The Sutlej Bridge

by Rudyard Kipling

First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 2 March 1887

Sussex Scrapbooks 28/3, p. 85-6

The name ‘Punjab’ means ‘five rivers’: the Jelum, Chenab, Ravi, Bias, and Sutlej. They unite to form the Indus. Of these rivers, the Sutlej, the southernmost, drains the largest area. Ferozepore is about fifty miles to the south and slightly east of Lahore. Raewind (Raiwind), which Kipling also mentions, is roughly midway between Lahore and Ferozepore.

The bridge that Kipling so vividly describes in this article, crossing between Ferozepore and Kazur, was called the Kaisarin-i- Hind (Empress of India) and is clearly the main prototype of the bridge in "The Bridge Builders" (1893). Like the bridge over the Ganges in that story, the actual bridge over the Sutlej was built on twenty-seven brick piers, carried a railway line fifteen feet broad and a cart road of eighteen feet, flanked by footpaths. After that much matter of fact, Kipling develops his story on its own lines. He also referred to this bridge in "Willaim the Conqurer" (1895):
Morning brought the penetrating chill of the Northern December, the layers of wood-smoke, the dusty grey-blue of the tamarisks, the domes of ruined tombs, and all the smell of the white Northern plains, as the mail-train ran on to the mile-long Sutlej Bridge. William, wrapped in a poshteen—a silk-embroidered sheepskin jacket trimmed with rough astrakhan—looked out with moist eyes and nostrils that dilated joyously. The South of pagodas and palm-trees, the overpopulated Hindu South, was done with. Here was the land she knew and loved...
The Day's Work p.225

(From our own Correspondent)
Like its four brethren, the Sutlej is a profligate stream; never keeping to the same bed for two years in succession. Like its brethren, too, the Sutlej has to be bridged by order of the Indian Government, which does not approve of interference with its frontier communications. And this is the story of a visit paid to the Sutlej Bridge at Ferozepore, in the month of February 1887, by one who knows nothing whatever about engineering.

Three years ago, the same visitor went down to an abomination of desolation called Gunda Singh, a few miles on the Raewind side of the Lahore-Ferozepore line; and there rose a dust-storm which covered the temporary line with fine sand, and the trolly ran merrily off the rails in consequence; sitting- down on a hillock like a hen. This proved the nature of the country to be worked upon, and severely bruised the visitor who went his way foreseeing the downfall of the bridge and the Government and everything connected therewith.

Three years later, there was a fair embankment where the trolly had spilt him; and from Gunda Singh, the road that runs by the side of the line to the Sutlej banks, was filled with bullock-carts and ekkas and foot passengers all streaming riverwards to where a cloud of dust rose like the smoke of an engagement. That ‘pillar of cloud by day’ never fails; and marks where the traffic is running through the bridge-of-boats and over the two-foot tramway that the Bridge will, a few months hence, supersede. Those in search of a new sensation would do well to go over the tramway that runs over the bridge-of-boats.

Arrived at the transhipping station for the tramway, the train pulled up in the middle of what, to an unprofessional eye, looked like a most royal mess. Lines of every gauge — two-foot, metre and broad — rioted over the face of the pure, white sand, between huge dredger-buckets, stored baulks of timber, chupper-built (thatched) villages, piled heaps of warm red concrete-blocks, portable engines and circular saws. High above everything, the great main embankment heaved itself, which is to take the cart road on to the Bridge-head. At the lower end of this embankment, a snorting train was getting rid of girder-booms on to a sloped platform, whence they would in time be taken down to the riverbed by the temporary lines. The face of the country swarmed with toiling men.

The Sutlej Bridge, which, as every one on the works is at great pains to assure you, is ‘of a very ordinary type’, is something over four thousand four hundred feet long, and is made of seven and twenty brick piers which will carry first, a railway line fifteen feet broad; and, above this line, a cart-road eighteen feet broad with a foot-path, four feet six broad, on each side.

That is to say, that the railway-line is covered in atop, and the whole of the girder-work resembles a huge oblong box latticed at the sides. This is not a technical definition at all; but the technical name of the system on which the Bridge is built is quite unfit for publication outside of Indian Engineering. But the building of the Bridge comes hereafter. All the piers are up and also ‘down’ — which is intelligible only to engineers — and the girder-work alone remains to be done. Now, each girder weighs some two hundred and twenty odd tons, and is made up of fifteen hundred loose pieces, exclusive of fifty iron- bound boxes of bolts and rivets.

