1893’s Great Flood

Floods have remained a routine in Kashmir. But yet, some of them were disastrous to the life and property. Famed British officer Sir Walter Roper Lawrence arrived in Kashmir as Maharaja’s Settlement Commissioner in 1889. He witnessed the 1893 great flood and has given a detailed account in his ‘The Valley of Kashmir’. As Kashmir was reeling under 2014 floods, Saima Rashid copied the detailed account for the Kashmir Life readers

A view from Rustumgari, Takht-e-Sulaiman, towards Polo Ground
A view from Rustumgari, Takht-e-Sulaiman, towards Polo Ground

In 1841 there was a serious flood, which caused much damage to life and property; but though old men have shown me marks which suggest that the flood of 1841 equalled or surpassed the disaster of 1893, I cannot ascertain any accurate facts regarding the flood level in 1841. Some marks shown to me suggest that the flood of 1841 rose some nine feet higher on the Dal Lake than it rose in 1893, but thanks to the strong embankments around the Dal the flood level in 1893 never rose on the lake to the level of floods on the Jhelum.

The flood of 1893 was a great calamity, but it has had the good effect of warning the state that valuable house property in Srinagar was inadequately protected, and works are now in progress which may eventually secure Srinagar from inundation. But the security of the city unfortunately means loss to cultivation on the banks of the river above Srinagar, for all the flood waters of the south must pass the city in their course to the outlet at Baramulla. The more, therefore that Srinagar is protected the more obstruction will there be to the passage of waters from the south through the city. All things point to the fact that the founders of Srinagar have bequeathed a serious engineering problem to the lower bed of the river at Baramulla, regulating the water level of the valley by gates.

Others talk of providing the alternative channel to the Jhelum which would run in a north-westerly direction above Srinagar, but this scheme is rendered difficult by the fact that Dudh-Ganga river, the bed of which is higher than that of Jhelum, must be crossed. Perhaps a solution of the difficulty might be found in drudging .I have pointed out in the second layer of this Report how generation after generation has hammed in the river as it passes Srinagar, and have shown that the Wular lake ,which is the natural delta of the river, is gradually filling up from silt.

The whole question is one of the first importance .Naturally Srinagar is the first consideration, but from the point of view of land revenue it is of equal importance to protect the crops from constant loss by inundation. In 1893 the floods cost the state Rs 64,804 in land revenue alone, 25, 426 acres under crops were submerged, 2, 225 houses were wrecked and 329 cattle killed. Floods in Kashmir are caused by warm and continuous rains on the mountains which melt the snows or precipitate them down the hill sides into the streams. Melting snows alone will not cause a flood: nor will heavy rains unless they are assisted by the melting snow. My observations show that rain rarely falls for more than twelve hours and that twelve hours of rain is followed by pleasant sunshine. Rain which lasts for twenty-four hours, if it is widespread, causes high water on the river, but not serious floods. In 1893 the rain which commenced on the morning of July 18, and continued without a break for 52 hours, was warm, and it was very noticeable when the clouds cleared away that the great mountains were denuded of snow.

Sir Walter Lawrance
Sir Walter Lawrance

There was only one meteorological station in Kashmir when the flood occurred at Srinagar and five inches of rain were registered before the station was destroyed by the inundation. Warning was received by telegraph from Islamabad that a heavy flood was coming down, but unfortunately we don’t know any facts about the rainfall in the south of the valley. However we know that the rainfall was heavy and abnormal, and the simple fact that in the Deosar tehsil a bear and a panther were found drowned side by side, while in Uttar Machipura a huge python was carried to the plains, shows that the mountains torrents must have been very huge and violent. Large trees torn up by the roots and carried into the midst of cultivation, the Wular lake dotted with ricks of oil seed and barley, rising ground strewn with the fragments of the city bridges and the wooden ruins of dwelling houses, and here and there corpses of men and cattle tossing on the stream indicated a great and sudden calamity.

