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Another Goodly Lake

In a blog post last summer, I discussed pre-modern artificial lakes in western India, including Jal Mahal Sagar in Jaipur and the Alwar Sagar. In arid western India during the Mughal period, artificial lakes provided water supplies for the cities that were growing in size during that time. These lakes still serve this purpose, although they have been supplemented by more modern lakes impounded by concrete or earthen dams.

Before the founding of Jaipur in 1727, the capital of the Kachhawaha Rajputs was at Amber (sometimes alternately spelled Amer). Amber Fort, built around 1600 during the reign of Man Singh I, was the royal palace; it is perched on a hill above the town. The water supply for Amber Fort was Maota Lake, impounded by a masonry dam in a valley below the palace. The rectangular top of the dam is landscaped as a geometric Mughal-style garden.

Since it supplied the all-important water needed for the inhabitants of Amber, Maota Lake was enclosed by the outer defensive walls of the city. Moving the water from the lake up to the palace posed a difficult engineering challenge. The topography of the site, and the requirement that the palace be located on a hilltop above the lake, made it impossible for the builders of Amber to use a gravity-fed aqueduct. Rather, they constructed an animal-powered multi-stage pumping station. A series of five ox-driven bucket lifts raised water from the lake level up to the palace.

The pre-modern water-raising machinery at Amber Fort is similar to technology used throughout southwestern Asia, from India to the Levant. In 2013, UNESCO declared Amber Fort and five other Indian castles a World Heritage Site, collectively designated “Hill Forts of Rajasthan.” Among other features of the forts deserving of world heritage status, the inscription mentioned “extensive water harvesting structures, largely still in use today.”

(For more on the architectural aspects of Amber Fort, and other Rajput structures, please see my post “Batman Goes to India.”)

Camels at work

In his book The Camel and the Wheel, Richard W. Bulliet explores a curious problem in the history of technology: why much of the medieval Islamic world stopped using wheels, and instead transported goods on the backs of camels.1 Only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did wheeled vehicles return to some parts of the Islamic world that had abandoned them centuries earlier. Bulliet argues that the reason for the switch from wheels to camels was economic: camels were low-cost, low-maintenance, all-terrain animals. Pack camels were suitable for transport in all parts of the Islamic world, even in the former Roman empire where the old roads were deteriorating.

In some places, pack camels never supplanted wheeled carts; rather, camels were pressed into service pulling carts. One of these places was Islamic India east of the Indus River (now parts of Pakistan and India). Unlike other parts of the Islamic world, India always had wheels.

Camels still haul loads in parts of western India. In Jaipur, camel carts share the streets with mechanized forms of transport such as motorcycles, cars, and autorickshaws. In narrow alleyways of the eighteenth-century Old City, camel carts sometimes cause infuriating traffic jams.

Jaipur’s camel carts are a blend of technologies from different parts of the world, during different time periods. Although most of the carts appear to be build out of wood, all of them sport pneumatic tires borrowed from trucks or some other type of motor vehicle. Pneumatic tires first appeared in Britain in the late nineteenth century, where they were originally used on bicycles. These tires are suited for the paved roads of a modern city. In contrast to the tires, the camels are harnessed by an adaptation of a saddle design that originated in northern Arabia at some point between the years 500 and 100 BC.2

  1. Richard W. Bulliet, The Camel and the Wheel (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975). []
  2. Ibid., 87, 189-90. []

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