Ujhla Bridge or Ujhala Bridge, Mirzapur

A small river flowing to the west of Mirzapur disgorges itself into the River Ganges. It intersects the road leading from Mirzapur to Vindhyachal. This is the Ujhla River or ‘Nullah’, as the British referred to it. Though a small river in comparison to the Rivers like Ganges and Yamuna, the Ujhla presented a great deal of hindrance to the travellers wanting to cross it to reach Vindhychal from Mirzapur or vice versa.  This was during the days when there was no bridge across the river.

This article is about the first bridge across the Ujhla, the construction of which was possible because of the munificence of a local high priest. Numerous public works dot our country which were erected due to the large financial contributions of Indian men and women – both known and unknown.

Despite being a small river, the Ujhla presented a considerable challenge to travellers wanting to cross it. The banks of the river are high, nearly 50 feet high and steep on both sides, for about a few kilometres upstream and some metres downstream before the high banks suddenly drop to the level of the rivers. During monsoons the rivers swelled up considerably and with it the sandbank, where the Ujhla met the Ganges, would get flooded for months.

During the British rule, and possibly before that as well, the road connecting Mirzapur and Vindhyachal was an important trade road. Large consignments of goods like cotton and grain loaded on carts made their way to Mirzapur, and from Mirzapur sugar and lac were exported to places like Allahabad and Banda via this road. The immense difficulty the merchants and traders faced in crossing a river with high and steep banks by breaking bulk is not difficult to imagine. Moreover, much before the arrival of EIC to the territories, the Vindhyavasini Temple at Vindhyachal was an important centre of pilgrimage for Hindus. Huge droves of Hindus would make their way to the temple during auspicious days in the Hindu Calendar. Those travelling from the east would have had to cross the Ujhla River and its precipitous banks. A bridge would, undoubtedly, make their journey less perilous.

In the 1830s, an Indian named Bansidhur presented Rs 12,000 to the magistrate for the construction of a bridge across the Ujhla.[1] However that didn’t materialise. Later, another Indian offered Rs 38,000 for a bridge.[2] However, the offer was withdrawn. The engineers who surveyed the river for the possible construction of a bridge reported that it was impossible to erect a masonry bridge across the river since its nature was fickle. Instead, they suggested a suspension bridge for fording the river. The Indian wanted only a masonry bridge and therefore refused to fund a suspension bridge.

It was in 1848, when a plan of constructing a bridge over the Ujhla was taken up earnestly. It so happened that Major Markham Kittoe, an officer with great interest in both archaeology and architecture, visited Mirzapur as part of the team of Lord Hardinge, the Governor General. Kittoe expressed interest in visiting the Fort of Kantit which was situated south of the Vindhyavasini Temple. He was accompanied by Mr Wigram E. Money, the Collector of Mirzapur.[3]

Below is the verbatim account of what followed once they reached the right bank of the Ujhla River:

The banks are precipitous, and their descent and ascent very steep and dangerous; and during the rains the road was often closed for days on account of the violence of the torrent, by which hundreds of lives were formerly lost. The whole of the drainage of the country from the foot of the hills, for miles around, passed through this outlet, and comes down sometimes instantaneously and carries everything with it.

I suggested to Mr Money the great advantage of a bridge. He asked me if I considered it practicable; which I did. He told me many years ago, 38,000 rupees have been given by a native gentleman for that purpose, but that the Engineer Officers consulted, pronounced a masonry work to be impracticable, and wished to have a suspension bridge, which the native refused to subscribe to as being perishable.

Mr Money, ever ready to promote useful undertakings, asked me to put my ideas on paper. We went some way up the nullah examining the banks  both above and below. A sheet of country paper was sent for and a reed pen and ink. I made a sketch of the banks and nullah, and measured the span at a convenient spot, and then sketched a bridge of three arches, little differing from the present structure.

