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Gambhiri-River-Bridge

Chittaurgarh’s 700-year-old bridge

View of the medieval Gambhiri River Bridge from the eastern riverbank.

View of the medieval Gambhiri River Bridge from the eastern riverbank.

For at least a thousand years, people have been building large structures out of stone in northwestern India. The modern Indian state of Rajasthan is full of the remains of these monuments. Most of the monuments—fortresses, palaces, tombs, cenotaphs, and the like—have no real use anymore, except maybe as tourist attractions. There are plenty of pre-modern temples still in use, although many of them have been altered beyond recognition over centuries of use. And then there are some pieces of infrastructure that, with proper maintenance, still serve their original function hundreds of years after they were built.

One example is a bridge over the Gambhiri River in the town of Chittaurgarh in southern Rajasthan. The bridge is located on the main road into town. It is built entirely of stone, with nine slightly-pointed arches and one semicircular arch. (The river flows through eight of the arches, while the remaining two are on the shore. There are also two additional arches on each side of the bridge, but these are made in a different style and seem to have been added later.) The piers founded in the river have triangular projections on the upstream side, to help the river water, and any debris that might be floating in it, flow smoothly around the bridge.

The Rajasthan state Department of Archaeology and Museums has set up a Hindi interpretive plaque on the western side of the bridge. According to the plaque, the bridge was built early in the fourteenth century by Khijra Khan, after his father Alauddin Khilji captured Chittaurgarh in 1303. The bridge is built partly of stone blocks appropriated from other buildings. Inscriptions of Tej Singh and Samar Singh, two late-thirteenth-century rulers of Mewar, are still visible on the bridge. There are also some surviving architectural flourishes from the original structures, including designs of flowers and leaves. (None of this is visible to the casual observer from the shore, but I trust that the state archeologists know where to look.)

The Gambhiri River Bridge has been modified a little over the past seven hundred years. Although it was designed for horses and carts, it is strong enough to support motor vehicles. In modern times, a three-foot railing was added to the side of the bridge; when this proved inadequate for whatever reason, an eight-foot fence was also added. The bridge also carries several pipelines and some cables. Just downstream, a newer bridge has been built for eastbound traffic. The medieval bridge now just carries westbound traffic away from Chittaurgarh.

View of the Gambhiri bridge from the western bank.

View of the Gambhiri bridge from the western bank.

For readers who aren’t familiar with Chittaurgarh: The place is famous for the fortress by that name, a massive structure stretching five kilometers along the top of a ridge. The fortress was defensible, thanks to its position, but it was also a highly sought-after strategic prize, and it was captured and re-captured several times throughout its long history. Emperor Akbar won the fort for the Mughal Empire in a long and bloody siege in 1567-68. The fortress is now maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India, although it is so huge that inhabited villages exist within the walls alongside the historical monuments. Architectural highlights inside the fort include the Vijay Stambh (Tower of Victory, 1457-68), Kumbha Shyam Mandir (magnificent Nagara-style temple), Mira Bai Mandir, and Gaumukh Kund (rainwater storage tank).

Vijay Stambh (Tower of Victory), Chittaurgarh.

Vijay Stambh (Tower of Victory), Chittaurgarh.

Kumbha Shyam Mandir.

Kumbha Shyam Mandir.

Meera Mandir, where poet-saint Meera Bai worshiped Krishna.

Meera Mandir, where poet-saint Meera Bai worshiped Krishna.

Gaumukh Kund (Cow-mouth Well), Chittaurgarh.

Gaumukh Kund (Cow-mouth Well), Chittaurgarh.

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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.

Qutb Minar towers over surrounding ruins in south Delhi.

Qutb Minar towers over surrounding ruins in south Delhi.

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. []

An Ode to Concrete

“This is Bombay, my friend, Bombay. Here the buildings are made of cement, and people’s hearts are made of stone.”

-The Beggar, Shree 420 (1955)

David Edgerton explains in his book The Shock of the Old that concrete, asbestos-cement, and corrugated metal are examples of creole technologies—technologies that originated in one place but took on new uses and meanings elsewhere. These materials in their modern forms were western inventions, but they have been particularly significant in the development of the poor world.1

It would be difficult, or perhaps impossible, to imagine modern India without concrete. The material can be produced cheaply and worked easily by either labor-intensive or capital-intensive methods. As such, it is the foundation—both literally as well as metaphorically—for much of India’s infrastructure.

The following gallery illustrates the complex and varied uses of concrete in contemporary India.

  1. David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 42-3. []

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