No attempts are being made to revive the traditional watermills
astan Shah, 81, has worked on the last surviving watermill at Chattar Kalas, Muzaffarabad, for more than a half-century. Sitting on a charpoy in the mill yard, he holds forth about his descendants and the destiny of his watermill.
Last December, while working on an assignment in the area, I had a chance to meet Shah, who has kept the centuries-old hydropower flour mill, locally known as jandar.
The eco-friendly watermills of Kashmir and Hazara were once extensively used for grinding grains. These mills are now disappearing and the authorities are not doing anything to preserve or revive these.
Mastan said that his family had been in this profession for five generations. He recalled the days when he began working at the watermill. 25 to 30 watermills were once installed on rivulets in this area. However, by December of 2021, Mastan Shah’s was the only one left.
A local Rajput family owned the last surviving watermill. Shah’s family had been operating it on lease for almost three centuries. The owner’s family took a minimal payment in grains.
Shah, though asthmatic, continued to live in a small room by the watermill. He would wake up early every day to grind grains received from the customers. When people brought wheat and maize to the mill, Shah kept a fourth of it.
“When someone brings us grains for crushing at the mill, I divide the grains into four parts. I crush three parts and give flour to the customer leaving one part for myself and the mill,” he explained.
In answer to a question, Mastan said he had been working at the mill for over five decades. He feared that the time was near when the last of the watermills would come to a grinding halt. “I wish to keep my family’s traditional business alive, but it seems unrealistic due to the lack of interest shown by the younger generations. It is time-consuming and labour-intensive work,” he had said.
Explaining the functioning of the watermill, Shah said traditional watermills consisted of a wooden turbine and iron blades that rotate when water flows over them. A shaft connects the wheel to a rotating stone, which moves against a stationary grinding stone. Water from a stream is diverted through an open wooden channel to fall from a height onto the turbine. To stop the machine, the operator has to change the flow direction away from the blades.
Mastan said he had been working at the mill for over five decades but feared that the time was near when the last of the watermills would come to a grinding halt. “I wish to keep my family’s business alive, but it seems unrealistic due to the lack of interest shown by the younger generation.”
It is commonly believed that the flour obtained from these water flour mills is of better quality and has higher nutritional value. Since people grow their own crops, getting the grains ground at the local watermill has been a common practice.
Women of the areas prefer flour obtained from watermills. Most claim that it has better texture, especially maize, because of the ‘cold’ grinding.
Mastan complained that though the taste and standard of the flour ground at watermills is superior, due to urban migration and fewer growers in the area, crop yields had gone down.
On my last visit to Chattar Kalas, Muzaffarabad, I found the last watermill non-functioning. I was informed that Mastan Shah had passed away a month ago, and that his sons did not want to continue their ancestral profession.
Talib, Mastan Shah’s eldest son, says they were not interested in carrying on their family occupation. Several factors, including poor crop yields are the reason for their decision. “Our father would grind up 50 maunds of grain a day during the season, but, now, it has been reduced to 5 to 10 maunds a day as people of nearby villages are not farming.” In this situation, stones for grinding grains can hardly be purchased. Also, they require sufficient water to run them, says Talib. He says they are left with no option but to make their living by working as labourers in the nearby bazaar.
A local researcher, Muhammad Muneeb Abbasi, who was present at the watermill, said that most youngsters are now working in new jobs and few prefer to carry on the traditional businesses like watermills. Mastan Shah was determined to continue his forefathers’ business till his death at the age of 81.
Humaira Khan Shami, the founder of Explore East Tour and Trek, says that the Azad Jammu and Kashmir has many unexplored cultural heritage sites that can be used to expand the tourism industry.
She is of the view that there is a need to keep the watermills to introduce the future generations to these environment-friendly operations. She is requesting the AJK government to help Talib and others to revive their businesses and preserve the cultural heritage of Kashmir.
The writer is a student of history and a journalist interested in writing on gender equality, social issues, climate change and cultural heritage