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The Remarkable Tale of the Gohna Lake (1893-1970), Garhwal

- A 77-year existence

By James Champion


Gohna Lake 1894 and 2006

There can be few lakes around the World with as short, but interesting, a history as the Gohna Lake, which lasted from 1893 until 1970, but during its short history, it nonetheless made its presence felt, both in the destruction it caused when the "dam" breached, and in the stirring story of the elaborate precautions that Lieut.-Colonel Pulford, Lieut. Crookshank and T H Holland took in setting up the warning system that enabled so many lives to be saved.

 

"Three daysí journey up the left bank of the Ganges and you have reached the ancient capital of Garhwal, Shreenagar, an historic, religious, and trading centre of considerable importance and of great beauty, nestling in a wide, open valley surrounded by high mountains. It was here, in the year 1805, that the forebears of the Garhwali soldiers who have fought so gallantly in two world wars made their last, and unsuccessful, stand against the Gurkha invaders, and it is a matter of great regret to the people of Garhwal that their ancient city of Shreenagar, together with the palaces of their kings, was swept away, to the last stone, by the bursting of the Gohna Lake dam in 1894. This dam, caused by a landslide in the valley of the Birehi Ganga, a tributary of the Ganges, was 11000 feet wide at the base, 2000 feet wide at the summit, and 900 feet high, and when it burst, ten billion cubic feet of water were released in the short space of six hours. So well (warned/expected) was the bursting of the dam that, though the flood devastated the valley of the Ganges right down to Hardwar and swept away every bridge, only one family was lost, the members of which had returned to the danger-zone after having been forcibly removed from it".

So wrote the legendary hunter Jim Corbett in his work "The Man-eating Leopard of Rudraprayag".

In November, 2006, I had the opportunity to visit this remarkable area, nestled deep in a valley in the Garhwal Himalaya, as part of a quest to trace the steps of my great grandfather, Capt (later Major General Sir) Keith Stewart (DSO, KCB), of the Royal Garhwal Rifles and my grandfather (the formerís son-in-law) F W Champion, OBE, IFS. Capt Stewart had visited the newly-formed Gohna Lake in 1894, just before the great bursting of the dam referred to by Corbett above, and photographed the water rising threateningly behind the wall of mud, rubble and rocks that had blocked the valley a year before, allowing a lake to form.

Even after the breaching, this lake later became a mecca for fishermen, and was visited by my grandparents, F W Champion, and his wife Julia (daughter of Capt Keith Stewart) in May 1936. They stayed for 18 days in the area, and chronicled their experiences in an article in the Indian State Railways Magazine.

 

Read the complete article in the South Asian Life & Times (SALT) April - June 2008 issue

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