Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Upper Jhelum Canal, No Small Wonder

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“The River Jhelum emerges from the Himalaya mountains through an S curve. Just before emerging, it strikes against a cliff on its right bank, which deflects it to the left, where it strikes against the cliff which is surmounted by the old fort of Mangla; which once more deflects it to the right, where it debouches on more open country.” So reads a document written fully 110 years ago by a most ingenious mind.

The old abandoned headworks of the Upper Jhelum Canal sits right below Mangla Fort seen on the skyline. Tumbling down the mountains of Kashmir, Jhelum River washed the hill of the fort before turning sharply to the right, forcing its flow in the direction of the headworks. This was the first major canal that drew off without a barrage or weir spanning the river

The issue at hand was the take off point for a new irrigation canal dubbed the Upper Jhelum Canal, the last of the three canals built under the remarkable project known as the Triple Canal System (TCS), Punjab. The year was 1908 and the TCS was already turning large bandit-infested tracts of primeval forest in the doabs of Bari and Rachna into farmland and new villages. Similarly, the Lower Jhelum Canal, not part of the system, taking off at Rasul was already irrigating country where new farming villages and towns were fast emerging in present-day Sargodha and Khushab districts.

A fantasy of arches inside the headworks
The question that rode the minds of irrigation engineers was the take off point and route for the projected Upper Jhelum Canal that would green the north-western part of district Gujrat and all of Mandi Bahauddin, before pooling excess waters into the Chenab at Khanki. One school suggested the S bend below Mangla Fort on the grounds that the centrifugal force of the current sweeping the left or canal side created a deep scouring sounded to a depth of 18 metres. At the same time, the velocity of flow pushed up a gravelly shoal at the downstream end of the scoured pond. Consequently, there was at all times a deep pond of water right in the curve below the hill of the fort. The alternative was a spot 18 kilometres downstream by the village of Changar. Here too a curve created almost similar conditions, though with relatively lower velocity.

Mangla was favoured because the deeper pond as well as greater velocity of water would force the flow into a gated regulator without the need of a barrage or weir on the Jhelum to raise the water level for the off-take. Mangla won the debate as an “ideal site, which appeals with an almost irresistible fascination to the engineer.”

The only factor that went against Mangla was that being part of Kashmir it fell outside British territory. There were those who did not trust Maharaja Pratab Singh and feared the likelihood of mischief befalling an establishment sitting beyond their control. Moreover, while both sites presented formidable engineering difficulties, estimates showed that works at Mangla would cost Rs 3.24 million while those at the Changar site were estimated at an additional Rs. 12 million.

Gateways through which the water flowed into the Upper Jhelum Canal. With the building of Mangla Dam, the headworks became redundant and with it the first 13 kilometres of the canal. As a result, only a few people outside the Irrigation Department know of this marvel of engineering

In May 1909, Benton, later Sir John, Inspector General of Irrigation, Government of Punjab approved the Mangla option. Available documents do not show what negotiations took place between officers of the Raj and the maharaja. However, it is clear that a project of such proportions could not have been sited outside British influence without some sort of settlement.

Upper Jhelum Canal crest on Mangla Rest House
If the notion of an off-take without a barrage or a weir was fanciful, the mooted alternative alignments for the canal were more so. The first envisaged the canal taking off from the right bank of the river to cross it by aqueduct near Jhelum city to enter district Gujrat. The other foresaw the canal flowing off the left bank through a series of tunnels in the low, rugged Pabbi Hills that run as a northeast-southwest barrier between Kharian and Serai Alamgir.

Both were eventually rejected for the more logical alignment a few kilometres east parallel to the Jhelum River. This alignment was opposed on the grounds that taking a canal across another water body was a formidable challenge, especially as the route was here cut across by four major hill torrents with variable flow. Though aqueducts and siphons were built elsewhere in the Punjab and North West Frontier Province, renamed Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the team on the Upper Jhelum Canal achieved the needful by marvels of hydraulic engineering called level crossings.

Actual work on the canal regulator began early in 1913 and proceeded at a reasonable pace until April 1914, when an unseen natural dam broke somewhere in the upper reach of the Jhelum, sending a large wall of water crashing down the river. The flood burst through the embankment raised to protect the masonry from the river, potentially causing severe damage. It was just as well that it resulted only in delaying construction.

In the spring of 1916, the first waters flowed into the Upper Jhelum Canal to completely change the face of district Gujrat. From a land of small pockets of cultivation strung along narrow inundation canals abutting the Jhelum and Chenab rivers, the district became a prosperous cereal growing region by the mid-1920s.

Benton’s remarkable canal head that worked without a barrage on the Jhelum continued to flow for 50 years, accruing immense agricultural wealth to the country it slaked. Then came the damming of the river at Mangla in the mid-1960s with a rubble-filled wall, cutting off flow to the headworks and, in turn, killing the canal.

That was, fortunately, not the demise of the Upper Jhelum Canal. It only meant that the magnificent stone and masonry headworks and its massive gates were no longer needed. A canal taking off from the newly formed lake was excavated to join the old one at the village of Bong some ways downstream. And consequently, the headworks and 13 kilometres of the old canal fell into disuse.

One would have expected the handsome architecture of the headworks to have been pulled down and its steel fixtures put to other use. Thankfully, it has not. And so it remains: a priceless architectural showpiece to educate future generations of civil engineers.

Early morning mist shrouds prize farmland in district Mandi Bahauddin. Before excavation of the Upper Jhelum Canal, this area was primeval forest

Meanwhile, the Upper Jhelum Canal continues to flow across acre after acre of wheat and paddy fields, thickets of acacia and shisham and lush vegetable patches in Mandi Bahauddin and Gujrat districts that owe their fertility to this waterway. To gauge the measure of the man behind the feat, Sir John Benton did not so much as leave a plaque with his name and remains unknown to those who continue to benefit from his commitment to turn his vision into reality.

Previous: Begari Wah, Salam, Jekum Sahib Bahadur, Jamrao Canal, The Dragon’s TailKhanki Headworks, From Primeval Forest to Breadbasket, Lower Bari Doab Canal, Boundless Magnanimity

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

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 2 May 2015 at 01:58, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 4 May 2015 at 16:23, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

Sir this is an other master piece article giving the details of Irrigation canal net work in Pakistan

At 11 May 2018 at 22:25, Blogger mirza muhammad waseem baig said...

shocking point for us that after British efforts our govt and public rep ara not sincere with their peoples resulting every Pakistani facing difficulties due shortage of dam energy but govt officers and pub rep enjoying the life by other sources like generators energy by sources of peoples, we can produce elctricity by upper canal from various points by assistance of china.

At 17 February 2021 at 02:51, Blogger Unknown said...

Great. My interest in this canal stems from the fact that I was told that my Grandfather was one of the Contractor on this canal in the area that he resided. That my Grandfather was responsible for about ten kilometres of the canal of Upper Jehlum Canal. The Bridges on this canals were built solid as I remember from my childhood days. But lately I have noticed that the bridges are breaking but there is No Repairs done to keep the bridges in good condition. This is unfortunate the government of Pakistan should take good care of the infrastructure of the irrigation system.

At 14 November 2021 at 07:33, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It passed over portion of our land so our family got alloted about 25 acres in mandi bahauddin. We still live in gujrat and my dads cousin's live in mandi. No maintenance is being done on it after musharaf dictatorship.

At 22 December 2021 at 21:07, Blogger ansar mahmood said...

upper Jhelum canal
is a marvel of engineering and architecture by Great British engineers.


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

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Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

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