Boat Bridges and River Crossings in Northern Punjab - II

Major General Syed Ali Hamid explains how armies faced a major logistical challenge through the ages: crossing Punjab’s rivers

Boat Bridges and River Crossings in Northern Punjab - II
Like they did with the other rivers of northern India, successive governments and armies also bridged the Jhelum with boats. According to one of the early Gazetteers of Jhelum District, the river formed a single broad channel during summers and two narrower ones in winter. Like on other rivers, the boat-bridge had to be removed when the flow became quicker in April and re-installed sometime in October. The common flat-bottomed river craft were used on 13 ferries that existed on the river passing through the district. During very severe monsoon floods, even the ferries had to be suspended and travelers had to wait days on end.

When a boat bridge was not available, the River Jhelum had to be forded with great care even during the dry season. Currents in places would be fast and the water very cold. When part of the Army of the Indus was returning from Afghanistan in December 1840, 16th Lancers started fording the river close to the town. A reconnaissance team had reported that the depth of water was chest high and not too deep for cavalry to ford. Stakes had been driven to mark the direction of the ford and the adjutant had ridden across, and back announcing it to be practicable. The regiment entered the ford in threes but near the center, the sight of the stakes was lost because a convoy of camels were crossing simultaneously. The leading riders tried to pass from the right and ran into deep and fast flowing water. The Dragoons were in full marching order and their horses were carrying a lot of weight. To their alarm, the observers on the far bank saw horse after horse with their riders disappear and suddenly rise again. Giving the horses their head, many riders managed to reach the shore. Boats were dispatched to assist those who were in serious trouble but could not arrive in time and an officer, a corporal and nine privates and their horses drowned. The remainder of the regiment averted the danger by taking another ford upstream.

Bridge of boats over the Jumna at Delhi, circa 1858. Note the broad flat-bottomed boats for assembling the bridge,
the mud and grass used for

When the British Army of Bengal under General Sir Hugh Gough was pursuing the remnants of the Sikh Army northwards after the battle of Gujrat in 1849, they found the river Jhelum in an unseasonal flood in February. With the tragedy that had befallen 16th Lancers only nine years previously still in their minds, the British were much more careful. A crossing site was selected some 13 km upstream near the fort of Mangla, where the river divided into five parallel streams. The main stream was only 100 meters wide but was flowing with great velocity as the waters exited the mountains. To maintain the momentum of the pursuit the cavalry and infantry forded across but with great care and after a great deal of “bandobast” for safety. However, the guns and stores waited for a boat bridge which was constructed with great difficulty over the largest of the streams.

Unlike the Jhelum, the Chenab was very wide. In fact, it was the widest and most tortuos river of the Punjab. It rises in the Himalayas, and reaches Wazirabad after a course of about 1,120 km and then before the channels were trained it wandered unchecked through the plain. During the winter the river was contained in a main channel about 450 meters wide and 3-5 meters deep. However, during floods, it rose 3 meters above the low-water mark, and its width increased up to 5 km. Moving at a rate exceeding 10 knots, the depth of the main current was 15 meters.

Attock Bridge over the Indus, 1895

In the first half of the 1850s, when the GT road was extended towards Jhelum, a massive embankment raised above flood-level was constructed to carry the road as far as possible across the river bed. The rest of the way it ran over boat bridges on the varying channels, connected by temporary roads of timber and fascines laid on the sandbanks. These bridges and roads lasted, though with constant interruptions, for about eight months in the year. During the remaining four months, a ferry was established, which frequently necessitated a day’s voyage in order to go from shore to shore. During high floods the ferry was suspended altogether. After the completion of the Alexandra Railway Bridge over the Chenab, around 1880, the boat bridge was replaced by a steamer ferry to transport road traffic.

Before this alignment of the GT Road, the Chenab could be crossed at many locations between Sodhra and Rasoolnagar. While other fords constantly shifted, the ones opposite Sodhra and another at Ramnagar were constant. Sodhra or Sohdra is located 5 km above Wazirabad and is a place of some antiquity, with the town having been founded during the period of Mahmud of Ghazni. The Gazetteer of Gujrat states that part of the River Chenab which divides the District of Gujrat from Gujranwala was known to Muslim historians as the Sudhara.

