A great son of the Punjab

Salma Mahmud traces the career of the amazing Sir Ganga Ram, engineer, agriculturalist and philanthropist

“He won like a hero, and spent like a saint,” said the Right Honourable Baron Hailey of Shahpur, Governor of the Punjab from 1924 to 1928, and a great admirer of Sir Ganga Ram.

My flagging faith in humanity was given a much needed shot in the arm after reading a March 10 news item datelined Faisalabad, describing how the residents of the village of Gangapur in Jaranwala, have revived the horse trolley train from their village to the  nearby Buchiana station. The trolley, pulled by one horse, can accommodate up to fifteen people, and once set in motion, moves of its own volition without much straining of the horse. The three kilometre track from Gangapur village was launched in 1903 in Chak 591-GB by the founder of the village, Sir Ganga Ram, and continued until 1993, when the track was stolen. The former Nazim of the union council campaigned for its revival, and the district government contributed Rs.3.3 million, the Tehsil Municipal Administration raised Rs.40,000 while the villagers collected Rs.1.7 million. It took four years to resume this facility, as no government department was at first willing to help the villagers. However, determination and perseverance finally paid off, and this tribute to a great man is there for us to admire.

A delightful photograph accompanies the news item, showing the laughing villagers and the Nazim waving to the camera, garlanded with pink blossoms, with the horse, also garlanded, trotting proudly ahead. This scenario can be juxtaposed against the shameful incident in 1947, when a rioter placed a garland of shoes around the statue of Sir Ganga Ram outside the Lahore Museum. The rioter was shot by the police and wounded, and ironically taken to Ganga Ram Hospital for treatment. In 1992 another disgraceful incident occured during the riots in Pakistan following the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya. Certain zealots took the trouble to travel all the way to Taxali Gate during the madness that prevailed at the time, reached the now battered looking Samadhi of Sir Ganga Ram, removed the asthiya (urn) containing a part of his ashes, and threw it onto the ground, according to an eye witness account. Anyhow, the major portion of Ganga Ram’s ashes were immersed in the waters of the Ganges at Haridwar in 1927. The destructive actions of zealots cannot in any way negate the greatness of a man of his stature.

Gangapur village, based on the twenty squares of barren land in the Rachna Doab granted to him by the government at the time of his retirement, was Sir Ganga Ram’s pride and joy. It was his dream project, into which he poured all the fruits of his experience and where he utilized brilliant schemes for bringing innovative food production to the arid and barren land of the area, mainly by using lift irrigation. He established a model village here, with a school and a post office as well as an outdoor dispensary. A fine well and two pukka tanks were constructed, and thousands of trees were planted, along with crops, vegetables and various varieties of grass. The cultivation of maize, wheat and cotton were all part of his efficient plans, as was the acclimatizing of seed. His experiments in orchard plantation were equally rewarding, with especial emphasis being paid to citrus fruits, and eventually cattle and horse breeding was inducted in the most efficient manner possible. This was the first farm in the Punjab to introduce a mechanical reaper, a ridger, harrows, scythes and various other new gardening instruments, most of which had been observed by Sir Ganga Ram and his son Rai Bahadur Sewak Ram during their various trips abroad to gather vital information for this miracle in the desert. Two governors of the Punjab and the Viceroy of India, Lord Irwin, visited the village and were full of justified praise for its success.

Ganga Ram’s life was full of drama, right from the very start. His father Daulat Ram came with his wife to settle in Mangatanwala in the Punjab, and began working as a junior sub-inspector in the police service. Here, though he himself was a Hindu, he became close to a Sikh sadhu, Baba Bhishen Singh, who gave him shelter in a room in the Gurudwara to which he was attached. Ganga Ram was born in 1851 in the Gurudwara. However, the family’s peaceful life was shattered when Daulat Ram was successful in capturing a gang of murdering dacoits, and refused to set them free. He was sent a message that he and his family would be killed if he continued to be unyielding. Mangatanwala was no longer a haven of security, and Daulat Ram decided to flee to Amritsar. He took refuge in the Golden Temple, and began a new career as a copyist in the district courts, since he was an accomplished calligraphist and had knowledge of Persian.

