Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

jhelum: City of the Vitasta

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The sons of Jhelum tell stories regarding the name of their town and the river that give their district its name. The favourite among these, and also the most widely believed, is that Jhelum was the name of a horse owned by that most celebrated of all classical warrior kings, Alexander of Macedonia. Jhelum was the horse, it is said, that had carried the young king across the world on his enviable career of conquest and glory. According to this legend, the horse’s fortune ran out when it was either killed in battle or died of natural causes on the site where the city of Jhelum now stands. The devastated Alexander immortalised his steed by giving its name to the city where it died.

Then again, local self-assigned intellectuals tell, with great gravity of countenance, that Jhelum is a compound of two Greek words: Jul and Hum. The former meaning ‘water’ and the latter ‘cool.’ That is, the Greeks, given as they were to drinking the water of frigid mountain streams and not finding any in the land of the Sindhu River, were so taken in by the coolness of this river that they gave it a Greek name. Needless to say that these Greeks are said to be none other than Alexander and his great horde. The last, in this list of mindless stories is that the word Jhelum signifies ‘hoof mark’ in Greek and is so called because Alexander’s trusted charger left a mark on the soft ground at this spot.

The horse would have left not just one hoof mark at Jhelum, it surely must have left its autograph in a few million spots across the Asiatic landmass from the moment Alexander set out of Macedonia on his remarkable career of military excellence. If one were to believe this story, it would be natural to ask of the special quality of this one hoof mark for it to have become the name of a town where those millions of others failed. But the truth is that as Jhelum does not resemble the Greek words for cool water, so too does it get nowhere near the Greek for hoof mark. Then again, neither is the water of the Jhelum at this latitude exceptionally chilled to have inspired such a name.

It is altogether another thing that Pundit Kalhana, the author of the 12th century masterpiece, Rajatarangini (Chronicle of Kings), which tells the story of medieval Kashmirian rulers does indeed notice the coolness of the Vitasta’s water. In his ode to Srinagar, the Pundit goes, ‘Where else do the inhabitants on a hot summer day find before their houses water like that of the Vitasta [cooled] by large lumps of snow?’ (Book III, Para 362). However, long before the chilled water could reach the balmy climes of Jhelum town, the cooling snow would have melted and the water turned warm.

Lastly, Alexander did not ever own a horse called Jhelum and it boggles the mind how the fiction was ever invented. Alexander’s favourite charger was the dark stallion that he called Bucephalus. This was that spirited horse that a dealer had brought to the court of King Philip, Alexander’s father. The snorting, kicking and highly energetic horse refused to permit anyone to mount it. When the best equestrian experts had failed at so much as calming the nervous horse let alone riding it, Philip was incensed. He ordered the horse and the owner to be removed from his presence. Alexander who was standing by, so history records, commented on the loss of a great horse only because royal grooms either could not or did not know how to handle it.

The angry Philip rebuked his son for the insolence. But Alexander returned that he could handle the horse if only he were permitted. And so father and son settled a wager: if Alexander could not handle the horse, he was to pay the price of the animal, but if he succeeded, the horse would be Philip’s gift to him. The court in attendance burst out in laughter: the king’s most skilled horsemen had fallen well short of mastering that feisty stallion, and here was this stripling of a boy wanting to give it a shot. What presumptuousness!

Taking the reins from the handler, Alexander turned the horse’s face to the sun and, as if by magic, the horse calmed. It was only then realised that with its back to the sun, the horse was being spooked by its own shadow. With that gone, it was pacified. Stroking its broad forehead, Alexander sprang lithely onto its back and there in full view of the multitude, raced the handsome animal around the carnival ground. It is perhaps apocryphal that as Alexander finally drew rein and came up to his father, Philip said, ‘My boy, you must find a kingdom big enough for your ambitions. Macedonia is too small for you.’

But it is history that Alexander mastered the horse. It is also history that Philip acquired the horse for his son and that the boy named it Bucephalus, a compound of the Greek words for ‘ox’ and ‘brow.’ The name was chosen because of the horse’s broad forehead that Alexander likened to that of an ox. By another account, this breed of horses from Thessaly were branded on the shoulder with the sign of an ox’s head, a practice that gave the breed its name. Be that as it may, from then on, it was Bucephalus alone that carried Alexander and Alexander was the only one to ever mount the horse.

In the brief period when his parents were estranged and he as a teenager was in exile in Epirus with his mother Olympias, he would have ridden Bucephalus in the wooded glens hunting deer and wild boar, fighting imaginary foes and dreaming great dreams. Only a few years later, this horse carried him to the Illyrian campaigns in Europe, then across Turkey, Palestine, Egypt and back into Mesopotamia. Alexander rode Bucephalus into the last battle against the cowardly Darius of Persia and into Central Asia, Afghanistan and so to the banks of the Jhelum River. The horse did indeed die on the Jhelum River in the district that shares its name with the river. But for that story, we will wait until we get to the place where the death took place.

