INFRASTRUCTURE AS PUBLIC SPACE
Ghats and Talaabs in India
Alpa Nawre shows us the cultural significance of these peculiar Indian landscapes

The phrase ‘water infrastructure’ conjures up images of dams, pipes and levees. Rarely does one envision this infrastructure as a social space. In India, the urban edges of water systems have historically acted as dynamic catalysts, as both interconnected climate-adaptive physical and multifunctional socio-cultural constructs. The ghat system and the talaab system in India are examples of two vernacular, culturally integrated water infrastructure landscapes, the land-water edges of which combine the social with the functional. Hence, it is essential to study the design and use of these landscapes. Ghat is a Hindi word for a flight of steps and talaab can be roughly translated to mean a pond.

A ghat system on the edge of a river typically consists of steep steps, sometimes separated by platforms, that follow the natural embankment or natural levee. The purpose of both the steps and platforms is to allow people to use and access the water, despite seasonal changes in water levels. The ghat system is a retaining structure that guides the river water away from habitation, protects the riverbank from erosion and the city from riverine flooding (Hegewald, 2002). Cities that have a river flowing through them or adjoining them have some form of a ghat system. The talaab system is a simple, decentralised system of ponds constructed to store the large amount of monsoonal water received in a short, three-month period and reserved for use during the dry summer.

City scene along ghats, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India

 

season (Mishra, 1993). Talaabs also help in averting urban flash-flooding and downstream riverine flooding. Both the talaab and the ghat are dynamic landscapes, which experience dramatic changes in their spatial definitions as the water level fluctuates over the course of the seasons that define India: summer (dry premonsoon), monsoon (rainy season) and winter.

This article compares the land-water interface of the water systems of rivers (ghat) and ponds (talaab) in Indian cities, and investigates aspects that enable their flexibility and socio-cultural performance. Both the urban ghat and talaab edges are popular public spaces and used for many utilitarian, social and spiritual activities: people bathe at these landscapes, wash clothes and perform various religious rites, children play on the ghats and the young and the old gather to socialise. If, today ghats are a city’s primary urban public space often operating at the regional scale (Fig. 1), talaabs have traditionally acted as centres of neighbourhood civic life manifested on a smaller scale (Fig. 2).

While these water/land-water edge landscapes are present as a part and parcel of settlements throughout India, the ghat system is most elaborate on the banks of rivers in north India (Hegewald, 2002) where the rivers are perennial and experience extreme water level fluctuations (4 to 5 metres annually in Varanasi), talaabs however are most dominant in the central and southern plateaus of India, which receive heavy rainfall during the monsoons.

For example, in a span of three to four months, Raipur, a city in Central India, receives about 1,462 mm annual monsoonal rainfall. The ghat system in Varanasi is particularly spectacular as it forms a continuous four-mile-long linear promenade with a rich, architectural building edge on one side and the River Ganga flowing on the other. Observations made in the article are from site studies of the talaab system in Raipur and the ghat system in Varanasi.

Life on the Talaab and Ghat Landscapes

The talaabs in Raipur predominantly serve practical needs while religious importance dominates the use of ghats in Varanasi. This has led to the ghat becoming the place of work for many people who either support the performance of the religious rites (which are very elaborate) or serve tourists who flock to the ghat to observe the rites. Temporary structures and makeshift platforms are built on the steps of the ghat to perform, for a fee, various kinds of religious rites. In the case of the talaab, the main source of income is fishing. Because of their religious importance, the ghats on the River Ganga in Varanasi are flanked all along the side opposite to the river by imposing architecture constructed by powerful benefactors who all desired a presence on the ghat and a view of the Ganga. Though these and many other minor dissimilarities exist between the talaab edge and ghat landscapes, it is nevertheless important to study their commonalities and to analyse the underlying

Left: Fig. 2 - Typical elevation of an urban talaab showing the architecture and public spaces on the water’s edge. Shitla Talaab, Raipur, Chhattisgarh, India (2012) Right: Fig. 3 - Utilitarian uses at a talaab edge: bathing and washing clothes, utensils and vehicles. Halka Talaab, Raipur, Chhattisgarh, India (2012)

Fig. 4 - Number of people using the talaab system on a daily basis in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, India (2015)

causal characteristics of the Indian milieu in order to better understand the multifunctional use of these landscapes.

