Renewable energy is something I’m passionate about and an opportunity to live off the grid would be a dream come true. Among known renewable energy sources, solar photovoltaic cell technology is way down on my list of favorites, as it is dependent on industrial manufacture. In addition to that, broken/disposed solar cells are not something that can be easily digested by the earth. I do love other solar technologies such as solar heating, solar ice making, solar water purification etc… Besides solar, you can of course use wind energy, capture energy expended in motion (such as the motion of tidal waves) and of course the most familiar, water energy -familiar in India, because of the electricity we use here, generated by hydro electric turbines.
Even though water powered electricity generation is so common. It is not half as exciting as something powered directly by water. Besides, dams destroy the ecosystem and flood an area which could have been used for better purposes. I had seen water mills on TV, but they were usually huge water wheels immersed in canals and other deep water sources, and the technology abroad had grown to become increasingly complex and precise over time, much like that of the wind mill -too many gears and couplings -hence introducing many more points of failure and for maintenance. The first time my interest was aroused in a water powered mill [ Called Garhaat or sometimes Girhaat or Panchakki in Hindi] was when I visited my brother in Aurangabad and saw (from outside) the century old Panchakki. Unfortunately climbing up and down the Daulatabad fort and then spending time watching the sculptures in Ellora in the summer sun totally sapped our energy. I was also advised that there was nothing of interest to see inside -some thing still oft repeated on forums -but something I deeply regret not doing now and plan to remedy when I visit my brother next.
When I visited Kathwar village in the Sirmaur district of Himachal Pradesh, I was therefore excited at the prospect of seeing them at work and noting their mechanics. Unfortunately, the time I chose to visit them, with my friend acting as my guide, was not very suitable as there were several weddings in the village and all the 4 or 5 garhaats we visited were locked -some of them running and some of them shut down. There were several more down river, for everyone in Kathwar and the neighboring villages mill the wheat and corn grown in their fields at these garhaats as they are an easy way to turn grain into flour. The other alternative of course is the hand operated millstone- the symbol of punishment in Hindi movies of yesteryear where prisoners in jail grind wheat. We couldn’t keep walking along the river bed for ever looking for an open water mill as we had to return home for lunch. These flour mills are found all along the Himalayan region. The first photograph is that of a Garhaat in Kata Patthar on the Yamuna river near Vikasnagar on the outskirts of Dehradun on the Chakrata road (Uttarakhand).
Nevertheless it was interesting to see how the garhaat owners lived and examine their lifestyles in their absence. Looking around, it was obvious that they did not survive with only their income from the garhaat or the typical percentage of wheat or flour they received for their grinding services. To supplement their income, they had planted fruit trees -apricots ( khubani in Hindi) and walnuts (akhrot) among others). Some had their own patches of ginger, almost all of them had at least a cow shed [and some had goat pens in addition] where they had cows, goats and a few sheep. The advantages of the gharaat are for both parties. The speed of the stone grinding wheel in a garhaat (or in any hand grinder) is way slower than that of the commercial mills -some of which which use steel burrs for milling. (In India the chakkis’ (flour mills) still use stone wheels (Not sure whether it is synthetic stone) for grinding, but as kids we experienced first hand how hot the flour got after grinding as we carried the flour back home from the mill). This was due to the stone wheel (mounted vertically) being spun at high speed by an electric motor connected by a fabric belt. Studies have shown that many of the critical nutrients that wheat has are adversely affected by heat thus degrading the nutritional quality of the wheat. Read more on that here.
Milling at high speeds therefore adversely affects wheat (and probably other grain) and is at best a nutritional compromise in favor of convenience. For the Garhaat owner, the advantage is that the same quantity on his mill takes longer to grind -leaving him with more free time on his hands to pursue other means of income. He knows from experience how much time a quantity of wheat poured into the hopper takes to grind, so he can safely lock his Gharaat and go to collect fodder for his cattle, tend to his crops or go back home up to the village. From the cuttings of the tree called Biyul in the western Pahari language, the left over straight stalks after the leaves are stripped for the animals are woven into a beautiful blond rope after about two months of processing in a way which is similar to Jute. The left over sticks (after processing) are bone dry and burn extremely well and serve to cook the garhaat owners food -especially in adverse weather when other damp wood might not easily ignite. The environment benefits too from the mill… no pollutants to deal with, everything returns to the earth in a form which she can digest and recycle and the water gets aerated and thus oxygenated at the turbine and thus benefits the water creatures which need dissolved oxygen to survive. (Not that there is any dearth of aeration in those agile mountain streams and waterfalls.)
The construction of the gharaat is simple. The mill itself consists of a hopper, and a stationary lower stone wheel which can be likened to a stator. The upper stone -the rotor, which turns, is connected through the floor of the construction with a wooden drive shaft to the turbine which rotates and drives the shaft as it is hit by the jet of water (exactly opposite to what happens in your washing machine -there the impeller rotates the water -here the water rotates the drive shaft). The bush on which the turbine spins is made by a solid horizontal column of hardwood on which the turbine-drive shaft assembly rests on and turns. The fins of the turbine seem to preferably be bamboo split into two halves or else probably made of hard, rot resistant wood like the Deodar ( Himalayan Cedar -Bot. Cedrus Deodara). The ramp to get the water to achieve the required kinetic energy to turn the ‘turbine-drive shaft-grind stone’ assembly was traditionally one vertically halved hollowed out tree trunk or log, but is now usually an ugly concrete gutter.
How it works…
Here is one design that needs no improvement… unfortunately, we are seeing the effect of modernisation on the garhaats. Its not just the cement and the plastic sheets under the thatched roofs. It is more and more people realizing that the city offers more -a so called “better life” of conveniences, thanks to movies and other media which attract simple people like these, living a healthy, content life and making them feel as if they lack something or are backward and primitive. Also, as the new generation of people who have tasted the city stop planting wheat and corn and start opting for cheaper mass produced but inferior, unhealthy plastic packaged flour, the beginning of the end for the garhaats will be in sight which will be very sad.
Harold Soans at Aurangabad, Maharashtra
Asha Singh at Kathwar, Sirmaur, Himachal Pradesh
Anil Kumar at Kata Pathar, Uttarakhand
You can find a video of an operating Garhaat on This Website
Click here for an old photograph of cascading water mills at Brahmaur in Himachal Pradesh taken in 1971
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