Off the deep endIf you set out to explore the cobbled-stone lanes of the traditional old quarters of the Kathmandu Valley, the lanes always lead you to a square-shaped courtyard, with a temple dedicated to one of the many deities, and almost always, a water conduit.
If you set out to explore the cobbled-stone lanes of the traditional old quarters of the Kathmandu Valley, the lanes always lead you to a square-shaped courtyard, with a temple dedicated to one of the many deities, and almost always, a water conduit. These water bodies that are hundreds of years—some even over a millennium—old, offer an insight into the deft and resourceful urban planning done by the past dwellers of the Valley. But increasingly, with rampant unchecked urbanisation, neglect from concerned authorities and the passivity of the post-earthquake reconstruction, these historical and uniquely functional waterspouts are quickly becoming a thing of the past, quite literally.
An important component for basic life, water in Kathmandu Valley plays an important role in its cultural and religious fabric as well. This is plainly evident in the water architecture of Kathmandu. At public spaces, you will always find the simple circular tu (well), elaborately carved hities (waterspouts), or pukus (artificial ponds). Even the Valley’s oral traditions are strongly intertwined with water bodies, especially hities, each of which are associated with divine forces, and are almost always associated with a Nagaraj (a serpent god), who are protectors of water bodies.
In order to provide for the basic needs of the people of the Valley, water conduits were important components in urban planning during the Lichchavi and Malla periods—when these structures were developed in public spaces encircled by houses and temples. And although, water conduits were developed based on the basic need of water, these entities also have a strong connection to the intangible heritage of Kathmandu Valley.
But if the three cities once boasted hundreds of hities, the numbers have been steadily dwindling in the past decades. According to the Forum for Urban Water and Sanitation, currently there are 233 natural water hities; and the traditional water systems of Kathmandu is rapidly diminishing as a result of intensive urbanisation. In recent years, heritage preservation activists and enthusiasts have been raising concerns over the rampant building of concrete structures, especially infrastructure with deep underground foundations that have been linked to the drying up of traditional waterspouts.
When water spouts go dry, they argue, it not only affects the water supply for local residents, it also affects jatras, processions and daily religious activities intricately tied to the water bodies.
A procession held in Bhaktapur (and Sankhu), the “gupu-hiti-sikegu”, is one such example. The procession at Bhaktapur once traced nine east-facing water spouts peppered along the locality—beginning from Suryabinayak before finally ending in the Eastern settlements of Bhaktapur. But because of the deterioration of the venerated water spouts, the procession was discontinued and now is a thing of the past. The water spout at Sundhara (the golden spout) in Kathmandu too was visited by pilgrims during Chaitra Purnima. It is the same day where pilgrims also visit the bais-dhara (22 spouts) at Balaju to worship the reclining figure of Lord Vishnu in the nearby pond. Pilgrims made their journey, first from the shrine of Basundhara, and ended it with a bath at Sundhara. The water spout at Sundhara, however, has not been functional for many years, with local residents citing the rampant rise of multi-storied complexes in the vicinity as the reason for the drying up of the historical spout.
But if spouts are running dry in certain localities, they are overflowing in others due to neglect.
Naba Hiti, a traditional hiti at Ombahal, was accidently rediscovered in 2064 BS when workers were excavating the ground to lay foundation for a building.
According to Ganapati Lal Shrestha, a local resident, “The hiti, dating back to Nepal Sambat 901, had been providing a continuous supply of water to the locals since then.”
The hiti, however, developed cracks during the 2015 Earthquake, and has been further affected by rats and rodents boring holes into the stone. Ever since, the drainage system for the spout has also become clogged up. And as a result, despite the steady flow of water in this ancient spout, locals have not been able to use it.
Naba Hiti is one of the many old stone water spouts that still await funds for maintenance and restoration.
Ga Hiti, located behind Amrit Science Campus in Thamel—one of the biggest water spouts and the oldest in Kathmandu, presumed to be from the Lichchavi Era—is one of the few hities that have been successfully restored with local support and financial aid of the Municipality after the earthquake. Ga Hiti, which also provides water to many local residents of Thamel, is an important water conduit site for the Newa community with many religious significances.
According to Jafar Husain, President of the Ga Hiti Youth Club, which has been actively involved in the preservation of Ga Hiti before and after the earthquake, “Restoration of Ga Hiti seemed an impossible task when it was buried under the rubble of a seven-floor building that collapsed into it on April 25, 2015. Although, we were able to get a bulldozer from the municipality, it was declared impossible for it to be lowered into the depression to haul out the rubble. However, we decided to start a cleanup campaign to remove the debris by hand.” Their initiative saw hundreds of volunteers turn up every Saturday, to help clear out the rubble. With further support from locals and foreign nationals, and the KMC (Kathmandu Metropolitan Office), Ga Hiti today stands out as an exception to the norm, as most hities remain dry or awaiting relief following natural and man-made calamities.
Most of the water supplied to the hities comes from aquifers that are largely dependent on rainwater recharge to balance the groundwater level. According to experts, one of the technological aspects that ensured rainwater recharge were conveyance canals called the deidha or rajkulo which went through ponds. The traditional water systems ingeniously integrated water conduits, with the network of canals and ponds that ensured abundant and quality water supply to everybody throughout the year. These hities also had well-planned drainage systems and several filtration systems with gravel, sands, charcoal and even lapsi (Nepali hog plum) serving as filters in certain Lichchavi water spouts for water treatment.
But Kathmandu’s sprawling concrete jungle doesn’t provide open grounds for rainwater recharge, affecting many of the traditional hities and situation has been further exacerbated by the earthquake. This poses a challenge to not only the cultural aspect of hities but its practical aspect, since hities are a source of water for many residents in Kathmandu Valley.
As dust plumes from the Melamchi drinking water project continue to choke the Capital and its residents, it is, perhaps, ironic that existing traditional water infrastructures remain ignored and in varying states of disrepair. Had modern-day urban planners incorporated traditional water bodies into their grandiose vision for the Valley, heritage conservationists argue, it would have eased the daily demand of water, while keeping the many traditions related to them intact and relevant. But as things stand, Kathmandu’s many water spouts increasingly look doomed to be forgotten—just dry and barren reminders of the thought and care that went into building the city, and the passive indifference that ultimately negated it all.