"The Bridge-Builders"

(notes edited by John Radcliffe; these are partly new and partly based on the ORG notes edited by Reginald Harbord)

notes on the text
[June 10th 2015]


This story first appeared in the Illustrated London News Christmas Number, 1893. It was written in Vermont. soon after the Kiplings had moved in to Naulakha, with some assistance from Rudyard's father Lockwood. It was collected in The Day's Work, 1898, in the U.S.A. and England

The Story

The first part of the story is a detailed description of the construction of a great railway bridge across the Ganges. It illustrates Kipling's remarkable capacity for assimilating and portraying details of civil engineering practice which he had largely learned from the engineers themselves.

The bridge is nearing completion when it is threatened by a major flood. After taking all possible precautions to save his bridge, the Chief Engineer, Findlayson, is swept down the river at night in a small boat, onto an island, with his Lascar foreman, who gives him opium to stave off the cold. Under the influence of the drug, he has a vision of the gods of India. They do not care for change in the old order of things, and so protest against the bridging of the river.

The bridge stands, despite the flood, but in the broad sweep of human history, perhaps this is not such a deep loss to the old gods, who will always be there to claim the allegiance of men and women in different ways, whatever material changes there may be. While people dream, the gods will still be there.


The ORG Editors write: The art and practice of bridge-building is very old. As early as the latter part of the 12th century, a Bridgebuilding Brotherhood (Fratres Pontifices) was established in the south of France, a confraternity whose responsibility it was to build bridges, to maintain hospices at the chief fords of the larger rivers, and to look after ferries.

The bridge in this story is a lattice-girder type of 28 spans of 330 feet each. It could have been either an independent span bridge, i.e., each span reaching from abutment to pier, or from pier to pier, without projecting beyond the supports; or a continuous span bridge, i.e., each span reaching over more than one opening, usually three.

From the wording of the narrative it appears that an independent span bridge is being erected. The lattice-girder is a type of construction involving a series of trusses interdependent one upon the other. The limiting span for this type of bridge is about 800 feet: the Hawkesbury Bridge, New South Wales, is typical, with 7 spans each 416 feet long.

Kipling and bridge-building

The ORG Editors did much to analyse the author's supposed mistakes, and concluded that though he was guilty of various minor errors, to be expected in a layman's description of highly technical matters, most of the major mistakes of which he had been accused were found on close examination not to exist at all.

The British built a number of major bridges during their time in India to support trade and security, and the opening of a bridge was an important event. Rudyard covered several such openings as a newspaper correspondent.
Who were the engineers ?

The ORG Editors did their best to establish the original of 'Findlayson'. Sir Auckland Campbell Geddes in his The Forging of a Family claims that Findlayson was based on his father (also named Auckland Campbell Geddes), a Scottsh engineer who worked in India The Walton brothers were convinced he was based on their father Frederick Thomas Granville Walton, who built the Dufferin Bridge.

He was, in fact, probably a composite character, based on a number of engineers whom Kipling had met, including in particular James Richard Bell, a notable bridge-builder, who spent twenty years in the Public Works Department of India, built the Sutlej Bridge, and died in 1912. He is noted in his own profession for having devised the system of 'guider' banks, known as 'Bell bunds' for containing the alluvial rivers of Northern India in narrower (and consequently deeper) channels than those provided by nature. ('There is always room for more stone on the revetments' - page 9, line 16)

Bell himself, in a note on the flyleaf of a copy of The Day's Work (Colonial Edition 1899) picked up in the Moore Market in Madras and reproduced in KJ 100, wrote as follows:
My dear Storey, Sorry I can't find a better edition of the following yarn. The Ganges is the Sutlej and Kashi is Ferozepur—the Bridge is now called the Kaisarin i Hind and Amyas Morse has just put in a paper before the Inst. C. E. about its protective works.—The tale is a farrago of bridge-building stories told to R. K. at various times. Hitchcock was an Asst. Engr. called L. G. Prickett who died of cholera in Calcutta and Findlayson is your old friend J.R.B. 23. 4. 03.

