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Who is Sir Ganga Ram and why his legacy lives on in India and Pakistan?

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There are few personalities in India and Pakistan who left a lasting legacy on both sides of the border as iconic engineer and philanthropist, Sir Ganga Ram.

Hospitals in Delhi and Lahore – built by his trust and family in his name – continue to uphold his legacy to this day.

While Pakistan’s Lahore city was his home, during the 1947 Partition of India, his family moved to Delhi in India.

In August 1947, India won independence from British rule and the country split into two new nations – India and Pakistan. Between half a million and a million people died in religious violence and 12 million became refugees.

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Ganga Ram died in 1927, but writer Sadat Hasan Manto’s short story, The Garland, summed up just how much the man and his legacy is intertwined with the city of Lahore.

In the story, said to be based on a true incident during the Partition, a mob attacks Ganga Ram’s statue in front of his hospital to wipe out his Hindu name. But when a man is injured, the mob shouts, “Let us rush him to Sir Ganga Ram Hospital.”

Ganga Ram hospital in Lahore

A strict disciplinarian, Ganga Ram was also known to be a kind-hearted man. His contributions spanned the fields of architecture, engineering, agriculture and women’s rights. He specially focused on the welfare of widows.

Much of what we know about him comes from the 1940 book Harvest from the desert, the life and work of Sir Ganga Ram by Baba Pyare Lal Bedi.

Ganga Ram was born in 1851 in Mangtanwala village, about 40 miles from Lahore.

His father Daulat Ram had left Uttar Pradesh, a northern Indian state, and worked as a junior police sub-inspector here.

The family later moved to Amritsar in Punjab province where Ganga Ram studied in a government-run high school.

His higher education saw Ganga Ram travel across northern India and Pakistan as he went to Lahore to study at the government college and then later secured a scholarship to study engineering at the Thomason Engineering College in Uttarakhand’s Roorkee in India.

Of the 50 rupees ($0.63; £0.52) he got as scholarship, he would send half to his parents in Amritsar to supplement their income.

After Ganga Ram secured his engineering degree with top marks, he became an apprentice in the office of Rai Bahadur Kanhaya Lal, the then chief engineer of Lahore. Here began the “Ganga Ram period” in Lahore’s architecture. He went on to become a top civil engineer and shaped the architecture in the city through his work.

A postcard showing the Lahore Museum

Image source, Getty Images

He is credited with designing and constructing several magnificent buildings, including the Lahore Museum, the Aitchison College, the Mayo School of Arts (now called the National College of Arts), the General Post Office, the Albert Victor Wing of the Mayo Hospital, and the Government College Chemical Laboratory.

Ganga Ram used arches and other Indian architectural traditions while employing western construction devices to protect them from the heat and cold of the climate in the Punjab province and ensure efficient and unobtrusive sanitation, Bedi wrote.

Renowned Pakistani journalist Khaled Ahmed described Ganga Ram as as “the father of modern Lahore,” for the indelible mark he left on the city.

The Gangapur dream

While Ganga Ram was transforming urban architecture in Lahore as part of his government job, his heart remained in rural Punjab where he had grown up.

The hydel power plant in Renala Khurd

He returned to his roots, in 1903, when he retired from his government post and was allotted land in Chenab Colony (later known as Lyallpur and Faisalabad) as reward of his past services.

 Here, he set out to establish Gangapur, a model village with new irrigation and farming systems. 

He also built a unique system to transport passengers from the Buchiana railway station, two miles away (3.2km) to Gangapur – laying a narrow track to allow two trollies hooked to each other to be drawn by a horse.

Ganga Ram was keen to attempt the irrigation system he had set up in Gangapur on a bigger scale. One of his most ambitious projects was the the hydel power project in Renala Khurd in Punjab province.

The project, which was officially opened in 1925, used five turbines to irrigate 360sqkm (139 sq miles) of wasteland and transform them into fertile fields.

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Rights of widows

Ganga Ram would be up early in the morning to go through his files and prepare for his day. Bedi writes that he would sometimes recite verses of Munajat-e-Bewgan (The widow’s prayer), a poem by Urdu poet Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali, to himself.

He was often moved to tears when he read the verses. It was the inspiration behind the work he went on to do for widows in conservative Hindu society.

In 1917, Ganga Ram tried to pass a resolution on widow re-marriage at a religious Hindu conference in the province’s Ambala city.

When it failed, he founded the Widows Marriage Association and donated 2,000 rupees (a large sum at the time) from his own money to it.

The association would raise awareness about the difficulties widows faced in society. Ganga Ram soon realised that while some of the widows were too old to re-marry, many of them did not want to marry again.

With the government’s approval, Ganga Ram built a Hindu Widows Home in 1921, costing 250,000 rupees, to train such women with skills to support themselves. The home would go on to have two schools and a hostel. It would help the widows pass examinations and train them to become teachers of handicrafts.

Ganga Ram also funded the establishment of Lady Maynard Industrial School for Hindu and Sikh women who faced financial difficulties.

Sir Ganga Ram Trust

In 1923, the Sir Ganga Ram Trust was formed in the engineer’s name.

The same year, the Sir Ganga Ram Free Hospital and Dispensary was established in the heart of Lahore. It was later developed as a full-fledged hospital with well-equipped surgical and medical departments, Bedi’s books says.

The hospital was second only to Mayo Hospital, the oldest and biggest hospital in the Punjab province, according to the book.

The trust also established a Hindu Student Careers Society in 1924 to help Hindu students gain employment and the Sir Ganga Ram Business Bureau and Library.

The Ganga Ram Samadhi in old Lahore

Ganga Ram’s last charitable project during his lifetime was the establishment of the Hindu Apahaj Ashram over two acres of land. This was a home for the elderly, the disabled and the infirm.

After his death in July 1927 in his London home, part of his ashes were brought back to Lahore and buried next to Hindi Apahaj Ashram as per his wishes. While the ashram is no longer here, his tomb, the Ganga Ram Samadhi, still stands. 

According to Bedi, renowned Urdu writer Khawaja Hassan Nizami wrote about Ganga Ram’s death, saying that if one could donate one’s life, then he would have chosen to add his years to Sir Ganga Ram’s life, “so that he might have lived longer and rendered even greater services to the distressed women of India”.

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