Sahibs and Canal Rest Houses

I spent my childhood at Chashma Barrage where my father was posted with Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission. During vacations, we would travel to Islamabad or Lahore to meet family and friends and to see the lights so to speak. Those were the days when midway restaurants or service areas were still inconceivable and I would see ourselves taking a pit stop break in an old colonial rest house near Danda Shah Balawal or Pindi Bhattian. These rest houses would invariably have a couple of bedrooms with a common verandah, typical wooden furniture with crisp white bed linen and an old courteous baba or chef. Baba would just guess that we are sarkari people and open the rooms for our short stay. We would freshen up, have freshly brewed tea and snacks, would tip the baba and carry on with our journey. With time, the colonial era trained Babas are all gone, the buildings have crumbled and the crisp white bed sheets are not that crisp anymore. Times have changed but still some of these canal rest houses remain, well actually more than three hundred canal rest houses in the inventory of Punjab Irrigation department.

So as the ace Salman Rashid tells us that these rest houses were built at the time canals were being laid all over Punjab especially in colony districts like Sargodha,Mianwali, Jehlum, Gujrat  etc, somewhere in the later half of nineteenth century. As earlier mentioned, there used to be a typical structure of these rest houses based on the category or grades. A typical category A rest house would be located on a major head works or barrage and have three or four  bed rooms, a common seating lounge or meeting area, an external kitchen and would be surrounded by expansive lawns or vegetable farms.  The B and C category rest houses were less elaborate in design and were usually situated at smaller canal regulating structures.

The legendary cook or baba at these rest houses was trained to prepare excellent parathas, omelets, fried eggs, tea, rice and chicken, daal and lastly pudding for the dessert. While most of these original or pre-partition babas have long gone, interestingly the kitchen has remained with their sons or grandsons who now run the show though not with the same zeal and conviction. The sons were able to secure the job only due to the benevolence of the Deputy Commissioners or Chief Engineers who after a hearty meal and perhaps delicious pudding were in a happy mood and that would be the time that the good old baba would humbly request the Sahib for an employment for his son and the request would be granted.

I remember one sad story of Baba Musa Khan of Wapda rest house (not exactly a canal rest house) at Chashma Barrage. The Chairman Wapda was visiting the barrage and someone presented partridges to him which were cleaned and frozen to accompany Chairman back to Islamabad. The Chairman in those days had his own official Cessna plane and he left for the air strip in the morning to fly back. Musa Khan realized that he forgot to pack the partridges with the luggage, he packed the birds and took his bicycle and sped to the un-guarded air strip. The passengers had seated in the plane and the engines had started when Musa Khan reached the spot. He threw his bicycle down, ran to the aeroplane, the fans were in full motion and one of the fans hit the good old baba leading to his death. I met his son or one of his family members last year in the same rest house managing the kitchen as the next generation baba.

Back to canal rest houses, earlier the officials would visit these rest houses in large parties as part of canal inspection or extension and would ride horses or carriages along with camp followers. The lunch would be carried in tiffins for Sahibs while the dinner would be a more elaborate affair with a multiple course meal. With modes of transport changing, now the officials usually make a short stay at these rest houses though there are odd tourists who still venture into these rest houses to relive an era gone by.

While most of these rest houses have either crumbled, some of them have been renovated as well with the thekedar or contractor throwing out all old furniture and fittings and replacing them with flashy and non-durable items. However go to the canal rest house in District Bahawalnagar and you can still see the vintage two winged ceiling fan providing cool air in desert summers for almost a century. Similarly the canal rest house at Head Islam on Sutlej river is a nice spot to spend some time on your way from Bahawalnagar to Vehari. Constructed in 1922 at the time of construction of the water head, the Head Islam rest house is surrounded by well maintained lawns and one should not forget to have the local fish from the river when you are here. Another interesting canal rest house to visit is at Punjnad head works near Uch Sharif . The rest house has a small museum showing the history and relics from the time of construction of Head Punjnad in 1930s. It is worthwhile to mention that Sulemanki, Head Islam and Punjnad head works on river Sutlej were part of the 1920 Sutlej Valley Project of the visionary Nawab Sadiq Khan Abbasi of Bahawalpur to irrigate Bahawalpur State including Cholistan desert.

However my favorite canal rest house is ‘Pathar Kothi’ constructed in 1920 at Rasul in Mandi Bahauddin. The Kothi was constructed to monitor the Rasul barrage and Lower Jehlum Canal emanating from Jehlum river. The entrance of the rest house is guarded by two very tall trees planted probably a century back and the stones for construction were quarried from local mountains hence ‘Pathar Kothi’. Though the rest house is in shambles from outside, it boosts two large renovated bed rooms and a dining lounge in centre. The building has a basement as well, currently not in use while a staircase takes you to the top of the rest house from where you can have splendid views of the river and the salt range mountains on the other side of river Jehlum. The Kothi  used to be at the banks to the river however now the river has receded a bit and the water touches the walls of the rest house only during floods.

‘Pathar Kothi’ is part of an irrigation complex built at the time of construction of Rasul barrage and Lower Jehlum Canal in late nineteenth century. A lovely walk under green trees and colonial era office buildings takes you to the main canal rest house which was built in 1899 a bit far from river. A typical four bedroom structure with a seating lounge, dining area and well maintained lawns, it looks like the main 1899 canal rest house was built for official purposes while the 1920 ‘Pathar Kothi’ was later built for its astounding river views as engineers would want some leisure time in the evenings.

The 1922 Pather Kothi at the banks of river Jehlum
The 1922 Pather Kothi at the banks of river Jehlum

These canal rest houses along with forest rest houses have a tremendous tourism potential and the Government should look into various out sourcing models both to earn some extra revenue but more importantly to boost tourism in the province.

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