With the renovation of his tomb, the ‘Father of Lahore’ is finally being accorded just reverence for his role in developing the Punjab capital
On July 3, 2021, Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Noorul Haq Qadri inaugurated the samadhi (tomb) of Sir Ganga Ram in Lahore. The tomb’s renovation was marked with a ceremony attended by senior officials of the Punjab government. Located on Ravi Road, close to the Walled City’s Taxali Gate, the samadhi of Sir Ganga Ram is very well-maintained under the ownership of the Evacuee Trust Property Board.
Pakistani politicians, of course, have to carry the yoke of guilt about what has happened in the past. Their biggest moral backsliding was that they forgot the greatest benefactor of Punjab and Lahore, allowing Ganga Ram’s samadhi to fall into disrepair before being completely destroyed in 1992 in the wake of India’s demolition of the Babri Mosque. In 1951, Sir Ganga Ram’s life-sized statue, too, was removed from the front of the Lahore Museum. No one knows how it was disposed of.
TV channels in Lahore have been celebrating the life of Sir Ganga Ram (1851-1927), an executive engineer of the city, calling him ‘Father of Lahore.’ This designation is undoubtedly well-deserved. It was Ganga Ram who planned and constructed Lahore’s first Sanitation System and Water Works, the Lahore Museum, the Mayo School of Arts (now National College of Arts), the High Court, the Lahore Cathedral, the General Post Office, the Aitchison College, Chemistry Department of the Government College Lahore, and the Albert Victor Wing of the Mayo Hospital.
As a philanthropist, after 1903, he also funded and built Sir Ganga Ram Free Hospital, the Hailey College of Commerce, Lady Maclagan Girls’ High School, Ravi Road House of the Disabled, Sir Ganga Ram Trust Building on the Mall, Hindu and Sikh Widows’ Home, Hindu Students Career Society, Home and School for Hindu and Sikh Widows, the Lady Maynard Industrial School for Sikh and Hindu Women and Girls.
Journalist Amer Ahmad Khan, reporting on a visit by Ganga Ram’s great granddaughter U.K. Baroness Shreela Flather to Lahore in daily Dawn on Sept. 9, 1998, said that in addition to his civil works, Ganga Ram had also helped founder Diwan Khem Chand conceive and build the city’s Model Town locality in much the same way he financed the city’s Salvation Army and YMCA on the old Queen’s Road.
Ganga Ram’s driving passion was charity for Hindu and Sikh widows, not allowed by their religion to remarry. He struggled to get child marriage (and thus child widowhood) banned, but failed. It fell to Jinnah to get the Sharda Bill passed in 1931, four years after Ganga Ram’s death. Ganga Ram used to chant Altaf Hussain Hali’s Munajat-e-Bevgan (Prayer of the Widows) as his worship early in the morning. Muslim journalist Khwaja Hassan Nizami once wrote that if he could have, he would have given up years of life to Ganga Ram.
Ganga Ram was a pragmatist who started his career as engineer but went on to become the biggest agriculturist in India, reclaiming thousands of squares of land on lease, mechanizing the farms and introducing new irrigation methods. He quarreled with Gandhi over the spinning wheel and asked him to give it up in favor of weaving. Sick of politicians who did politics over Hindu-Muslim riots, he wrote cutting letters to Motilal Nehru, telling him that the solution was service, not politics.
Saint of Mangtawala
Ganga Ram was born in 1851 in a Sikh sadhu’s hut in Mangtanwala, about 40 miles from Lahore and 14 miles from Nankana Sahib, the famous Sikh shrine. His father Daulat Ram was a Hindu who had fled from Muzaffarnagar near Delhi to escape the post-Mughal chaos. Good at Persian, Daulat Ram found the job of a junior sub-inspector at a police station in Mangtanwala before moving to Amritsar to become a copyist of the court. Here, Ganga Ram passed his matriculation from Government High School and joined the Government College Lahore in 1869. The College was then only four years old and was housed in the Haveli of Raja Dhyan Singh, brother of the Dogra raja who was later to possess Kashmir.
Ganga Ram was a scholarship holder and stayed frugally in a hut in Sutar Mandi to save money. He was good at mathematics, and won another scholarship to Thomason Engineering College at Roorki in 1871 where Colonel Maclagan was principal. He sent half his scholarship of Rs. 50 to his poor parents while he worked hard to obtain his engineering degree. (It was Colonel Maclagan’s son who, as Governor of Punjab, recommended him for knighthood in 1922.) In 1873, Ganga Ram passed with a gold medal and was appointed assistant engineer and apprenticed to Rai Bahadur Kanhaya Lal, chief engineer of Lahore.
Two years later, Ganga Ram was transferred to Dera Ghazi Khan where he soon became a keen deputy of the district’s deputy commissioner, Robert Sandeman, who in 1875 recommended Ganga Ram as junior engineer for the preparations for the visit of the Prince of Wales. He did so well in Lahore that Lord Ripon requisitioned him for the Imperial Assemblage at Delhi, then sent him to Bradford in U.K. to get further training for two years in waterworks and drainage.
