Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Khirthar Canal, A touch of picturesque

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Work began on Sukkur Barrage in July 1923 and shortly after the first civil works were put in place in the turbid waters of the Indus, excavation of its seven canals was taken in hand. Along the left bank there were to flow the Eastern Nara, Rohri, Khairpur Feeder West and Khairpur Feeder East. Along the right bank, the Rice and Dadu canals, close to each other and only a short way west of the Indus, were designed to flow in a southerly direction.

Canal regulators on the right bank of the Sukkur Barrage for Dadu, Rice and Khirtar canals, the last of which was once called North-Western Canal
The third canal on this side was the North-Western that we today know as Khirthar Canal. It took off from the barrage and flowed, as its name implies, on a north-westerly bearing through Shikarpur and into what now comprises the districts of Jafarabad and Naseerabad in Balochistan. Much of this area was beyond the command of the Begari Canal that was flowing well since its rehabilitation in the 1840s.

If the Begari had brought out the unbridled, free-willed Baloch from the privacy of their desert and scrub hills and made first-class farmers of them, the North Western Canal meant to add to their numbers. With a command area of 592,228 acres, it turned large numbers of Baloch chieftains from livestock owners to farmers. Vast tracts of virgin scrubland where kamdars or retainers grazed the chief’s herds were swiftly parcelled into agricultural plots to grow wheat, cotton and several varieties of rice.

Rapeseed field near district Shikarpur
As the canal flows today, most people take for granted the prosperity bestowed by it upon the region it irrigates. But Khirthar Canal is today more famous for the tiny mosque that sits mid-flow in it outside the village of Amrot in district Shikarpur. The unpretentious edifice big enough to house no more than about 20 worshippers is raised on concrete piers above the flow and connected to the right bank of the canal by a raised walkway. There is no date anywhere on the building known as Masjid Junejo.

Inevitably, there is a fanciful legend attached to the mosque. In Amrot, attendants at the seminary and shrine of Taj Mohammad tell of the time that the evil white builders of the canal arrived in this area with their excavating machines. Here this tiny mosque stood athwart the line of the proposed canal. Understandably, the white engineers would demolish the mosque. However, the intrepid Taj Mohammad of Amrot, respected locally for translating the Quran into Sindhi, would have none of it.

Junejo Masjid, made famous by the apocryphal story of the unyielding Taj Mohammad, is the sole non-canal structure inside a canal anywhere in the country
Thanks to Taj Mohammad’s miraculous force, it is believed, the machines stopped working as they approached the mosque. No matter how many excavators they tried, the engineers simply failed to make any headway. Heedless of the powers of the saint, the builders resolved to dig manually. At this point, Taj Mohammad organized a host of local men and the government sent in the army, complete with cavalry and artillery.

A great battle was fought, the miraculous occurring once again when artillery shells either simply failed to explode or went astray in mid-flight. As for the British Indian army, man and mount fell in numbers for no apparent reason at all. It was only after the engineers agreed to preserve the mosque that the machinery began to work again. And so the mosque came to be raised above the flow.

The blood and gore detail of this fanciful yarn is reserved for the faithful who come to kiss the threshold of Taj Mohammad’s shrine. In an Urdu biography of Taj Mohammad, written by an ardent follower, there is a more than ample detail of the protracted negotiations between the British and Taj Mohammad for permission to demolish the mosque. It is, however, clear that the yarn is clearly just that.

Junejo Masjid
From the timetable of work on the seven canals of the Sukkur Barrage it appears that this part of the North-Western Canal, as it was then called, would have been excavated sometime between 1929 and 1931. Taj Mohammad, the purported miracle maker, was terminally ill from about 1925 onward. Afflicted with some unspecified debilitating disease, the man is reported to have had recurrent bouts of pus-filled sores all over his body, the outbreak being particularly severe in summertime.

The smarmy life history recounts that the pustules oozed a green slime and at every outbreak rendered the long-suffering man too weak to be even minimally active, let alone lead a rebellious army for the protection of a mosque. It also records Taj Mohammad’s railing against the government for having poisoned him for his services to Islam. The man died in agony in early November 1929, when the excavators may have still been a good ways away.

The most damning evidence against the story of Taj Mohammad and his rebellious army comes from documents of the time that record progress of the work on Sukkur Barrage and its canals. Had there been such a major insurrection, it would be included in the annals, which it is not, not a word.

Bringing cattle home for the evening along Khirthar Canal
For those who believe, the story is heart-warming nevertheless. For the followers of the Amroti shrine, the mosque, in its white-washed simplicity, sitting in the middle of the flow, has become a symbol of Islam’s triumph over other faiths. Masjid Junejo, the sole non-canal structure inside a canal anywhere in Pakistan, makes Khirthar Canal unique, giving a touch of picturesque quaintness to the landscape it has greened.

Previous: Begari Wah, Salam, Jekum Sahib BahadurJamrao Canal, The Dragon’s TailKhanki Headworks, From Primeval Forest to BreadbasketLower Bari Doab Canal, Boundless MagnanimityUpper Jhelum Canal, No Small WonderUpper Swat Canal, Defying Mountains, Sukkur Barrage, Fife Dream

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