Mercifully the flood reached its climax in the day time and the people were prepared. In the no villages around Panjinara, the people hurried off to the higher villages with their children and cattle, and there was little loss of life. Those who stayed on spent the night in trees and begged hard for help from passing boatmen. But in too many cases the boatmen were grasping and heartless, and from information gathered in Srinagar and in the villages, I believe that the Hanjis, as a body, behaved in a brutal and disgraceful manner.

In the city itself there was wild confusion. The second bridge, one of recent construction, succumbed to the flood and apparently swept away the other five bridges, not by collision but by piston-like pressure. All communication between the two sides of the city was at an end, for the Amiran Kadal, the first bridge, though it stood the shock of the flood, was under water and impassable. So reports were at once started that men whose work lay on one side of the river and whose homes were on the other were drowned, and the night of July 21 was one of anxiety and uncertainty. Marvellous escapes from drowning are recounted, and considering the size of the flood and the low level of Rahnawari Mohalla, it is at once a matter for surprise and congratulations that out of a population of 118,960 people, only 17 were killed, 16 from drowning and one from the falling of a house.

In the villages the mortality was on the whole very light. In the low lying country, where the crops had been destroyed, there was hardly any loss of life, for the people are always on the look-out for floods. But in the hilly country loss of life did occur, and men, cattle and sheep were carried off by rapid torrents which coursed down the ravines. One or two sad cases came to my notice in which men left their houses and sort refuge in trees, but the trees fell and the unfortunate creatures were carried off by hill torrents. The chief victims to the floods were the herdsmen and shepherds who at night time gather their cattle and sheep near the streams. They were taken by surprise and their mangled bodies were hurled down the steep ravines. But, as in the case of the city it is a matter for congratulations that out of total rural population of 670,988 only thirty-two perished in the great flood of 1893. Of those thirty-two men, twenty one were drowned, five were killed by the falling of a tree in the forest above Gulmargh, and six were killed by the falling of houses.

The loss of stock was not as great as might have been expected. There was no accurate estimate of the loss of sheep and goats, which in July are away grazing in the mountain pastures, but report said that many sheep were destroyed. The total loss of horned cattle was 329, and this figure may be accepted as correct, though it should be remembered that by the middle of July all plough-cattle and cows not in milk have been driven up to the high grazing grounds. But though I heard of sheep being drowned far away in the mountains, I didn’t hear any reports of cattle being drowned by the floods. The river is to a certain extent a truthful witness, and few care-cases of cattle were seen floating down towards Baramulla.

In Kashmir proper 2,225 houses were destroyed by the floods, and these houses varied, from the frail huts of poplar wood in which the half-amphibious cultivators of the Dal Lake live, to the larger and more substantial houses of the ordinary description found in the valley. Near the forests these houses are often real log huts, but further from the forest where timber is more expensive, the buildings are of unburnt bricks set in wooden frames or are made of panels fitted into grooved beams. It is a noteworthy fact that this latter style of building showed a great power of resistance to the floods. It is difficult to assign a money value to the ordinary house of an average Kashmir cultivator, as the work of building is done by the villagers working in co-operation.

Food is given to the friends who assist in bringing timber from the forest and in erecting the house, and regular fees are paid to the skilled carpenter and mason. In normal times there is no difficulty, and the Kashmiri likes to linger over the work. But unfortunately owing to the disastrous fire which destroyed so many houses in Srinagar in 1892, there had been a great demand for carpenters and masons and wages had gone up. This rise in wages spread to the villagers and although the state showed its sympathy with the people who suffered from the floods by allowing the free felling of timber in the forests for two months, still the cost of building new houses was very heavy. And the winter was near and in many villages it was feared that the cultivators who had lost their houses would be forced to seek shelter with their friends and relations, as it was impossible to rebuild so many houses in so short a time. In order to prevent wandering and to attach the people to their villages, I did my utmost to persuade them to lose no time in rebuilding their houses, but the great demand for carpenters, both in the city and villages, delayed the work, and some time would elapse before the once prosperous hamlets in the neighbourhood of Panjinara would recover from their former condition.