I subsequently at Mr Money’s request, prepared a small coloured drawing and gave a rough estimate; and in less than a week from the date Mahunt Pursaram Geer had promised to build; and had placed 10,000 rupees at our disposal. We at once commenced operations and carried them on under the superintendence of an old European pensioner overseer, and under the care of Mr Money, Major Stewart, Mr C. Hamilton and other gentlemen, who took lively interest in the work, which I visited as often as was necessary to instruct as to the course of operations, and thus has this great structure been carried on to completion.

Going by the information at hand, the construction of the bridge started sometime in 1849. The proposal with respect to acquisition of land for the approaches to the bridge to be constructed over the Ujhla Nullah were submitted to the Sudder Board of Revenue on 23 July 1851. The acquisition of land for approaches to the said bridge on either side of the nullah were confirmed by 5 September of the year.[4]

The bridge was completed in two years or so, the opening happening in 1851. Though when the report on the completion of this project was submitted in 1852, the shops that were planned to be built on the approach roads on either side were still under construction. [5]

The construction of the bridge was done in a novel way to which Major Kittoe laid a claim as being the originator. This construction style, claimed Kittoe, ensured a great saving as also, and more importantly, stability of the structure. Major Kittoe was quite proud of his design and construction plan that he sent a detailed and a larger of it to the Governor General in the hope that he would forward the same to the Court of Directors in London.

The initial estimated cost of the bridge was Rs 30,000 but the cost overshot that by Rs 5000 because of, as Kittoe claimed, the inaccurate estimation of requisite masonry work that entailed. [6]

Major Kittoe gives a detailed account of how he went about constructing the bridge.

My first operation was to dig trial shafts in each bank, which were sunk twenty-five feet; in fact twenty-three below the mud and water-mark of the dry season, and many under the lowest fall of the Ganges, distant 200 yards more or less. A stiff clay, with branches of blue kunker interspersed, was found uniformly to this depth; therefore there was no apprehension on account of the abutments and of the eastern pier. We dug our foundation to 17 feet below the water-mark, and posited our first course on the hard clay. The western pier, however, had to be carried deeper, as the clay was not as firm at the same depth. We had but little difficulty as the water was easily bailed out with baskets and well-buckets, and the clay being so firm generally that the slips were few. Our material, I should remark, has been stone and kunker lime throughout. 

Our work was exceedingly easy up to the spring of the arches, a height of 42 feet from the level of the lowest water-mark and above the foundation; which, as I here shown, averages 17 feet lower, – total 59 feet to the spring of the arches: the spread up and down the stream being 41 feet, and sideways 15 feet.

The piers and abutments are built on the batter, with 5-inch off-sets at every 10 feet, and half an inch in the foot batter. The first three steps, counting from the foundation, upper course (which is 16 feet) are 10 each (as stated above), and the fourth 12 feet, with no batter, except to the cut-waters. At this level the ribs spring from skewbacks cut out of blocks of stone.

The arches of this bridge are segmental, pointed, the radius of the arcs being 36 feet; the versed sine or rather rise, being near one-third or 15 feet for the two side arches of 50 feet span each, and 20’ for the centre arch, which is 60 feet span. The construction of these arches is one peculiar feature of this bridge.

Then Kittoe goes on to describe his experience in building bridges before this one and what design elements he experimented with. He, during his experience of working with Major Willis on the Grand Trunk Road and assisting in building bridges at other places, found that for a masonry bridge to be strong and stable the whole span of the bridge should be divided into several sections, and that for each section the piers need to be constructed of ‘sufficient strength, and of such form as to enable them to act as abutments in themselves, to sustain the pressure of the separate portions’.

