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Another Goodly Lake

View of Amber Fort. The first stage of the water-lifting machinery is in the lower right of this picture.

View of Amber Fort. The first stage of the water-lifting machinery is in the lower right of this picture.

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 garden.

Overhead view of Maota Lake Dam, showing the Mughal garden on top.

Overhead view of Maota Lake Dam, showing the Mughal garden on top.

Maota Dam garden, Dilaram Bagh.

Maota Dam garden, Dilaram Bagh.

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.

Wooden gears that transferred the power of oxen walking in a circle to the bucket lift.

Wooden gears that transferred the power of oxen walking in a circle to the bucket lift.

View down the shaft of the top-most stage of Amber Fort's water lifting machinery.

View down the shaft of the top-most stage of Amber Fort’s water lifting machinery.

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.”

Amber Fort celebrates its designation as a World Heritage Site, July 2013.

Amber Fort celebrates its designation as a World Heritage Site, July 2013.

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

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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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