On 28th September 1908, Hyderabad’s Musi River burst its banks, obliterating everything that stood in its way. The sixth Nizam of Hyderabad State, Mir Mahbub Ali Pasha (r. 1869-1911), lost no time driving into the city, negotiating the swirling waters to survey the situation. Stunned by the large-scale death and destruction that he witnessed, the Nizam broke down in public, a heart-rending scene immortalised by Sarojini Naidu in her poem Tears of Asif.
Next day, on 29th September, although the rain had stopped, large parts of the city were still submerged and people were struggling to cope with the aftermath. Many were clinging to trees, hundreds were huddled on rooftops and thousands were left homeless and dead.
The benevolent Nizam took the advice of Hindu priests, who urged him to “placate the angry river goddess” with a puja. “The Nizam stood for religious tolerance. He performed puja and asked the river to calm down as the priests had requested,” says Hyderabad-based research scholar Syed Inamur Rahman. As part of the puja, the Nizam made offerings of diamonds, other precious stones and a golden sword to the river. It is said that within hours, the flood waters started receding but not before they left a trail of devastation in their wake.
The flood, still considered the ‘worst tragedy in Hyderabad’s history’, was the result of a cloudburst on the night of 27-28th September and it had all but obliterated the Afzal Gunj area in the Old City. According to archival information, nearly 19,000 houses were destroyed, around 15,000 people died and 80,000 were rendered homeless in Hyderabad. Loss of property was estimated at Rs 3 crore, a massive sum for that time.
In its issue dated 2nd October 1908, the Los Angeles Herald said of the floods: “The correspondent of a local paper who has reached Hyderabad, the capital of the flooded district, describes that city as a vast grave. The streets and basements have been transformed into a gruesome mass of stone and mud and decomposed flesh. It is impossible to accurately estimate the death roll, the correspondent declares, but some natives put it as high as 50,000. Six hundred corpses were taken out of the mud at one spot yesterday. The funeral pyres are burning day and night. The damage is estimated at 200,000,000 rupees (sic).”
Noted engineer Sir Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya, who later played an instrumental role in Hyderabad’s modernisation, had mentioned in his autobiography, Memoirs Of My Working Life, that “the rainfall recorded at Shamshabad, one of the principal rain-gauge stations in the catchment area, was 12.8 inches in 24 hours (28-29th September) and 18.9 inches in 48 hours (27-29th September).”
In his autobiography, Visvesvaraya explains that the north bank of the Musi was lower than the south bank. Within the city, in certain areas at higher levels, the river basin thrived in small tanks. There were 788 such tanks in a basin of 860 square miles, which is about one tank for every square mile in the catchment area. Of these, 221 tanks were breached, resulting in the floods. The rainfall was severe, but had so many tanks not breached simultaneously and released an unprecedented volume of water into the river, the flood waters would not have risen to the extraordinary heights that they did.
There were four bridges across the Musi — Purana Pul, Musallam Jung Bridge, Naya Pul or Afzal Gunj Bridge and Chaderghat Bridge — connecting the Old City of Hyderabad to the new city. On the night of 27-28 September, around 2 am, the flood waters had reached Purana Pul. They continued to rise through the wee hours, until 11 am the next day, submerging the bridge. Though Purana Pul stood its ground, the approach to the bridge from both banks was cut off.
“The north bank was affected more than the south bank due to a lot of encroachments. In 1903, too, there was a similar situation, when parts of the north bank were flooded after heavy rain. In those days, there used to be a standing instruction from the government of Hyderabad, asking people not construct near the river bank, but nobody followed those directives,” says historian Sajjad Shahid.
Of the four bridges, Chaderghat was worst-hit and collapsed partially. Chaderghat and its surrounding areas bore the brunt of the flood’s fury and the loss of life and property here was significantly higher as compared to other affected areas. The old and new parts of the city were cut off.
