Down memory lane Metroplus

A bridge of stories

The Old Yamuna Bridge. Photo Anu Pushkarna   | Photo Credit: Anu Pushkarna

Lohe-ka-Pul or the iron bridge on the Yamuna dates back to 1863-1866, a 12-spanned wonder of its time whose construction began just a year after Bahadur Shah Zafar’s death the last Emperor, incidentally, had opposed the East India Company’s plan for a bridge right behind the Red Fort that would bring trains into the city. It was built for a single railway line but converted into a double line in 1932 and reopened in 1934 because of increased traffic on the Northern Railway.

Like that there are many bridges in Delhi but none like Loha-ka-pul. The one over the Red Fort moat was constructed in the reign of Akbar Shah Sani to replace an earlier draw-bridge to facilitate entry into the Lahori Gate. The work was entrusted to Robert Macpherson, who was honoured by the Mughal emperor with the title of Dilawar-ud-daulah Deler Jung in 1811. The Mansi bridge connecting the fort to Salimgarh replaced the bridge built by Jahangir. The Athpula dates back to Akbar’s time. The Barapula, south of Nizamuddin station too came up in Jahangir’s reign in 1611-12. Now it has been renamed by the Delhi Govt as Banda Bahadur bridge in honour of the Sikh warrior of Farruksyer’s time. The bridge near Siri Fort is of the 14th Century Khilji times, while the Satpula, east of Khirki village, dates back to Mohammed Tughlaq’s reign.

In the Walled City the Lothian bridge was constructed by Lt-Col Sir Lothian Kerr Scott (1861-67). About 300 yards from it is Kauria bridge, linking Old Delhi station to the Kashmere Gate area, opposite the GPO. This bridge had replaced an earlier one built of cowrie shells (hence the name) collected as “tehbazari” or tax by an 18th Century nobleman, Shad Khan in the reign of Shah Alam. The Minto bridge of the Northern Railway near Connaught Place came up in 1933. The bridge on Kamal Ataturk Road was built in the same year. The Kotla Mubarakpur bridge also came up in the 1930s. The Wazirabad bridge, near Majnu-ka-Tila was built in the time of Ferozeshah Tughlaq and has been in use for over six centuries now.

But coming back to Lohe-ka-Pul, it was built shortly after the old Jamuna Bridge in Agra (since the railway line from Kolkata passed through that city before extending to Delhi). The East India Company spent Rs. 16 lakhs (a big amount then) over its construction. In the 1950s a Sindhi youth and his father alternated day and night as bridge guards. The boy, Lachoo used to carry a tiffin-carrier with him as he walked all the way to it from his house in Daryaganj. He ate his lunch sitting in a corner of the bridge while his father, Kantilal had his dinner near the same spot.

The duty of the two, besides guarding the bridge, also included the task of keeping a watch on the river level. In summer and winter that as not of much consequence but during the rainy season it was really hectic. As the river level rose so also the BP of the two since they had to report it every two hours and also note it down in a register.

Standing in the balcony, opposite Golcha Cinema, one would see Lachoo returning from duty and while meeting his father going for night duty, telling him that the Yamuna was rising menacingly. Kantilal would hear this with some trepidation and hurry along, sometimes hiring a cycle-rickshaw so that he could reach the bridge faster. Both father and son were great friends of Alladin Bhai, who was an expert at predicting the satta linked to the opening and closing rates of the New York Cotton Exchange. They both gambled a bit and usually won small amounts at the rate of Rs. 10 for a Re/ 1 bet and were naturally grateful to the Bhai for his help in guiding them in this sort of gambling. Khooba Teli was the one who accepted the satta bids and sometimes was even arrested for indulging in this nefarious activity but he would soon be back after paying the hafta at the police chowki.

In summer when Lachoo was not perturbed by the rise and fall of the river level, he would find time to chat with passers-by. The boy had many tales to tell of bodies being taken to the cremation ghat over the bridge and of how once a child suddenly came back to life to the great delight of his father. Also the yarn of a woman who jumped into the flooded river after her husband’s death only to be saved by a mallah boatman whom she eventually married. Kantilal had even more weird tales to relate. While watching the river at night he once saw a boat in which sat three hooded women. The man who rowed the boat was wearing a turban over a kurta and dhoti. When the boat reached the middle of the river the four suddenly disappeared and in their place appeared three fairy-like beings, while the boatman, now converted into a young nobleman, caught fish with his bare hands. He passed them on to the three glamorous ladies who took out asharfis (gold coins) from their mouths and then threw the fish back into the river to be swallowed by a gigantic serpent. “The Yamuna is haunted and such happenings are often noticed”, asserted Kantilal (who used to see a sahib pacing up and down the bridge every night) and the more gullible among his listeners took it as gospel truth. He must be dead now and his son, if alive, passing his last days somewhere. But their tales still remind one that the Yamuna (believe it or not) also has its secrets, whether linked to optical illusions or fanciful superstitions, with Lohe-ka-Pul a silent witness, though its contemporary the London Bridge has long fallen down.

(The author is a veteran chronicler of Delhi)

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Printable version | Oct 25, 2020 5:16:48 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/A-bridge-of-stories/article14429979.ece

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