So much for Shahdara, or the King’s way!

August 30, 2020

Dr Ajaz Anwar relates how the anglers have been deprived of their sporting activity, as fish vanished from the rivers and Lahore entered the age of fish farming

An illustration that was printed in The Pakistan Times on February 11, 1958.  —  Image: Supplied

Along the wall of Government College, Lahore, there once stood a big milestone on which distances to the various cities were inscribed. It was Lahore’s Zero Mile.

On the Ravi Road, just outside the Lady Willingdon maternity hospital, a stone was marked: “Lahore, one mile.” Outside the Shish Mahal hosiery was the second mile. A little away, the scene changed with the Ravi snaking its way with its layers of red alluvial clay and shimmering sands. As seen from its bridge the water was reddish during the summers and bluish in winters. Red sandstone lining along both its banks protected the city from seasonal floods.

Further on, thousands of date palms added a mystical aura to the four white marble minarets of Jahangir’s Tomb. In the centre of the bridge, another stone announced that Lahore was three miles away. It was here that the Lahore district ended and Sheikhupura district began.

A neat and clean road, across the manned railway crossing, led to the tomb of the only Moghul emperor buried in Pakistan. The Omnibus would return after dropping off passengers in Shahdara (Town). In those days, the river water was pristine and clear, with aquatic life in abundance, and all sorts of fish somersaulting among daredevil swimmers.

It was heavenly for anglers. Every Sunday, teams after teams of them would reach the spot on their bicycles, loaded with earthworms, lunch packets and army-style water bottles, with sola-pith hats, folded umbrellas, fishing rods and landing nets. They would entangle earthworms to the fishing hook and gently lower the line into the water and wait for fish to bite.

An angler’s patience is legendary. It might take only a few minutes for the catch to appear or else hours for any movement to happen. The angler might even have no luck throughout the day; sun-tanned, he would buy fish uncut and of varying sizes and kinds from the Machhi Mandi on his return home to impress his folks.

The float, fashioned out of a peacock’s thick feather, with red and black markings, was the signal. Seasoned anglers could tell from the tripping of the float as to which kind of fish had taken the bait as all kinds of fish were doing the rounds in schools. River fish was very aggressive and needed to be allowed to swim away and only gradually reeled in when tired, otherwise the line would snap. Once within reach of the hand, it had to be taken out of the water with a landing net because it became heavier out of water and could tear its mouth allowing it to escape.

An angler would allow the fish a fair competition and was happy to see it escape.

*****

Different kinds of fish have different eating habits. Most fish are carnivorous and many eat the smaller ones. Thus, the anglers also use small live fish or frogs for bait. Eels are found between the large stones that form the protective pitching. The fishing line is slowly lowered between the fissures when a colony of eels takes the bite, one after the other. The eel refuses to come out and gets itself entangled between the stones. Pressure has to be applied on the line till, feeling the pain, it gives in. Once out of water, it is very dangerous to tackle with bare hands. A whole range of thorns resembling an orthopedic surgeon’s saw appear on its back. These can cause deep cuts on the hands of the angler.

With the hook still in its mouth an expert angler can bang the poor catch against the ground several times till it is incapacitated. River eel is not available in the market as it cannot be netted owing to its small size and unique habitat.

Khagga, malli, parri, singhari, mirgal, damra, kalbons, bichwa and thaila were found in abundance in the Ravi. Teengre and chilwa were a constant nuisance. Turtles seen basking in the sun by the dozen would suddenly dive into the water as soon as an angler appeared. The villagers would excavate their eggs from the sand.

Rahoo was the most prized fish. It would take in only fresh bait. Rarely a crocodile appeared. The abovementioned adventure became only a thing of the past invoking a maddening nostalgia beyond the imagination of the later-day generations. The World Bank negotiated the Indus Water Treaty that could not compensate for the resultant damage to the flora and fauna including aquatic life.

The tomb of Jahangir once appeared surrounded by green fields. The foreign guests were specially taken there while the press photographers clicked their smiles.

*****

The multi-national companies in the packaged milk business succeeded in convincing the city lords to banish the milch cattle from Lahore in the early 1980s. The once peaceful Shahdara’s fortunes changed for the worse. Buffaloes shifted here by the thousand. Cow-dung cakes adorned all available walls and open spaces. Shops selling fodder and wheat husk started doing a roaring business. Ranches and animal farms usurped all open green spaces. The cattle owners built thousands of shanties around the tomb walls. Many houses even placed part of the lintels over the outer walls.

From inside the world famous tomb, one could see laundries and the blue plastic water tanks. Even the land around it was parceled into small plots while the geologists, historians and geographers recruited by the Archeology Department chose to look the other way.

Outside the northern gateway a vast graveyard appeared. Soon there was no burial space for the older milkmen. The Lahore Conservation Society (LCS) held a press conference at the Lahore Press Club (LPC), then located in a narrow lane behind the Lord’s Restaurant (demolished since). This writer showed the images in diapositive slides to stunned journalists. The legendary investigative journalist Safdar Mir, under his pen name Zeno, wrote a fiery report, titled Disappearing Monuments and the Maze of Slums, which appeared in the daily Dawn of July 27, 1984. It shocked the powers that be and they stopped taking foreign dignitaries to the tomb because the highly polluted river and the slums around it were not worth visiting any longer.

The old Ravi Bridge was closed for heavy traffic and only light vehicles were permitted on it. For foreign dignitaries, a separate gate was constructed on the eastern side where the wall had disappeared due to the floods in pre-Indus Water Treaty days. This gate was marked “VIP,” though no important person was taken around that monument.

The gate only encouraged the encroachers. The Forest Department too did not protect the thousands of date palms that were ruthlessly felled.

The fish in the river died and further breeding was not possible. The contractors used maha jaal to net any fish left in it. Some even used dynamite that killed all aquatic beings, even the turtles. Finding no fish, cranes and storks that used to come from far stopped visiting. The anglers too were deprived of their weekly sporting activity.

Fish are natural water cleaners and environment friendly. They also eat algae and mosquitoes. Lahore thus entered the age of fish farms. It’s more like chicken farming. The farmed fish lack nutrients available in river waters. To be fair, they are not harmful like the fish caught from rivers polluted by tanneries’ and human waste. But who cares? The government and the city lords are more interested in developing an entirely new city upon the Ravi.

(This dispatch is dedicated to archaeologist Naeem Iqbal)


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]

So much for Shahdara, or the King’s way!