Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Railway bridges on River Indus

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Who built the Railway bridges on Indus at Attock and Kohat? As per my knowledge they were built by Khan Bahadur Sher Muhammad, after British could not succeed due to high depth and fierce flow of Indus River. And he was the same Engineer who designed and constructed the first hydro power project of Western India (Swat Valley). I shall be thankful if you could offer any details about this," asks Ali Ahmad Manzoor on Facebook.

What myths we create to glorify some people we believe in! I do not know if, as you claim, Sher Muhammad built the first hydropower project in Swat. But the other claims are both false. I will also be interested in knowing when Sher Muhammad was born and where he was educated. Let us take the two Indus bridges one by one.

The bridge at Attock was opened in 1883. If you look carefully you will notice that the piers rest on solid rock, not in sand beds as on the Chenab bridge between Gujrat and Wazirabad. The piers were laid when the river was at its lowest during the months of November to March and the central rock bed was also exposed above the water. The design came off the drawing board of the famous Guilford Molesworth, a consulting engineer who worked with the government of India. (Credit this admirable civil engineer with crafting a truly picturesque and strongly fortified bridge that is a treat for photographers more than a hundred years after it was built.) However, this bridge shifted off camber within forty years of use. In 1926, the bridge had to be re-girdered on the original piers. This time the resident engineer was Terence Bingham who also has to his credit a number of other major bridges. Railway history acknowledges the excellent work done by ‘the Indian workmen employed by the North Western Railway Bridge Department and it records the names of Sardar Prem Singh and Karam Elahi. The bridge-building skill of these two, one Muslim, the other Sikh, ‘was to become known throughout the north of India.’

The bottom line is that the Attock bridge was a good test of engineering skill and the ice cold water of the mighty Indus in midwinter made the work rather hard. But there was nothing that the British designer and builders could not surmount. No one by the name of Sher Muhammad is mentioned in the building of this remarkable and very picturesque span.

The Khushalgarh Bridge, another magnificent span, was opened in 1907. Here the river flows at a depth of thirty-three metres in a channel that is 240 metres wide in full flow during summers and a mere 100 metres in midwinter. But here again the piers rest on solid bedrock. So, no reported difficulty that any good civil engineer could not have overcome. The design was from the civil engineering firm Rendel and Robertson which had also designed the Lansdowne Bridge between Sukkur and Rohri. Though F. E. Robertson of the company wrote that the cantilever design was among the most complicated structures he had ever designed, a noted and reliable railway historian points out that the ‘erection was simple and straightforward.’

No railway history mentions a Sher Muhammad who did what no one else was able to. I have heard similar stories from other sites in Pakistan. These are myths we build in order to create heroes where none exist. This gratuitous mendacity is shameful. Let us sing only those who are truly heroes.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 25 March 2015 at 18:56, Anonymous Asad Khwaja said...

A very accurate evaluation. We seem , as a nation, to love to make up such fake stories to glorify ancestors or relatives etc. To the best of my knowledge, the earliest hydel power projects in Malakand region and ex Swat state were made by British engineers between 1918-1921, including the famous Mr Benton/Benetton (?) after whom one of the main Malakand hydel tunnels is still named. It's anybody's guess who this 'Sher Muhammad' chap was!

At 26 March 2015 at 09:15, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

John Benton was the man, sir. Sher Mohammad is not mentioned in any document. You are so right in observing that we glorify our relatives with the most shameless mendacity.

At 28 March 2015 at 15:06, Anonymous Asad Khwaja said...

Thank you

At 9 September 2016 at 01:17, Blogger Unknown said...

Aoa sir, I'm a student of architecture and currently researching on the construction of old khushal garh bridge. I found your article quite informative. If you can provide any website link/book references for further reading, I'll be grateful. Looking forward to your response.

At 10 September 2016 at 09:30, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Unknown, you will have to scour the library at Railway Headquarters, Lahore where they keep their documents in rather a shabby state. Ditto for Punjab Archives - if you can get access to the latter. The arseholes who man the Archives believe 200 year-old documents are secret! Also find P Berridge's book "Couplings to the Khyber".


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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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