard the story of the old bridge whose debris lay in the bed of the Degh just downstream of the Shah Daula Bridge. That had been built thousands of years ago, said one of them. His own grandfather who had only recently died at age one hundred and thirty (Cripes! Same old lie) had told him he had always seen that debris where it lay in the stream bed.

This grandfather had also told him that legend related how the old bridge’s arches were blocked by gates cut out of solid rock, bolted and padlocked. And that one day in the month of Bhadon in a long ago time when the rain did not cease for a full three days it became necessary to open the gates. For some unknown reason none dared, until an elderly man came forward and offered to undo the gates and let the dammed flood pass. For a while he struggled with the ancient, rusted locks and when he finally did succeed in opening them and easing the gates out, the entire structure came tumbling down on him. The old man died, his body lost in the great outpouring, but the accumulation of water that was threatening the village passed on harmlessly. From that day the debris of the old bridge has lain in the stream where it collapsed.

I asked if this old man was Shah Daula. ‘Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. Who is to know the reality of an event that happened at a time that could not be remembered even by my grandfather’s grandfather,’ said the boy whose grandfather had lived almost a century and a half – or so he thought. Such then was the nature of the legend of the old bridge.

History does not record when the old bridge was actually built or when it finally collapsed. But the soft-spoken Tariq Masood of the Punjab Archeology Department is the teller of the tale of Shah Daula’s Bridge. Quoting from a legend as recorded by A. C. Elliot and published in Indian Antiquity (February 1909) Masood tells how, as he journeyed to Kashmir, Shah Jahan, the fifth Moghul king, once lost several laden pack animals to a flood in the Degh. The administrator of the district, a certain Mirza Badi uz Zaman was ordered to immediately bridge the river and have it ready before the emperor’s return journey.

That very likely being monsoon season when kilns traditionally shut down in Punjab, the Mirza was hard put to procure fired bricks. All he could come by were mud bricks useless for bridge building. In a fit of rage he imprisoned all brick makers and when the emperor returned was nowhere near beginning construction. Upon being rebuked, the Mirza is said to have told the emperor that it was only Shah Daula, the doer of public works, who could build the bridge. And so it was that the saint was called for from Gujrat and the bridge constructed under his supervision.

It is evident that the origin of this legend lies in the reputation of Shah Daula as a great patron of public works in Sialkot, where he first lived, and in Gujrat subsequently. The chronology placing him contemporary with Shah Jahan is not incorrect: having been born in 1581 during the reign of Akbar the Great, Shah Daula lived through the reigns of Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb until he died in 1676.

The king’s summons for him to come build the bridge is no more than legend that plays on a reputation of public service that Kabiruddin, a Lodhi Pukhtun better known to us as Shah Daula, had made for himself by Shah Jahan’s time. As for his saintly qualities, he may just have been a good man for history tells us of devotees bringing him valuable gifts. A selfless and generous man, Shah Daula spent most of these on public works like bridges, wells, mosques and water tanks. Consequently, the legend that came into play in connection with the bridge that carries his name to this day was pretty solid about the middle of the 17th century time when the bridge was actually constructed.

The Khulasa tut Twarikh (Compendium of Histories) of Subhan Rai is one source that definitely assigns this bridge to Shah Daula. It mentions a bridge built by him at a distance of five kos (about sixteen kilometres) from Eminabad on the highroad to Lahore. But even there we fail to get a definite date for its construction for, it must not be forgotten, the public life of Shah Daula fully spanned the reigns of at least three kings, namely, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb.

Tariq Masood points out another interesting fact. It is said, he tells me, that the original name of the bridge was Pull Saadullah or Saadullahpur after the well known courtier of Shah Jahan’s. The renown of this man, too, rested on his work as a builder of good repute. But again, history does not mention the undertaking of a bridge building project in this area by him or by anyone else under Shah Jahan’s orders.

The Shah Jahan Nama records torrential falls of rain in October 1652. So great was this deluge that roads were submerged in the vicinity of today’s Lahore district and boat bridges washed away hampering the king’s return to the city from Jahangirabad (Sheikhupura). From the Tuzk e Jahagiri (written by Shah Jahan’s father) we learn of similar difficulties near Sheikhupura and the ordering of a bridge (still extant) – again on the Degh – which has always had a reputation for flooding dangerously during monsoon rains. Shah Jahan’s chronicle, however, does not mention the Shah Daula Bridge. Consequently, it appears to me that while the bridge may have been built by Shah Daula, it must not necessarily have been raised during Shah Jahan’s reign.

My trio of escorts pointed out the double gateways of the bridge: below the main arched opening, the piers of the bridge were connected by a cantilever forming a shallow rectangular opening. It was through these openings that the languid and thin trickle passed as we sat there. Having seen domes, arches and vaults of all sizes and description, I was rather taken aback by the flat cantilever which was absolutely without an arch. The flat arch or dome, in my estimation, was a modern development and I could not imagine the straight cantilevers of Shah Daula’s bridge to be built without iron bars – or their medieval equivalent. In Lahore I later learned that the Moghuls were acquainted with the art of building flat arches and domes.

I asked my escorts if there were any historical tales told regarding their famous bridge. There were none. So I told them the one I had heard from my friend Tariq Masood: it was the spring of 1707 AD when news spread that the aged Aurangzeb had finally given up the ghost. In their unholy haste to have themselves crowned king, his sons tripped over themselves. While Azam Shah quickly donned the crown in Ahmadnagar in the Deccan, Shah Alam hurried to Agra from his posting at Jamrud. As he arrived at the staging post of Shah Daula’s bridge, word arrived from the east that his brother had already been crowned.

In order that he may enter the imperial capital of Lahore as a crowned king, he went through a coronation ceremony at the bridge. Since the bridge is at most two days’ journey from Lahore, Shah Alam’s coronation would have taken place on the last day of April – a full two hundred and ninety five years before the infamous Referendum of 2002. This for history tells us that Shah Alam entered Lahore on the third day of May 1707. Of course my trio did not know of this event of long ago. Men who illogically believe their grandparents live up to a century and a half cannot be expected to keep track of such logical facts.

But that was the past. Nothing spectacular or earth shaking happens at Shah Daula’s bridge anymore. It is a forgotten monument on a forgotten road in the outback of northern Punjab. Twenty first century tellers of tales do not remember Kabiruddin Lodhi a.k.a. Shah Daula as a public service minded person and all the good work he did. They remember him for bringing forth microcephalic children (the famous ‘rats’) that parents abandon at his shrine in Gujrat. That is something in-breeding and not poor old Shah Daula can be faulted with.

That is irony. It is offset only by his lingering association with the bridge. Those who use it, or live nearby invoke his name even today. Through them his spirit of public service lives on.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 08:00,


At 7 April 2013 at 15:18, Anonymous M Behzad Jhatial said...

a complete account of history.. worth reading...

At 16 June 2013 at 16:46, Blogger Tahir Iqbal said...

Wonderful, Excellent Picture & Artical

At 13 January 2018 at 22:27, Anonymous Zia ur Rahman said...

Its about to be destroyed. New bridge constructed for Sialkot Motorway hardly 100 m away and markings on the village wall for a new passage. This was 2 weeks ago.


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

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Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

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