The assiduity of the creators of these farcical legends is remarkable. It is as amazing as is their contempt for reading real history and their remoteness from books and learning. In the absence of erudition, these men of pretence parade such pseudo-wisdom. Equally remarkable is the fascination with Alexander and things Greek: the horse’s name (it is ironically not that of Raja Paurava’s horse), the words for hoof mark and cool water are all contrived to come from the Greek and are connected with Alexander. All these concoctions are very recent, however. They do not belong to the body of ancient folklore. Indeed, these stories were unknown as little as a hundred years ago and became fashionable after 19th century European researches into the Macedonian conqueror’s march through the district.

None of these fanciful stories, however, unravel the chicken-and-egg conundrum regarding which came first: the name of the river or that of the city? In an attempt to solve the riddle, first the river. Its earliest recorded name is Vitasta given it by the singers of the Vedic hymns. Until more of the prehistoric Indus Valley script is discovered and deciphered and we learn the ancient names of the various rivers that paid tribute to the mighty Sindhu, Vitasta remains the earliest known title for the Jhelum River.

The Rig Veda, a collection of arguably the most beautiful poetry ever contrived by the human mind, celebrates among other things the rivers of the subcontinent. Having come from their home on the windy, largely tree-less steppes of Central Asia, the horse-riding speakers of Aryan languages had seen only rivers restricted in narrow channels; rivers whose output varied only slightly from winter to summer. They were unacquainted with rivers that could cover more than three or four kilometres during the spring and summer floods. And in monsoon floods three or four times even more. Four thousand years after the Aryan arrival in the land of the Sindhu River, an English explorer of the 19th century was to record, for example, that this river, swelled by summer thaws, flooded the plain between Shikarpur and its bed at Rohri. That is, some thirty-eight kilometres of flat farmland and forest.

As for the Jhelum, we hear from reliable sources of the variation between its summer and winter spread. In the month of January 1836, Baron Carl von Hugel, an Austrian traveller, who journeyed from Kashmir to Punjab, crossed the river at Jhelum town. This was the time of year when our rivers are naturally at their lowest. The boat-bridge, so the Baron records, comprised of twenty large boats.

Though he does not comment on the breadth of the channel, such a boat-bridge would have spanned a hundred and fifty to two hundred metres of river. William Moorcroft, a most remarkable veterinary doctor who worked for the East India Company, crossed at the same spot in October (some fifteen years before von Hugel) and found the river to be ‘a hundred and fifty yards’ wide. A decade even earlier, it was Mountstuart Elphinstone who crossed at Jalalpur during the floods of July. The river was then ‘one mile, one furlong and thirty-five perches,’ that is, just over two kilometres wide.

The name Vitasta, as given it by the singers of Vedic hymns, shows that those ancient people first became acquainted with the river during the summer floods. The name, based on an ancient unit of linear measure called vitasti, very likely signified Wide Spread. For those ancient poets, the Jhelum was the river that flowed across a wide floodplain. One particular hymn of the Rig Veda very eloquently praises this river as well as several others, with special reverence for the Sindhu. The terms of the hymn are so flattering that they show how deeply the sight of these wide, fast-flowing streams had moved t he newcomers. And so the river whose old pre-Aryan name, for want of decipherment of the Indus Valley script, will perhaps not be known for many years to come, is first introduced to us as the Vitasta – the Wide-Spreading River.

It will not be out of order to record here the ancient Vedic legend concerning the origin of the Vitasta River. After Kashmir had been created, so the story goes, the rishi Kashyapa (whose name Kashmir is believed to carry) requested Shiva to purify the land. Shiva therefore prevailed upon his wife Parvati to appear in the form of a river so that the land may be cleansed. And so, deep inside the underworld, Parvati took the shape of a pristine river that Shiva released by striking the ground with his trident. The gash made by his trishul measured one vitasti in width. Through this cleft did Parvati burst forth in her river manifestation. The land of Kashyapa was purified and the river was thenceforth known as the Vitasta and to this day remains the holiest of all the rivers of Kashmir.

That then was how this river was known for the next roughly one millennium and a half. Next on the scene to affect this name were the Greeks. So far as extant historical record shows, the first among these Europeans to venture into this land was Skylax. A native of Caryanda (a Greek town on the southwest coast of Turkey), he was an able sea captain in the service of the Persian king Darius the Great (Not to be confused with the a later king of the same name who fought against Alexander). In the year 512 BCE, following royal decree, Skylax sailed down the Kabul River from present day Charsadda district to its junction with the Sindhu at Kund. Thereafter he navigated the great river all the way to the ocean in order to map its course. The report that this explorer submitted to Darius is lost, however. It is only preserved in fragment by Herodotus who wrote his nine-volume opus The Histories. Written in the middle of the 5th century BCE, the work earned Herodotus the title of Father of History.

