With Pakistan’s rivers dying, are its ancient cities running out of time?

The mighty rivers of Punjab are the reason why civilisation exists — and has for thousands of years — in this region.
Published August 10, 2018

When I was a child, during every monsoon, the Chenab — the river of love — would break free from its banks and flood agricultural fields around it.

While crossing a bridge spanning the river in Punjab, I remember feeling a strange sense of helplessness to see water as far as the eye could see. It was hard to tell where the river ended and the flooding began.

The floodwater used to be spread over kilometres, destroying everything in its wake, but also leaving behind it seeds of life — fertile soil — as the water receded.

Now as I pass over the same bridge, the mighty river of the past flows meekly under the bridge. Its banks are at least a couple of kilometres wide. Long gone are the days when it would break out of its confines and occupy a greater expanse of land.

With ample rain, the river just about manages to fill its banks.

Pakistan’s river cities

Environmentalists have been talking about Pakistan’s shrinking rivers for many years now. All of Pakistan’s major rivers, including the Indus, enter the country from India.

Many nationalists claim dam building projects across the border limits the flow of water into Pakistan. This narrative gained further credibility when in November 2016, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi threatened to cut the supply of water flowing into Pakistan from India.

The Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 divided the shared river network between India and Pakistan. While India was given rights over water from the Beas, Sutle, and Ravi rivers, Pakistan gained rights over the Chenab, Jhelum and Indus.

Explainer: What is the Kishanganga water dispute

Soon after this treaty was signed, the Beas and Sutlej, which once flowed into Pakistan, disappeared. Their dried beds, which survived for a few years, were taken over by the ever-increasing population.

The Sutlej has given birth to several cities that have survived decades, centuries and even millennia in some cases.

For example, just where the Sutlej enters Pakistan is the historical city of Kasur, the city of the Mughal-era Punjabi Islamic philosopher and Sufi poet Bulleh Shah.

According to legend, the city was founded by Kush, the twin brother of Lav, who founded the city of Lahore. In Hindu mythology, they are the children of Ram and Sita.

Historical records suggest that Kasur was established in the 16th century by Afghan migrants who came with the forces of Babur the Mughal.

A little further south is the city of Kanganpur, named after a mythological Hindu princess, Kangna. Her father, the king of this region, was defeated by the forces of Arab general Muhammad Bin Qasim.

According to legend, Kangna’s brother, Maha Chawar, was taken back to Arabia by Qasim when the defeated king could not pay a war indemnity. The young man converted to Islam there.

Beas River: Where troops of Alexander mutinied

When Maha Chawar returned home, his new religion was unacceptable to his father. The king and his advisors subsequently planned to murder him.

But Kangna found out about the plan, warned her brother and fled with him along the flow of the river. The king’s men intercepted the princess and the prince close to a village called Mandi Borewala, where they were murdered. A shrine to commemorate the early martyrs of Islam came up here later.

Along the way, on the disappeared bed of the Sutlej river is the city of Pakpattan, which sprung up around the shrine of Baba Farid Shakarganj.

The city’s name — meaning a “sacred ford” — is derived from the river. Born out of this lost river of Punjab, the city continues to grow as the shrine of the 12th century Sufi saint is a major attraction.

The Ravi and Lahore

West of the Sutlej is the Ravi, which enters Pakistan close to Kartarpur Sahib, the final resting place of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism.

Here, Guru Nanak tended to his agricultural fields for 17 years. Locals still believe that the Ravi floods its banks every few years to pay homage to the shrine of Guru Nanak.

Ravi also gave birth to Lahore, the second largest city of Pakistan. Once known as the city of gardens — laid out by numerous Mughal kings, queens, princes and princesses — Lahore became the centre of power for Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839) as he laid the foundation of the Khalsa Empire.

Related: The river Ravi has run dry in Lahore but this monument stands as a reminder of its Mughal past

Under the colonial regime it became the symbol of the empire. It still is Pakistan’s most important political centre.

About 200km from Lahore are the remains of Harappa, one of the most important cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation. While another city, Mohenjodaro, came up around the fertile lands of the Indus river, it was Ravi that gave birth to Harappa.

Without these rivers, there never would have been an Indus Valley Civilisation.

Rivers of life

A quick glance at the map of Punjab shows that all the province’s major cities exist in the shadow of one of the five mighty rivers that flow through the plain.

A little further south from Harappa, is Multan, the city of saints, the city of Hiranyakashipu and Prahlad. It is located on the banks of the Chenab river. Many local historians conjecture that Multan, along with Peshawar, might be the oldest living city of Pakistan.

Also on the banks of the Chenab is Sialkot, the city of Raja Salwan and his son Puran Bhagat.

Gujrat, the Mughal city that became the gateway to Jammu, lies on the other side of the river.

Chenab: Pakistan’s river of love

Further south is the village of Takht-Hazara, from where it is believed Ranjha — of the Heer-Ranjha legend — originated. Traveling along the river, Ranjha reached Jhang, the city of Heer, where today both of them rest in one grave, their shrine visited by hundreds every day.

River Jhelum divides Potohar region from Punjab. It is on the banks of this river that Alexander of Macedonia fought with King Porus in 326 BC.

Over 1,800 years later, the Pashtun king, Sher Shah Suri, constructed his strategic Rohtas Fort west of the Jhelum river. There is also a Sher Shah Masjid in the ancient city of Bhera downstream of the Jhelum.

This city was once the hub of Buddhist learning in the region and continued to be a major political centre for long until it was overshadowed by other cities in Punjab.

Editorial: Resurrecting the Ravi

Further west, all these rivers merge with the Indus one by one, as if paying homage. Indus is what gives India its name. It is the grandest river that leaves several cities in its wake — Mianwali, Dera Ismail Khan, Sukkur, Larkana, Sehwan, Hyderabad.

Thus, several cities in Pakistan owe their existence to the mighty rivers of Punjab. These rivers are the reason this civilisation exists and has existed for thousands of years.

What then would happen if one day these rivers cease to exist, as is being predicted? Pakistan is a water scarce country. Its rivers are drying up.

How long would these cities survive if their very source of origin dries out?

The article was originally published on Scroll and has been reproduced with permission.