Sir Ganga Ram – A genius with a heart of gold


A many-splendored genius

In our region, nobody has done better for the Punjab, Lahore, as it stands today than Sir Ganga Ram. Most people know him by reference to the hospital founded and named after him without knowing that it is only a small fraction of his total contributions. Perhaps calling him the Father of Modern Lahore would be a more appropriate appellation. For his unparalleled services to make Lahore what it looks like today, he has the singular honour of being its architect which was recognised even by our former colonial masters.

Born in 1851 to parents in extreme poverty, he managed to seek admission in newly built Government College Lahore, and pursued his studies living in a thatched quarter in Sutar Mandi as he could not afford to live in the hostel. Being brilliant and hardworking, he won many scholarships which paid for his education. Having an amazing proficiency in mathematics, he later became the first Indian to obtain a degree in civil engineering from Thomason Engineering College, Roorkee (built by the British to train their own engineers) and joined Public Works Department as Assistant Engineer in Lahore. Then nobody knew that this young man was destined to become not only the architect of modern Lahore, but also the greatest benefactor of the soil of Punjab as a most revolutionary agriculturist of all time.

Few people know that when in 1851, Col. Napier had designed the Mall linking Anarkali to Mian Mir, except for the Government House and half a dozen bungalows there were open spaces and fields on both sides of the Mall. There were no buildings between the Charing Cross and Hall Road crossing. All around the walled city there were clusters of barracks, tombs and mosques irregularly scattered all around, and the entire city had turned into a mound of centuries old dirt filth and sullage owing to lack of a system of drainage and sewerage. In such a situation, Sir Ganga Ram took upon himself the task of planning designing and restructuring the entire city.

During the course of his stay in Lahore as acivil engineer, the list of buildings and structures which he designed and built is incredibly long. Among them include the General Post Office, The Lahore Museum, The Lahore High court, Aitchison College, The Punjab Library, The Mayo School of Arts (now the National College of Arts), Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, Lady Maclagan Girls High School ( now the prestigious Lady Maclagan College for training of lady teachers ), the chemistry department of the Government College University, the Albert Victor wing of Mayo Hospital, Sir Ganga Ram High School (later renamed as Lahore College for Women), the Hailey College of Commerce, The Fountain House, the Ganga Ram Trust Building on The Mall and Lady Maynard Industrial School.

The Lahore of today owes so much to Sir Ganga Ram than it would care to admit

He also conducted the town planning of housing schemes such as Model Town society and Gulberg town, which have sprawled over the decades.

Sir Ganga Ram had spent two years at the Bradford Training Institute in Britain from where he learnt new techniques of water supply works and sewerage system. Six wells were sunk in the river Ravi from where water was lifted by pumps into a service reservoir placed in such a height that every part of the city and suburbs could be supplied with water. Several iron tanks (each capable of holding 258,750 gallons of water) were linked by means of iron pipes. This water supply system through pumps reservoirs and iron pipes introduced in Lahore was unique all over British India.

Besides engineering, Sir Ganga Ram was one of the most progressive agriculturists who thought a hundred years ahead of his time. He obtained on lease from government 50,000 acres of barren land in Montgomery district, and within three years converted it into fields through a robust irrigation process. This was the biggest private enterprise of its kind, unknown and unthought-of anywhere in the region before. Sir Ganga Ram earned millions most of which was given to charity. In the words of Sir Malcolm Hailey, the Governor of Punjab, “He won like a hero and gave like a Saint”. He was a great engineer and a great philanthropist. He built the powerhouse at Renala Khurd as well as the railway track between Pathankot and Amritsar.

His installation of hydro-electric station at Renala Khurd and the transmission lines both up-stream and down-stream turned the entire region into an extremely productive area. The present Mitchell Farms are a living proof of Sir Ganga Ram’s innovatory application of engineering knowledge to irrigation and agriculture. The viceroy and the governor appreciated his contribution to the material wealth of the province, and in 1922 he was knighted by King George V in London.

Beside his great engineering feats in construction and agriculture, he was a great philanthropist. To resolve the sad plight of widows, their remarriages and rehabilitation, he established 456 centres all over India. In Lahore, he allocated his precious land close to the secretariat and built a big mansion known as The Fountain House for the widows providing a capacity of 200 residents. Later this centre was used for the rehabilitation of mentally ill patients which is still running successfully. The memorial stone of the Fountain House read, “Gift of one who feels for widows”.

He died in London on July 10, 1927. His body was cremated, and his ashes were brought back to India. As per his will, portion of the ashes were consigned to Ganga River and the rest were buried in Lahore on the bank of the Ravi, where his Samadi is located.

The Lahore of today owes so much to Sir Ganga Ram than it would care to admit. The history and architecture of Lahore cannot be separated from him, who was one of the most respectable names when it comes to the beautification or welfare services in Lahore. The architecture of Lahore is remembered and mentioned in books as the ‘Ganga Ram period of architecture’

And finally, a word about our own debt to such a great genius and what we have done to remember him and letting our posterity to know what a man he was and what he did for our land and culture. Perhaps behind the ideological mask, we have refused to acknowledge facts about great men we don’t want to remember on purely religious grounds. It’s a negation of history and an abominable crime against knowledge and humanity.

The hatred and religious bigotry we have unfortunately inherited through our communal past have blinded us to see reason and reality which is clearly against the teachings of our religion. The Holy Quran says: “Those who believe, and do deeds of righteousness, and give regular charity, will have their reward with their Lord.” (2:277)

And Sir Ganga Ram gave in charity his entire wealth for projects of public welfare, for widows, for the poor, for the ailing and for the destitute. Sir Ganga Ram’s Samadi on the banks of Ravi, and the house he lived in (inside Taxali gate) should be duly renovated and declared as our national heritage.

By Zafar Aziz Chaudhry

The writer is a former member of provincial civil services and author of a book called ‘Moments in Silence’