My destiny seems to have been foreordained by two events in the 1800’s in India under the Colonial rule. First was the 1857 Indian Mutiny (’Jang-e-Azadi’), and the second was the development of the irrigation infrastructure in British India.
Its an honor for me to write about the early history of the Punjab irrigation system which later became the part of the world largest irrigation system in Pakistan. One of my forefathers significantly contributed towards its building.
My great great grandfather, then known as Abdul Haq, was born and raised in a small village called Hussainpur, about 80 miles north of New Delhi. He received some early education through mosque schooling. He was a care-free young man during his teens and was particularly fond of hunting as he was able to get hold of a gun that was his prized possession. He was considered a sharp shooter in taking aim at a fast flying bird and bring it down.
Then came the 1857 uprising, which lasted for over 2 years. Hussainpur was much too close to the epicenter of the rebellion and the immediate fallout of the events was huge. The family decided to send him away to stay with a relative who was a government employee. According to the family tradition, he encouraged Haq Saheb to take the pledge a baith (commitment) with his Pir Saheb (a title for a Sufi master or spiritual guide). In those days having a baith with Pir Saheb was considered a pious and honored deed. The Pir Saheb took him under his supervision for couple of years where Haq served him and learned the basic teachings of sufism. Pir Saheb teachings started influencing him in positive ways that helped him turn his life around.
When Pir Saheb was satisfied with his progress and learning, he sent him back to the relative who was working in the survey department. The relative was able to place him in the irrigation department with a surveyor where he quickly learned the basic skills of leveling in survey due to his innate ability of taking aim at the target, and went back to the Pir Saheb for his further advice. He stayed there for some time and finally Pir Saheb appointed him his Naib (who can teach others) and told him to go to some far-away place, and never to come back again.
So Haq Saheb left his family and joined the irrigation department as a surveyor and served in various places before moving, in 1860's, to Lyallpur now known as Faisalabad, in Punjab.
The Indo-Pak subcontinent had historically been vulnerable to famines which seem to have occurred every 40 years during the Mughal regime. The early focus of the English irrigation development effort was in the eastern and northern area of India. These areas grew poppy and opium which were exported to China for huge profits. A bit later, the irrigation development was extended to the southern areas which were ideal for tea plantations. As the population growth trended upward, the occurrence of the famines became more frequent. Millions perished during the famines and the impact on the East India Company’s earnings and its stock prices was enormous. To avoid such losses the development of a vast irrigation system had gotten under way by mid-1800’s and was accelerated after yet another famine in the 1870’s. This is when the development of irrigation in the northwestern part of India, including Punjab, picked up momentum.
The irrigation canals project was first planned for an area close to and around Faisalabd. This is where Abdul Haq Saheb got a chance to hone up his skills. He had worked hard to learn all he could and became very good at surveying and leveling. In the Punjab area, the first canal to be built was the Lower Chenab Canal originating from the Khanki Headworks on River Chenab in Gujrat District. It is a major canal system with 3 distributary branches coming out and known as the Jhang Branch, the Rakh Branch and the Gugera Branch Canal. The entire system irrigates about 3 million acres acres of land in the districts of Faisalabad, Jhang and Toba Tek Singh.
The development of the irrigation system in the area was under the supervision of Colonel John Walter Ottley, R E (Royal Engineer) who was the Engineer-in-Chief (see note below). The development and construction of these works required extensive topographical surveying. This is where my great great grandfather went to work and contributed to the construction of this historical canal.
The technology used in surveying was pretty much the same as we learnt in our first year in NED. They used a tripod-mounted line level (aka dumpy level) and a surveying rod. Abdul Haq Saheb’s ability to quickly and accurately calculate the distances and angles needed and lay out the required coordinates and elevations earned him a reputation. His work was much appreciated by Colonel John Ottley, the Engineer-in-Chief who would say that Haq Saheb "was the best leveller I have ever seen". Abdul Haq Saheb and the Colonel developed a relationship. The friendship evolved and my great great grandfather was often invited to the Ottley home where Lady Ottley also enjoyed conversations with Abdul Haq Saheb.