The surviving Skylax fragment in The Histories does not mention the Vitasta River, but there is no doubt that the original survey report would have contained mention of some of the various tributaries of the great Sindhu River that Skylax would have included in his map. Consequently, we do not know what exactly the name Vitasta would have been rendered on Skylax’s tongue, but it could not have been very different from what the Greeks were eventually to call it. Two centuries later we learn from the writers who accompanied Alexander the Macedonian that the Vitasta of the Vedas became the Hydaspes, the name having been corrupted according to Greek usage. All subsequent Greek writers, save Ptolemy, retain this spelling. A native of Alexandria, Ptolemy, an accomplished musician, mathematician, astronomer and geographer lived about the middle of the 2nd century CE and wrote an extensive geography of the world. In his account of India, he is the first writer of the classical period to mention the Jhelum not as the Hydaspes but the Bidaspes – a name phonetically closer to Vitasta than the Hydaspes of the others.

Still later, the Vitasta or the Hydaspes is called the Viyatta or Biyatta. This name is first used by Abu Rehan Al Beruni in his masterful Kitab al Hind (Book of India) that he wrote after his prolonged sojourn in the subcontinent in the second and third decades of the 11th century. It is this remarkable man who clarifies in wholly unequivocal terms another vital issue. On the river Biyatta, Al Beruni writes that it was also ‘known as Jhelum, from the city of this name on its western banks….’ He leaves scant room for doubt concerning the identity of Biyatta when he goes on to tell us that this river meets with the Chenab many miles south of the city that gives it its name and that the united stream then passes to the west of Multan.

Maulana Minhaj ud Din Siraj, the author of the Tabakat e Nasiri (completed 1260), also calls it the Jhelum. But we subsequently learn that the name Biyatta was also commonly used during the Middle Ages, that is, in common parlance the river went by both names. Babur, the founder of the Mughal empire in India, mentions the river by this name. Only the span of five hundred years between Al Beruni and Babur simplifies the name to read Behat. Concerning the name Biyatta or Behat, we get another clue from Al Beruni. In his delineation of the route from Kanauj to Ghazni, he mentions the ‘river Jhelum, west of the river Biyatta…’ Although scholars believe that Behat and its variations are all corruptions of Vitasta, this one statement by Al Beruni makes one wonder if at some obscure point in time, one minor tributary of the Jhelum in Kashmir, then known as the Biyatta or Behat, gave its name to the river. In the absence of research, this point remains highly debateable, however.

Historical record shows that the name Jhelum for the river was confined to Punjab only. It was altogether unknown in Kashmir even as late as the latter Middle Ages. There it was still celebrated as the holy Vitasta or Behat. Although the name Jhelum is now widely used in Kashmir, it is believed to have been taken thence by Europeans and other foreigners. Passing through Punjab and becoming acquainted with this name, these travellers peddled it around in Kashmir where it eventually became common usage.

The acquaintance of early European cartographers with this river is not devoid of interest. The oldest known map of the Indian subcontinent was that of Ptolemy from the middle of the 2nd century CE. Maps of India, produced in Europe during the late Middle Ages were all copied from this and some of these copies were fabulously inaccurate. But because the original came from the Greek-speaking Ptolemy, the name of the river when it was mentioned was Hydaspes. Obviously the cartographers had read other classical writers and did not follow Ptolemy in calling the river Bidaspes. The Italian mapmaker Girolamo Ruscelli appears to have been the first one to give a fair depiction of the Bidaspes in his map of 1561. This carried on down to the early years of the 18th century when, following a century and a half of the incursions of several explorers and travellers, geographical knowledge increased significantly.

Thereafter all three names, Hydaspes, Behat and Jhelum (spelled Jilam), were commonly used on maps either separately or in tandem. It was only in the beginning of the 19th century that the other names were dropped in favour of Jhelum. Whereas earlier maps depicted Rohtas, at about this time the town of Jhelum makes an appearance.

So much then of the river that takes its name from the city. We have seen above that the city of Jhelum existed as early as 1017, the year Al Beruni passed either through or near it. In the year 1246 when the bloodthirsty Mongols under Chengez Khan had set the heart of the Delhi sultanate (under Sultan Nasir ud Din the son of Iyaltimish) aquiver, the emperor sent out the doughty Ulugh Khan e Azam at the head of a large army to punish the Khokhars of the Koh e Jud, as the hills of the Salt Range were known to medieval geographers. It is recorded that the Khan made short work of large numbers of this mainly Muslim tribe and that he ravaged large parts of the Salt Range. Ulugh Khan also sacked the town of Jhelum, so the Tabakat e Nasiri tells us.