Channels of the River Chenab at Wazirabad after the construction of the Alexandra Road-Rail in 1876

During most of his campaigns into Punjab, Ahmed Shah Durrani crossed the Chenab at Sodhra without any incident. However, in December 1764, while hastening back to quell an insurrection in Afghanistan, he was informed that it was easier to ford the river upstream where it was divided into eight channels. He made the mistake of crossing upstream closer to the hills. It was quite a bad mistake. The army moved to that point and crossed six of the eight channels. However, the remaining two were very deep, swift and violent – and were overflowing. When the army and the baggage entered into these streams, the strong currents carried away many laden camels and saddled horses and innumerable donkeys, bullocks, buffaloes, tents and treasures, as well as 1,000 men and women. It is surprising that Durrani took this risk because 25 years earlier, in 1739, his previous mentor Nader Shah had attempted to cross the Chenab near Akhnur over a bridge of boats in the month of June. Though the boats were anchored with steel chains, the bridge broke due to a sudden inflow of water, leading to the death of 2,000 soldiers.

Like Sodhra, Rasoolnagar, which during the Sikh era was called Ramnagar, is also a place of some antiquity. British troops made frequent use of the fords at Rasoolnagar and after the accident on the Jhelum in December 1840, the Army of the Indus used this ford to cross the Chenab. To arrive at the main channel, the troops had to cross over heavy sand for 2 km, at the end of which there were four channels 1.5 meters deep with water on the rise. The Ghat on the main channel was good, with low banks and there were 14 large and some smaller boats that the British used for ferrying. After their losses on the Jhelum, 16th Lancers and the rest of the cavalry was extra careful. The baggage, was sent across during the afternoon, and the main body crossed the river next morning. The troopers with their saddles, etc. were sent by the ferry and the horses unencumbered by any weight and in the charge of the syces forded across. Similarly, the Artillery horses were sent by the ford and the men, guns, harnesses and saddles by the ferry.
When the Durrani army and its baggage entered into these streams, the strong currents carried away many laden camels and saddled horses and innumerable donkeys, bullocks, buffaloes, tents and treasures – as well as 1,000 men and women

It was on the banks of the Chenab in the vicinity of Rasoolnagar that the army of Lord Gogh was first confronted by the troops of Sher Singh in December 1848. During this period, the river was 200 meters broad and flowed in two main channels with an island in between. One channel was 4.5 meters deep and the second 3 meters. As summer approached, the crossing became difficult. Around the same period, a British traveler coming from the direction of Pind Dadan Khan in May, had to cross several deep channels before he could board the ferry. The river was very wide and it took him four hours to get across.

During the Anglo-Sikh Wars, the British found that the quality of boats on the ferries was weak. Therefore, after they annexed the Punjab, a program was initiated to build an efficient fleet of boats to bridge the rivers in winter and serve as ferries in the rainy season with adequate mooring chains and anchors. Fortunately for the British, most of the boat bridges had been opened for traffic a year before the revolt of 1857.

After 1857, an effort was made to shorten the river crossing with embankments, fascines and metaled roads. The annual cost of maintaining these bridges amounted to Rs. 200,000 but not all the boats used in the bridges belonged to the government. While all the 31 boats at the 370 meter bridge on the Ravi at Shahdara belonged to the government, at the 770 meters bridge at Wazirabad on the Chenab, 33 were of the government and 24 were private. The relatively shorter bridge on the Jhelum of 300 meters had only 6 boats of the government while 23 were owned privately. On the 400 meter crossing of the Indus at Attock, except for two boats, all the rest of the 38 were owned by the government. The bridge at Shahdara was the only one that remained during the monsoons. All the others were dismantled and the boats used as ferries.

As the network of road and rail bridges spread through the Punjab and into the northwest frontier of British India, the boat bridges and ferries became redundant. In 1884 the road/rail bridge at Attock was completed and the boat bridge was discontinued. The same year the ones along the GT over the Jhelum and Chenab were also discontinued and ferry trains substituted in their place. But at other locations boat bridges continued to be erected during the dry season. I remember during the 1950s/60s, it was such a treat to drive over one on the River Kabul near Nowshera and hear the rattle of the planks as the car passed over.