Few geographies in the world nurture such a rich and complex imaginary as the Ganges River Valley. The heart of Indian Culture, and home to over one quarter of India’s population, the Ganges is one of the most fertile and infrastructure-heavy river valleys in the planet. Its many physical, historical and spiritual natures defy a single interpretation: always in flux, source of life and destruction, and venerated as a Hindu Deity, the Ganges fully embodies the complexities and excesses of the Indian Civilization.
In “Ganges Water Machine: Designing New India’s Ancient River,” Anthony Acciavatti orchestrates a magnificent portrait of the Ganges River Basin, and its continuous reinvention as a test-bed for infrastructural innovation. Through the hybrid genre of the Atlas-Almanac-Travelogue, the book unfolds the many nested spatial and temporal scales that characterize this highly contested territory. Those captivated with the planetary urbanization of water will find in this book a timely and relevant volume of encyclopedic ambition and exquisite design.
Ganges Water Machine includes many different narrative registers: the autobiographical, the literary, the technical, the poetic and political, just to name a few. These accounts reveal the discovery of this landscape by the west, the inherent spiritual traditions, and the subsequent cultural transformations and appropriations of this geography. Similarly, the book displays a highly curated set of representations that may resonate with the many audiences of the book. The Ganges Basin is mediated through an incisive combination of media: from photography, to paintings, technical drawings, cartography, diagrams, indexes, and sketches.
The relevance of the book goes well beyond the ambition to reunite the disparate realities that shape the Ganges Basin today; it presents a new lens to interrogate urbanization dynamics characterized by dense and diffuse patterns of occupation. Through the delamination of the systems at play, Ganges Water Machine establishes a projective written and visual narrative, a tool to observe, analyze, interrogate and recast new territorial orders.
Borrowing the title from a scientific study published in the 1970s, Ganges Water Machine traces the discovery and mediation of the Ganges River Basin, as well as the construction of one of the largest infrastructures in the world, the Ganges Canal. Running from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, this vast territory is presented as a landscape that operates between tradition and innovation, characterized by diffuse urbanization patterns and ephemeral occupations, over ground densely laced with infrastructure.
The book narrative follows the flow of water along the river bed, from its origins near Gangotri to the city of Varanasi, and describes the scales and natures of the different infrastructures that enable irrigation - rivers and canals, tanks and lakes, pumps and tubewells - and the politics, the sacred meanings and the cultural practices around them. In the book, water is constantly discussed and represented as a dynamic element; always in transformation. Through the concept of the Almanac, the author collapses the multitude of timeframes that operate simultaneously in the Basin: the historical, the cyclical and seasonal, as well as the ephemeral. Time is manifested visually, and discussed and documented with precision. The many trips to the Ganges Basin conducted by the author since 2005 also provide an exceptional photographic inventory that gives visibility to the water’s dynamic condition.
Part 1 introduces the Ganges Basin, and contextualizes it both historically and geographically. This section describes the formidable task initiated by the first surveyors of the Ganges Basin, the Fraser Brothers. From the fascination towards the ”topographic monumentality” of the basin, to the representation of sacred sites along the river, this piece initiates the discussion of the mix of representation techniques necessary to comprehend this complex, newly acquired territory. The combination of the measured map with the perspective paintings in the initial surveys during the early nineteen century inaugurated the use of a set of techniques in the representation of this landscape. Two other components in this section introduce important scalar notions of space and time. Firstly, through the comparative studies with other seven river basins (Amazon, Danube, Mississippi, Murray-Darling, Nile, Yellow Basin and the Indus Basins), the reader gains a sense of the magnitude of the Ganges Basin. Secondly, in the diagrams registering the variable nature of this productive landscape during the Monsoon, Acciavatti registers a the temporal choreography of the seasonal cycles through the movement of soil and water, the crops’ rotation, the festivities, and the continuous movement of population to negotiate these dynamics.
Part 2 discusses the construction of the Ganges Canal between the Jamuna and Ganges Rivers (the Doab). It starts with the opening ceremony of the Ganges Canal in 1854, a project that came to transform a “region designed by nature as a great field of artificial irrigation.” At more than 1,445 km in length, and serving a region with 6 million inhabitants, “the Canal came to reveal reality, and not to alter it.” The infrastructure inaugurated a culture of peacedefined by the author as a time of “hydraulic pastoralism”. This new agrarian culture built around the irrigation apparatus of the Canal, forever transforming the Ganges Basin in a machine-like landscape of production.