Above Srinagar the damage to crops was small. This was due to the formation of the country, which drains rapidly into the Jhelum and to the fact that from Islamabad to Srinagar the fall of the river is of appreciable extent. Around Srinagar the damage was considerable, but the greatest loss occurred below the city. At the time when the great flood occurred, the spring crops of wheat, barley and rape-seed had been harvested, but for the most part had not been threshed or removed, from the threshing floor.

The autumn crops of rice were either in flower or coming into ear and other crops such as pulse, cotton and sesamum (til) were well forward and gave promise of an excellent harvest. When the torrents of the mountains of the south reached Kanabal, the port of Islamabad, their speed relaxed and the Jhelum came down slowly though in enormous volume. Along the Jhelum, on either side of the banks which the river has been itself made, are erected embankments known as Sathu, and as has already been explained efforts were made in 1892 to repair these embankments and to raise them to a height sufficient to resist a normal flood as far as Pampur and Kakapura.

But at certain points the hill drainage comes into the Jhelum and at these points in old days flood-gates were erected, which let out the hill drainage but kept back the water of the Jhelum when it came down in flood. It was the intention of the Director, public Works department, to restore these gates, but for some reason or other they were not put up. So that when the river came down in flood the water poured in at the entrances which should have been closed by gates, and in many places either over-topped the embankment or made large breaches in it. But I am of opinion that even if the flood gates had been erected in time the floods would have still forced their way through or over the embankments which lie above Srinagar. Spring crops lying on the threshing-floor were damaged and in low lying tracts, where the water stood for some days, were destroyed. In the same way the standing crops of rice and maize were destroyed where the water stood for some time, and in many places the embankments built with the object of keeping the flood water out served to keep the water from flowing back into the river.

As the floods approached Srinagar the city and its bridges undoubtedly held up the water and converted the country to the south of Srinagar into a vast almost stagnant state. The river embankment of the Munshi Bagh for the most part withstood the flood, but the back embankment breached, and at the same time the water rose over the river embankment. The European visitors were all prepared and thanks to the foresight and energy of Raja Sir Amar Singh, boats were provided for all. Had the climax come in the night instead of at noon there might have been great loss of life.

Much discomfort was caused to the European visitors and others who live along the right bank of the Jhelum above Srinagar and the officials of the telegraph and postal departments suffered greatly. Communication with India and Gulmargh was at once cut off and all business was at a standstill. There was no dry land anywhere within reach save the slopes of Takht-i-sulaiman. Ponies and cattle climbed into Verandas and many men spent the night of July 21 in trees. The boatmen took advantage of the situation and charged exorbitant prices for taking people from trees and housetops, and in the city itself harpies refused to ferry persons across the river unless they paid extravagant fares. In the city there was great alarm. The houses on the banks on either side of the river were never reached by the floods, but the crash of falling bridges and the sight of the people struggling in the water filled the citizens with terror, and wild rumours were spread as to the loss of life. Women at one jumped to the river were drowned, and for some days exaggerated reports were abroad as to the mortality caused by the floods.

The river had broken through the gate which protects the Dal Lake from floods, and had submerged the lake gardens, destroying the missions, cucumbers, vegetable marrows and tomatoes, which form an important part of the citizens’ diet in the month of July. All roads to the city were closed, water mills had been washed away in the villages and prices at once began to rise. Rice, the staple food, rose from 26 seers to 18 seers per rupee, wheat rose from Rs. 4 to Rs 5 per Kharwar. Oil rose from Rs one and a half rupee to Rs 2 per seers and salt rose from 7 seers to 6 seers per rupee. This rise in prices was however only temporary except in the case of oil and salt.

As regards the former, though the price fell from Rs 2 to Rs 1.110, rates continued high as great damage had been done to rape seed and some loss had been caused to linseed. As regards salt prices continued high until the road to Kohala was again opened. In the low-lying suburbs of the city, notably Rahnawari, several houses were destroyed, but I was surprised when I visited Rahnawari and the other low lying parts of the city to find that there had been so little damage. For though the gate of the Dal Lake had been swept away and though the great Sathu Kazi, which banks out the Jhelum floods, had been severely breached, still the level of the Dal Waters never rose to the level of the river floods.

