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A Vanishing Heritage
There was a time when a Water Mill locally called as Gharat was an essential feature of the village landscape of Jammu region barring the Kandi belt. In those days of backbreaking manual labour, a Gharat harnessing the power of flowing water of river, stream or a irrigation channel was a living example of mankind’s feeble attempt at technological solutions and use of mental ingenuity at solving the perennial problem of grinding and de-husking enough grains to satiate its hunger.
Many a member of the older generation would vouch for the fact that a Gharat owner called Gharati had a better social status in the village hierarchy for he could afford both food grains and money as a service charge on grinding called ‘Pisai’. Their sons and daughters had a better chance of finding a suitable match in those times when famines were a constant recurrence. Gharats had such a great contribution to the village economy that even the Dogra Rulers promulgated, The Water Mills (Jandar And Gharat)Act, BIKRAMI SAMVAT.1989 (1932A.D.) to regulate the functioning of Gharats. In the land settlement a separate Khasra No. (Estate No.) was allotted to the Jandar Gharat.
George Forster an employee of East India Company who visited Jammu in 1783 had this to say in his travelogue “Jumbo is situated on the side of a hill. The bottom of the hill is washed by the river. Many water- mills stand on its banks for grinding corn, which are constructed in a neater manner than any I have seen in India.”
For thousands of years the Gharats have been a part and parcel of agrarian economy and a source of livelihood. While going through the Misal Haqiyat i.e. the original Record of rights it was found that Hamirpur Sidhar, the village of Mallika Pukhraj in Tehsil Akhnoor had twenty two functional Gharats on a distributary of river Chenab . Similarly Gharats were found installed in Ganni, Rah, Saliote, Kathar and Manoha villages in Akhnoor, in Chenani and Udhampur on Tawi river, on Anji stream in Reasi and in Ramban and Doda districts also. The existence of a Gharat called as Pucca Gharat on a Channel of Ranbir canal is well known to the people of Jammu city. In fact the whole of Sub- Himalayas and upper Shivaliks are dotted with watermills.
Gharats also find a space in our art and literature. Readers may fondly recall the story Mangte Da Gharat written by Sh.Bhagwat Prasad Sathe which was a part of Dogri story book in the school. The importance of Gharats can be gauged from the fact that the Narsingh Dev temple at village Kaghote of tehsil Ramnagar contains a stone idol of the local deity called as Gharati Devta. Gharatis pay their obeisance to the deity by offering grains on a monthly basis and on auspicious occasions. In Poonch-Rajouri region the idiom Ghrate di raat (one night at gharat) means a disturbed and uncomfortable night as a stay in Gharat is marked by constant din of grinding stones accompanied by rats jumping all around. Gharats constitute an essential part of our rich culture and can be safely assumed as a part of our tangible heritage.
The Gharats have always remained a fine example of use of local technology. The Gharatis on their own create feeding channels diverting water of the rivers, rivulets ,brooks and streams which are found in abundance in the hills. The Gharats are also built of locally available material like mud, stones and timber. Surprisingly even mill stones are chiseled out of the locally available boulders found on river beds by the Gharatis themselves. They are also skilled in chiseling grooves on mill stone which gets worn out due to continuous use and affects grinding efficiency of the Gharat. Even the equipment is made out of locally available wood which requires constant repair.
In order to save Gharats from extinction it is essential that a census be organized so as to gauge the importance and significance of the Gharats. As per the traditional wisdom, the flour obtained from Gharats is of better quality and nutrition. Housewives in the rural areas prefer flour obtained from Gharats as having better texture and better Rotis especially of maize can be made out of it. This is largely due to sustained rate of milling and cold grinding of the grains. As a result of less heat, the nutrients are preserved and better quality of product is obtained. Just as mustard oil is marketed citing health benefits of cold pressing (Kachi Ghani), similarly flour obtained from Gharats can be marketed as having better health benefits. Surely the discerning consumer of the urban areas will be ready to pay an extra rupee for the better quality products.
Water mills harness renewable resources i.e. running water which otherwise would be of no use. It would be interesting to find out the savings in fossil fuels which are substituted by the Gharats. If scientifically calculated the same can be helpful in earning carbon credits as is provided in the environmental protocols.
However with the passage of time and onslaught of industrialization, the Gharats are fast losing the ground to Atta Chakkis powered by electricity. Each Atta Chakki license issued by District authorities sounds the death knell of Gharats. So much so that Gharatis have been pushed out of business and the gharats have come to a grinding halt as a majority of them have been abandoned for the want of customers. A visit to many a streams and rivulets of Jammu region tell a tale of abandoned watermills, untended irrigation Khuls , Grinding stones scattered here and there. The large-scale deforestation and lifting of water for drinking purpose has robbed the streams across shivaliks of the assured water flow for running of these Gharats.
The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy has focused its attention on renewable sources and has recognized the contribution of watermills in providing a sustainable source of energy in hilly regions. Jammu and Kashmir Energy Development Agency JAKEDA is the nodal agency for providing subsidy and financial incentives for upgradation of existing water mills to the tune of two and a half lakh rupees. The Irrigation and Flood Control Department can be tasked with the establishment of model watermills in twin capital cities of Jammu and Srinagar for demonstration and educational purposes. The existing talent pool of the Engineering department and research institutions can chip in by upgrading the existing watermills and introducing low cost designs having ease of operations. Flourishing watermills are integral part of our agrarian economy and cultural heritage.