Now the Khokhars, a Rajput tribe of free-spirited warriors, inhabiting the Salt Range had converted to Islam some decades earlier. But many of the ostensibly more faithful believers, especially the ruling class in Delhi, believed the Khokhars’ conversion was cosmetic and that they were still heathens at heart and therefore appropriate candidates to be dispatched to hell. Consequently, this visitation upon the Salt Range Khokhars was in order to chastise them for acting as guides to the invading Mongols the previous year. Their farmlands and villages in the Salt Range were laid waste. The Tabakat e Nasiri also records that the population was driven out to the banks of the Sindhu River – a manifest exaggeration meant to underscore the force of the emperor’s arms. The city of Jhelum suffered, not because many Khokhars would have lived here. It was punished because being on the ferry, it would have been the nearest trading centre that those people would have resorted to for their various needs. And that needed disruption, so imperial forces would have reasoned.

Situated as Jhelum city was on the ford upon a major route, it should have benefited from the passage of travellers and traders. It must be remembered that such towns earned considerable revenue from octroi and custom levies. The riches thus garnered, quite naturally led to brisk commercial activity upon which cities thrived. Strangely, however, we hear no fabulous accounts of the natural trappings of a flourishing city: rich bazaars trading in merchandise from distant marts, bustling caravanserais and colleges humming with the diligence of their students. The only clue to the trivial significance of Jhelum in the 13th century is the one-line notice in the Tabakat e Nasiri of Ulugh Khan’s sacking of it.

Two things seem evident. One, that Jhelum never matured as a trading town, that whatever scant merchandise could be seen in its bazaars was the leavings of the limited trade transiting through here. Secondly, in the presence of the busier ferries of Jalalpur, Haranpur and, even despite its bitter ground water, Pind Dadan Khan, Jhelum was the less preferred crossing point. Indeed, at the time of annexation in 1849 by the British, the town contained only five hundred houses. That is, its population was not much above three thousand souls. A far cry from a rich and prosperous town.

Maps from as late as the 17th century fail to show a town on the ferry at the geographical coordinates where Jhelum now sits. Clearly, these maps follow the description of William Finch’s journey through here. (Finch of course was not the only traveller to add to cartographers’ knowledge. Other names from that time include Edward Terry, Thomas Coryat, Ralph Fitch and William Hawkins, to name a few.) This itinerant English merchant landed at the seaport of Surat (Gujarat, India) in 1608 and over the next three years worked his way up and around the country. Finch left an interesting account of his travels in the subcontinent. Among other things, he details the route between Lahore and Kabul in which he mentions ‘Eminbade’ (Eminabad near Gujranwala), ‘Guzurat’, ‘Howaspore’ (Khawaspur, on the left bank of the Bhimber River twelve kilometres north of Lala Musa) and ‘Rotas.’

This itinerary would imply that en route between the Khawaspur hostelry and Rohtas, Finch crossed the river by the Jhelum city ford and would naturally have passed through the town. Whereas settlements like Eminabad and Khawaspur, much less significant today, received mention only because of the overnight facility they offered, Jhelum was ignored. After the slow and protracted crossing, Finch would surely have paused here for refreshments and might even have sought overnight lodging. But then he may have been told of the better facility near Rohtas. He moved on, failing even to make a note of Jhelum town.

European cartographers, forever thirsting for ever more accurate geographical information to update their maps that were, until then, still based on Ptolemy’s prototype of the 2nd century CE, were quick to lap up such accounts. The Dutch cartographers Johannes and Cornelis Blaeu incorporated, though rather inaccurately, much of Finch’s information in their 1646 map of the Mughal Empire. Others were to follow and by 1657, Nicolas Sanson, the French mapmaker, had refined Finch’s itinerary in his map. As Finch had made no reference to it, a place called Jhelum of course found no mention in any map of that age. This omission continued until the 1820s when the first depiction of Jhelum town appears on maps produced by British cartographers.

The prolonged discussion above does not unravel the riddle of the name Jhelum. It could mean anything, either in ancient Sanskrit, or an even older language. But usage over the centuries appears to have mutilated the word beyond recognition. Or it could simply have been the name of some swashbuckler who went this way sometime about the period Jhelum appears to have risen, perhaps around the beginning of the current era. But the truth is that the meaning or origin of the name is not known at this point in time. All the fables concerning the horse, its hoof mark or refreshingly cool water are just that: fables. Their greatest fault is that they have been invented by people with stilted imaginations and absolutely no learning.

