Of all the ways one might qualify the Ganges River Basin—rural, urban, suburban, landscape, drosscape, edge city, and megalopolis–none of these accurately defines such elaborately engineered spaces and infrastructures. Instead, through the construction of thousands of kilometres of canals and the sinking of millions of tubewells, the basin has been transformed into a giant water machine.
From the foothills of the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, the Ganges Machine cuts across agricultural fields, cities, and hamlets, inscribing in its monumental re-organization of space and infrastructure a new way of life. Throughout this transformed river basin flowed the forces of tradition and innovation, dotted by diffuse urban projects (regional urban capitals), temporary tent cities (Magh and Kumbh Melas), miniature infrastructures (tubewells), and colossal public works projects (Ganges Canal). Its spiritual and religious significance inspired reverence in pilgrims; its archaeological and architectural monuments attracted painters in search of the picturesque; its seasonal ebb and flow of water perplexed farmers and engineers alike; and its fast paced urbanization vexed geographers, planners, and architects. In short, the physical and cultural complexity of this territory has challenged traditional terminology.
Even though various infrastructures of the Ganges Machine affect millions in their daily lives, there is no map that legibly renders their built reality or the relationships they produce.
This discussion will focus on a decade long project to create an atlas—a dynamic atlas—of the Ganges Machine: a method of mapping that exposes the juxtaposing layers of infrastructure and adjoining built forms. The goal of this dynamic atlas is to not only map space, but also map how spaces change over time. At a time when the Government of India is beginning to invest a $1.5 billion loan from the World Bank to clean up the Ganges River, mapping the choreography of water and human settlement is more important than ever.
Anthony Acciavatti is an architect, cartographer, and historian of science and technology. He teaches at Columbia University in the City of New York and is a principal of Somatic Collaborative in NY. He has spent the last decade hiking, driving, and boating across India’s Ganges River basin in order to map it and to understand the growing conflicts over water for drinking, agriculture, and industry. The results of this field and archival work are published in his recent book, Ganges Water Machine: Designing New India’s Ancient River (2015).
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