gharaat water powered flour mill

Himachal’s water powered flour mills

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.


The spinning Turbine of an operational Gharaat
The spinning Turbine of an operational Gharaat

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.

A discarded, chipped grindstone. Note the groove cut in the center where the drive shaft grips the stone for spinning it.
A discarded, chipped grindstone. Note the groove cut in the center where the drive shaft grips the stone for spinning it.

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).

One section of an under construction circular sheep/goat pen under construction. It will probably later be thatched with these date fronds which the garhaat owner has been collecting.
One section of an under construction circular sheep/goat pen under construction. It will probably later be thatched with these date fronds which the garhaat owner has been collecting.

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.

A cook-place in the separating wall (between two properties) makes for an effective windshield when cooking. Believe me, when the wild wind starts blowing it can carry on at high speeds for days on end.
A cook-place in the separating wall (between two properties) makes for an effective windshield when cooking. Believe me, when the wild wind starts blowing it can carry on at high speeds for days on end.

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…

 

Before cement arrived... A split & scooped out tree trunk acting as the ramp!
Before cement arrived… A split & scooped out tree trunk acting as the ramp!
A grating made of sticks to catch debris which might otherwise damage the turbine. A similar grate exists after the water exits the turbine to catch any blades or other parts that come loose, which would otherwise float away in the water.
A crude grate made of sticks to catch debris which might otherwise damage the turbine. A similar grate exists after the water exits the turbine to catch any blades or other parts that might come loose, which would otherwise float away in the water.
Water diverted from the river is accelerated by using a natural or artificially created ramp. This boosts the kinetic energy of the water .
Water diverted from the river is accelerated by using a natural or artificially created ramp. This boosts the kinetic energy of the water .
A piece of slate (used for roofing) acting as a two way water valve. In places where slate is not used because it does not snow, such as in some places in Uttarakhand, I have seen a plank of wood being used to stop water flow to the garhaat and at the same time divert water away to turn off the mill at the end of the day or for maintenance.
A piece of slate (used for roofing) acting as a two way water valve. In places where slate is not used because it does not snow, such as in some places in Uttarakhand, I have seen a plank of wood being used to stop water flow to the garhaat and at the same time divert water away to turn off the mill at the end of the day or for maintenance.

 

Underneath the gharaat... As the jet of water hits the crude turbine, it transfers most of its kinetic energy to the turbine blades. This energy gets converted to rotary motion which in turn is transferred from the blades to the drive shaft
Underneath the gharaat… As the jet of water hits the crude turbine, it transfers most of its kinetic energy to the turbine blades. This energy gets converted to rotary motion which in turn is transferred from the blades to the drive shaft
The now rotating drive shaft spins the top stone wheel (rotor) of the grindstone assembly. The rotating stone also works like a flywheel, storing mechanical energy in it, much like what a capacitor does for electricity.
The now rotating drive shaft spins the top stone wheel (rotor) of the grindstone assembly. The rotating stone also works like a flywheel, storing mechanical energy in it, much like what a capacitor does for electricity.
The parts of the milling assembly: The measured grain falls from the hopper into a hole in the center of the rotor and the distance between the stator and rotor determine how fine the flour turns out to be.
The parts of the milling assembly: The measured grain falls from the hopper into a hole in the center of the rotor and the distance between the stator and rotor determine how fine the flour turns out to be.

The future?

Is this the future of the Garhaat?
Is this the future of the Garhaat?

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.

Credits:

Harold Soans at Aurangabad, Maharashtra

Asha Singh at Kathwar, Sirmaur, Himachal Pradesh

Anil Kumar at Kata Pathar, Uttarakhand

Links:

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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