Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

A Journey without Maps

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We tend to take for granted things and people that have always been there as we grow up. And so for most people born and raised in Lahore the well known Ganga Ram Hospital was just an institution left by some half-remembered Hindu seth who may have done better had he been a Muslim. But then also only marginally for we as a nation suffer from the disease of total disregard for our national heritage.

Only some weeks earlier I had discovered the great philanthropist and engineer, Sir Ganga Ram. Subsequently talking to friend Saleem Kailani I learnt that the man came from a village not very far from Shiekhupura that is even today called Gangapur after him. But the more interesting fact, I was told, was that he had designed and built a ‘railway pulled by horses’ that connected his village to Buchiana on the railway line from Shiekhupura to Jaranwala long before the connecting tarmac road was built. And so one Friday recently we took our aimless meander through the country to ride Ganga Ram’s horse-drawn train.

Aimless meander it was for we went via Kot Pindi Das off the Lahore-Shiekhupura high road. Here Geoff wanted to photograph and measure Jehangir’s bridge on the Degh for an article in an Australian civil engineering journal. People came to watch and I asked a young man if he knew who had built the bridge. ‘Must have been the English,’ he said casually for that was as far back as history went for him. But an older man knew it was the ‘Chugattas’ who got credit for it. Once again I could help but feel the shadow of spite and derision in the way the title Chugatta (from Chughtai a Moghul sub-clan to which, incidentally, Babur belonged) was used. Perhaps a reminder that Moghul rule was not as popular in the country as history books would have us believe.

Past the bridge we found the much maligned Motorway and drove along it to Shiekhupura and onto the road to Nankana and Warburton. Stuck as it was in the heart of rural Punjab, this latter was a name as incongruous as it could get. It was a pleasure to be away from the mayhem and madness of our arterial highways: there were no traffic snarls or deafening pressure horns. Warburton was just waking up for the day and the name touched a chord in Geoff for not very far outside his native Melbourne is a town of the same name. But I could not tell him who it was named after. So I just said he must have been a Deputy Commissioner because nine out of ten times it turns out to be correct.

The countryside looked lovely after the recent rains. The forlorn leafless shisham trees stood stark against the blue sky, their drabness offset by the vibrant green of young wheat and brilliant yellow of mustard blossom. The air was crisp when we stopped at an abandoned brick kiln for an early picnic lunch of tea and sandwiches. A couple of hundred metres away some people worked in a field but, thankfully, no one came to ogle.

Buchiana seemed to be just a bazaar and a railway station. The train from Lahore was late – no surprise there. People in their travelling finery crowded the platforms and sauntered back and forth across the track, apparently in no hurry to get anywhere. Outside the station eight private cars stood in a neat row: taxis offering to drive rich travellers to nearby villages at preposterous prices. I asked where we would find Ganga Ram’s train and the old man said we should drive through the bazaar to the far side of the railway station.

‘But the train hasn’t run for the last couple of months,’ he called after us as we drove away. Never fails, this one: I hear of something unusual and by the time I make my way to check it out its been over always for a ‘couple of months.’ Past the bazaar, the man had said, was a shed where the train used to stop and we might see the phuttas (literally boards) that served as the carriages.

The shed with its pitched corrugated iron sheeting roof was there all right. And a sorry sight it was; but there was no sign of the phuttas. The rails began under the shed – squiggly and rusty and looked as if they had not been used for ages. We asked about the carriages again and they pointed us down the road in the direction of Gangapur some five kilometres away.

‘The horses are also stabled in Gangapur,’ said our man.

We drove along the road with the line squiggling alongside, our minds awash with images of early Victorian horse-pulled trains. On the outskirts of Gangapur the line petered out, much to my disappointment, but it thankfully reappeared as soon as we entered the bazaar. Not far in front we saw a shed similar to the one we had photographed at Buchiana. We got down and within the twinkling of an eye had an audience of at least one hundred.

The track was the two foot wide Decauville that never became very popular anywhere in the world and has long been abandoned. The phuttas were a bit of a disappointment. I must have a wild imagination for when I first heard of this train I had imagined toy carriages, stepped down versions of the real things used by Pakistan Railways. They turned out to be just what the name suggested: boards. A four-wheeled trolley had a bench fitted on top which seated ten people, five facing one direction and five the other back to back. An additional ten could stand which seemed a rather precarious exercise in the absence of anything to hang on to. Each train consisted of three such carriages and was pulled by a single horse. It was clear that the train had not run for sometime.

‘Where are the horses?’ I asked with my mind’s eye seeing handsome heavy-limbed animals similar to the breed called Ardennes used for haulage in Europe.

