Sir Ganga Ram: Father of Modern Lahore

    • bookmark icon


    Sir Ganga Ram is a name familiar to Delhiites, for the hospital named after him in the country’s capital. But 425 km north-west of Delhi, across the border in the Pakistani city of Lahore, is a hospital of the same name, in memory of the same man.

    Ganga Ram was an extraordinary engineer and a philanthropist and is known as ‘the father of modern Lahore’. Due to his distinguished service and superlative engineering talent, he was tasked with transforming this old, imperial city into its modern avatar.

    Early Life

    Sir Ganga Ram, or Ganga Ram Agarwal, was born in a small town called Mangtanwala, not far from Lahore, then a preeminent city of the Delhi Sultans, Mughals and Sikhs, in undivided India. He was born on 13th April 1851 in this town, which was once in Punjab province of British India. His father was a junior police sub-inspector and, while Ganga Ram was still a child, the family moved to Amritsar.

    The young Ganga Ram schooled in Amritsar and earned a scholarship to attend the prestigious Government College in Lahore. He earned another scholarship, which got him admission to the Thomason Civil Engineering College at Roorkee, now IIT-Roorkee, in present-day Uttarakhand. Ganga Ram was an exceptional student and not only did he secure a degree in Civil Engineering, but he also passed the final lower subordinate examination with a gold medal in 1873.

    Due to his stellar academic record and upon graduation itself, he was appointed Assistant Engineer in the prestigious Central Public Works Department in Lahore. He was called to Delhi to set up the amphitheatre for the Delhi Durbar, which was to be held four years later, in 1877. At the Durbar, popularly known as the ‘Proclamation Durbar’, Queen Victoria of England was proclaimed ‘Empress of India’.

    After this, Ganga Ram worked with the railways on the strategic Amritsar-Pathankot railway line. It was his work on these two prestigious projects that drew the attention of the then Viceroy and Governor-General of India, George Robinson, who sent him to Bradford Technical College (now the University of Bradford) in England, for a two-year course in Water Works and Drainage. It was a stint that not only helped him develop but revolutionise Punjab’s agriculture just a few years later.

    Lahore’s ‘Ganga Ram Period of Architecture’

    In 1885, Ganga Ram returned from England to Lahore, where he would pilot and execute the most important project of his life – the rebuilding of Lahore. After centuries of being a provincial capital under the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughals, Lahore had also been the capital of the Sikh Empire of Ranjit Singh. However, after the fall of the Empire to the British in 1849, Mughal and Sikh monuments, gardens and mausoleums were left to decay, thus robbing the city of its royal splendour.

    During Sikh rule, Amritsar, not far away, had emerged as the economic centre of the Sikh Empire and North India. Amritsar continued to thrive under the British while Lahore lagged behind cities like Delhi, which had regained some of the economic prosperity they had lost after the Revolt of 1857. So, in the last two decades of the 19th century, the British decided to rebuild Lahore from the ashes of its Mughal past.

    The new city had to be modern and the dominant architectural style chosen was Indo-Saracenic, a blend of traditional and Indic art. Ganga Ram, who had been already working for the Public Works Department in the city, was appointed as the Executive Engineer of Lahore.

    Ganga Ram designed and built the Mayo School of Industrial Arts (now National College of Arts), at the time one of only two art colleges in British India. His next work was Aitchison College. In 1887, for the golden jubilee of England’s Queen Victoria, he was commissioned to design and build the General Post Office and the Lahore Museum. He also designed Model Town and Gulberg Town, both of which are still symbols of the ‘modern’ Lahore. He also gave Lahore a new waterworks in addition to many other buildings.

    By 1900, the then Viceroy and Governor-General of India, Lord Curzon, was so impressed with his work that Ganga Ram was appointed Superintendent of Works for the Imperial Durbar to be held in Delhi in on the occasion of the accession of King Edward VII to the throne. The Durbar was to be held in 1903 and Ganga Ram fulfilled his brief and exceeded expectations.

    After serving as the Executive Engineer of Lahore for 12 years, Ganga Ram announced his premature retirement at the age of 52, in 1903. That same year, he has conferred the title of ‘Rai Bahadur’ and appointed a Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire (CIE).

    Ganga Ram had left an indelible mark on Lahore, and the 12 years during which he was its Executive Engineer are called the 'Ganga Ram period of architecture’. Moreover, by the turn of the 20th century, Lahore was one of the largest cities in the Indian subcontinent. It had attracted migrants in large numbers, in search of employment opportunities.

    At the time, Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of the princely state of Patiala in Punjab (India), wanted to redesign his state and give it a modern outlook just like Lahore. Ganga Ram was his obvious choice to pilot the project. The brilliant engineer was persuaded to emerge from retirement and, as Superintending Engineer, supervised the reinvention of Patiala. Today, Moti Bagh Palace, the Secretariat, Victoria Girls High School, City High School, Law Courts and Ijlas-e-Khas building bear the stamp of his work.

    A Promising Agriculturalist

    While working in Patiala, Ganga Ram had the post-plans which were concerned with utilising the skills he learnt at Bradford when he was sent to England by government years ago. Though the government’s subsidy and his vast personal savings which he had earned by then, from government, he obtained on lease the 50,000 acres of barren land in Montgomery (now Sahiwal) and Renala Khurd, both in present-day Pakistan’s Punjab Province. Within three years, the maverick engineer converted that vast desert territory into fertile fields irrigated by water lifted by a hydroelectric pumping plant and running through channels.