Not just Lahore
Upon his return to British India, Ganga Ram was sent to Peshawar to prepare the city’s water supply and drainage system, which was later duplicated in Ambala, Karnal and Gujranwala. In 1885, he was back in Lahore as assistant engineer. According to The Journal of Indian Engineering, he built the new High Court building on the Mall, and the Lahore Cathedral in 1887, and was asked by chief engineer Sir Aeneas Perkins to design and construct the Aitchison Chiefs’ College as special engineer in 1889. It was during his work on the College that he became known to Sir Zulfiqar Ali Khan and Sir Sundar Singh Majithia.
Ganga Ram worked on the courts and government offices of Lyallpur (Faisalabad), Sargodha and Sheikhupura, earning him the title of Rai Bahadur. After he had built the Chemistry Department building of the Government College, Principal A.S. Hemmy said: “Indeed, one might almost speak of a Ganga Ram period of architecture [in Lahore] of which the Government College Chemical Laboratory is an example.” Ganga Ram took out patents for a special slide-rule that he invented for calculating beams and trusses, and the design for special roofs and interlocking bricks.
Ganga Ram, as ex-officio municipal commissioner of Lahore, gave it the new water works and built his house Ganga Ram Niwas in Anarkali, which was then where the elite lived. His eldest daughter’s son, Aftab Rai was serving as the honorary secretary of the Sir Ganga Ram Trust in 1940 when B.P.L. Bedi wrote the first, and thus far only, biography of Ganga Ram. Bedi was flirting with communism and was living in a commune in Model Town at the time of the writing and was married to Englishwoman Freda Bedi, whose son Kabir Bedi was to become an Indian actor in the 1970s. The couple later turned to spiritualism, Freda dying in Delhi as a Buddhist ‘bhikshu,’ and Bedi dying in Italy as a clairvoyant.
Baroness Flather and Gangapur
Baroness Flather is the daughter Ganga Ram’s grandson, Aftab Rai. While visiting Lahore, she took time out to visit her father’s house under the Sherpao Bridge in Lahore. The entire areas under the bridge had once belonged to Aftab Rai, but now only the remnants of an ice-factory remain—a broken hoarding proclaims it as the Ganga Ice-Factory.
In 1900, when Ganga Ram had been in service for 27 years, Lord Curzon called him to Delhi to organize the Imperial Durbar for the accession of King Edward the Seventh. The Journal of Indian Engineering noted that Ganga Ram retired in 1903 prematurely from service after he was refused promotion by a bureaucracy jealous of his nearness to Lord Curzon.
The 20 squares or 3,000 acres of land that he received from the government in the newly settled Chenab colony—now Faisalabad—made a farmer out of Ganga Ram. Patiala state acquired his services for building the drainage system there. Not only did Ganga Ram complete this masterpiece of engineering skill, he also got involved in banking through the Mewar Bank which he ran for the state.
He built a large bungalow in what has since become Faisalabad, including a large dispensary for the benefit of locals. The new village that came up was complete with its central square and shops built with Ganga Ram’s patented rivet-bricks. It was named Gangapur. It was a vast estate with functional buildings where officers and workers could live. Gangapur still exists, its railway track intact, in today’s Lyallpur-Faisalabad, the city having spread far beyond it.
Utopia of innovation
Gangapur set the model for a new irrigation system in India. It won prizes regularly at the Lyallpur Agricultural Show for staple crops like wheat, cotton and rice, and vegetables grown with imported European and Chinese seeds. In 1907, a press report announced that “in the Agricultural Show held in Lyallpur, Sewak Ram, Barrister in Law, Zamindar, son of Rai Bahadur Ganga Ram, won no less than 11 prizes, and has stood first in the Chenab Colony.”
Citrus fruit was first introduced in the Colony by Ganga Ram after crossing malta and sangtra with khatti. In 1916, Gangapur was visited by the Imperial Economic Botanist from Pusa, and the estate also bred new strains of cattle based on the Jersey cow imported from Britain. Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab Sir Edward Maclagan visited Gangapur and commented: “Admirable hydraulic and agricultural work is being carried out in the Gangapur Estate—some 3,000 acres plus a temporarily leased area of 8,000 acres.”
Noting the highly mechanized way of sowing and reaping, he gave permission for the laying of a rail track connecting Lyallpur railway station with the estate. When Viceroy of India Lord Erwin visited Gangapur later in 1928 on the new train, he was taken aback by the level of excellence achieved in an area which had been dry land merely a decade earlier.
In 1917, The Journal of Indian Engineering took note of the Renala Hydro Electric Scheme set up by Ganga Ram on 40,000 acres leased to him by the government for seven years. The land was not irrigable by gravity and had to be lifted eight feet, for which Ganga Ram installed small turbines on the six feet fall of the Bari Doab Canal near the Renala Khurd railway station. When the governor opened the project in 1920, five turbines of the power houses commanded 80,000 acres or 125 square miles, along with 75 miles of irrigating channels, 626 miles of water-courses, 45 bridges, 640 culverts, and 565 miles of village roads. The wasteland of Montgomery (Sahiwal) was converted into rich revenue land.
