The Yamuna in flood last week brought to mind the influence of the river on Delhi, its rulers and people. Akbar and Jahangir mostly stayed at Agra but continued to maintain a close relationship with the Yamuna (Jamuna then). Akbar, who drank only Ganga water and passed on the habit to Jahangir and Shah Jahan, had boats tied in the river so that he could sleep peacefully on hot, unbearable summer nights (so did Jahangir). When Shah Jahan moved his Capital to Delhi, he enjoyed boating on the river but at night the inmates of his harem — concubines, princesses and maids of honour — went through the River Gate in the Red Fort for boating and bathing, accompanied by eunuchs, who served as bodygards. Just imagine them in the river on moonlit nights!
It is worth repeating that when Prince Salim (Jahangir) reached the age of adolescence, he was made to swim in the Jamuna from Agra Fort to Sayyid-ka Bagh during the annual Tairaqi-ka-Mela, held during the monsoon. Though the swimming fairs of Delhi were not so popular yet princes and princesses did swim in the river at night during Sawan-Bhadon months to escape the public eye. Prince Jahandar Bakht, eldest son of Shah Alam, jumped into the Jamuna from the Shah Burj of the Fort in 1787 to escape the Marathas. He later sought refuge in Lucknow. Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai’s maternal uncle, Master Qamaruddin used to swim from Agra Fort to Delhi and back whenever the mystic mood seized him. He was like Mir Machili, the Mughal-time master swimmer.
The pollution of the Yamuna and the plans being made to clean the river ("Maili" to "Nirmal") have so far not yielded concrete results, with some even going so far as to affirm that the river will never be clean again despite Uma Bharti’s claims. And yet the Yamuna was considered a majestic river even during 1947-48, when plentiful fish could be caught in it and provided livelihood to several families of fishermen, who were generally found under the Yamuna Bridge, known as Lohe-ka-Pul, as it was made of iron in 1866 for the Calcutta-Delhi railway line.
In the 1970s Khan Abdul Haye Khan told this scribe that as a young man he would frequently walk down to the Jamuna bank and admire the view the river presented 60 years ago. Sometimes he would take a boatride and hear the songs the fishermen sang. He particularly remembered an evening when he heard an old man singing about the Hilsa fish swimming up the river right up to Allahabad. It had a deep echo of the ambience of the Hoogly, for the man originally belonged to Bengal and had come to Delhi with his pals for better earnings in Machchliwalan.
His song seemed to merge the Ganga and the Yamuna and while fishing at Okhla in later years, Abdul Haye often remembered it when it took the fish long to bite the bait and he had to sit up the whole night to get a decent catch for Saturday-Sunday meals. Delhi Gazetteer, published 125 years ago, had this to say about the Jamuna (while it had not acquired the name Yamuna then) its channels, streams and nullahs that flow into it and the surrounding hills:
"The Delhi tract possesses a considerable diversity of physical features. And is in parts not wanting in picturesqueness. This it owes to the hills and to the river. The former, which at the southern end join on to the hills of Mewat and so meet with the Aravalis, at the other start from the river at Wazirabad, four miles north of Delhi, and skirting the present city on the north-west and west, stretch away nearly due south to Mehrauli. Before reaching this place, however, they branch out into two halves, one going full south, the other sweeping round in a curve to the south-east to Arangpur, whence again they turn southwest to Kot and south of the district into Gurgaon.
"The river enters the district at a height of some 710 feet, and leaves it at about 630 feet above the level of the sea, with a course within the Delhi limits of rather over 90 miles, and an average fall of between 10 and 11 inches to the miles. The general direction is nearly due south. In the floods of the rainy season, the river has a maximum depth of some 25 feet. In the cold weather its normal depth is said to be four feet only, the stream is only sufficient to supply the three canals, which draw from it (the Eastern and the Western Jamuna, and the Agra Canal) and is then fordable in many places. The banks of the river are generally low, and the bed sandy, but there is said to be ‘a bed of firm rock’.
"The drainage of the Delhi district is divided competely by the hills, and may be separately considered in these two portions. The drainage of the southern part is simple. There are three main outlets for the north Ballabgarh drainage, in its rush down eastward from the hills to the river — the Barahpulah, Tekhand and Burhiya naddis. The general flow of these water-courses, which is too violent in flood to be of much use in irrigation, is to the east, but here and there, owing to local peculiarities of soil, their course is changed, and they go sometimes east, sometimes south. The Barahpulah (now named after Sikh warrior Banda Bahadur) drains the slopes of the hilly villages north-east of Mehrauli, and crossing the Agra Road under a tiny bridge (from the number of arches of which it takes its name) runs into the Khadar just south of Humayun’s tomb. The Tekhand naddi drains the lands west of Mehrauli, crosses the road about four miles below the Barahpulah, runs over the canal by a super passage 2.5 miles below Okhla and then runs southward into the river. The Burhiya naddi drains the whole of the hills lying in the vicinity of Arangpur to its south-west and south. It is larger than the Tekhand nala, and in flood it is sometimes violent enough to stop the passage of travellers at the point where it crosses the Mathura road, which is unbridged."
The scenario is rather dismal now. Abdul Haye is no more and so also the Bengali fishermen, who sang about their native place. Those who go for a catch find it difficult to make ends meet. Anglers at Okhla too do not find it worthwhile to sit the whole night on the bank. Pollution has made the river water deadly, not only for humans but also for the fish. Small shoals survive and surrounding hills, of course, have been denuded beyond recognition. Who would now believe that the Yamuna once flowed below the Red Fort (like it does below the Taj and Etmadud Daulah in Agra) and then went on to wash the walls of the Purana Qila with its strong current that had little impact on the crocodiles that sometimes basked on the sandy bank in the mellow winter sunshine.