The final design of the bridge was Gothic, and it included some unique features. It was not a simple masonry bridge with a road supported by piers. Kittoe’s design resulted in formation of spaces below the road, on the lower level of the bridge. These spaces could be reached by flight of stairs located midway of the bridge on either side of the road. Further, on both sides of the approach roads, two floors of shops were built. One at the level of the road the other one on a lower level as can be seen in the appended illustrations of the bridge by Major Kittoe himself. Today, they are bare shells, some in a state of ruin while some being misused by the public as dumping ground. But 150 years ago, these shops would have witnessed hectic activity, as merchants and traders brought their goods here either to use as storage, transhipment or used as retail shops.  In all likelihood, the lower level rooms were used as storerooms.

Kittoe made tremendous contribution to the understanding of India’s past. He was indefatigable in his effort to search for remnants of ancient buildings and inscriptions. He wrote several papers for the Asiatic society of Bengal on Indian antiquities. Besides, he was involved in the designing and construction of some iconic buildings, like the Sanskrit College at Benares. [7] He designed and built bridges too.

An officer of the 6th Regiment Native Infantry, Major Kittoe, supposedly was a man of a difficult disposition. Earlier, in 1837, he was dismissed from the army by the general court martial for ‘insubordinate, disrespectful and litigious conduct’,[8] but later he was reinstated with the help of his friend, Mr Prinsep.[9] He was of the 6th Regiment Native Infantry.

He died at a young age of 44 years and 5 months sometime in the first half of April 1853,[10] within a year following the completion of the Ujhla Bridge. He took ill in January of the same year when in India and subsequently he put in a request for a furlough to England to improve his health. However, his condition worsened during the voyage back to England.[11] Within three weeks of landing in England, he died at Coddenham, Suffolk.[12]

The Mr E. A. Reade, Commissioner of Benares Division, said of the bridge: ‘Whatever difference of opinion there may be as to the style, or the principle of its construction, the Oojhla bridge is undoubtedly a great public improvement, and promises to be lasting.’ [13]

The Commissioner was right about its lasting usage. For 170 years this bridge has facilitated an unbroken thoroughfare between Mirzapur and Vindhyachal to travellers both on foot and in various types of vehicles. For over 50 years, the heaviest vehicles that plied over the bridge were loaded carts pulled by animal draught. We can add elephants with their mahouts too. It is to the credit of the architect Mr Kittoe, that the bridge has unfailingly taken the weight of motor vehicles for nearly hundred years – even loaded trucks and buses traversed, and continue to traverse, over this same bridge. Not to mention surviving the torrential flow of water during heavy monsoons and floods that the region is prone to.

(Watch this video of the flooded Uljha River: https://public.app/video/sp_ptascbonswl4u)

[1]‘Asiatic Intelligence’, The Asiatic Journal and the Monthly Register for British and Foreign India, China and Australasia, Volume XXVI, New Series, May-August 1838 (London: Wm. H Allen and Co., 1838), p. 25. Google Books Accessed June 2014.

[2] ‘Bridge over the Oojhla Nullah, West of the Town of Mirzapore’, Selections from the Records of the Government, North Western Provinces, Volume III, Part XII to XXI (Agra: Secundra Orphan Press, 1855), pp. 85-86. Hathitrust, accessed on 30 August 2020, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/hvd.32044105328660.

[3] Source hidden by author

[4] ‘Bridge over the Oojhla Nullah, West of the Town of Mirzapore’, op. cit. This is from a cover letter from Mr E. A. Reade, the Commissioner of Benares Division to the Secretary to Government, North Western Provinces dated 2 June 1852.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] A. Cunningham, ‘Introduction’, Archaeological Survey of India: Four Reports made during the year 1862-63-64-65, Volume I (Simla: Government Central Press, 1871), p. xxv. Hathitrust, accessed 18 September 2021, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/umn.31951p010432428

[8] Source hidden by author

[9] A. Cunningham, ‘Introduction’, op. cit.

[10] Source hidden by author

[11] A. Cunningham, ‘Introduction’, op. cit.

[12] Source hidden by author

[13] ‘Bridge over the Oojhla Nullah, West of the Town of Mirzapore’, op. cit.