The Turkish tradition of periodically plundering the subcontinent set in motion by the freebooter Mahmud in the early 11th century was faithfully followed by all other Turks, save Babur. But of him at another stage. Nadir Shah was no exception. (Erroneously believed to be a Pakhtun, Nadir Kuli (styled Shah), of humble background, was in reality a Turk of the clan Kirklu.) On his way to the plains he would have crossed the ford of Jhelum. His successor Ahmad Shah certainly did and the district of Jhelum like so many others in Punjab would have known the same half century of unrest. In 1768 a Sikh sardar named Charrat Singh of the Sukerchakia misl removed Pakhtun influence from Jhelum. This man was the grandfather of Ranjit Singh, who was to shortly become the most remarkable Punjabi ruler since Raja Paurava. Though the Sukerchakias together with the Bhangis of Gujrat spread their influence as far away as Rawalpindi, Afghan incursions did not halt and the country continued to see conflict and disorder.

Peace returned only after 1799 when the Sikhs under Ranjit Singh routed Shah Zaman, the successor of Ahmad Shah, on the ford of Rasulnagar (on the Chenab in Gujranwala district). Punjab then became the empire of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the pathetic rulers following Ahmad Shah in Afghanistan were no longer a threat. By 1809 the Sikhs had overrun the Salt Range and the Potohar region and were controlling Rawalpindi. But while Chakwal, Kusak and Malot in the heart of the Salt Range caught the attention of Sikh imperialists and ended up in their histories, there was hardly notice on Jhelum town.

Jhelum town came of age during the British Raj. The Gazetteer of the Jhelum District of 1904 makes one interesting observation that puts the preceding discussion in perspective. It says that when the district of Jhelum was constituted on 23 March 1849, the town of Jhelum was ‘an ordinary village.’ And this is the first word we get on the inconsequence of Jhelum through the latter Middle Ages down to the 19th century. The town, then part of Rohtas tehsil (sub-division), itself became a tehsil the following year. The district headquarter initially located at Pind Dadan Khan was moved to Jhelum in 1850. At the same time, the divisional headquarter located at Jhelum until this year was transferred to Rawalpindi.

Within the year a cantonment was established a kilometre and a half south of the town. This was a purely ‘native’ garrison supervised by a handful of European officers, but without any European soldiers. The first residents of Jhelum Cantt (as we like to call our cantonments) were one battery of artillery and the 14th and 39th battalions of Native Infantry. A few uneventful years passed. Then, as the civil officers of the revenue and ancillary departments went about their humdrum assignments, things began hotting up on the faraway banks of the Jumna River. The summer of 1857 saw the outbreak that we call the War of Independence and which the British know as the Mutiny.

News from the east was disconcerting. ‘Natives’ were in open rebellion in distant Delhi, Meerut and Kanpur and fighting was taking a heavy toll of British soldiers, women and children equally. And here in Jhelum, the only army comprised entirely of ‘natives’ who could not be trusted in the event of an uprising. Naturally, the alarm amongst the Europeans stationed at Jhelum was ‘considerable’. With great ingenuity it was planned to split the garrison. The artillery battery was hurried off to Lahore where it was unceremoniously disarmed. The 39th Native Infantry was marched off, without magazines, that is, with effectively useless firearms, to Dera Ismail Khan via Shahpur, then the headquarter controlling what is today Khushab, Sargodha and parts of Mianwali districts. All that remained was the 14th Native Infantry which the panic-stricken Chief Commissioner wanted disarmed despite the Commanding Officer’s assurances that in all circumstances they would remain loyal to the East India Company.

On the orders of the Commissioner this remaining battalion too was split, two companies being sent off to Rawalpindi. That left a little more than two companies, that is, about five hundred men, at Jhelum. Of these a good number were Sikhs who were known to have remained steadfastly loyal to Company Bahadur. But if the authorities knew of the brewing trouble, the grapevine that carried news to the common soldier was even more efficient and there was no dearth of wild and fanciful rumours among the remaining troops of the 14th. Early in the morning of the seventh day of July as a force comprising of British troops with field guns arrived at Jhelum from Rawalpindi, the Sikhs of 14th Native Infantry quickly went over.

Seeing the combined force headed in their direction, the rest of the 14th took up positions in their lines, but not before they had first given their own officers their money’s worth by firing several salvos at them. The combined British-Sikh force took over six hours to dislodge the mutineers (or freedom fighters) from their position, the action costing one captain’s and several soldiers’ lives while seriously wounding the commanding officer. The rebels withdrew to a village just outside Jhelum cantonment where the British field artillery was useless in the densely packed mud house-lined streets. Meanwhile, rebel rifle fire from the rooftops cut down British troops and horses in considerable numbers. With ammunition running short, British buglers sounded the retreat. The first round at Jhelum garrison was carried by the natives.

