Technology, History, and Travel

Tag: Assam

How many Qutb Minars is this?

The tallest pre-modern structure in India is Qutb Minar, a 238-ft (72 m) tower in southern Delhi. Qutb-ud-Din Aybak, the first sultan of Delhi, started building the tower in 1199. Several succeeding generations of rulers added to and modified the tower; it only reached its full height after Qutb-ud-Din’s death. Even the British tried to add their own cupola on the apex of the tower, but it did not match the aesthetic of the rest of the tower, so it came down in 1848. The British cupola now sits by itself on the landscaped lawns of the Qutb Minar complex. Qutb Minar and the surrounding area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.

Publications about Indian construction projects in the early-independence period often compared the new projects with pre-modern Indian monuments; Qutb Minar was a particularly popular item of comparison. Towers or tower-like structures invited comparisons most readily. The ventilation stack of Tarapur Atomic Power Station, India’s first nuclear powerplant, was 366 feet (112 meters) tall—much taller than the Qutb Minar,” as several publications noted.1 Qutb Minar was also used as a standard measuring stick for height for any structure. According to an article in Assam Information, “the height between the bottom of foundation and the top of the piers” of the Saraighat Bridge, the first permanent crossing of the Brahmaputra River, “it almost as much as the height of the Qutb Minar.”2 The winner in any early-independence period height competition was Bhakra Dam. Indian Recorder and Digest stated that the height of the dam, “which is the highest structure in Asia, is about three times that of the Qutab Minar.”3

This rhetoric established continuity with the pre-colonial past, but also attempted to transcend it. The colonial period had been a difficult time for India’s educated elites. Although they believed in their own country’s historic greatness, they also absorbed the western critiques of India as backward, underdeveloped, and imprisoned by tradition.4 Building dams, bridges, and nuclear powerplants was a way to recreate India’s past greatness, which had been lost during centuries of colonial domination. The new India’s greatness, though, would not be based on Indian tradition, but on western ideas and technology. The structures of independent India were bigger, and by implication better, than anything the Sultans of Delhi or the Mughals had been able to make. In the sources that I have read, nobody seemed to care that a concrete ventilation stack was not aesthetically comparable to an intricately-wrought red sandstone and white marble tower.

  1. “Tarapur: Gateway to the Nuclear Age,” Economic Studies 10 (1968), 421. []
  2. “Saraighat Bridge: A Boon to Assam,” Assam Information, November 1963, 20. []
  3. “Dedication of Bhakra Dam,” Indian Recorder and Digest, November 1963, 6. []
  4. Ashis Nandy explained the internalization of western ideas by Indian elites in a lecture I attended in Delhi on June 11, 2012. []

Umiam Dam (part 2)

Although originally scheduled for completion in early 1963, the Barapani (or Umiam) Hydroelectric Project did not come online until June 1965. The dam was built by a combination of hand labor and imported American heavy machinery, such as bulldozers and backhoes. An American loan of $2.5 million covered the foreign exchange costs of the project, for the purchase of construction machinery as well as the turbines. The in-country costs of the project were $13.1 million, which were also covered by an American loan.1

The Barapani project was the second hydroelectric project undertaken after independence in Assam. The first was the Umtru Hydel Project, lower down in the Khasi Hills. The project, completed in 1957, was financed by Canadian capital from the Colombo plan. A run-of-river project, the dam relied on the flow of the Umtru River to turn its turbines for producing electricity.2 Umtru Dam was not capable of producing consistent levels of power throughout the year, because the flow of the Umtru River varied seasonally. Since snow never falls in the Khasi Hills, the area’s rivers rely entirely on rainfall. During the rainy season months, from around April to October, the rivers run high with heavy rainfall. But during the dry season, with no rain to feed them, the rivers sink and slow considerably.

