Dr Ajaz Anwar pens notes on the Ravi being “the lifeline of Lahore”
The River Ravi, named after the goddess Iravati, is the smallest of the five rivers of the Punjab. After entering Pakistan, it joins the other rivers at Panjnad. Since time immemorial it’s been synonymous with Lahore, and seemed to have been specifically laid for its strategic, topographical, climatic, agricultural, aquatic and fauna life advantages.
On the way the river is joined by countless storm-water drains that also support aquatic life and anglers fishing in it (because fish liked to breed in these tributaries). Pahed, Roahi and Dek passed within range of bicycles near Lahore.
The Ravi used to be the lifeline of Lahore. As it curved around the Walled City, it formed a natural defence barrier against the invaders who historically all came from the north. Cool breeze too blew from the north and cooled the city as it filtered through the perforated walls of the houses built over the manmade mound.
There were countless community wells and private ones in the bigger houses. Networks of canals irrigated the agricultural fields and many Persian wheels powered by oxen existed till late. All these sources of water depended on the river.
The water in the Ravi was potable with the right mineral ingredients. Wells did not have to be dug very deep and the ground water was continually replenished by the source i.e. the river.
Rivers have a history of flooding. Annual floods followed the monsoons and melting of glaciers for which city and village dwellers were mostly cautious. Super flood cycles, some in living memory, caused much damage. Aurangzeb is said to have ordered to “harness this haughty river”. So, a long rampart was built upstream and the city was saved from its whimsical behaviour. The last reported floods of 1948 and 1954 submerged the surrounding suburban areas but the Walled City, owing to its height, has never been flooded.
Governments of the day provided miles long big-stone ramparts along the riverbeds in which eels and other small species thrived to the advantage of fishermen. I had frequently fished kalbons and mirgal outside Shahdara.
The Ravi had been navigable since long. From The History of Pakistan Railways, we learn that the first locomotive engine was brought to Lahore on a streamer and disembarked near Chauburji. Thenceforth, the mode of transport changed in favour of Railway.
The Ravi was once a big source of outdoor sports. Intercollegiate swimming and rowing competitions were held here. The colleges had their own boating clubs and students could rent a boat for nominal charges and row it upstream as far as the Mahmud Booti bund, enjoying gandaris (sugarcane) and naan chhoaley from the vendors perched on the small islands under the railway and pedestrian bridges. It could take up to six hours to reach the upstream destination and only half an hour to come back downstream.
Once a bewildered custodian of boats came to the Government College to report that a certain student had gone missing along with his boat. The ‘supposedly’ missing student was sitting right next to me. He had found it more convenient to row only downstream and, upon reaching Balloki, abandoned the boat and came back by the bus.
Folk memory tells us that the tree plantations on both sides of the Ravi, along its curvilinear route, provided timber and hunting grounds where many animals, now seen in the zoo only, could be found.
Its banks, especially the left one, had dense forests that protected the soil against erosion, slowed the fury of the floods and supported the flora and fauna. Till late in the night, the thick tree plantations on its left bank could be seen bending towards the city, which indicated that the wind was blowing from the north. Foliage of these trees would turn red during the winters.
I accompanied my friends on many hunting trips — I am guilty of shooting many bird species that have now become near-extinct such as tilyeer, a small bird that goes into action against locusts, flies into the dense locust formations and goes on cutting only one wing of the grass-hoppers. Hunters could be slapped a very heavy fine of Rs 20 if this bird was found in their bags.
There have been water disputes with India. Our eastern neighbour had the advantage of curtailing the flow of river and canal waters because the head works were located in its territory. Pakistan had to agree to some restrictions imposed by the Liaqat-Nehru pact of 1948. It included payment for the water released into canals in the Pakistani territories. It was the most controversial Indus Water Treaty that dealt a deadly blow to the natural river systems in September, 1960, brokered by the World Bank.
According to the agreement, the waters from the Ravi, Sutlej and Beas were given to India, which in due course built dams and diverted the rivers. The Ravi, thus, lost its pristine waters. As a result, its flora and fauna suffered.
The Ravi was a popular picnic spot where you could do boating, swimming and also, of course, just roam about. It has traces of the earliest Moghul gardens in the region. Kamran’s Baradari, standing in the middle of the river, has braved the vagaries of its waters. (It might be noted that Kamran’s mother was not Timurid; he was a half-brother of Humayun.)
The picnickers would reach it by boats. Only a portion of the central pavillion on this once large garden had survived and looked picturesque in its setting, when viewed from a distance, especially from Gao Shala, a shelter for old cows (on the Ravi Road). During the 1980s, Nawaz Sharif as chief minister of the Punjab had the bright idea of “repairing and restoring” the edifice. As a result, the authenticity of the monument was lost. The Lahore Conservation Society (LCS), led by Khawaja Zaheeruddin, registered its protest in this regard. Today it stands neglected.
Several attempts were made by municipal authorities to banish the milch cattle from the city and the posh localities, but every time the campaigns failed. With the coming into existence of powerful multinational companies, the animals were banished. The herders found refuge along the banks of the Ravi, especially near Shahdara and the Tomb of Jehangir, the Moghul emperor whose justice was proverbial — he could detect water in the adulterated milk.
Lahori culture underwent a sea change. Trails of cow-dung, leading to the Paathi Ground and other pastures, disappeared. Shops selling milk products tried to survive. The milkmen too fought a fierce battle for survival by supplying milk from far-off villages on motorcycles and, later, the Qingqis. Earlier, all middle-class families used to have their own buffaloes tethered close to their houses.
Jack Mosser of a leading milk packaging company took the members of Asian Study Group and disclosed the system of collecting milk from villages as far as Minchinabad and Burewala. This source of nutrition was, thus, denied to the people who had made Pakistan one of the major producers of milk. Even the Tetra Pack was the monopoly of a multi-national company.
Along the banks of the Ravi, seasonal vegetables were grown which were available fresh at affordable prices. All this changed as India diverted the source of water for the Ravi and it was converted into a stinking stream. More was to come. Think River Ravi Urban Development Project (RRUDP), which seems to be a conspiracy of multi-national pharmaceutical companies.
To be continued
(This dispatch is dedicated to my uncle Ashraf who never missed a bite while fishing in Ravi)
The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]