Night fell and the warring sides bivouacked at their respective positions. When the new day broke, the British were surprised to find the rebels gone. The Punjab Mutiny Report records that while most fled to Kashmir, a large number of stragglers was captured and many drowned in their attempt to go across the Jhelum River. One wonders if some of these drownings were forced by British troops. But dead men tell no tales and the living filed no record of such malevolence. As British troops took over the cantonment area, the battlefield of the day before revealed one hundred and forty-four rebel dead.

The ‘usual precautions’ that the Gazetteer says were taken are chillingly similar to current practice in the country. Ferries were closed (road blocks today), letters opened (phones, email intercepted) and vagrants examined (impromptu checking of mostly young men). The trouble was eventually quelled and peace returned to Jhelum. Not long afterwards some leading men were given rewards to buy their loyalty, that is, to act as official snitches. And so Jhelum settled into orderly routine.

We have learned above from Al Beruni that the town of Jhelum lay on the ‘western banks’ of the river. However, there is one curiously variant view to Al Beruni’s. The Gazetteer of 1904 notes, ‘The old town of Jhelum was at the left bank of the river and parts of it still exist. About the year 1532 AD some boatmen from old Jhelum established themselves on the right bank for the better management of the ferry and thus founded the modern town.’ Now, left would be the east bank, but as the author of this statement quotes no authority, the statement seems doubtful and perhaps based on hearsay. On the other hand, Al Beruni is a very reliable reporter and one would be tempted to follow him rather than the author of the Gazetter. It is probable, however, that there was a satellite hamlet facing Jhelum in the Middle Ages the same way as Serai Alamgir does today. The other town may or may not have borne the same name as Jhelum but it was evidently the boatmen’s colony that served the ferry.

At the time of annexation in 1849, the old town of Jhelum (which we know contained some five hundred houses) was strung out northward along the river from the point where the railway bridge later abutted on the west bank. The length of the town was no more than a kilometre and a half while its breadth was about half as much. Northwest of the town was a low mound strewn with pottery shards to remind local people that ‘divine wrath’ had laid low an earlier habitation. It was this mound that gave up coins of the Scythians (1st century BCE), Hindu Shahyas and Kashmirian kings (5th to 10th century CE). Most houses were single-storeyed mud and wattle constructions. The grandest among all this was the small fort built during the Sikh period of which nothing remains. Lined along the river, these khaki houses would have presented a pretty picture to a traveller coming across from the east bank.

The river at Jhelum was over two kilometres broad with the west bank somewhat higher than the east. On the far side across the river there would have been a stretch of waterlogged land beyond which lay the ferry’s starting point. The Gazetteer records that the river formed a single broad channel during summers and two narrower ones in winter. Crossing these consumed, respectively, three hours and one hour. The boat-bridge was a winter arrangement that had to be removed when the flow became quicker in April to be re-installed sometime in October. In summer crossing was made only by the common flat-bottomed river craft. In the event of very severe monsoon floods, even these had to be taken off and there could be days on end when the Jhelum could just not be crossed. It should be of interest to the reader that the total number of ferries in those days before the web of tarmac highroads, bridges and intercity transport, was thirteen on the Jhelum River in its course through the district as we know it today.

Having recovered from the rebellion, British authorities quickly settled into the routine of empire building. The cantonment where earlier the native army was housed, were enlarged to hold European infantry and cavalry units, duly separated from native infantry lines by a couple of hundred metres of open space. Those acquainted with present day Jhelum cantonment and a map of the first one laid out post-1857, can readily see that despite substantial expansion the basic layout has scarcely changed. The biggest transformation having been brought about by the road bridge that took a year in the building and was declared open on 21 August 1968.

Earlier, the railway bridge with the rails running parallel to the tarmac also served all other wheeled traffic. But as the volume of road traffic increased, the narrow single lane, two-way tarmac made for traffic snarls and long delays. Such recurrent problems warranted the construction of the new road bridge. On the west bank, the approach road to this new crossing cut across the northeast corner of the cantonment, separating the quaint St John’s church from the main military area.

The history of St John’s church as preserved in an unofficial two page hand written note is interesting, if somewhat unhappy – especially in the post-independence era. After some eight years in the building, the church was consecrated in 1857 as an Anglican house of worship. Its management was under the Cantonment Board, Jhelum. All went well until shortly after independence and the retirement of the priest in-charge. With no one left to mind it, the church was taken over by the British Station Commander of Jhelum garrison.