Below Srinagar the river runs with a very slight fall towards the Wular, and to the north the Anchar Dal was brimful of water from the Sind river, while on the right bank of the Jhelum the embankments had been carried away, and the floods of the Sind and Jhelum rivers were mingling. The whole of the Achan Ilaka on the right bank was helplessly submerged and speaking generally the country as far as the Wular was a vast lake, beneath which grand crops of rice and maize lay rotting. Houses and fine ricks of wheat, barley and rape-seed were carried off, and the country presented a pitiable sight.

Directly the rain had ceased, on July 20, a bright hot sunshine followed, and this had the effect of rotting ail crops standing in water. Rice as an aquatic plant has a greater power of resistance than maize, but the floods below Srinagar were persistent that only a very little rice submerged survived. The smell of the rotting maize and the rice was very pungent, and the villagers were for the most part deserted, as there on the Karewa cliffs cattle were collected, and the people were bivouacking in the open air.

Up from Shadipur to the Sind valley great damage had been done by the floods and in the delta of the Sind the fields were strewn with timber, and still worse with deep, white sand, which destroyed the rice for the year and rendered the fields unfertile for some years to come. Men were dancing and weeping in their ruined fields and in all directions there was wailing and despair. Marvellous tales were told of the efficacy of the flags of saints which had been set up to arrest the floods and the people believe that the rice fields of Tulamula and the bridge of Sumbal were saved by the presence of these flags, which were taken from the shrines as a last resort. The worst havocs were wrought in the neighbourhood of Panjinara.

In the times of the Mughals enormous embankments were erected to reclaim land from the Wular, and these embankments still preserve the memory of Jahangir and Shahjahan. The core of the embankments is of heavy blocks of stone, for experience has shown that banks of earth are not sufficient when the foundation is on the peaty soil which is found in the neighbourhood of the Wular. Where stone is not available it has been the custom to drive piles in the ground, in order to consolidate the earth and to provide a firm foundation. I don’t know whether this practice is justifiable from an engineering point of view, but all officials and cultivators in Kashmir believe that no embankment on the river-side is sound unless it has a foundation of piles.

The land enclosed in the old Mughal embankments is known by name of gund and in one or two instances some of these gund were saved from the floods by dint of working day and night at strengthening the weak points. The people near Panjinara always live in expectation of a flood, but in 1893 they were lulled to a false security by two circumstances. In the first place the Wular Lake, owing to the short snows of 1891-92, had dried up in an unusual manner, and its wide shores were dry and thirsty. The people argued that any ordinary flood would find ample room in the Wular.

Next there had been a heavy flood on the Jhelum about a month previous to the flood of July 21, and having escaped without damage the people calculated that in all probability there would be no second flood. So wheat, barley and rape seed were lazily left on the threshing-floors, and when the floods came these splendid crops were absolutely destroyed. The maize crop, which was the finest that had been known for many years, was utterly submerged, and apart from the loss of the grain there was the further loss of fodder. For in this tract cattle are very numerous, and their one food is stalks of maize. The whole tract consists of low, peaty soil, reclaimed at various times from swamp, and in many parts it was doubtful whether the land would be fit for cultivation for some years. For the land lies below the level of the Jhelum bed and it would require a succession of dry years, and careful embankment against the Suknag River and the swamps to the south, in order to bring the land under cultivation again.

Towards the Wular the people who had lost their maize crops devoted their attention to the harvesting of the Singhara nut, and it luckily happens that in years of heavy floods in the outturn of Singhara nut is always large. But the villagers further away from the Wular had no such resources and the state promptly started the construction of the road from Baramulla to Srinagar as a famine relief measure.

For those who had lost their year’s crops in the neighbourhood of Srinagar ample work was provided on the repairs of embankments and on the construction of the waterworks. In every way the state acted with the greatest liberality and consideration and though 1893 will be remembered as a year of calamity, the calamity was tempered by the humane action of Durbar.

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