Critical responses

This story has been acknowledged by the critics as one of Kipling's masterworks, expressing deeply felt convictions and speculations about the significance of the world of work, as he observed British rule in India. Angus Wilson (p. 93) remembers the contrast between ancient India and British modernity so vividly illustrated by the bridging of the Ganges:

During his Indian time the imposing Dufferin (called since 1948 the Pandit Malviya) Bridge was constructed to take the Grand Trunk Road across the Ganges within sight of the temples of the burning ghats. He reported on its building for the Civil and Military Gazette in 1887, the year that it was opened. But the ceremony had been delayed because the bridge had been damaged by flood. In my own experience, the spectacle of the ghat cremations in its juxtaposition of noisy bazaar and silent river, in its vivid colours besides the draining sunshine and heat, and its constant human movement beside the stillness of the dead, heightens the intensity of all one's sense-impressions.
Philip Mason (pp.141-2), who worked as an administrator in British India in the best years of his working life, notes:

The bridge is the symbol of modern progress, science and technology; it has been built up at the cost of many lives, much toil and agony of spirit. But all that effort is only dirt digging in the dirt. None the less, the bridge is still standing, when we come back to the workaday world, and it joins the present to the past ... But while Kipling was always on the edge of an awareness of the infinite, there was never any true conflict in his mind about this; he was a Son of Martha, and like Findlayson concerned with stone and concrete, and the strength of good workmanlike building ...

"The Bridge Builders" puts a question-mark against the whole idea of human effort, displaying its tininess and futility. Men scurrying about like ants busy themselves on things of desperate importance, but they are nothing in the face of eternity. Yet - the message goes - morning will come and the bright sun and we must again be scurrying about our important business.
J M S Tompkins (p. 192) notes the contrast between the impressive achievement of the nearly completed bridge, and the threat posed by the vast forces of nature:

It is at this point, at what should be the triumph of Findlayson's labours, that they are reduced to nothing by progressive changes of scale. Indra chides the impatience of Mother Gunga:

`The deep sea was where she runs but yesterday, and tomorrow the sea shall cover her again as the Gods count that which men call time. Can any say that this their bridge endures till tomorrow?'

Ganesh adds: `It is but the shifting of a little dirt.... Let the dirt dig in the dirt ere it return to the dirt.' This chilling vision contracts again, from a geological to a historical scale, when Krishna, who lives with men, tells the other gods that, through the building of bridges and such works as the men from over the water do, the flame will die on their altars, and they will be as they were in the beginning, 'rag-Gods, pot Godlings of the tree, and the village-mark'. But, when they appeal to Indra, they get an answer that dissolves time and place and mass into insubstantiality. They and all things, even Heaven and Hell, are the dream of Brahm.
And Jan Montefiore (pp. 62-63), in her chapter on "The Day's Work" stresses that Kipling does not, in fact, let the forces of Ancient Night win out:

The bridge survives, Findlayson forgets the whole thing ... and he and Peroo are taken off to safety in a local Rajah's up-to-date steam-launch. Moreover, when Peroo, the most intelligent person in the story, realizes that in daylight the terrible Gods mean nothing to Findlayson, he concludes that they can exist only because men dream them: 'Then it is true. When Brahm ceases to dream, the Gods go' (page 44).

Not only the Ganges, but the gap of belief between Englishman and Indian has been bridged by English technology: Peroo the Indian sheds his superstition to enter Findlayson's own realm of materialism and technological mastery, and we last see him taking possession of the launch's steering-wheel and, in imagination, flogging the guru whose service he has outgrown. The dream of the divinities, whose vision reduced humanity to insignificance, has revealed itself as just that - a dream that is itself reduced to insignificance by the daylight reality of skill and labour. As Zohreh T Sullivan says:

... the irony is clear; the gods exist as long as Findlayson remains in his opium dream. And the colonialists exist as long as the natives remain asleep. Rationality, consciousness, enlightenment will gradually awaken the dreamers, and then the gods will die.
And yet these ironies do not still the question asked by Indra, the highest of the Gods: 'Can any say that this their bridge endures till tomorrow?' The story suggests that the real reason why men must attend to their duties is to avert their minds from an unimaginable eternity in which nothing they do can matter. The final significance of work seems to be for Kipling, as for Conrad's Marlow
in Heart of Darkness, that it offers an escape from the nothingness of the night when no man can work, neither the colonial officer nor the native subaltern.
See also KJ 92, KJ 100, KJ 247, KJ 238.

For an introduction to Hinduism and its Gods, see Hinduism, by K. M. Sen, Pelican 1962.


©John Radcliffe and The Kipling Society 2009 All rights reserved