Flour or atta has been consumed since 6000 BC and the methods of producing it have also evolved over the years. Earlier, the raw grains were crushed and pounded between stones manually to make the powder, and now flour mills powered by electricity do the same.
But did you know that in the Indian Himalayan ranges, there were flour mills powered by water? Popularly known as gharats, these watermills played a vital role in the day-to-day life of the people of Uttaranchal. However, over the decades, with the advent of new technologies, these mills have been neglected and are now in deplorable conditions.
Producing atta using this method slowly died because its demand reduced over time and many working in the mills lost their livelihood. Some had to close their mills because the water channels powering the mills were either blocked, had shifted course, or were dried up, and the mill owners had no money to do the necessary repairs or create check dams to divert the water.
But, three friends from Chandigarh — Vikas Singla, Anuj Saini, and Nitin Sharma are on a mission to revive these gharats and supply fresh atta made in the hills across the country.
“The water mills have been in use since the time of the Britishers. The atta made there is much softer, finer, and healthier. My grandfather would always tell me that it is higher in protein and fibre. Nowadays, gharats are almost non-existent because 99% of them have closed. The three of us launched ‘Ghrats Fresh ’ to reintroduce lost traditions, sustainably produce food and provide employment to others,” says Vikas Singla.
What is Gharat?
Gharat is a house or a mill that is placed downstream of a fast-flowing river channel. Under the river is a turbine which is powered by the flowing water. Inside the house, there are two stones, placed one over the other which are used to grind the grains. One of the stones rotates and is powered by the moving turbine, while the other is stable.
Above the stone, there is a funnel, commonly known as a hopper, made of steel which holds the grains. This hopper is supported over the grinding stone with the help of a wooden frame.
To ensure the grains gradually fall into the stone, there is a small wooden wedge placed near the mouth of the funnel which comes in contact with the grinding stone and creates a vibration for the funnel. This allows the grains to be fed into the hole of the grinder.
Once the grains are finely powdered, it is pushed out of the stone and collected.
“The water supply is natural and there are no check dams to store the water. But, some mill owners have created a point at the channel where the water tributary diverts into two ways using rocks. One that flows towards the mill and the other towards the river. When the mill begins work, the water is diverted towards the gharat, and once the day ends, the water is diverted downstream again,” says Vikas.
The trio were introduced to the gharats at a young age. Anuj says that his father would travel up the mountains for business and would always return home with a bag of atta that he purchased from a gharat.
As he grew older, Anuj launched a business that deals with landscaping. For some projects, he would travel to the Himalayas but would find it very difficult to find gharats that procured fresh atta.
“I would visit the ones that my father spoke of only to see that it was closed or damaged. Some of them did not even have a water source to power the mill. After a further enquiry from people living around, I understood that the mill owners decided to migrate from that location in search of a better livelihood,” says Anuj.
By focussing on two locations — Himachal and Haryana, the trio identified gharats that were shut down a few years ago owing to various reasons such as unfinished repairs, clearing waterways, or lack of avenues to sell the atta.
The process of launching the business and identifying mill owners started by the end of June 2020 and all the repairs were completed within three months.
“Currently we have revived five gharats and the work is being taken care of by the family that owns it. Two operational mills are located in Bhadi Shehr and Madina in Haryana, and the other three are in Parwanoo, Himachal Pradesh. We have got into a contract with the mill owners where we offer financial support to repair the gharat, provide raw materials, and pay them a monthly salary. Apart from that, if additional employment is required, we pay for that too,” says Vikas, adding that till date they have identified 20 such gharats and will work on reviving them based on consumer demand.
Anuj adds, “In the meantime, we also procured a space in Chandigarh for its packaging. The atta is transported from these locations by trucks. In the mountains, where vehicles cannot go, carts pulled by horses are used to transport the atta.
Apart from atta, the gharats also produce corn flour, besan flour, black wheat flour, and a range of masalas including garam masala, coriander powder, and chilly powder. The brand claims to receive a good number of orders every day from Punjab, Haryana, Ludhiana and Shimla.
“Across Chandigarh, Mohali and Panchachuli, we offer free home delivery but to other states, a delivery fee will be added,” says Vikas.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)