Tree of Life
As the floodwaters swept up everything on the Musi’s banks, a tamarind tree at Afzal Park on the river bank offered sanctuary to dozens of people. As the angry waters and strong currents swirled beneath its canopy, the tree saved the lives of more than 150 people who clung to it for dear life.
Today, the tree stands stoically in the compound of the Osmania General Hospital, which was built in 1919 on the site of Afzal Gunj Hospital that was destroyed in the floods. A board nailed to the tree trunk reads, ‘This tree saved the lives of about 150 persons in the Great Moosi Flood of 1908’.
In 2002, eminent Telugu novelist, short story writer, poet, critic and Jnanpith award winner, Ravuri Bharadwaja, had called the tree ‘Prana Dhatri’ (life-giver). Famous Urdu poet Amjad Hyderabadi was one of the 150 people had clung on to the tamarind tree. “But his entire family, including his mother, wife and daughter, was washed away. He, later, wrote a poem ‘Qayamat-e-Soghra’ detailing his personal tragedy and miraculous escape. He wrote sarcastically that while the great deluge could not take his life, just ‘chullu bhar paani’ (a handful of water) was enough to drown many people,” says Rahman.
Acknowledging the role of the tree during the floods, INTACH-Hyderabad chapter presented a heritage award to the tree in 2009. INTACH-Hyderabad convenor P. Anuradha Reddy adds, “In 2009, we had also organised a reading of the poem under the tree.”
During the rescue operation, many people were found stranded inside their homes, stuck on rooftops, or clinging on to trees. “Nobody could have stopped the mammoth flooding because the rain was unprecedented. There was large scale devastation, bodies were found even days after the flood, some half stuck in mud. The administration opened the palace gates to the people and communal kitchens were set up to feed the starving,” explains Rahman.
The administration also ensured that patients at Victoria Zenana Hospital, on the banks of Musi, were moved to safety, he says, adding, “It was an exclusive hospital for women and maternity cases. No harm came on a single patient at the hospital.”
However, not everyone was lucky. In the famed Dewan Devdi, once the residence of Salar Jungs, many shops were reduced to rubble. Afzal Gunj hospital was destroyed. The spot where the hospital once was, today stands Osmania General Hospital, built in 1919 by Mir Osman Ali Khan, the seventh and last Nizam of the Hyderabad state. Many stranded in Begum Bazar, one of the oldest and biggest commercial markets located near Naya Pul or Afzal Gunj bridge, had to be rescued using boats.
The house of Md Fayazuddin, city planner and chief architect of Hyderabad state, was washed away. “He was just five when the floods struck. His house was on the banks of Musi. He survived miraculously and was brought up by his sister and brother-in-law. He went on to study in Government City College, located close to the High Court. A drawing teacher in the college recognised his talent in art and sponsored him to go to Sir JJ College of Architecture, in Bombay (now Mumbai). In 1944, he went on to make the first master plan of the city,” says Reddy. Fayazuddin has designed many important landmarks in Hyderabad, such as Ravindra Bharathi and Gandhi Bhavan.
Sir Visvesvaraya’s Grand Design
The flood of 1908 was a turning point for Hyderabad as it redefined the city’s future and landscape. The Nizam wanted an engineer to assess the damage and find solutions to prevent the recurrence of a catastrophe of this magnitude. an engineer to assess the damage and find solutions to prevent recurrence of a catastrophe of that magnitude. “Those days Sir George Walker, an Indian Civil Service officer, was part of the Nizam’s administration. He wanted a British officer-led commission to be set up to study the cause of the flood,” says Rahman.
However, Ali Nawab Jung, an engineer, objected to the idea and insisted that the commission be headed by Sir Visvesvaraya, who is credited for the construction of the iconic Krishna Raja Sagar dam across the river Cauvery in Karnataka. He also built intricate irrigation systems in the Deccan Plateau, the floodgates of Khadakvasla Reservoir near Pune and Tigra Dam in Gwalior.
