Water mills, also known as gharat have been serving native communities in hills of Uttarakhand possibly for hundreds of years. Till a few decades back, the indigenously developed technique was only source of crushing variety of grains to produce flour. The symbols of ancient wisdom have been mostly lying in ruins in Chauthan patti (belt). This account explores reasons behind the gradual desertion of gharat culture which was once indispensable part of the local community there.
The gharat culture
The Gharat structures are built close to rivulets, streams in Himalayan region mainly by individuals mostly with voluntary support by the dependent communities.
The construction and operation of gharat has negligible impact on streams and aquatic life. The unique system is manually operated and requires no fossil fuel. Most of native dwellers are familiar with it’s functioning.
The owner is responsible for maintenance. The services are offered on barter basis. A small portion of flour locally termed as bhagwar is offered by the beneficiaries. It is an outstanding example of community cooperation.
Functioning of a gharat
Usually an enclosed cottage, a diversion channel (kool, naiy), a shaft (panay, panyal), a turbine (bhnyor), a pair of millstones (paat), a cone shaped pan with outlet (rayoud, khabad) for grains and a chambar (leen uber), a liver system (algyun)are requisite part of a gharat system. It also has local mechanism to regulate the speed, quality of flour (thick or fine), amount of grains falling out of pan.
The super structure is built in traditional manner using boulders, slate stones, mud for cementing, logs, timber available locally. The other parts turbine, blades (sandhal, kafal trees), shaft (pine), pan (ningal a local variety of bamboo) are also crafted locally. Only the millstones are purchased from outside.
Adequate water from the stream is diverted towards kool by creating a temporary bund of pebbles, stones. The length of channel may vary from 50 to 100 meters. Near the end point of diversion channel an escape is created to release excess water. The provision is also applied when the gharat undergoes temporary shutdown, occasional repairs.
Close to the head a row of vertical sticks often in a wooden frame is placed to prevent vegetation and other waste affecting the turbine operation. Then the water is released through wooden shaft from the head point. The height of head and shaft may differ from 2 to 5 meters depending on local conditions.
The shaft is made of tall tree trunk. Here the pine is considered the most suitable one. The turbine, blade are placed in small chamber created beneath the millstones. The axis of turbine rests on a wooden batten placed in the chamber. The shaft and turbine are placed in alignment so that water hit the blades with force. The upper end of turbine is attached to runner stone through axle.
The pan is tied to ceiling logs with ropes in slightly tilted position. The exit point of pan hangs over hole in the centre of runner stone. A small wooden rod is fixed at the bottom of pan in vertical position.
A pair of small wooden pieces called charkul are hooked on either end of the rod with lower part touching the runner stone. As the runner stone moves round, the charkul creates vibration shaking the pan back and forth. This provision lets grains fall in runner stone hole.
The bed stone remains static on the floor. A sturdy baton goes through floor opposite millstones into the chamber with base positioned on other end of batten there. It has a wooden handle on upper end. This provision works as a liver system to create required gap between millstones to make flour thick or fine. Usually thick flour is required for cattle.
After running the turbine the water goes back to the stream. The basic principle and the construction pattern, materials, accessories and nomenclature may slightly differ in other regions of Uttarakhand.
Decline of gharat culture in Chauthan
Chauthan patti with about 72 villageslies in Thailisain block of Pauri district bordering Chamoli and Almora districts from eastern side. Over a dozen perennial springs and streams originating from core and buffer zones of Dudhatoli forest crowning over the geographical area makes the region rich in water resources. The area is in upper catchment of Ramganga river. The abundant aquatic fortune facilitated creation of numerous gharats on almost every stream here.
Based on discussion with villagers and a field visit in December 2020, it is revealed that not long back there were over 80 gharats in use across the patti but hardly 32 are in running condition now. A web of reasons beginning with introduction of first diesel run flour mill to now electricity powered mills, to absence of skilled artisans and rising maintenance cost are found responsible for gradual neglect, upsetting the gharat culture.
It is also observed that the erratic rainfall pattern and gradual decline in stream flows are rendering gharat operations less reliable. Moreover the tapping of springs and diversion of stream under various government water schemes are adversely affecting the functioning of gharats.
Lack of interest in young generation as the process is time consuming and labour intensive is also causing decline in gharat culture. Hence, more of the remaining gharat of Chauthan could turn defunct in coming years.
Discussion with villagers
Two functioning grahats were seen standing still in Dang village in December 2020. When asked about the reasons, Nandan Singh the care taker said that there was not enough water in the stream due to scantly rainfall in monsoon and post monsoon months. “If it rains well, there is enough water in stream to run the gharats round the year. Otherwise these are turning seasonal which was not the case in past”, said the aged man.
According to the Nandan Singh the millstones of traditional gharats are heavier requiring sufficient amount of water to run them. He also said that the stones are purchased from distant location which causes hardship in transportation apart from the cost of more than five thousand rupees. Due to these reasons, he did not find the family occupation worth carrying on. Three of the four gharats upstream the same stream belonging to Jainti village were found non-functioning for similar reasons.
Similarly, out of three, now only one gharat in Sundargaon next village is functioning. Even the structure of remaining one was in rundown condition. “The water sources, springs which feed our stream are being tapped in upper areas for irrigation, potable water supply to faraway areas reducing the flows in the stream”, said Mohan Singh, a local.