The Barapani project offered a solution for the rivers’ unreliability. The project’s one concrete dam and two earthen dams plugged the bottom of the Umiam River’s gorge, creating a reservoir that could store water during the dry winter months. The power station was not located within the dam itself, but farther downhill, at an elevation 560 feet lower than the water intakes in the reservoir. A 1.5-mile conduit piped the water down to the power station. This arrangement provided greater head (pressure) for the turbines. After passing through the imported Japanese turbines of the first stage of the Umiam project, the water was diverted into the Sumer Stream, a tributary of the Umtru River. The Umiam reservoir thus provided a consistent water supply for both the Umiam and Umtru hydroelectric projects.3

The Umiam Hydroelectric Project was included in India’s Second Five-Year Plan, and it was overseen by the Assam state government. This project—like the scores of other projects included in Nehruvian India’s Plans—was imposed from the top by elites. Although the project was located in a rural area, most of the local population had little stake in it besides serving as laborers during construction. The primary customers of the project were not the rural inhabitants of the Meghalaya Plateau, but the mills and factories that were also a part of India’s top-down development plans. Most of the sources I have found on the dam mention only the use of electricity for industry. So far, I have found just one source that even mentions the prospect of rural electrification.4

Fifty years after its construction, the Umiam Dam still stands in its ravine high in the Khasi Hills. A series of additional stages to the project have added further generating stations downhill. Despite the increased generating capacity, the Umiam project has not been able to keep up with rising demand. At times of peak power demand, particularly in the summer months, the Meghalaya state electric utility must selectively cut power. These scheduled blackouts have become a fact of life in areas served by power from Umiam Dam. The project provided power to an under-served part of India, but it could not keep up with increased demand due to population and industrial growth.

  1. Agency for International Development, Program and Project Data Related to Propose Programs – FY 1965: Near East and South Asia (Washington, DC, 1964), 84; USAID Mission to India, The United States Contribution to Indian Development (New Delhi, 1966), 34. []
  2. “Canada and the Colombo Plan: The Umtru Project,” External Affairs 9 (1957), 241-43. []
  3. Umiam Hydel Project,” Assam Tribune, January 9, 1960; “Umiam Hydel Project,” Indian Railway Gazette 62, no. 9 (1964), 239. []
  4. The source that mentions rural electrification is “State Electricity Board and Its Work,” Assam Tribune, January 9, 1960. []

Soldiers of Misfortune

Like Ralph Fitch, Robert Coverte was another English merchant who brought back to England tales of danger and adventure from his eastward journey.1 Coverte departed from England in 1607 in the ship Assention, which sailed around Africa to reach India. In Aden, several of Coverte’s traveling companions, who “unadvisedly” went ashore, were arrested by the governor and ultimately executed. After almost two months in port, Assention weighed anchor and continued eastward.

Off the coast of Cambaya (in present-day Gujarat), the ship foundered, the merchants saving what little treasure they could. The locals initially thought that the Englishmen fleeing in their lifeboats were part of a Portuguese invasion force. Once this misunderstanding was clarified, the English merchants were received cordially.2

As Fitch had done, Coverte and John Frenchman made their way toward Agra to meet with the Mughal Emperor. Coverte was impressed by the richness of the country through which he passed: “The Country is so plentifull, that you may have a gallon of milke for a halfe penny, a Hen for three half-pence, & 16 Eggs for a penny.” At the bazaar of one city he passed on the way to Agra, he marveled at the variety of goods for sale: “Pots, Kettles, Shirts of Male, Swords and Bucklers, Lances, Horses in Armour and Arrowe proofe, Camels, and all manner of beasts.”3

At the city of Brampor, Coverte and Frenchman had to obtain a pass from the Mughal authorities to continue on to Agra. The Mughal general (whom Coverte does not name) asked if the Englishmen would join his army. When the men declined, saying that they were only poor, shipwrecked merchants, the general replied incredulously that he thought all Englishmen were warriors. He ultimately granted passes to the men after they sold him some jewels “for his Ladies.”4

At last, Coverte and Frenchman reached Agra. William Hawkins, the English ambassador to the Mughal court, met the merchants and brought them before the emperor, Jehangir. Coverte presented the emperor with two small gifts: a gold whistle and a picture of John the Baptist after his decapitation. Jehangir took the whistle “and whistled therewith almost an houre.”5

