Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Canal Rest Houses, When Sahibs were Sahibs

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In Victorian India when the canal engineer set out on tour, he travelled with a large entourage, his train of baggage animals carrying virtually his entire office and personal effects. His subordinates, the assistants and clerks, his personal attendant and much of the office paraphernalia travelled with him. Even if the sahib sped on ahead to inspect installations or address a convention of village elders, his convoy trundled along slowly on its way. While Tiffin was the mode for lunch, the convoy made the rest house in good time to prepare dinner and a warm bath.

Rasul, an A Class rest house, was built in 1899. It sits at the site of a major headworks of the same name where the Lower Jhelum Canal merges  from the river. The village of Rasul is also home to a technical school for aspiring canal engineers
In those days of horseback travel and slow animal-drawn carts, these rest houses were placed strategically at every 25 to 30 kilometres, which was, more or less, a standard day’s journey. As a result, some of these old rest houses were located in the loneliest of places. A district officer in the Punjab, obviously gifted with a fine sense of humour, noted wryly: “Many of the rest houses being far away from human habitation would be more appropriate as hermitages.”

These establishments came alive with the sahib’s visit and slipped back into somnolence as soon as he and his entourage continued with their journey. Only the watchman and the resident cook remained, men who kept the spirit of the sahibs and spun yarns even three decades after the demise of the Raj. For these men, now dead and gone, those were the glory days, “when sahibs were sahibs.”

Bambanwala rest house. Constructed in 1909, this is a B Class establishment. Situated where Bambanwala Ravi Bedian Dipalpur Link Canal takes off from Upper Chenab Canal, it was maintained as residence for irrigation officers manning the headworks. Currently disputed for having been illegally auctioned by the district administration it has fallen out of use and is beginning to crumble

With faster motor traffic, the rest houses started to become redundant in the late 1940s. However, the absence of tarmac roads, especially along the canals, kept canal rest houses useful. It was only after four wheel-drive jeeps became common in the 1950s that these establishments fell out of use. In the old days the journey from, say, Mangla to Rasul entailed at least three overnight stops en route. But the same inspection tour would be accomplished within the space of a single day with hours to spare.

Rest houses came in three classes. Class A rest houses were situated at the site of major river headworks or barrages. Sitting amid grounds of up to five or six acres lush with indigenous trees, these were impressive properties. With verandas running around three sides, this class had up to four suites with a spacious central sitting and dining area. In the back, detached from the main building, was a row of followers’ quarters and the kitchen.

Sited at major canal regulators, Class B rest houses were only somewhat less sumptuous. It was the Class C rest house, lost in the outback along small distributaries that were the simplest. Two rooms and a kitchen at the back with a couple of followers’ quarters detached from the house were all these Spartan facilities offered. Long ago, when the modern web of roads had not been built and the canal colonies and their villages were still in the future, these would have been the very hermitages alluded to by the district officer in the Punjab.

 Insignia of Lower Jhelum Canal and year of construction of Rasul rest house

During the Raj, the resident cook would surely have conjured up continental fare for the sahib on tour. However, in the 1960s and onward, the standard was brown rice, chicken curry and egg puteen – the cook’s pronunciation for pudding – a perfectly baked caramel crème. The chicken and eggs were always free range until steady supply of battery products became available in rural areas.

By the 1980s, most canal rest houses, save the Class A ones, were unused and beginning to crumble from lack of maintenance. Many gathered stories, some bizarre, others ridiculous. The smaller rest houses are frequently reported as being haunted. Attendants prepare the visitor with tales of nocturnal presence that stalks them as they go about their business before turning in for the night. The unseen presence, it is said, is palpable. Yet again, a remote Class A rest house in southern Punjab reports of whispered goings-on in the pantry in the dead of night. Of course, juicy tales of amourous trysts also abound.

Seri Rest House, located in the outback of Dokri sub-division in Larkana, keeps a more realistic story to tell as it served as a virtual prison for a politician who could possibly dent the vote bank of the powers-that-be in 1977. Though incarceration kept the man from filing his papers, the whole plan blew up, making it nearly impossible for the administration to save face.

Seri became famous for the sordid affair and remained, for a few years after the event, a bit of a local tourist attraction. Its fortune was, however, swept away by nature. And the once splendidly appointed house was repeatedly flooded and eventually abandoned in the 1990s.

Seri Rest House on the Dadu Canal earned notoriety for political intrigues in 1977. The rest house was built long before Sukkur Barrage was even conceived and remained well appointed until the mid-1990s

In view of the redundancy and high cost of maintaining them, the Irrigation Department resolved early in the current century to sell most of the rest houses that were of little use. Consequently, while Class A establishments were retained by the department, most Class B rest houses going under the hammer found favour with rural landed families and today many of those splendid edifices and their spreading grounds are private properties. The humbler Class C ones, meanwhile, still stand forlorn and ruinous among vast farmlands.

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 MountainsSukkur Barrage, Fife DreamKhirthar Canal, A touch of picturesqueBambanwala-Ravi-Bedian Link Canal, Raiya Branch to the Rescue [BRB Canal], Sulemanki Headworks, Bloom the Desert, Canal Structures, Ingenuity at its Best

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 1 December 2015 at 14:33, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Touching the heart. What masterpiece of writing.
Be Blessed Salman Rashid Sb./Ahmed Bajwa

At 6 December 2015 at 09:22, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, sir. I am very glad to know that you enjoy this work.


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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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