Where is the desert cooler?

It was another hot mid-day in 1979. The infamous loo was blowing in from the Thar desert across Delhi’s Rajpath. And a young boy walked past the black gates of The National Museum in the blazing sun. And walked into the the coolness provided by one of mankind’s ealiest inventions. Across the imposing front doors of the National Museum of India, from the ceiling to the floor was this huge curtain of khus fibre constantly kept moist by buckets of water being thrown on it. I dont know how many of you have had the good luck to smell the wonderful aroma of a khus curtain on a hot north indian day – it remains with me, so many years later. 

The Punjabi migrants of Delhi converted this idea to a nifty little appliance to beat the Delhi heat. And since Punjabis are generally better are creating innovations than in naming them (a trait similar to the inventive Japanese, who succeeded in coming up with some of the corniest names for some of the best innovations around – think ‘walkman’!) they called it the ‘desert cooler’.

The desert cooler was a 3 part contraption. It’s body was a covered box in which all sides are walls of khus fibre held in place by a wire mesh. Its underbelly was a huge tank which held many litres of water and its soul was a massive fan and a pump. Now, this is what happened. As soon as you switched on the desert cooler, the pump would start to pull up water from the tank and start to trickle it down on the khus across all the walls of the box. Inside the box, facing into the room was the fan which would soon start to rotate thunderously and effectively suck up the moisture from the surrounding walls of khus and throw it with great force ino the room. Voila, a very cool room, albeit one with an extraordinary amount of moisture. 

I still recollect this room I stayed in for a few years in Delhi. Shaded by a neem tree and blasted by a huge desert cooler, I spent many a Delhi summer swathed in a razai, which I believe I have never bested before or after for pure hedonism. 

But as incomes have risen, the harsh beauty of the Airconditioner has replaced the comely desert cooler (although calling a Punjabi beauty ‘comely’ shows a deeply besotted mind!). And as I keep an unsuccessful eye out for the Desert Cooler everytime I go to Delhi in summer, I cannot help mourn its passing. With it has passed an age of innocence.  

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One thought on “Where is the desert cooler?

  1. Happy to report the desert cooler is alive and well in the American Southwest- did not know the Punjab connection. There is a fourth generation Sikh community in Imperial Valley, Ca, where the desert coolers thrives. I don’t think there is a connection …

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