Many people in India have a direct dependency on the talaab and river water. For a large section of Indian society, two types of functions absolutely need to happen at these landwater edges: practical daily activities and religious rites that make use of water. The economically weakest sections of society are particularly dependent on these water bodies to fulfill their daily, utilitarian water needs of bathing and washing clothes, utensils, as well as domesticated animal care (Fig. 3). In Raipur, the number of people using these talaabs for daily ablutions ranges from a handful to a few hundred depending on the neighbourhood (Fig. 4). Water also has important spiritual and philosophical meaning in Indian culture, which translates to religious buildings and markers at the water’s edge and are used by people in the adjoining neighbourhood or, if important enough, by the entire city, region or even the sub-continent (Fig. 5).

In Hinduism particularly, ritualistic bathing is considered auspicious during eclipses, major festivals and events such as birth and death of loved ones. On such occasions, people from all over travel to the closest river ghat for the ceremonial dip in the holy water. Similarly, the talaab is a part of many ritualistic ceremonies, with different groups from adjoining neighbourhoods congregating at the talaab edges during festivals and special events. While only the economically weakest sections of people who do not have access to water use these edges for utilitarian purposes, the religious use of these urban landscapes is common to believers subscribing to different religious philosophies regardless of economic and educational backgrounds

At these edges, all other uses are accompaniments to the practical and spiritual uses. The platforms and steps, partly under the shade of trees and partly sunlit, provide flexible spaces for hosting many different uses and activities. In the Indian context, access to air conditioning is limited and the more moderate micro-climate at the edges of water bodies is particularly important. For local, domestic and foreign visitors to these landscapes, watching the life of other people unfold – both the mundane and the dramatic – is the ultimate ‘recreation’. For the locals, this is also known as one way of ‘timepass’, which in Indian English is the guiltless and conscious act of whiling away time by doing nothing of importance. To Indians, social interaction is a way of information gathering, which is essential to navigating the Indian milieu because information is neither readily available on the Internet nor reliable. These land-water edges act as information hotspots due to the diversity of users.

The design of these land-water interface landscapes allows people to use the space in myriad ways. In addition to the steps and platforms that lead down to the water, these landscapes have anchors and subtle edges. Large shade trees with seating platforms at their base act as anchors as do religious markers such as temples, shrines and platforms. The water provides a soft edge to these landscapes on one side, and buildings or the sloping away of the

embankment provide the other, highly defined edge. The steps and slopes of certain ghats become places where the laundry-men lay clothes for drying and the platforms become impromptu cricket pitches. Platforms for ritualistic worship are play areas for children until they are shooed away, after which the platforms are cleaned and appropriately decorated for the daily ceremonies.

Both cultural and physical factors regulate the access to the landscape. The design of the landwater interface directs the access to water and its use. At the highest elevation, ghats are accessed through narrow flights of steps that branch out at the lowest level into wide platforms and steps. As the water level rises, the promenade becomes submerged and there is no longer a continuous connection between the different ghats. During the monsoons, when the water level is at the highest and the current is strong and dangerous, access to the water is automatically restricted through the narrow steps with a large portion of the ghats under water (Fig. 6). Instead of having signage warning of dangerously high-water levels, the design itself limits access to water and thus reduces the associated risks. In the case of the urban talaab, the edge is typically a major connecting path or road, rendering a high level of visibility to water as a part of daily life.

Because of the earlier dependency of all classes of society on the talaab water and the water level’s visibility, talaab water was used with a restraint proportionate to the amount available. Both the user groups and their activities at these edges are culturally regulated as well. For example, women are not allowed at theManikarnika Ghat in Varanasi, which is used only for funerary rites and activities. Similarly, at the Dashashwamedha Ghat, which is predominantly used for celebration of religious events with different castes, classes and user-groups, congregating at different locations on the ghat is determined by their role (or lack of) in these events. Similarly, the edge of the talaab is used exclusively by groups of people determined by the time of the day or event and/or season, gender, caste, class and religion.

