Khanewal: Sweet waters

Updated October 09, 2013


For whom the bell tolls

The 16th day of April in 1853 is special in the Indian history. The day was a public holiday. At 3:30 pm, as the 21 guns roared together, the first train carrying Lady Falkland, wife of Governor of Bombay, along with 400 special invitees, steamed off from Bombay to Thane.

Ever since the engine rolled off the tracks, there have been new dimensions to the distances, relations and emotions. Abaseen Express, Khyber Mail and Calcutta Mail were not just the names of the trains but the experiences of hearts and souls. Now that we live in the days of burnt and non functional trains, I still have a few pleasant memories associated with train travels. These memoirs are the dialogues I had with myself while sitting by the windows or standing at the door as the train moved on. In the era of Cloud and Wi-Fi communications, I hope you will like them.

Off from Makhdoom Pur, the train reaches Khanewal via Mian Shameer. The city is made up of a junction, a janglay wali kothi and many memories. The station is the second largest junction in Pakistan and the kothi is the first iconic building of the city, while the memories take the character of neighbouring sand dunes, shifting locations with the winds of time.

Located in Civil Lines, the janglay wali kothi has a history of its own. It was 1906 when Sir William Roberts, an officer in the Indian Agricultural Services arrived here in Khanewal. After a few years, he founded the Roberts Cotton Association and started work on the janglay wali kothi. The bungalow soon made news in the otherwise sleepy town of Khanewal because of its unique wooden fence and expanse. In 1946, the officer’s son, Thomas Johns Roberts, came to what at the time was India to look after the ancestral enterprise. Once he was here, Thomas was so absorbed in the wildlife landscape of Pakistan that he decided to stay on.

After 1947, he set up the foundation of the Wildlife Federation and helped to establish it. His book, The Birds of Pakistan remains a masterpiece on the subject of Ornithology. With all the Roberts now gone home, the Roberts Cotton Association still functions through its office on Chak Shahana Road. The memory of bygone days is lived occasionally by Mr Forgetti, the faithful son of Roberts, and the century old Arjun trees planted by the senior Roberts.

Khanewal was developed in the textbook manifestation of Anandi, a short story by Ghulam Abbas. Around 150 years ago, a small village, Kuhna Khanewal, stood at the site. In 1865, the first rail whistled in and the station was built around the same year. At this time, only an old inn connected the railway with the city; the remnants of that inn can still be seen to the north of the station.

With the arrival of the railway, the city woke up to modernity. The awareness that followed in the next seven years led to the setting up of the first primary school. On the turn of the 19th century, residents of Khanewal had succumbed to the idea that there remained little to be amazed at. Time, however, refused to slow down on the pretext of age. The year of 1904 saw two inaugurations — a railway colony for stationed officers and a rest house for visitors (since inspection was the favourite past-time of the Raj). Another four years and the Lower Bari Doab Canal flowed in. The offices of LBDC, until late last century, were furnished with the same tables on which the first plan of Khanewal city was drafted. The scheme followed the usual pattern of British town planning, where the railway line cuts a city into two halves and divorces the urban life of clubs, courts, church and the officers’ quarters from the natives and the civilities of old city.

In 1911, the village was upgraded to town and the next year saw the opening of the first ever hospital in the city. With settlers pouring in, the numbered villages started filling up and in the next five years Khanewal was declared a tehsil. Come 1921, and an Anglo-Indian vernacular high school was opened in the city, followed by the Khalsa High School. With so much activity going on, how could the money lenders rest and so the Central Cooperative Bank opened its branch in the city in 1926.

While the city attracted settlers, it took up its typical British cosmos of peaceful co-existence. The Khanewal of 1925 had the Sanatan Dharam Mandir in Block 6, the Markazi Jamia Mosque in Block 11 and the Gurudwara Sangh Saba along with the Nanak Library in Block 4. In 1935, the new constitutional reforms affected Khanewal no more than the construction of a new ghat, known as the Garbett ghat. After two years, one God fearing Bhoja Ram commissioned an inn named after himself — “Sarai Bhoja Ram”. The act also motivated others and a Kutiya Ghar was also built for sadhus, or ascetics, facing the famous janglay wali kothi. The city had two Shamshaan ghats, or crematoriums, but with the expansion in population, the concept of unclaimed corpses also surfaced so a mortuary was also built in Kot Beerbal.

As of now, there are traces of the Arya Samaj Mandir in Block 2 and the Dharam Shala of Lakar Mandi. The place which once used to be a gurdwara, now houses the dingy workshops of fireworks manufacturers. The yellow of faith has been endorsed by the sulphuric pale. The property mafia has gradually reduced the Garbett ghat to non-existence and offers of dietary preferences have left no room for the humble inns. Sadhus have long abandoned the Kutiya, however, its wooden façades seem awestruck with the commercial activity that goes around it. The Shamshan ghats are now the site for children playing cricket and with shrinking spaces, the room for the dead has flatly declined with the mortuary being shifted to a hospital.

Due to the land’s fertility, the place was home to cotton and wheat. Wheat was stored in city godowns and cotton was ginned in the neighbouring factories. Few of the godwons were huge enough to have railway carriages shunting in for cargo. After 1947, however, the situation changed. The promise of independence was soon confronted with the Thank You tag that hung with camels bringing in imported wheat; not to forget the railway tracks that were uprooted and sold away.

Khanewal is surrounded by villages, such as Hanumangarh and Sardarpur and where people lived with an unpartitioned heart, before partition.

In 1974, Harish, a Canadian Indian visited Khanewal. He inquired the locals about the temples that existed there but did not get any definitive answer. Before partition, his mother had pledged that if she were blessed with a son, she would send him to Sardarpur before his wedding. There was a whisper though that this would not be possible, but nobody took notice.

So the young man was here and after looking around a lot, he went to Sardarpur where no traces of the temple could be found. He was then taken to Sarai Sidhu and Makhdoom Pur but to no avail. Throughout his endeavor, Harish was hosted by Chaudhary Ashraf Bandesha, a settler who had come from Amritsar before partition and throughout his stay, the Bandesha family strictly stayed vegetarian and Harish’s food was cooked by the dadi (grandmother).

On the day of his departure, Chauhdry Ashraf asked him how he felt and Harish replied: “I have learnt that my mom was right when she said that even the water of Khanewal tastes like ghee”.

To be continued...

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