    When he retired in 1903, the government had allotted him 500 acres of land in the newly settled Chenab colony, one of the many Punjab Canal Colonies in what is now Faisalabad district in Punjab, Pakistan. On this land, Ganga Ram established a village named ‘Gangapur’, which housed the first farm in India to introduce a mechanical reaper and ridge, harrows, scythes, sprays and other modern agricultural implements.

    That same year, 1903, Ganga Ram built a unique ‘Ghoda Train’ or a horse-pulled train. This train, consisting of two simple trollies pulled along a narrow rail track by a horse instead of a railway engine, connected Gangapur village with the railway line, which halted at nearby Buchiana village. The railway track for his Ghoda train too was specially developed by Ganga Ram and it ran along the Lahore-Jaranwala railway line. This massive private enterprise, which brought economic prosperity to Gangapur, earned Ganga Ram a fortune.

    From Engineer to Philanthropist

    In the early 1920s, the Akali movement was launched by Sikhs in Punjab to regain control of the gurdwaras from the Udasi Mahants. One of the most strident campaigns was the one at Gurdwara Guru-ka-Bagh, near Ajnala in Amritsar district. Here, the Mahants with the help of the British government had arrested and thrashed hundreds of Sikh volunteers, who were agitating for control of the land on which the gurdwara stood.

    Empathising with the Sikhs, Sir Ganga Ram stepped in and took on lease the land from Mahant Sundar Das, thus giving the Akalis access to their shrine. He later persuaded the government to release 5,000 Sikh volunteers. Ganga Ram is thus considered a highly respected name in the Sikh community.

    Ganga Ram was now in his 50s. He was rich and powerful and had achieved so much that he now wanted to give back to the people. After executing so many welfare works on behalf of the government, he decided to build some with his own money.

    Some of these institutions credited to him in Lahore are the Ganga Ram Hospital, Lady Mclagan Girls’ High School, the Chemistry Department of the Government College University, Albert Victor wing of Mayo Hospital, Sir Ganga Ram High School (now Lahore College for Women University), Hailey College of Commerce (now Hailey College of Banking & Finance), Ravi Road House for the Disabled, the Ganga Ram Trust Building on ‘The Mall’, and the Lady Maynard Industrial School. In 1925, he set up the first hydro-electric Power Station in the subcontinent, in Renala Khurd, in Punjab, Pakistan.

    Ganga Ram was truly an extraordinary man and his contribution were recognised by the colonial government. In 1922, he was knighted for his services at Buckingham Palace by the English Emperor George V.

    But he was not a man to be distracted by honours and accolades. In 1923, he set up the Sir Ganga Ram Trust, through which he opened a home for widows, set up a charitable dispensary and built an ashram for the elderly, neglected and the disabled in Lahore. He also set up an institute where youngsters could learn money management. The institute later became Hailey College of Commerce.

    In 1925, Ganga Ram presented to British India’s Punjab Provincial Government a sum of Rs 25,000 as an endowment for a prize, to be called the ‘Maynard-Ganga Ram Prize’, which was to be awarded every three years, for discovery, an invention or a new practical method which would increase agricultural production in Punjab. The competition is still operational and open to all.

    Ganga Ram died in London on 10th July 1927. His samadhi or mausoleum is in Lahore and a statue of him stood in a public square on Mall Road, a locality that boasts many of the monuments he built.

    From ‘His’ Lahore to Delhi

    Two decades after Ganga Ram’s death, the subcontinent was partitioned into India and Pakistan, and with it came much bloodshed and riots on both sides of the border. Just like most other Hindu and Sikhs, Ganga Ram’s family too left Lahore and migrate to India.

    Famous Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto at that time wrote a satire on this blunt partition riot situation. He wrote a short story “Garland” based on a true eye-witnessed incident in which the rioters in Lahore were trying to obliterate any memory of any Hindu in Lahore after Pakistan came into existence.

    In his story, an inflamed mob in Lahore, after attacking a residential area, turned to attack the statue of Sir Ganga Ram, the great Hindu philanthropist of Lahore. They first pelted the statue with stones; then smothered its face with coal tar. Then a man made a garland of old shoes climbed up to put it around the neck of the statue. The police arrived and opened fire. Among the injured was the fellow with the garland of old shoes. As he fell, the mob shouted: “Let us rush him to Sir Ganga Ram Hospital” forgetting that ironically they were trying to obliterate the memory of the very person who had founded the hospital where the person was to be taken for saving his life.

    Anyhow soon the riots were stopped, but in 1960, bowing to the demands of the orthodox organisations of the country which claimed the statues were “un-Islamic”, several in Lahore’s public squares, including those of Sir Ganga Ram’s was removed forever.

    In April 1954, the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital was inaugurated in New Delhi by the then Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, thanks to an initiative taken by Dharma Vira, son-in-law of Sir Ganga Ram and also Principal Private Secretary to Nehru.

    Not many are aware of Sir Ganga Ram, a brilliant engineer who, despite his accolades, was an empathetic human. In the words of Sir Malcolm Hailey, Governor of Punjab (1924-1928), "he (Ganga Ram) won like a hero and gave like a saint”.


    Aashish Kochhar is a history enthusiast from Amritsar who studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

    Prev Button

    Blue Sparkle Handmade Mud Art Wall Hanging

    Next Button