Patron of widows
Ganga Ram said he wanted to make 3 million rupees before he died so that he could leave behind a large charity for the widows he had saved. He died in 1927; in 1922, he had made the 3 million he wanted. A year earlier, in 1921, there were 15,000 Hindu and Sikh widows under the age of five; and 279,124 between the ages of 10 and 15. Ganga Ram was convinced that his success was owed to the prayers of these widows.
That year, Ganga Ram offered Rs. 250,000 to the government if it would finance a Hindu Widows’ Home. Sir Edward Maclagan readily accepted the offer and received the building of the Home. In time, Ganga Ram spent more money and attached a Normal Industrial School and Hostel to it. This was followed by a Secondary Girls High School named after the governor’s wife, Lady Maclagan Girls High School, which still exists, in much worse condition, near MAO College. In 1924, he opened the Lady Maynard Industrial School for Hindu and Sikh Women and Girls near Do-Moria Bridge.
In 1923, Sir Ganga Ram Free Hospital was constructed on land that had been bought near Vachchowali (Queens Road) consisting of Kucha Sidhu Missar and Bazar Kanjar Phalla, from Lala Gulzari Lal for Rs. 56,560. The hospital contained a women’s wing, a dispensary, complete with various departments, and a Girls’ Hostel. The Medical College that came up on the site was named after Ganga Ram’s grandson, Aftab Rai. Today the college is called Fatima Jinnah Medical College.
Soon after, equipped with the experience of building the famous Benaras University for Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, he conceived a commerce college, bought the land for it near where the University Grounds are situated today, and constructed the institution. When he offered it to Governor Sir Malcolm Hailey, he readily accepted it. Thus Lahore’s first commerce college, Hailey College for Commerce, came into being.
Ganga Ram had been an examiner of mathematics in Punjab University as Fellow of the University. He had helped build the University when he was the city’s assistant engineer. As an old man of Lahore, his services were again sought. He built and endowed the Maynard Hall and Hailey Hall for the Punjab University. In 1925 he was also made governor of The Imperial Bank of India. His Trust acquired land from Dayal singh Trust on the Mall and constructed what is known today as the Ganga Ram Trust building.
In service of Sikhs
Not forgetting his old link with the Sikh faith, he endowed a pukka gurdwara at village Rampura on the Grand Trunk Road 12 miles from Lahore. In Lahore, he built the Sixth Guru’s Gurdwara at Amar Sidhu, near Lahore Cantonment and Model Town. Maclagan has recorded that Ganga Ram also built the Jalalpur Canal scheme for Pind Dadan Khan and Khushab. At the age of 73, he was appointed member of the Royal Agricultural Commission. In 1927, leaving for England to attend its meeting, he predicted that he would not return home alive.
He died at his London home with his son Rai Bahadur Sewak Ram at his side. His body was cremated and the ashes brought back to India, a portion of them consigned to Ganga River at Hardwar by Sewak Ram and another taken to Lahore and put in his samadhi by Balak Ram on the bank of the river Ravi near where he had built his Home of the Disabled as his last act of charity.
The Ganga Ram clan
In 1947, the sons of Ganga Ram and their families moved to India. His great grand-daughter Shreela was born in Lahore but educated in India. She went to England in the 1950s and did her LLB from University College London and was called to the Bar from the Inner Temple. She became Justice of Peace in 1971 and was elected Conservative councilor from the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead in 1976. In 1990, Margaret Thatcher made her the first Asian member of the House of Lords, which also made her the first Asian woman ever to become a member of the British parliament.
Baroness Shreela Flather (she eventually married lawyer Gary Flather) was frequently in Lahore to get the Punjab government’s support for her latest projects: for instance, commemoration of South Asians who fell in the two World Wars. The Queen had already given her land in London for a memorial. She was received by the chief minister and the governor in Lahore who listened to her plans for setting up memorials for the war dead.
Going back to Ganga Ram, one has to note that his charity for women left the Muslim women out because Muslim women were not subject to the hardship of widow customs. But his educational charities were open to Muslim women, too. His energies were directed to public works because engineering did not inspire the historian in him like his predecessor executive engineer Rai Bahadur Kanhaya Lal, a ‘kaesth’ Hindu who wrote the history of Lahore and Punjab. Executive engineer Abdul Latif, who followed, also became a historian of Lahore and Punjab.
Ganga Ram, a ‘vaish’ Hindu, was pragmatic to the core. He thought that the people of India needed social uplift and public service, not ‘swaraj’. His bitter quarrel with Motilal Nehru and not so bitter quarrel with Gandhi (because the latter did not write back a cutting rejoinder) sprang from the realization that politicians were not serving the masses but promising to give them independence they had little use for. Today, after so many decades, Indian politicians need to meditate over this while a big part of the population of India continues to live below the poverty line.