When he was four years old, Ganga Ram began attending a school near the Darbar Sahib, where calligraphy, arithmetic and Persian were taught. He proved to be a brilliant student from the very start. He then shifted to a larger school, where he was promoted two years ahead of his fellow students. In the afternoon he would walk home and assist his father in his office work, rather than playing with his schoolmates, and thus began his career of hard, honest labour.

In 1869 he passed the Matriculation examination and joined Government College Lahore on a scholarship. The college was at that time housed in the Haveli of Raja Dhyan Singh.   The Principal was Dr. Leitner, who founded the Punjab University. He also, years later, initiated and established the first mosque in England at Woking, which he called the Shahjehan Mosque.

Ganga Ram rented a small room in Sootar Mandi, which had a well in its floor from where he could draw drinking water. One day, when he was pacing up and down in his tiny room, his foot slipped and he fell into the well. The landlord’s servant Kalu heard the sound of a splash, rushed to the room and was able to save the young boy from drowning. Years later, Ganga Ram could reciprocate by rescuing Kalu from a degrading life of poverty, and looking after him in his old age. He felt at this time that Providence had spared his life in order that he could perform great deeds in the future.

Not long after this he visited his family priest, who was employed in the office of the Executive Engineer in Lahore. While waiting for the priest he became tired of squatting on the floor of the office, and sat down on the engineer’s chair. When the priest arrived on the scene he was horrified at this impertinence and told the boy to vacate the chair immediately. Ganga Ram’s reply was, ‘Why are you worrying about this chair? I will occupy it one day in my own right.’ And that is exactly what happened years later.

Ganga Ram’s brilliant performance at Government College resulted in his being awarded a scholarship of fifty rupees a month to study at the Thomason College of Civil Engineering in Roorkee. He sent half the money to his parents in Amritsar and kept the rest for himself. The Principal at Roorkee, Colonel Maclagan, marked him as an exceptional student, and fifty years later it was his son Sir Edward Maclagan, Governor of the Punjab, who recommended Ganga Ram for a knighthood in recognition of his meritorious services in the fields of engineering and agriculture.

In 1873 Ganga Ram stood third in his final examination and won a gold medal for his Project Paper. He was appointed to Lahore in the engineering department, where he served under Rai Bahadur Kanhaya Lal, the Executive Engineer, and author of a distinguished history of Lahore. He was now earning Rs.150 a month, a princely sum at that time. From there he was transferred to Dera Ghazi Khan in 1875, coming into close contact with its Deputy Commissioner, Sir Robert Sandeman, who was so impressed with the young engineer that he chose him to work in Lahore in connection with the coming visit of the Prince of Wales. Within two years he was singled out to remain on special duty for the Imperial Assemblage at Delhi. From there he was sent on a specialized job to construct the Amritsar-Pathankot section of the North-Western Railway.

His work at Delhi had been noticed by Lord Ripon, who nominated him for further training at the Bradford Engineering Institute, for specialised training in waterworks and drainage. Upon his return to India two years later, he was deputed to prepare the water supply and drainage scheme for Peshawar, and later he was to introduce similar schemes in Ambala, Karnal and Gujranwala.

Twelve years of his service were now over, and in 1885 he was appointed Assistant Engineer at Lahore. Here he supervised the construction of the new High Court Building and the beautiful Lahore Cathedral. He occasionally officiated as Executive Engineer, and four years later became Special Engineer for the design and construction of Aitchison College, where he worked in conjunction with Bhai Ram Singh. Finally, once his work at Aitchison College was completed, Ganga Ram was promoted to the post of Executive Engineer of the Lahore Division, occupying the chair he had once sat in as a lowly student, but which he could now occupy in his own right.