He further added that a gharat requires regular maintenance and owners prefer abandoning them when they face major damages in flash floods or due to other calamities.
“The shaft is worn out. It took days and great deal of labour by many villagers to cut a pine trunk and physically transport the giant log from distant forest. Narrow paths through rough, rocky terrain make it very risky task”, said Padam Singh Negi of Jandariya village showing a under preparation shaft of a gharat.
“Now carving out of canal through shaft would take several days of manual work by artisans who use conventional tools. It has to be done very carefully, some wrong moves can cause cracks in the log rendering the whole exercise futile”, added Negi.
In addition to above issues, unresolved property disputes among families of gharat owners, present generation of owners lacking requisite skills and their gradual shift towards assured and permanent income generation occupations are other factors resulting in more gharats standing in tumble-down conditions.
The decline in numbers of operational gharats from twenty six to just ten along thirty kilometres stretch of perennial Binnu river, strengthens this narrative. “Now there are six stakeholders in our ancestral gharat. Most of family youths are in government or private service. The remaining ones in village are reluctant and hesitant to take any initiative to revive it now”, said Paan Singh Bhandari of Syunsal village where three gharats are lying in ruins for years.
He also shared that now there are two electric mills in the village, one is owned by one of the stakeholders earning him some income and his family has bought personal electric mill recently. “Even if the gharat is revived, it’s about one kilometre downhill requiring physical effort that would discourage users as the same service is available hardly fifty meters away from their homes. Then there are inherent ordeals with water mills making it unrewarding task”, the retired army personal further adds.
“When village gharats turned defunct, we tried to build new one but it did not work. Then we used to visit other gharats with heavy sacks on our back, sometimes we had to wait for hours before our turn there and then climb up the hill with same load. Thus spending an entire day of physical exertion”, told Bhaguli Devi an elderly woman of village.
Recollecting the transition she added that two decades back diesel run mills were installed at few locations which are being gradually replaced by electric ones now. The elderly further shared that in olden time there were hand run mills called jandhar and manually operated oil extracting mills called kulhad in every village but those all have vanished completely with advent of mechanized mills.
There has been unsuccessful improvisation attempts including generation of electricity at some of the gharats by some local people in recent past. “Now every village is electrified, electric mills are set up at village level. Government is providing nearly eighty percent subsidy on electric mills under employment generation scheme. So there are not many takers of water mills”, shared Narayan Dutt Raturi who owns a modernized water mill fitted with metallic turbine and other parts in Pokhari.
Years ago Raturi experimented to produce electricity using gharat technique but failed. “We have grown up amid gharat culture. There was a time when gharats were seen as symbols of prosperity and owners were taxed annually by district council. We still have resources to keep the tradition alive. But reversing the ongoing trend is an uphill task”, Raturi added.
Amar Singh Negi, member district council echoes same concerns. “Every village already has three or more electric mills. Now people are buying personal ones. The society as a whole is moving away from the ancient tradition and we can’t help much”, he said. According to Amar Singh, owners are compensated against flood related and other damages but there are no exclusive or innovative plans to revive the dying culture. Both Raturi and Negi are also members of local gharat committee which is hardly functioning.
“Farming and gharat culture are interlinked. Without reviving our farming, we cannot restore our gharats. Excess and deficit rains are affecting the crop production which was already in decline due to wild animal invasion. The migration and dependence on PDS supply has led to large farms remaining fellow in the region. Even the ration supply is falling short and now villagers are buying packaged rice and flour. This is affecting both electric and water mills businesses”, said 55 years old Gabar Singh Bisht, former Pradhan of Peepalkot.
The village is located in proximity of around twelve gharats and a mechanized water mill. “I have seen the gharats running round the year where people from many villages used to visit but now only the mill and one gharat are in operation”, added Bisht. He remembers using the gharats since childhood and now also owns a subsidized electric mill hence has not felt need to visit even the remaining grahats for a long time.
However there are more than a thousand villagers benefitting from gharat services in Jainti, Mason, Kandai, Talli Dadoli, Dumdikot, Shera Mande, Kimoj, Samaiya villages located across Chauthan patti where over twenty gharats are still in running condition.
“We always prefer gharat produced flour over electric mills as it taste way better. The electric mills run faster, burning away nutritious part of grains which is not the case with smoothly functioning gharats”, said Bhim Singh, sarpanch, Dumdikot. But villagers agree that water availability, maintenance skills, proliferation of electric mills are cause of concerns which have potential to push the gharat culture in oblivion in coming years.
Although majority of villagers do acknowledge the ethnic, economic and environmental value of ancient wisdom yet not many are applying innovative ways to revive the dying tradition while there are contemporary tools, materials which can help improve the efficiency and remove the drudgery associated with conventional gharats to a great extent.
If community as a whole makes dedicated efforts and government lends timely support, the unique system can, not only cope well with competition from electric mills but also coexist through adverse times. Moreover, it can be modernized as potential source of village level electricity needs.
One hopes the custodian and concerned would act together before the gharat culture in Chauthan and elsewhere goes extinct and the ruins are archived somewhere in a museum.
Bhim Singh Rawat (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Hindi version of the report can be seen here. घराट: सामाजिक देखभाल, सरकारी सहयोग की राह देखती लुप्त होती धरोहर