Petty factional differences cropped up with one party wishing to turn the church into a dancing hall, the other to convert it from the Church of England to the United Presbyterian Church. By the mid to late 1950s the last remnants of the British officers were gone, but church management, now in the hands of Pakistanis, barely limped along for the next three decades. Things came to head with the church being shut down for nearly fifteen years until it was reopened for worship in 1999. Situated in the midst of an open plain by the riverside, it was once surely the most fetching sight in all Jhelum city, particularly as one came in from across the river by train or car. In the uncluttered landscape the setting was idyllic: amidst spreading trees, its steeple rising gracefully into the blue sky, it seemed to come straight out of some English countryside. Construction around it in recent years has taken much away from the rural English idyll.

Diagonally across from the cantonment, north of the old city of Jhelum, the British laid out the civil lines together with the ancillary public offices. In a few short years after the 1857 turmoil, Jhelum was a respectable little place with all the trappings necessary for life in the 19th century. Here were functioning courts, a post office, a jail and even a public garden. Trade grew and with it the celebrated mercantile class of the subcontinent, the Parsis, came to Jhelum. They brought with them a style that was until then unknown here. The drab, mud-plastered houses began to give way to brick and masonry buildings, most of which rose through two or even three floors. Some had the distinct style of European bungalows. The local educated classes and better-off traders followed suit and before the 19th century was over, the riverfront was prime location that flaunted the best town houses.

At the time of annexation, Jhelum town was singularly devoid of gardens and orchards. In the tradition they had kept wherever they had influence in India, the British established yet another ‘Company Bagh.’ Lying hard by the Deputy Commissioner’s office and court, it would have, in its original form, spread over an estimated eight acres or so. Richly planted with fruit trees of different varieties it would have been a cool haven for man and bird alike. After independence the garden began to be eaten away by encroachments – not by lawless citizens, but by the government itself. The biggest setback was the giving over of a goodly chunk of this garden for the building of several quarters for government servants. The tall and vastly crowned mango and a couple of magnificent sumbul trees that still survive are the last reminders of a once beautiful garden. Today there is scant interest in the upkeep of the garden and its seems that more of it will eventually give way to construction.

Independence brought the next great upheaval in the life of Jhelum city. Her Hindu and Sikh children fled the home they had known for generations. In their stead came Muslim refugees from different parts of India. The complexion of Jhelum changed. Not many years after independence even her Parsi businessmen moved away for better prospects. From being a rather cosmopolitan place in the early 20th century, Jhelum turned somewhat parochial and an almost one hundred percent Muslim town.

Even the most ardent opponent of British Raj cannot but admire the railway network laid out by those wonderful, dedicated men who slaved over theodolite and plane-table during harsh Punjabi summers to plot the course of the railway line. True that like most lines in the rest of India this was not a purely commercial undertaking. This branch of what was then known as the Punjab Northern State Railway (PNSR) was more a military requirement to fight the great struggle between the imperial powers of Britain and Russia. And so it was that PNSR entered Jhelum on the sixth day of September 1876. The hours of being paddled across by ferry were a thing of the past. Even if one were not riding the train, one could now walk into Jhelum town from the east bank of the river in under fifteen minutes.

The bridge site was selected and design put forward at the end of 1870. The first trial well (for bridge piers) was sunk in the bed of the Jhelum River in the following January. In October 1871, railway engineers began sinking wells for bridge piers. Work proceeded apace through the winter until the river’s rising water level in mid-April called for suspension of building activity. That was the practice over the next two winters. The last well was sunk two years and seven months later, in April 1874. By all standards this was pretty quick work. By March 1875 the piers were all ready to take the girder work.

Meanwhile, as the piers were nearing completion, the girders were being prepared on the Serai Alamgir side. There, beyond the danger of floodwater, they lay in one long line to be placed across the piers in succession. Girdering work began in April 1875 and the last of the fifty spans was riveted into place on 23 August 1876. Fourteen days later (6 September), subsequent to necessary inspections, the bridge was declared fit for rail traffic. And so, the first PNSR train to roll into Jhelum railway station was a metre-gauge train of thirty loaded wagons to test the bridge.

Regular train service began a few days later. Not long afterwards, work began on upgrading the original metre-gauge (3 feet, 3 inches) line to broad gauge (5 feet, 6 inches). Once again, work was completed in double quick time and the first broad gauge train steamed into Jhelum on 6 October 1878. Ever since, this gauge has been standard for all arterial lines of Pakistan Railway. The line pushed on to Rawalpindi and eventually Peshawar and Landi Kotal. Punjab Northern State Railway graduated to become the North Western Railway (NWR) network connecting Jhelum with the rest of the subcontinent. Several years after independence, the name was altered to Pakistan Western Railway (PWR) and eventually, subsequent to the creation of Bangladesh, to Pakistan Railway.