He held this position for the next twelve years, during which time he constructed the Lahore Museum, the Mayo School of Arts, the General Post Office, the Albert Victor Wing of Mayo Hospital, and the Government College Chemical Laboratory. The courts and government offices in Lyallpur, Sargodha and Sheikupura were also built by him. He was now honoured with the title of Rai Bahadur. It should be mentioned here that the City of Lahore substantially owes its metalled streets, its paved lanes and its properly laid drains to Ganga Ram’s unstinting efforts.

In the last few years of his service he was selected by Lord Curzon to act as Superintendent of Works at the Imperial Darbar to be held in Delhi in 1903 in connection with the accession to the throne of King Edward VII. It was at this time that jealousy arose among European engineers who felt they had been slighted by Curzon appointing a native to this exalted post. There were many problems which had to be faced by Ganga Ram during this period, but he was able to overcome all difficulties and perform minor miracles time and time again, including constructing a bridge overnight spanning a nallah, and laying new water pipes in the Darbar grounds. All this was achieved smilingly and efficiently by him. However, he received no honour at this time, but later a C.I.E. was awarded to him.

When he came back to the Punjab his promotion to the post of Superintending Engineer was due, but the authorities hesitated, and consequently, some years before the time of his superannuation, Ganga Ram sought premature retirement. This was when he was granted the twenty squares of land with which his career as an agriculturalist was to later begin. However, in the meantime the Patiala Government sought his offices as a Superintending Engineer. Under his supervision the whole face of Patiala changed, and for seven years he executed engineering projects costing over a crore of rupees. The drainage of the city was carried out by him, as was the installation of an electric system. The Maharaja addressed him as Uncle in deference to his unique talents. He was now sixty years old, and took a long leave of absence from work and went to England with his son Sewak Ram, making a tour of agricultural centres, which would later serve him well in the final stages of his career.

On his return to India the Maharaja of Patiala requested Ganga Ram to become Special Advisor to the Indian Chiefs’ Camp at the Imperial Darbar in 1911. He was so successful in this assignment that he was awarded an M.V.O by the government.

Now the time had come for him to start his experiments in agriculture, both at Gangapur as well as at Renala Khurd. Gangapur had already been established as a model project, becoming the cynosure of all eyes. He then turned his eager mind towards the utilization of hydro-electric power. In 1917 he applied for 23,000 acres of high level land in the Bari Doab. The Lower Bari Doab Canal irrigated this area, but he could only water his land by the lift irrigation system. He was successful in his endeavours, and his arid acres soon turned into tracts of rich soil.

He was then leased another 40,000 acres of high land for a period of seven years, which he was able to irrigate successfully once again. He constructed a hydro-electric station on the canal near Renala Khurd, and was able to complete his scheme within the time limit given to him. By 1925 he had constructed 75 miles of irrigation channels, 625 miles of water courses, 45 bridges, 565 miles of village roads, 121 miles of boundary roads – the list of his achievements is endless. Altogether 89,000 acres of waste land had been developed successfully by this miracle worker. By now he was 70, and in 1922 he was recommended for a richly deserved knighthood.

When Sir Malcolm Hailey, (Baron Hailey of Shahpur), opened the Renala Works he said, “It has always been a mystery to me how a man of so soft a heart can possess so business-like a head – thousands will remember his philanthropy with gratitude”. And indeed that was the case.

Among the many causes close to Sir Ganga Ram’s heart, that of young Hindu widows was perhaps the closest. Child marriage and ensuing widowhood was a searing problem which he did his level best to address.

