Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Begari Wah, Salam, Jekum Sahib Bahadur

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When the British annexed Sindh in 1843, they found a land criss-crossed by a multitude of canals, each with a name of its own. The names rang of former rulers, mainly the Kalhoras, who held Sindh from 1701 to 1784. In the country north of what was then known as district Chandka in upper Sindh, present-day Larkana, there was one canal that nurtured gardens, orchards and excellent farmland. It had a peculiar name: Begari Wah, the suffix meaning canal in Sindhi.

The Persian word begar denotes forced, unpaid labour. The long-established method was that village headmen were obliged to provide labour proportionate to the estimated benefit derived from the canal. This explains the name Beghari Wah. What is still not known is the period in which the canal was first excavated.

Some 50 kilometres north of Rohri in the vicinity of Ghotki town, the Indus River, flowing in a westerly direction, of a sudden makes a northward loop before swinging southwest again. Here the surging waters cling to the outer or right bank of the stream. We will never know whether it was by purpose or in an idle moment that a gifted man, most likely a builder, sat by the brown eddies, watching them mewing and gurgling, to realize this was precisely the spot to take off a canal.

Safe conjecture would be this canal builder served the Daudpotras when they were in the process of establishing Shikarpur town in northern Sindh around mid-17th century. As the canal strikes out in a westerly direction, passing through desert and woodland that served as the hunting ground of the Daudpotras, it was presumably not meant for irrigation. Landholders along the canal’s alignment therefore saw little incentive for themselves and had to be forced to work on the project.

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As fortunes ebbed, the Daudpotras ceded power to their Kalhora kinsmen. Not many years later, the Kalhoras moved south to establish Hyderabad, resulting in the Begari Wah falling into disuse. Being an inundation canal, it nevertheless continued to carry water when summer floods swelled the mighty Indus, running dry for only two months in mid-winter.

The remarkable John Jacob, a pre-annexation Sindh frontier officer of the East India Company, was installed in British upper Sindh at that miserable collection of huts called Khangarh that was soon to become Jacobabad. As administrator, Jacob’s responsibilities included tax collection from the untamed Baloch in exchange for justice, law and order on the wild frontier. The engineer in Jacob saw the disused Begari and its subsidiary the Nur Wah as potential assets to augment the meagre tax income.

After bringing to heel the Dombkis and the Jakhranis, the two major troublesome tribes in his jurisdiction, Jacob initiated work on refurbishing the Begari and Nur canals. The only workers available were the free-spirited Baloch, who had vexed Jacob earlier and, as shepherds and hunters, had never wielded the pick and shovel. Even so, the implements were handed out to them together with the orders to dig. At the end of the day, the workers were paid according to prevailing market rates for the first time since the canal was initially dug about two centuries earlier.

By Jacob’s account, the initial clumsiness of the workers gave way to flair that bested the work of Sindhi labourers on account of wages earned well. When the water flowed after a hiatus of many years, though scanty, the percolation of freshwater turned the brackish wells of Khangarh sweet.

With the off-take from the Indus cleared of silt and a number of man-made dams removed over the next six years, the Begari flowed to its fullest. Records show that in 1854 an additional 4,000 acres of land was brought under cultivation irrigated by over 300 new Persian wheels working along the banks.

Beyond the reach of the now refurbished Begari, Jacob started allotting land to eager farmers on the condition they dig private irrigation channels from the canal to their holding. By the end of 1854, 100,000 acres of wasteland was being tilled for the first time in history. With increased agriculture, revenues multiplied, motivating Jacob to conceive yet another scheme for the Begari.

Until that time, the canal petered out in the desert somewhere to the northwest of Shikarpur town. Jacob proposed extending its tail an additional 50 kilometres into the treeless desert westward. By then it was well known how improved irrigation could transform mere shepherds into landed upper class. So as the call went out brawny Baloch men streamed in from the Kachhi desert to try their luck at agriculture.

Come July 1856, the Begari slaked the desert as far west as the hamlet of Garhi Khairo, today in the southwest corner of district Jacobabad. In his completion report submitted to Commissioner of Sindh Bartle Frere, Jacob described this extension as “the first and most important irrigational work executed by the British Government in Sind [sic].” He may as well have noted that his pioneering initiative would set the pace for the grand scheme of man-made irrigation in what is today Pakistan.

The Begari was no mean irrigation ditch any longer but a veritable river that could sail freight carrying river boats. Just in time, it turned out. In July 1856, the western border of British Balochistan erupted with mischief as the Persian government abetted by imperial Russia sought to annex what was then part of the Khanate of Kalat. As the Khan marched his troops to Panjgur, 16 British vessels, weighed down with armaments, sailed the Begari to Garhi Khairo to his aid.

In the absence of a railway, the land journey of 130 kilometres would have lasted five days. The Begari cut it to just two days. That was the first and last time the canal played a part in a conflict.

Today, if vast tracts of Jacobabad and Shikarpur districts and a part of the Kachhi desert are green, it is entirely due to the ingenuity of Jacob, whose name is still commemorated by the town he founded. In no small measure is this glory shared by those hardy Baloch tribesmen who came down the hills and from across the desert to toil in the blistering sun under the eagle eye of the man they now revered as Jekum Sahib Bahadar.


Top: The oldest existing man-made irrigation channel in Pakistan, the Begari Wah dates back to the 17th century, if not farther back in time. In the 1840s, British administrators found Begari in a poor state of upkeep and carried out extensive refurbishments, following which the canal was instrumental in transforming Baloch livestock herders into farmers.

Since completion of the Guddu Barrage in 1962, the Sindh-Begari Feeder takes a regulated supply to the canal.

Middle: Motorized gearbox for the steel gates of the headworks on the Begari Feeder. In the background, Guddu Barrage spans the Indus River.

Bottom: Bugti market gardeners work their vegetable fields on the border of Sindh and Balochistan. According to them, their “grandfathers” migrated from the Bugti hills a long time ago. If that is true, these ancestors may well have been beneficiaries of the allotments carried out under John Jacob’s orders.

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: Discoveries of Empire - Book of Days 2014

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 1 January 2015 at 14:34, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sir, thank you for an insightful glimpse from history. Having recently visited , Guddu was nTGudduext on the list, it's priority of visiting just got elevated. I shall be there to lay eyes on Begari Wah and to cherish the vision of Jekum Sahib Bahadur still in continuum...

At 1 January 2015 at 19:44, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

Sir thanks for providing insight knowledge of Begari Wah

At 24 January 2015 at 12:17, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you gentlemen for the feedback.


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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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