A city under water

Amnah Shaukat visits the inundated remains of old Mirpur – assessing what was lost to create the Mangla dam

A city under water

“Nothing is ever really lost to us as long as we remember it.”

(L.M. Montgomery)

It’s the month of January. The water level in Mangla Dam has lowered greaty in the past two months. As the water level falls, the remnants of an old city become more visible.

What happened to that city, I wondered. Why doesn’t it exist anymore? The places of the city, its streets and its buildings: where are they? Why was it demolished? I wanted to know the history of Mangla and the city submerged in it.

On inquiring from my father I came to know that the dam is actually named after Mangla Devi, the daughter of King Porus. The Mangla Dam was constructed on top of settlements.

The old city was evacuated, its residents were moved to another place now called “New Mirpur City” and then the place was flooded entirely to create Mangla Dam. Seeing my interest, my father referred me to his friend. He had conducted 5 years of research on the old remnants of Mirpur city submerged under the dam.

A holy shrine in old Mirpur city, visible only in March and April. Image credits –  Mohammad Syed Asad

I went to his house, where he had built a small library that was entirely dedicated to old Mirpur city. He told her that the old city was very rich in culture and tradition and was especially known for its religious harmony Hindus have been living here with Muslims in complete peace until Partition changed everything in 1947.

After the Partition of the Indo-Pak subcontinent in 1947, the existing irrigation system was divided between the two countries without an understanding of the actual irrigation requirements. This irrational approach gave rise to a water dispute between the two countries right from the beginning: one which persisted for quite some time. The dispute was finally resolved when the Indus Water Treaty was signed in 1960 whereby rights over three eastern rivers – i.e. Sutlej, Beas and Ravi – were assigned to India and three western rivers – i.e. Chenab, Jhelum and Indus – were allocated to Pakistan .The agreement provided a provision for construction of replacement works called ‘Indus basin projects’ comprising of two dams (Tarbela and Mangla), five barrages and eight link canals. And so, Mangla dam was constructed on the river Jhelum in 1967.

Map of the Mangla Dam

Besides providing timely irrigation supplies to agriculture, Mangla dam was constructed primarily as the backbone of the natural economy and a replacement for the depleted eastern river flows. The indirect benefits through enhanced agricultural output and increased industrial production utilising electricity generated at Mangla Power House can hardly be measured in tangible terms.

But to achieve all this, the water that was released in 1967 submerged the whole of Old Mirpur city and 260 villages.

The remains of old Mirpur are now under the waters of the Mangla Lake.

During the colder months of January, February and March, the water level recedes to such an extent that one can travel on old Mirpur road – which still exists – and thus visit some of the old sites.

The holy shrines of Syed Abdul Karim and Meeran Shah Ghazi become visible and so do the remnants of a Sikh Gurdwara as well as a Hindu Mandir possibly dedicated to Mangla Mata (Mangla mother goddess). The submerged remains of old Mirpur present the silhouette of a pre-Partition city when many faiths co-existed side by side.
The submerged remains of old Mirpur present the silhouette of a pre-Partition city when many faiths
co-existed side by side

“Our cultural heritage was eroded in the construction of Mangla Dam. It resulted in a massive eviction of people and the demolition of urban areas” Najib Afsar tells me. It posed something of a residential crisis in the region. “And even until now we are not settled” Afsar adds.

As water levels recede, the remains of old houses, water wells and graveyards reappear too. People from surrounding areas visit old Mirpur during these months to pay homage to the ancient land that they lived on. They say some prayers for their loved ones as they visit graveyards.

“The place where I am sitting and talking to you was the porch of my house .Every year I visit this place when the water level recedes. And I cannot forget that time when we used to play here. I miss my old city were so many memories lie – which I can never forget” says Chaudary Adalat Khan.

Other former residents remember the livelihoods lost in the creation of economic opportunities for the rest of the country.

This graveyard is inundated for most of the year. Image credits – Amnah Shaukat

“The land on which I am working belongs to my parents. And now this place is under water. Before the construction of the dam we used to work on these fields and they were a source of income for our family. Now in the new city it’s difficult for us to meet our expenditures because our only source of earning, this land, is under water. So we wait for the month of March or April for the water levels to drop” explains Chaudhary Abdul Rehman.

Residents continue to raise questions about a process that took place decades ago. Couldn’t the old city and its cultural heritage be preserved? Can compensatory packages make up for the personal losses that its residents suffered, i.e. losing their land, homes and ancestors’ graves? Can anything replace the cultural heritage lost in this process?

These questions remain unanswered.