Learning from the legacy of the Mughal Empire, the canals built in the Jamuna River became the testing ground to experiment with new techniques. This section describes the Ganges Canal as devised by Proby Cautley, the system elements in the Northern, Center and Southern Divisions and their hierarchy, and it formulates the concept of labor as a central component in the realization of the project. From the remarkable pieces of Hydraulic Architecture such as super-passages and aqueducts, to the deployment of a new urban agrarian grid, the Canal re-layers the landscape and imposes a new spatial and political organization. The creation of the Department of Public Works, a rigidly centralized model first driven by the Company and later by the Raj, initiated a new model of water governance in India.
In Part 3, Acciavatti introduces concept of the super-surface (a thickened ground) as a driver to represent the changes initiated with the progressive decentralization of the irrigation system. With the introduction of the tubewell technology, the control over the access of water became democratized, and the “green revolution” started a massive transformation of the agrarian communities together with the power relations in the Jamuna-Ganges Doab. Over time, the political and material conflicts over the access and use of shared infrastructures of water extraction became central, with more than 3.5 million tubewells marking the landscape. The continuous state of crisis imposed by the cyclical droughts and the population explosion in recent decades is discussed in detail in this section of the book. The successive Food Crises precipitated decades of international cooperation that further altered the mechanics of the Basin waterscapes. With the introduction of high yield seeds and fertilizers to increase production, and the continued support to decentralized water access, the relationship of the farmer with the land and the other producers would be radically transformed. As the author points out, “Cultivated land is now measured in liters to fuel engines, ounces to fertilize crops, and hours to water.” As land becomes a scarce resource, the joint choreography of canals and tubewells continues to thicken the ground and defies single representations.
Part 4, Changes of State, serves as a synthesis of the methods and claims introduced in previous sections, and the project of representation develops a most compelling visual narrative around the continuous remaking of Jamuna-Ganges Doab. In this last section of the book, Acciavatti inventories the always expanding water territory of the Ganges Basin: water as atmospheric matter, but also as political and cultural arena. The heroism of the canal comes together with the pragmatics of the tube-well revolution, as super-surface and the multiple measures of time collapse.
Changes of State takes us from Allahabad to Varanasi portraying the permanence of the infrastructures and the ephemerality of the inhabitations of the water's edge. The cities are represented through a rich vocabulary of water infrastructure types, and a multiplicity of spatial and temporal scales. Six different transects display the systems and the components that form this geography through the account of Population Density, Monsoon, and Agriculture. Through this study of the sectional occupation of the terrain, the mechanics of resource extraction and the optimized deployment of infrastructure are finally integrated. Through the parallel photographic inventory, the author records his journey through the Ganges, and illustrates the continuous negotiation of the edge as the river expands and contracts, always in different ways. The festivities of Kumbh Mela and Magh Mela are part of the fleeting occupations of the fluctuating river bed. These two ”planned and ephemeral cities” welcome millions of people for just a few days, and transform into fields of wheat and rice, to later disappear again.
Ganges Water Machine can be discussed as a project of representation that mediates the Jamuna-Ganges Doab to a larger audience. The use of the hybrid genre of the Atlas, Alamanac and Travelogue enables a new approach to the study of complex urbanization dynamics that defy traditional development patterns and totalizing approaches. Moving seamlessly accross archival material, sophisticated mapping, and delicate photographic work, the book discusses issues of governance of the water infrastructure, the politics around water access and ownership, the many cultural and social practices around it, and the uncertainty embedded in future projections around climate change.
As Rahul Mehrotra notes in the foreword, the central ambition of the book “is to unearth, capture and represent the fluid condition of this mighty river.” When the reader completes the journey in the Ghats of Varanasi (a series of steps in the river edge), this mission is well accomplished. Through the many accounts of this fluid geography, Ganges Water Machine follows in the landscape travelogue tradition of Reyner Banham’s insightful Scenes in American Deserta (1982) and Eric Newby’s madcap Slowly Down the Ganges (1966). Like Banham and Newby, Acciavatti's deep appreciation and critical observations are drawn from both traversing the region and studying its documented history. Acciavatti’s contribution to this genre is in his ability to not only write about these spaces and their images, but also create innovative maps and images of this complex, dynamic landscape.