Book Review: Why call Ganga a Machine?

Guest Blog by Ramya Swayamprakash (

BOOK REVIEW: Ganges Water Machine: Designing New India’s Ancient River. Anthony Acciavatti; Applied Research + Design Publishing, 402 pp, March 15, 2015. ISBN: 9780982622612

I stumbled upon The Ganges Water Machine while looking for literature on urbanization and rivers in India. Written by architectural historian Anthony Acciavatti, the book is the result of a decade long journey through the Ganges basin, “an atlas — a dynamic atlas — of the Ganges Machine: a collection of transects that expose the juxtaposing layers of infrastructure and adjoining landforms” (P8). At a time, when the Ganges is seeing a surge of talk (and perhaps activity) about cleaning the river, this book is a timely inquiry in to how the Ganges river basin came to be the vast agrarian landscape that it is. This is perhaps the first time, the spatial dimensions of the multifarious historical and material processes at play in the Ganges basin with regards to irrigation have been explored.


The book borrows its title from an scientific article  published in 1975, “the article designated what others had yet to claim since the opening of the Ganges Canal 121 years earlier” (p8). Charting the course of the river, from  the origin at Gaumukh to the city of Varanasi, the book describes the variety in scale and nature of the vast irrigation infrastructures along the way – canals, tanks, tube-wells, as well as the socio-cultural practices that make the Ganges, the holiest river in Hindu mythology. Through the concept of the Almanac, the author aims to collapse the multitude of timeframes that operate simultaneously.

In Part 1, the Ganges river basin is introduced, contextualizing it historically and geographically. Utilizing early surveyors’ methods, memories, the author discusses the admixture of representative techniques necessary and used to make sense of this territory. At the time surveying was first undertaken, this territory was being expanded; indeed the combination of the measured map with the perspective paintings in the initial surveys during the early nineteen century was a means to make the landscape legible as “a field of specific places” (p33). In contextualizing the basin, the author compares the Ganges basin to seven others across the world to give a sense of the water management bureaucracy as well as show just the intensely irrigated and the choreographed landscape. In a captivating subsection on the Monsoon in India and specifically in regard to  the Ganges basin, Acciavatti reveals the dynamic nature of the landscape — seasonal cycles through crop rotation, movement of soil and water.

In Part 2, Acciavatti chronicles the construction of the Ganges Canal in the Ganga-Jumna Doab. The canal, the educational (engineering education had a seminal relationship with the proliferation of irrigation infrastructure) and administrative machinery behind it was a part of the “peaceful conquest” of the basin and India as a whole and was to become a model of this new “culture of peace”. “In choosing to intervene through artificial hydrology, the culture of peace and peaceful conquest inaugurated a new engineering motive: hydraulic pastoralism” (P 118). This new agrarian rhythm transformed the Ganges Basin into a landscape of production. The canal became a means for the British East India company (and later the British Crown) to take a more active role in governing populations. Designed by Sir Proby Cautley, the Ganges Canal re-layers the landscape imposing a new spatial and political organization through almost fantastical piece of hydraulic architecture such as level-crossings, super-passages and aqueduct as well as the deployment of  a new (more legible) agrarian grid.

Various fish species in Ganga Basin. Refer to the Primer for more information.
Various fish species in Ganga Basin. Refer to the Primer for more information.

In Part 3, Acciavatti introduces the “super-surface” – dense with irrigation technologies- to talk about the coming of tube-well technology, decentralization and democratization of the irrigation system. Beginning as a stop-gap mechanism till electrification was completed, oil fed tube-wells have now become an seminal part of the irrigated landscape. The coming of the tube-well gave the Ganges Water Machine a boost.  The Green Revolution monumentally transformed agrarian landscapes and rhythms. Tube-wells offered a diversification of the irrigation infrastructure; changes in land holding patterns due to government policies have an important impact on groundwater extraction as well as access and use of canal water. According to Acciavatti, pump irrigation and canal irrigation, despite their different spatial and institutional trajectories, overlap and work synchronously in the basin, defying singular representations. This section brings into sharp focus the limits of heavily centralized canal machinery like the Ganges water canals. Tube-wells were a ad-hoc solution that took on a life of their own. However, the question does need to be asked, are tube-wells true harbingers of a democratization of the irrigation system, especially access to this tube-wells?

In Part 4, Acciavatti attempts at bringing together the dynamic processes chronicled in the previous sections. Taking the reader from Allahabad to Varanasi, the section traces the every expanding territory of the Ganges basin: as political and cultural arena. While infrastructures such as dams and centralized canal systems are thought of as being permanent fixtures, cities can be ephemeral as Acciavatti shows through the examples of the Kumbh and Magh Mela – “offering a dynamic model of urban space in northern india”. Acciavatti contents that, planned on the fluctuating and truant Ganges river bed, these two ‘planned cities’ welcome millions of pilgrims for a few days, transformed into fields of rice and wheat, only to disappear again. These cities hold important lessons for Indian cities, given how the informal and formal coincide and co-exist. But perhaps most importantly, it shows just how fluid urbanization can be – spatially and temporally. Given the long histories of Kumbh Mela and Magh Mela and and the relatively short history of the Ganges river canals, one wonders which is actually ephemeral, a canal system that is made to last a few decades or centuries at best, or a city that periodically rises and disappears, across centuries?


Through six transects, Acciavatti attempts at showing the various layers and components that make this geography a reality. Transects can be very important tools to visualize changes. However, in the case of the Ganges basin, one wonders, what is the analytical novelty in each of the transect?

The book is a rich photographic archive, offering powerful maps and visualizations. Visualizations of the super-surface, seasonal rhythms are especially powerful. However, for a reader, there were places where the text and visualizations did not always work synchronously. The historical section, although well researched and represented, is perhaps missing a more robust mapping of urbanization prior to and as an effect of the Ganges canals.

Given the timing, it is surprising to note that the author does not discuss the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) and other schemes to clean the river. While he can be forgiven for not engaging with the National Mission for Clean Ganga, the GAP is an important (if flawed) intervention aiming to mitigate the effects of urbanization and industry on the river. As more of India begins to live in cities, urbanization is perhaps one of the biggest stressor on the Ganges basin. Mapping the GAP in relation to the Ganges Water Machine might reveal a richer narrative that would analyze the mechanisms at play further. The author also fails to take into consideration the increasing number of hydropower projects and diversions and impacts thereof on the river. Another important component of the ‘Ganges water machine’ – ecologically, socially, economically and historically – that the author fails to engage with are the fish and fishers of the Ganges.  In mapping the interconnectedness of the basin, one wonders why the author does not explore the effects of downstream infrastructures such as the Farakka Barrage on the lives and livelihoods along the Ganges.

As a “dynamic atlas” that aims “to reveal the narrative and developing spatial logics that generate this vast mega-infrastructural machine and its urbanism”, the book is not fully able to provide legibility to the vast basin and the various processes and actors at play.


 -Ramya Swayamprakash (

Post Script An interview with the author of the book has been published here:

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Why call Ganga a Machine?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.