The Jhelum rail bridge has long been well known as the mile-long bridge. At the time of this writing, it has been in service for one hundred and twenty-nine years. It has withstood a few good floods when the water all but washed over its rails, it has ferried an unknown, undocumented number of travellers and untold tons of freight across the muddy brown eddies of the Jhelum and yet it has undergone – besides the change of gauge, only three major repair and up-gradation jobs. The first, begun in 1893 and completed in two years, just fifteen years after the line was upgraded to broad gauge. This was warranted when it was seen that additional girderwork was required to take the load of heavier broad gauge locomotives.

The second, a similar job, was taken in hand in 1927 and completed by March 1929. Each of the fifty spans was dismantled one after the other and fitted with a third reinforcing girder to take heavier loads than before. For the more technically involved, Paul Berridge details this work in his very readable book Couplings to the Khyber. For the rest, suffice it to note that traffic was not suspended during the course of this up-gradation work! It is also of interest that the work was carried out by the Railway Bridge Workshop – the only one then in the whole of northern India and now Pakistan. The workshop functions to this day adjacent to the Jhelum Railway Station.

No sooner had the bridge been upgraded in 1929 that an August rainstorm swelled up the Jhelum to unprecedented levels. As railway engineers and the rest of the city’s populace watched with bated breath, the swirling water rose slowly up the massive brick piers until it washed the red girders ‘to a depth of two feet.’ Berridge goes on to tell us that though the structure suffered no damage at that time, but in order to avert such an eventuality in the future, the bridge was raised ‘from end to end by four feet.’ As before the traffic kept going while work proceed.

Though the annals of the North Western Railway do not record any damage from the flood of 1929 or after, folklore has another story to tell. Embellished by years of re-telling, the story of the 1929 flood has a different angle. Traditionally timber, duly marked with each dealer’s insignia, was floated down from the Kashmir highlands to be retrieved here in the plains by the dealers’ agents. In that stormy August, it is narrated, timber riding the roiling flood hit it with such force that the bridge was smashed to smithereens and had to be completely rebuilt. As no such catastrophe took place, railway records preserve no memory of it, but the story of timber running down the river belongs to the realm of the city’s history.

Shortly after annexation by the British, Jhelum became the biggest timber market in northwest Punjab. Indeed, in all undivided India, the timber business of Jhelum was rivalled only by that of Allahabad on the Ganga-Yamuna confluence. Great logs of first-class pine harvested in the Kashmir highlands, duly branded with the mark of the various merchants, were floated down the river. At Jhelum, teams from each merchant’s establishment waited by the riverside to haul out the logs bearing their company’s sign. This trade, the major commercial activity at Jhelum, continued well past independence. In the early 1960s the river was dammed up at Mangla, not far north of Jhelum town, and the traffic was disrupted once and for all. Today the only reminder of this all but forgotten trade are the three mohallas named Machine Mohalla One, Two and Three. In that not so distant past when the timber trade flourished, sawmills (machine in common parlance) operating in these areas gave them the name.

The only other trade from which Jhelum town profited was that of salt from the mines at Khewra coming up the river from Pind Dadan Khan to be distributed not only to towns in northern Punjab, but to Kashmir as well. The laying of the Sind Sagar Railway that skirted the salt hills from Malakwal to Pind Dadan Khan, Khushab and Mianwali put paid to the river-borne salt traffic. If the mile-long bridge put Jhelum on the railway map, this line took much away from the town’s meagre economic activity because not everyone could be a timber merchant. With no canal-irrigated farmland to boast of and a largely sub-montane region dependent on rain to sustain cultivation; the district also does not have a thriving agricultural backbone. No surprise then, that with the coming of the British Raj, Jhelum became one of the ‘martial’ districts of northern Punjab noted for an endless supply of able-bodied men to serve the army. This tradition continues to this day.

Jhelum, the city and the district, claims no place in the sun. Once largely comprising of the red salt hills, Jhelum was much truncated in 1983 with the carving out of Chakwal form it. Today the district is confined between the fringes of the highlands in the west and the Jhelum River in the east. The story of the district of Jhelum is best told in the perspective of history as it unfolded here.

Book is available at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100), Lahore

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,


At June 13, 2013 at 5:10 PM, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

There is so much to Jhelum. I thought it is only a midway stop on the GT Road. Great read.

At June 14, 2013 at 4:31 PM, Anonymous Daaniyal on Twitter said...

This is such a great read on Jehlum and it's origins by one of Pakistans most unique writers

At September 20, 2014 at 5:36 PM, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

To day i can say that i know Jehlum after going through this article other wise i use to just pass through a middle size Town having a Military conttonment


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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

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