The construction of the Lower Chenab Canal was completed around 1892. Both Colonel Ottley and Abdul Haq Saheb continued their work on the irrigation system. Later, Colonel Ottley returned to England and received several recognitions for his services to the Empire, including a knighthood. Abdul Haq Saheb also retired after a long career. He had received a large land grant from the Government in recognition of his services but declined it saying that he had two sons and a daughter, and his elder son was away in Dehli practicing hikmat, and therefore he did not need this land. Baba Saheb lived a very simple life and believed that one should not accumulate assets where Haj become Farz (obligatory or compulsory) on them. This refusal of land grant was so unusual that people started calling him ‘Baba’ as a mark of respect. The village where he settled down became known as 'Babewala’. After he passed away, some of his descendants did receive 10 murabbas as a recognition for his services.
Late Azharul Haq, the youngest grandson of Baba Saheb, was a source of several of the stories about Abdul Haq Saheb. I remember some of the stories told by him. After taking the baith with Pir Saheb his life changed so much that once during a hunting trip he shot a deer. When he saw that the deer shot was a female and a mother to a little fawn, it affected him so much that he gave up hunting for good. The surveying job of the Chenab Canal brought the best out of him as his surveying team faced extremely harsh field conditions due to natural hazards, lack of facilities and limited means of communication in remote areas. Horses and horse-drawn carriages were used as main source of transportation. The survey terrain was difficult and covered with wooded patches of land with all kind of wild and thorny organic growth besides dangerous animals and hordes of mosquitoes, insects, scorpions, snakes etc. Most of the area was uncultivated, uninhabited and working conditions became very difficult during monsoon rains. There used to be frequent sand storms and camping used to become extremely hazardous. However, surveying team under the leadership of Baba Saheb did a remarkable job of completing the survey of the canal which stretches over 300 km. In recognition of his services Baba Saheb name was engraved at the Khanki Head with other contributors but it was destroyed after major damage to the Head due to several heavy floods over the years.
During Baba Saheb's professional career his friendship with the Ottleys had continued to develop over the many long years they worked on the project. They used to visit Baba Saheb in Babewala. Lady Ottley had grown so fond of Baba Saheb's long, soft and white beard that she would sometimes playfully run her fingers through it.
During those days, the pious buzurgs or sufis (elderly wise men) would often be consulted for treatment of miscellaneous ailments, and accordingly the local villagers would often seek treatment from Baba Saheb. He would prescribe them patli massor ki daal (red lentil soup) with roti and would give them a taweez and they would recover.
His elder son Hakeem Mazharul Haq (see picture on the right) practiced hikmat in New Delhi, was a contemporary of the famous Hakeem Ajmal Khan as the two had worked together in Delhi. Tragically, Hakeem Mazharul Haq died at a young age of 35. This came as a blow to Baba Saheb who grieved for his son immensely and himself passed away a year later.
Baba Saheb had left his immediate family back in Hussainpur right after 1857 and never returned. Not much is known about the family and relatives in Hussainpur, India.
In later years, Baba Saheb’s vision declined eventually causing a significant loss of eyesight. He and Colonel Sir John Walter Ottley remained in touch via letters. One such letter from Colonel Ottley, dated September 4, 1914 has survived. Images of the first and the last pages are below:
Baba Saheb passed away in December, 1914. He is buried in the Babewala family graveyard.
A few decades after Baba Saheb passed away, I was born and lived in my ancestral village Babewala Village which, as mentioned above, had been named after my great great grandfather, Baba Abdul Haq. As I completed my F.Sc., I was admitted in the Departmrnt of Mining Engineering to study mining in the University of Engineering and Technology, Lahore. But for generations, the family had wanted someone to follow in Baba Saheb’s footsteps. So I opted to study Civil Engineering at NED. When I finished at NED, the family was very proud of my accomplishment. The above-mentioned letter from Colonel Ottley to Baba Saheb was in the possession of one of the relatives. As I finished NED, the letter was handed to me and it remains in my possession here in Florida where I now reside.