According to his autobiography, Sir Visvesvaraya was in Milan, Italy, when he received a letter that communicated a cable from the Governor of Bombay, dated 29th October 1908. The message read: “Nizam’s Government are anxious to secure services of Visvesvaraya, Superintending Engineer, to advise and assist in the reconstruction of Hyderabad and prepare a drainage scheme.”
Visvesvaraya reached Hyderabad on 15th April 1909 and joined the administration as a special consulting engineer for Hyderabad State. After carrying out extensive surveys, he said that for Hyderabad to be safe from the Musi’s wrath, storage reservoirs or lakes would have to be built.
Osman Sagar and Himayat Sagar
On Sir Visvesvaraya’s proposal, two reservoir dams — Osman Sagar and Himayat Sagar — were built in 1920 and 1927, respectively. These were part of Sir Visvesvaraya’s two-pronged strategy to tame floods and provide drinking water to people in Hyderabad. Mir Osman Ali Khan laid the foundation stone of Osman Sagar on March 23, 1913, and the picturesque reservoir brimmed with water in 1920. The reservoirs, located about 20km outside Hyderabad, were built parallel to each other and blocked the entry of water into the Musi outside city limits.
“After the floods, the authorities began thinking of improving the infrastructure, both in terms of preventing floods as well as droughts. To serve this dual purpose, the Nizam roped in Sir Visvesvaraya. Based on the advice of Sir Visvesvaraya, a planned system to channelise the water flow, which included lakes and stormwater drains, was put in place. The drainage system of those times is still among the best,” says Reddy.
Unprecedented planning went into the design and construction of the reservoirs. Material was sourced through a special railway line laid for the project. “At that time, the population of Hyderabad was around 4 lakh, but thanks to the foresight of the administration, they built these reservoirs to cater to the needs of 13 lakh people,” says Rahman.
These reservoirs have prevented flash floods in Hyderabad for the past century. The occasional flooding of city localities now is not due to overflowing of Musi, but due to encroachments on channels that drain the rainwater into the numerous lakes dotting the city. Talking about Osman Sagar, Reddy says it’s not a mere water body, but part of the engineering and architectural heritage of the princely Hyderabad state. “Sir Visvesvaraya not only designed the two lakes, but he also designed the sewage and stormwater drains in the city, so that this kind of flooding doesn’t recur,” she adds.
City Improvement Trust
The flood of 1908 was one of the major triggers for the modernisation of Hyderabad, and to achieve this, the City Improvement Board (CIB) was set up by Nizam Mir Osman Ali Khan in 1912. Heading it was his son Mahbub Ali Khan. Together, father and son overhauled the city’s core public infrastructure and medical facilities, and Hyderabad never saw another flood of that magnitude again.
Under the CIB, some well-known historical structures in the city were built, such as the High Court, Government City College, Osmania General Hospital, Unani Hospital and Kachiguda Railway Station. The CIB also drew up redevelopment plans to decongest slums in the city.
The Musi Today
The Musi River today is no more than a drainage canal and it is impossible to imagine that this river had once brought Hyderabad to its knees. Post-Independence, the river has been systematically ravaged by untreated sewage and industrial waste that has flowed into it and by encroachments along its banks.
The two buffer reservoirs, Osman Sagar and Himayat Sagar, too have taken the fall. Over the past few years, even though several parts of Hyderabad have received excess rainfall, leaving several residential areas inundated, the two reservoirs haven’t been getting many inflows. Shahid flags the encroachment of the reservoirs’ catchment areas as a possible reason for the absence of water inflow. “The government is the pioneer of encroachments. They are the ones who triggered massive developments in the catchment area of Osman Sagar. No relief should be given to these people who have encroached on the catchment area. If you interfere with natural drainage, you are bound to suffer,” says Shahid.
– ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aveek Bhowmik is an independent journalist with over 18 years of experience. He is an avid traveller and a passionate storyteller who likes to write about heritage, lost traditions, local communities, food and sports.