Coverte remarked in his account about the richness of life in the Mughal capital. Agra’s markets were full of every variety of fruit. Jehangir was in the process of building a great tomb for his predecessor, Akbar. It was made of “very fine marble, curiously wrought.” In Coverte’s eyes, Jehangir lived “in as great state and pompe as may be desired, both for majesty and princely pleasure.”6

Rather than retracing their sea route back to England, Coverte and Frenchman traveled overland through Persia and Arabia to the Levant, where they found a ship bound for England. As the English merchants were taking their leave of Jehangir, the emperor asked them if they would serve him in the Mughals’ wars. The Englishmen refused this request once again.7

Jehangir’s request was not an idle one. Significant numbers of Europeans served as officers in the Mughal army as the empire attempted to expand its frontiers. Some were even poorer shipwrecked merchants than Coverte and Frenchman, and they were not given the choice of whether or not to serve.

One such soldier of misfortune was W. Glanius, a Dutch merchant whose account A Relation of an Unfortunate Voyage to the Kingdom of Bengala was published in London in 1682. Glanius’s merchant ship, Ter Schelling, and three other ships departed the Netherlands in 1651, laden with silver coin and copper plate. Ter Schelling wrecked off the coast of Bengal, and the survivors washed up on an island. At length, Glanius and a few of the other survivors managed to escape the island on an improvised boat; they were picked up by a Bengali bark. Glanius was pressed into service in the Mughal army, as Bengal was at this time the easternmost province of the Mughal Empire.8

Glanius came into the Mughal army’s service during a flare-up in the intermittent conflicts between the Mughal Empire and the Ahom kingdom. For much of the seventeenth century, the Mughal and Ahom armies battled over what is now lower Assam, alternately gaining and losing ground against the opposing army. During this campaign, the Mughal army was under the command of Prince Jemla (Mir Jumla), who was also the Mughal governor of Bengal.9

As Glanius described, a formidable Mughal force advanced against the Ahoms. On land, the army had 300,000 cavalry and 500,000 infantry, by Glanius’s figures. The Mughals also had a formidable force on water, which navigated up the Brahmaputra10 to attack Ahom positions. The main elements of the Mughals’ water-borne force were gourapes, which were boats with fourteen guns and crews of between fifty and sixty men. Each gourape was attended by four kosses, oar-powered boats that towed the gourapes against the river’s current. The Mughal river navy also had flat-bottom boats with no masts but many guns, as well as barges that transported the provisions as well as the officers’ wives.11

The Mughal army had many European mercenaries who served as technical advisers and officers. On the boats, most of the officers were Portuguese. Furthermore, Englishmen and several other Dutchmen were also involved in the conflict. In addition, a force of between three and four thousand Muscovites fought in the conflict.12 Glanius does not mention whether Europeans served in the Ahom army as well.

During Glanius’s service, the Mughal forces captured Gauhati and went on to occupy the Ahom capital of Garhgaon. After Glanius had served for fifteen months, the Dutch consul managed to get a discharge for Glanius and the other Dutch soldiers of misfortune. Glanius then went into the service of the Dutch East India Company, where he worked until 1673. When he finally returned to his native country, he had been gone from the Netherlands for twenty-two years.13

  1. Robert Coverte’s narrative was published as A True and Almost Incredible report of an Englishman, that (being cast away in the good Ship called the Assention, in Cambaya, the farthest part of the East Indies) Travelled by Land through many unknowne Kingdomes, and great Cities (London, 1614). []
  2. Coverte, A True and Almost Incredible Report, 24. []
  3. Ibid., 26. []
  4. Ibid., 28-9. []
  5. Ibid., 35-6. []
  6. Ibid., 37, 39, 41. []
  7. Ibid. []
  8. W. Glanius, A Relation of an Unfortunate Voyage to the Kingdom of Bengala (London, 1682), 1, 109. []
  9. For an overview of the Mughal-Ahom wars, see “The Period of the Muhammadan Wars,” in Edward Gait, A History of Assam (1906; repr. Delhi: Surjeet Publications, 2006), 108-63. []
  10. Glanius calls the river “Ganges.” []
  11. Glanius, An Unfortunate Voyage, 144-45. []
  12. Ibid., 141, 144, 146. []
  13. Ibid., 160, 183. []

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