For this reason it is at first difficult to understand the exultation of engineers, who speak so lightly of a few spans of girder-work. The difficulty grows as one travels along and under and by the side of the Bridge — on the great iron plates of the flooring, in the shadow of the piers, or ankle-deep in the silver sand. Several spans on the Raewind side are already begirdered, more or less, and a few hundred workmen are hard at work rivetting. The clamour is startling, even a hundred yards away from the Bridge; but standing at the mouth of the huge iron-plated tunnel, it is absolutely deafening. The flooring quivers beneath the hammer-strokes; the roof of corrugated iron nearly half an inch thick which will form the floor of the cart-road, casts back the tumult redoubled; and it bounds and rebounds against the lattice-work at the side. Rivetters are paid by the job, not by time. Consequently they work like devils; and the very look of their toil, even in the bright sunshine, is devilish. Pale flames from the fires for the red hot rivets, spurt out from all parts of the black iron-work where men hang and cluster like bees; while in the darker corners the fires throw up luridly the half nude figures of the rivetters, each man a study for a painter as he bends above the fire-pot, or, crouching on the slung-supports, sends the rivet home with a jet of red sparks from under the hammer-head.

At first sight, the stern build of the Bridge seems ludicrously disproportioned to the shrunken placid river it spans. It is as if the Government, true to its education policy, had thrust the garments of a full-grown man on the limbs of a child. So peaceable is the Sutlej, in the cold season, that the Engineers have won from it two great tongues of land which nearly meet in the middle — have all but dammed it in fact, to get space to bring up materials for their girders. It is true that the tongues aforesaid are faced with concrete blocks, but even that precaution seems out of place. Men brought sand and silt by the hundred thousand donkey-loads and cast it into the stream, and the river gave place. Lines were made on the land, and now the whole Bridge seems as if it were spanning a small Sahara for no other purpose than its own glorification.

But the Engineers, and any man who has had dealings with an Indian stream in flood, know better. A quarter-mile journey in the shadow of the Bridge where the temporary line runs, brings you to the end of the first spit. The red concrete blocks go down sheer into the stream, and there is a break of four spans, or two hundred yards, before the beginning of the next tongue. Here the stream of the Sutlej tells its own tale of pent strength and murderous possibilities as it drives through the opening under the pile-supported ‘material’ line which spans the contracted river. There is a swirl and thrust about the green water unpleasant to look at. The four spans must be girdered somehow across the break, and the made ground on either side cut through, before the snows melt and the Sutlej comes down in earnest. At present, the Engineers explain that ‘a child might play with the river’. As safer measure, a gang of coolies and a pile-driver are at play on the end of the Raewind tongue. Their business is to punch certain huge logs, profanely called ‘fifty-foot sticks’, into the two hundred yards of twenty-seven foot water, and so form a foundation for the overhead crane to travel along with the girders. On the made-ground portion of the Bridge, the girder spans are supported by huge piles of sleepers filled inside with sand in case of fire falling from the rivet furnaces. Four such supports stand between pier and pier. The girders rest on these and are pieced together, all their fifteen hundred parts, before the support is withdrawn or the girder-ends let down on the great blocks of red Agra stone prepared for their reception in the head of each pier. With sand in their bellies, sleeper-stacks do not burn readily.

Round the great piers — they look like gigantic chess-castles — in the remnant of the stream, lie concrete blocks mixed with silt, much worn and rubbed by the water-rush. These are the remains of islands which had to be made before the piers could be sunk. And here is a fit place to introduce the story of the Bridge. In the beginning, the Government devised its plan, which grew foot by foot on paper while it was hatching itself among the offices; here swelling out two or three feet in the dimensions of the piers; there spreading a foot or two in the width of the roadway; and so on, as is the custom of most schemes. Later, the Frontier scare arose, and then the order was to push on with all speed, and be sure to finish within three years. In October 1885, work was begun with the avowed intention of putting up and ‘down’ only one-half of the piers during that cold season, and so proceeded till January 1886, when the strong hands which control the North-Western Railway grasped the Engineers’ matured opinion, that by a supreme effort all the piers could be undertaken, and at least a whole year saved.