He encouraged the honourable re-marriage of widows, and more importantly he set about providing methods for making them financially independent. He made the government an offer of a building costing Rs.250000, if they would finance his scheme of a Hindu Widows’ Home. Here the widows would be educated up to JV and SV standard, so that they could qualify as teachers. They were also trained in home industries so that they could become handicraft teachers. In 1921 the Widows’ Home was opened. In 1927 he opened the Hindu Apahaj Ashram, where the old and the indigent were given food and shelter. He bought two acres of land on Ravi Road, and constructed the ashram at the cost of Rs.150,000. This and the Widows Home were situated side by side, and next to them Sir Ganga Ram’s Samadhi was later constructed. Both the home and the ashram are now no more.

Sir Ganga Ram’s services to education included the establishment of the Lady Maclagen School for Girls, one section of which was reserved for students of all communities. Punjab’s first college of commerce, Hailey College, was made possible by a donation of several lacs of rupees by Sir Ganga Ram. The D.A.V. College was given a large donation by him as well. The building has since been converted into the Islamia College, Civil Lines.

However, the most impressive charitable act of all performed by him was the construction of the Sir Ganga Ram Free Hospital, after land was purchased in 1921 by him at the junction of Queen’s Road and Lawrence Road. Consequently at a cost of Rs.1,31,500 a building was constructed there which was open to the needy, irrespective of caste or creed. In 1923 the hospital was taken over by the Ganga Ram Trust Society, and today it ranks second only to Mayo Hospital in its services to the people of Lahore. My mother worked there in an administrative capacity for many years, and both our children were born there, so it holds a special place in my heart.

In 1927, when Sir Ganga Ram was seventy three, he traveled to London with Sevak Ram to take his place as a member of the Royal Commission for Agriculture. However, he was in failing health and after the strain of the work for the Commission, he suffered a heart attack and died at his London home. The cremation ceremony took place at the Golders Green Crematorium and among the chief mourners were members of the Royal Agricultural Commission, Lord Linlithgow, Sir Shadi Lal, Sir Walter Lawrence, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, Sir Edward Maclagan, and Sir Louis Dane along with other distinguished persons. Telegrams of condolence were read out from Lord Reading, Sir Maneckji Dadabhoy and Sir Henry Lawrence.

His ashes were brought back to India by his son, and the main portion of these were scattered in the waters of the Ganges, where about ten thousand people attended the ceremony. The remaining ashes were then taken to Lahore, and the dola containing his asthiya was bedecked with roses and motia blossoms. It was carried on the back of a magnificently caparisoned Kotul horse from his house to the Town Hall and then to Taxali Gate, where a plinth had already been constructed, with a pavilion overhead. The crowds chanted ‘Gharibon key wali ki jai’ as the procession wended its way towards the old city. After his death and right up to 1947, on Baisakhi Day a great fair was held in honour of the great man. Today the citizens of Lahore should remember and ponder over all that they owe to him. His samadhi has been renovated by the Ganga Ram Trust, but that is not enough. Much more needs to be done to revive and keep alive his memory.

Per ardua ad astra, ‘Through adversity to the stars’, is the motto of the Royal Air Force, adapted from a phrase of Virgil, and this seems a fitting description of the career of this remarkable son of the Punjab.

Gangapur village was Sir Ganga Ram’s pride and joy. It was his dream project, in to which he poured all the fruits of his experience, and where he utilized brilliant schemes for bringing innovative food production to the arid and barren lands of the area

One day, when Ganga Ram was pacing up and down in his room his foot slipped and he fell in to the well in the floor of the room. The landlord’s servant Kalu heard the splash and rushed to rescue him. He felt at the time that Providence had spared his life so that he could perform great deeds in the future


2 responses to “A great son of the Punjab

  1. Sukhdev Singh Sohal

    Sir Ganga Ram, a noble soul, indeed. We need remembering such persons to lift ourselves from the pathos of self-centredness. Thank God that Sir Ganga Ram has got an enlightened journalist in Salma Mehmud. He needs an historian to situate his life and times.

  2. muzammil ahmad khan

    i believe model town lahore was designed by sir ganga ram in 1920 you did not mention about this. muzammil ahmad khan ptv news islamabad

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