The use and importance of both the talaab and the ghat systems is gradually decreasing in the Indian context (Agrawal & Narain, 1997). As India invests in large, heavily engineered modern infrastructure projects such as dams and river interlinking mega-projects, only the poor or those without other options, depend on these landscapes for their daily washing. Many of India’s large infrastructure projects have come at significant ecological and environmental costs and will fail to address the country’s anticipated water crisis (Briscoe & Malik, 2006). Among other issues, failure to recognise low-cost landscapes such as talaabs and ghats as valid water management infrastructure and to explore their possible role in addressing India’s water woes and the resulting lack of investment in their upkeep has led to their deterioration. For example, almost all talaabs in Raipur suffer from water quality degradation, lack of structure maintenance and encroachment or gradual filling up to make more land available to accommodate the increasing urban population of the city. While the religious use of these landscapes remains important across

different classes, the degraded water quality and disrepair of the infrastructure deters many people from frequenting these places, weakening their role in people’s social life and cultural legacy. Any designs that address the various issues facing these systems must take the socio-cultural role and functioning of these landscapes into account.

Conclusion

Thus, in India, the most important aspect activating the land-water edges of these water bodies is firstly the dependency on the talaabs and river water for people’s utilitarian needs and religious rites. Secondly, these functions necessitate direct contact and access to the water achieved through steps and platforms; an interface usable even with water level changes. Thirdly, drawn by utilitarian and religious purposes, people form an environment that encourages other functions adding to the integrity of the land-water interface as they are perceived to be much safer than other public places. The layering of different kinds of activities and usergroups from varied demographics, enable these spaces to act as important places for information exchange. A strong element of self-regulation, an invisible set of rules both cultural and physical, controls the access to and use of water in these landscapes. Finally, the deterioration of these systems is not only a missed opportunity to explore the potential of these systems for water management in contemporary India, but also threatens their socio-cultural function as a public space. Such urban landscapes provide an alternate understanding of water infrastructure as a public space, as a landscape that is embedded in its social, spiritual, geo-physical, ecological and economic fabric.

The study of the socio-cultural use of talaabs and ghats is helpful in understanding how designers can better position themselves in addressing the state of these infrastructural landscapes. For example, the utilitarian and religious dependency of people on the talaab and ghat can form a powerful political rhetoric for conserving and improving the state of these landscapes and exploring their potential to address India’s water problems. This is essential to creating landscape architecture projects where none currently exist. Unfortunately, such historic landscape systems have few advocates.

It is also important to realise that in conserving these landscape systems and exploring their potential to address water management, issues of environmental justice or equitable access to resources such as clean water for all cannot be ignored. That is, while landscape architects can create better designs to improve water quality or separate incompatible uses so that the weakest economic classes have access to cleaner water for their daily uses as well as better long-term solutions and systems necessary to provide clean water for all. As a surface-water harvesting system, the talaab could be an effective, longterm solution to store water for fulfilling irrigation requirements but not for direct human consumption. It is, therefore, important to recognise and work within the limitations of these systems to realise their maximum potential.

Additionally, a study of talaabs and ghats shows that even infrastructure as important but potentially dangerous as that of flood control can be designed and appropriated for many different activities. The land-water interface is naturally well-suited for acting as a multifaceted civic gathering space because of its aesthetic qualities, comfortable microclimate and potential recreation. The culturally embedded landscapes of talaab edges and ghats build a strong argument for rethinking mono-functional, culturally disconnected water infrastructure. People go to talaab edges and ghats to work, pray, sleep and wash, not just to play. For many, it is a necessity to visit these landscapes. One can only speculate about the changes that are possible in how we manage our resources if an entire culture were to visit its resource infrastructure daily. A purely technological solution may be to build a floodwall to prevent a river from flooding over its banks but only a designer can develop alternate solutions to be effective and culturally meaningful as that of the ghat landscapes. Both the ghats and talaabs have been in use long before the professions of architecture, urban planning or landscape architecture existed as they do today. However, a study of these vernacular landscapes clearly demonstrates the contribution designers of the built environment can make in the design of culturally integrated water infrastructure.