Now a Sutlej Bridge pier is made something after this fashion. A huge iron ring or shoe, called technically a well-curb, twenty-three feet in diameter, is put into a grave on the river-sand, exactly as the wooden well-curb of a Punjabi well is laid down. On this shoe is built a circle of brickwork, with walls four and a half feet thick; leaving, therefore, an internal circle of fourteen feet. You have, then, an iron-shod, hollow-cored, brick pillar twenty-three feet across, to let down through the unstable sand, to firm foothold below the lowest depth that the Sutlej can gouge out for itself in its bed. Here the fun begins; for the tube has to be treated exactly like a well on a gigantic scale, and must go seventy-six feet down, foot by foot, as the sand and silt is dredged out at the bottom of, and brought up through the heart of, the fourteen foot shaft aforesaid. Moreover, the pillar must be mathematically straight; and endless are the ways and means devised for dredging out and pressing down when a pillar shows a tendency to list. As the brickwork sinks, more is built atop, until the whole shaft reaches its full seventy-six feet — bedded like a tooth in the jaw.

At this point the circular shape of the pier is altered to ovoid, for four and twenty feet — that portion which is above the river at ordinary times — the better to resist the rush of the water; and the conclusion of the whole matter is the filling up of the fourteen foot shaft with rammed concrete. This is, more or less intelligibly, how a pier is built on more or less dry land. But twelve out of the twenty-seven on the Sutlej bridge had to commence where as much as fifteen feet of water ran over the shifting sand, and those twelve were the last to be begun. Therefore, men [were] let down into the stream [with] concrete blocks till they made a circle of forty feet diameter above water. Next they got rid of the water, replaced it with approximately dry land, by filling in the circle with silt, and through this artificial island drove their pier. To begin such piers in the end of April was an insult, flat and flagrant, to the experience of the Bridge building elders, and to the majesty of the Sutlej alike. But the river was the more important of the two. There was the dead certainty that it would come down not later than the end of June, and the lively possibility that it might do so earlier. Not only was it necessary to get the piers in, but to get them sunk well beyond the reach of the scour of the flood. In short, the reputation of the Department, a few hundred thousand cubic feet of masonry and concrete, and some lakhs of the public money (one lakh is 100,000), were at the mercy of a reprobate stream. Men worked in those days by thousands, in the blinding sun glare, and in the choking hot night under the light of flare-lamps, building the masonry, dredging and sinking, and sinking and dredging-out. By the first week in June all the piers were down to the reasonably safe distance of fifty feet; and a half were sunk to the full depth of seventy-six feet. The Engineers took breath and waited.

Then the floods came, and many lively things happened, including a small cyclone which smashed up a bridge-of-boats; but the piers stood firm, being protected from the scour of [by ?] vast quantities of concrete blocks which had been piled round them. In August the depth of the river, within fifty yards of some of the piers, was over forty feet, or nearly as deep as the foundations of some of the shallower sunk piers. Then the Engineers watched and prayed day and night, and slept uneasily in their beds. After the floods and the rains, came fever of a malignant type, and many coolies died. It was the price the Sutlej took for allowing the piers to stand. After September there was no serious difficulty to be encountered, and on Christmas Eve, 1886, the last pier was home to its full depth, and there was rejoicing in the little colony above the river bed. For the Sutlej had given them their Christmas-box.

Indeed, hearing the Story of the Bridge, bit by bit, from one man and another, it is impossible not to catch the enthusiasm of these hard-headed men of girders and masonry — to see the labouring stripped gangs yelling and screaming under the still lamps through the hot May nights, while the whisper of the river between the piers bade them make haste, and the clank and rattle and grind of the dredgers, answered the voice of the stream. When these men pat caressingly the huge flank of some pier, well nigh throat-deep in sand, and say: — ‘She gave us a lot of trouble last year’ — the inclination to smile does not come over the unprofessional mind till it is out of the range of the influences of the Bridge — out of the bitter chill shade, the keen dry wind that twangs like a strained wire as it hurries over the sand — out of the raw untempered white sunshine, where each rift and borrow-pit throws a deep indigo- blue shadow — out of the hearing of the clang of the rivetters, the straining and clanking of the cranes, and the grumble of the concrete-blocks shot over the barge sides into the river — till it is disconnected, in fact, from the terribly eager, restless, driving life that fills the river-bed, and falls back once more on everyday existence.