‘They’re pulling tongas since the train went out of service!’ No proud Ardennes here, just lowly old local nags. Ah well, at least I cannot be blamed for a sluggish imagination. Someone suggested that we speak to Boota of the Town Committee who was in charge of the train. Boota arrived with his mouthful of rotting teeth. The train, he said, was leased out to a contractor who charged two rupees for the journey between Buchiana and Gangapur. It had become increasingly difficult to operate because the track was simply rotting away. Repairs were troublesome as it was getting more and more difficult to acquire the narrow tracks because they are not used anywhere else. And so for the second time since he could remember it had been temporarily suspended. For several years after the tram lines were pulled up, the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation supplied replacements. Now the only source for rails they know of is a dump under the control of the Irrigation Department on the Ravi outside Lahore.

The Town Committee had already spent Rs 200,000 on repairs and hoped to put the train back in service within a couple of months. The money, Boota said, came from a fifty-five acre orchard that was once owned by Ganga Ram and was now managed by the Town Committee. Eventually, when the train runs again, the amount spent on repairs will be recovered from the contractor. It seemed strange that in an age when a bus or pick-up truck could drive you between Buchiana and Gangapur in ten minutes, efforts were being made to revive a train that took almost half an hour.

For a moment I felt I had found the first example in Pakistan of efforts by concerned individuals to preserve our legacy. But it was, it turned out, more a matter of money. The Town Committee made a goodly sum from leasing out the train and since no other public transport was allowed between the two villages, travellers were obliged to use Ganga Ram’s train. Boota must have noticed the disappointment on my face.

‘Of course, there is every need to preserve the legacy of the great man after whom our village is named,’ he said solicitously and took down my address to inform me when the service was resumed. (I was never informed. A couple of years later I heard the service was working, but nothing could be confirmed.) Just as we were about to leave someone in the crowd said it would be worthwhile to visit Ganga Ram’s mansion.

A short drive through the muddy bazaar and we stood outside a gate with the legend ‘Rao Akbar Khan.’ A tall young man who said he was Akbar Khan’s son led us into the outer courtyard and introduced us to his father. The senior Rao had coloured his graying hair a jet black and gave us suspicious sidelong glances. But it took him only five minutes to open up and then he was joking with us and throwing back his head in hearty laughter. Ganga Ram’s mansion built around 1915 looked prim. Of course there were the usual additions and extensions but it was essentially as the Ram family had left it in 1947. We were not allowed in because of the purdah and it did not occur to Shabnam to go in and introduce herself to the Rajput ladies.

Akbar Khan looked younger than his seventy-four years and said he came from Rohtak where he was managing director for his father’s transport company. He arrived in the village at the time of Partition and took over the premises since his family had left a similar property back in Rohtak. Since Gangapur was entirely Hindu and Sikh it was completely abandoned when the killing began. And today not one person can claim to be a pre-partition Gangapur resident. None, except old Summoo, the only Christian in the village.

He arrived with his face creased with one line each for his eighty-five years or so. Ganga Ram had died before he could recall, he said, but he remembered his sons Sevak Ram, Hari Ram and Balak Ram who looked after the estate of over one thousand acres. They were the richest people in the area and like their father were good and kind-hearted men who took great care of the retainers and their families. In those days the ride on the horse-drawn train was half a paisa. I asked Summoo if he had joined in when the holocaust began.

‘Joined in? Why, we ran for our lives and hid in the country for we Christians were afraid we could fall to the madness of either side,’ he said.

When it all subsided his family returned, on the way back rounding up some stray cattle. But even that did not help much for he remains amongst the poorest people in the village. The amicability between Summoo and everyone else was admirable, though. There was no prejudice for his religion but there was a great deal of good-natured joshing which the old man seemed to enjoy. Gangapur seemed a good place to come back to and it was just as well that Ganga Ram’s horse drawn train wasn’t running. That’s excuse enough to return.

The object of our journey, Ganga Ram’s train, had been missed by a few weeks, but I had discovered that the man was also responsible for designing a most ingenious power station not very far south of Lahore. And so while the train was being put in order we could follow the Ganga Ram trail elsewhere.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 13 May 2013 at 11:22, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When was this? Is Ganga Ram train still function there?

At 13 May 2013 at 11:44, Blogger Sajini Chandrasekera said...

Nice read

At 13 May 2013 at 16:27, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

This piece appeared in The News on Sunday in April 1994. The train was still not functional two years later. I have no idea of the status now.
Sajini, a thank you to you.

At 14 May 2013 at 23:04, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

Sir Gnaga ram has done so much including Model Town planning, bijli ghar and hospital.

At 13 February 2015 at 20:42, Blogger Mobashar Ahmad said...

These days, February 2015 horse train is functional.

At 26 September 2016 at 11:35, Anonymous Amal Farhaan said...

Every time I read one of your articles, i think to myself, what a wonderful raconteur you are! I always get caught up in the story imagining times gone by.


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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

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

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