Saving Nepal’s Ancient Water Spouts

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Image: Bharat Ghartii/ Creative Commons
Dhunge Dhara, the ancient system of water distribution in Kathmandu valley, is now a pipe dream. Can they be restored?

More than a million years ago, when the world was still undergoing an Ice Age, the valley of Kathmandu was once a giant lake. But around 30,000 years back, the lake started to shrink. Ten thousand years ago, or around 8000 B.C., it was a dry, fertile valley. Today, it houses some of Nepal’s biggest cities – Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Lalitpur. The memory of the lake lives on through an ancient water supply – the Dhunge Daras.

Elaborately carved stone spouts, with heads of animals such as the cows, goats, elephants, tigers and most commonly, the Maraka (crocodile). Considered to be the vehicle of the river Ganga, the Maraka is revered in India and Nepal alike.

The spouts draw their water from an underground network that circulates and purifies water. It keeps water warm in the winters, and cool during the summers. But where there were once 339 spouts serving the entire population of the valley, now fewer than 233 natural water spouts remain – managing just a tenth of the valley’s water needs. The others either dried up, were destroyed, or now connect to municipal water.

The water spouts are an ancient water management system, from a time of greater acumen in handling municipal issues. Maintained well – by barring the use of soap and the washing of clothes in the hitis (the wells in front of the spout) – these serve as ample sources of drinking water. But since the advent of piped water in 1896, the locals have been making do with water supplied by local municipalities. But for many, particularly the poor, the ancient water spouts remain the only free and reliable source of water.

The locals have long held sacred beliefs over the spouts, built during the Licchavi period between fourth to seventh century A.D. Legend has it that they dried up once before, during the reign of Viswadev (father of Mandev). As the story goes, the spout at Narayan Hiti Dhara went dry. Viswadev turned to his astrologer – who asked him to sacrifice a flawless person with perfect virtues. In the whole kingdom, only the king and his son fit the profile.

So Viswadev gave his son strict instructions – to visit the Dhara at dawn, where he would find a figure on the ground, covered in a white sheet. With his sword, he must cut the figure in half. The son obeyed. But instead of water, blood poured forth from the spout. He then came to realise that his father had sacrificed himself for his kingdom. Out of shame at the sight of patricide, the Dhara’s spout turned backwards – but the kingdom was saved.

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Image: Ritesh Tamrakar/ Creative Commons

Until the modern era, a sense of pride and collective ownership kept the Dharas alive. The spouts were also known as kirits – meaning merit. For, it was considered a merit to provide such a crucial sustainer of life – water. These spouts were regularly recharged by building conveyance canals. Underground aquifers also play a role.

The Licchavis, the most famous clan, who came from the Gangetic plain, brought with them the idea of water purity – both ritually and hygienically. They sought to treat any water supply like the Ganga. An inscription at Tiwaeri mandates that the water for visitors must be “cool, tasty and clear.” But the emphasis on ritual purity also meant that some were barred from using the waters – women were not allowed near it if they were menstruating, nor could people of lower-castes utilise it.

Today, neither the spouts nor the municipal water can be considered pure. A 2007 study found the water quality in both to exceed World Health Organization norms for bacteria-content in drinking water. A spate in diarrhoea-related deaths has made this an urgent problem.

The concrete-jungle of Kathmandu results in fewer areas for water to recharge from.

In many villages, Nepali women have been building their own wells and recharging the local aquifers. And on many measures, Nepal has greatly increased the access to water, from 46 percent having access in 1990 to 84 percent in 2015. In Lalitpur, the municipality plans to use the spouts to give more people access to water.

The aftermath of the 2015 earthquake saw many water sources destroyed or polluted. A growing trend towards urbanisation has also alleviated the problem of contaminated water. While stone spouts can no longer bear the burden of Nepal’s water needs, a pragmatic approach to restoring an ancient solution could bring communities together.

Historically, the Guthi system of community-ownership both regulated and restricted the hygiene and access to water respectively. Its replacement, the Guthi corporation, has taken out the community aspect of water management. A system that can utilise indigenous knowledge and community ownership without caste barriers would be a sustainable way forward for Nepal’s water starved valley.

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