But to escape the tumult, one must go far, for the works extend in some shape or other over seven or eight miles. At either end of the Bridge they are building two great embankments of different levels — the lower to carry the train, and the higher the cart-road that runs above the train. Here the whole face of the country is scarred and scraped and scooped for the earth of the roadways. There is a faint feverish smell from the damp silt soil, and everywhere the eye falls on interminable processions of donkeys and donkey-drivers — laden beasts climbing up, and unladen ones going down. The sound of the thousands of little hoofs on the soft earth, and the never-ending ‘thud’ of the loads as they are tipped off, makes a bass drone, to which the rattle and thump of the donkey boys’ sticks supplies a staccato treble accompaniment. The boys do not seem to talk, or the donkeys to fight. There is nothing but the hot sun overhead, the sickly reek from the ground, and the subdued sound of toil. From the cart-road that is to be, or higher embankment, one looks out over the Bridge works generally, and understands in some small measure how vast they are. Far as the eye can reach, through the sand-haze up stream, stretch the protective works — two massive bunds, twenty feet across at the top, flaring away like a huge V from each end of the Bridge, till they enclose, three miles off, a space of five miles in which the river can riot as it please — certain of being guided straight at the Bridge. These bunds are faced with concrete slabs, and planted with shisham seedlings (Indian rosewood trees, yielding hard timber).

On the top of each runs a railway, which can carry at once material to any portion of the face that may need strengthening, or supply stone to the ten spurs with which each bund is studded. These spurs run parallel with the line of the bridge, and take their share in curbing the river. The quarries of Rohri, Tarakhi and Tusham were laid under contribution for the material here, and one sees, on the Raiwind side, snowy white, and on the Ferozepore, dull brown spurs standing out against the dusty background of the bund — miles away across the levels of the Sutlej.

There are something like one hundred and fifty lakhs of cubic feet of earthwork in the protection bunds. There are sixteen lakhs of cubic feet of quarried stone in the twenty spurs and the noses thereof. There are fifteen lakhs of cubic feet of concrete blocks, made on the banks of the river, in the facing of the bunds. The appetite for figures is an acquired and American one.

Turning from the bunds to the Bridge itself, waiting to be joined on to the embankment, one asks for more figures and gets them. There are fifteen lakhs of cubic feet of masonry and concrete in the twenty-seven piers of the Bridge, and on top of these lie six thousand tons of iron-work — all of which, here comes the inevitable reminder — ‘is ordinary you know — quite ordinary. You should see the Hugli bridge, or the Sikkur, if you want heroic engineering’. The same insular pride prompts Englishmen of all professions to say of any work done, ‘It is nothing to what we can do or have done somewhere else.’ Public Works Departmentally speaking, the Sutlej Bridge is nothing out of the way; the only point about it being the short space in which it will be finished; for it will be opened, they hope, in April or thereabouts. But it is fitting enough at the price in all conscience — this stern line of brick and iron, guarded by bund and spur, throbbing from end to end with human life, and set in the centre of a town of ten thousand folk of all kinds, from changar earth-workers, to Suratee men learned in ropes, tackles, blocks, and falls, and West Indian creoles controlling the pile-driver. At one time the Bridge took fifteen thousand men to attend to its needs. Bricks and concrete blocks are made five miles from the Rewari end, and are brought in by rail; girders and material lie along the line three miles from the Ferozepore end; and between the two points a large floating and permanent population is scattered.

In a couple of months or so everything will be done with, used up, dispersed or turned to fresh ends; for this lazy Government of ours is never at rest. (It ordered the Bridge to be built, because it wished to connect Ferozepore Arsenal (armaments factory) and the Rajputana Railway system with the Frontier.) The changars will disperse to where fresh embankments call for their baskets and strong arms; the services of the straddling cranes, vicious pile-drivers, and sun-baked Engineers will be ‘replaced at the disposal of their respective departments’; the gear-strewn riverbed and earthworks will be cleaned up and smoothed down, and the stories and associations connected with the building of the Bridge will die out with the marks of the temporary lines. Perhaps a Viceroy or a Lieutenant-Governor will come and open that Bridge. Lastly, over the place where men toiled and sickened and died, and fought with the turbulent Sutlej, the train will pass with a rattle and a roar; as the first-class passenger, too indifferent to look out, yawns: ‘Hullo! There is a bridge!’