Centuries ago, when industrialisation was not a thing, people used to tackle daily life problems with their unique techniques. Indian structures and architecture was a prime example of utilizing nature in the right way. Numerous lessons can be learned from our ancestors on living life with harmony with the environment, and there is a need to look extremely far in the past to learn about these unique techniques. Indians used to employ techniques that can be applied today as well, and ‘Gharats’ or water mills are one of the unique techniques used by Indians. The Gharats have been used to grind different types of grains since the 7th century, but today it is on the edge of extinction.

A Gharat is a traditional water mill used in different parts of the Himachal Pradesh, India. These mechanisms that use running water to grind wheat, rice, and maize and similarly to extract oil, are environment friendly. These Gharats had a great significance to the village in the old times. A Gharat owner had a better social status in the village, for the family could afford both food grains and money, as a service charge on grinding. The family members had a better chance of finding a suitable match in those times when famines were a constant recurrence.

The people who owned the gharat were known as Gharatis. The Gharatis used to construct and assemble their tunnels by diverting water from the rivers and streams, which are found in abundance in the hills of Himachal. Even today, these mechanisms are designed in a similar way they were built in the past. They are assembled of locally accessible material like mud, stones and wood. Even the millstones are carved out of the locally available stones found on river beds by the Gharatis themselves. The Gharatis similarly carve slots on millstone which get worn due to continual usage of the Gharat. Even the equipment is made out of locally accessible wood which needs continual repair. A wooden filter is made in between the Gharat, which prevents sticks, stones and plastic from falling on the wooden turbine that the moving water churns under the stone or wooden platform of the Gharat. A wooden pole can be pulled out or pushed in further with the help of a wooden or iron gear. It similarly adjusts the height of the two wheels, which in turn changes the texture and size of the grains.

Source: A Traditional Grinder - "Pani Ghatta"

The grains are placed in the tunnel and they steadily drop on the stone wheels below. The upper stone wheel rotates around a lever, that in turn moves due to the water turning the turbine blades connected to it. Nowadays, most of the turbines are created of metal but earlier, these were handcrafted from wood. A productive technique converts the kinetic energy of the running water into mechanical energy that grinds the grains. The water that grinds the grains, flows out of the gharat and flows further down. It passes through a patch of vegetables that need watering or flows by a place where clothes are washed before it rejoins the main water stream, recycling and reuses in its genuine sense. However, the gharats have been replaced by electricity run mills nowadays.

Gharats are environment friendly but they are largely forgotten. With the outset of industrialisation, the Gharats are rapidly losing the demand. The modern mill license issued by the district authorities turns on the death of Gharats to an extent that Gharatis have been dragged out of business and the gharats have attained a grinding break as the majority of them have been discontinued for the lack of demand of consumers. A visit to multiple north Indian states tells a story of abandoned gharats, untended irrigation machines, grinding stones scattered here and there. However, a trio of friends from Chandigarh, Vikas Singla, Anuj Saini, and Nitin Sharma are on a mission to revive these gharats and supply fresh flour.

This trio is currently focusing on Himachal and Haryana, where they have identified gharats that were shut down a few years ago due to various reasons such as undeveloped repairs and lack of sources to sell the flour. In June 2020, the trio started the process of launching the business and identifying mill owners or gharatis and all the repairs were completed within 3 months. They have approximately renovated 5 gharats and their work is being taken care of by the family that owns the gharat. These men have got into a contract with the mill owners where they offer financial support to repair the gharat, provide raw material, and pay them a monthly salary as well. The team has identified 20 gharats and now they are working on reviving them based on consumer demand. They launched their brand named ‘Gharats Fresh’, which reintroduced lost traditions. Their gharats produce corn flour, besan flour, black wheat flour, and spices like garam masala, coriander powder and chilly powder. Their brand claims to receive a good number of orders from Punjab, Haryana, Ludhiana and Shimla. The flour from gharats is recognized to be healthier as the grinding is both slow and continual. Grinding of gharats takes nearly one and a half hours for around 40 kg or 1 Mann, whereas the same is done by electricity run flour mills in less than 15 minutes.

The gharats have been a significant part and parcel of the agricultural economy and source of livelihood. Gharats similarly finds a huge space in our art and literature. The gharats have always remained a fine example of the use of local technology. Yet, low speed, and the lack of running water when rivers are channelled for hydropower that causes disruptions, leaves the gharats with fewer users every year. The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy has focused its attention on renewable sources and has recognised the contribution of gharats in providing a sustainable source of energy in hilly regions. The existing talent pot of the Engineering Department and Research Institutions can chip in by upgrading low-cost designs having ease of operations. The gharats are the living proof of how energy can be harnessed without any environmental degradation, and these gharats indeed need a new direction of life. Prospering our traditional water mills or gharats will be an integral part of our authentic agricultural elements and cultural heritage.



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