Dhunge Dhara: Nepal’s 1,600-Year-Old Drinking Water Fountains

Mar 16, 2024 1 comments

The tiny country of Nepal, nestled between India and Tibet, boasts of a very robust drinking water supply system that dates back to at least the 5th century. Among its most striking features are the intricate stone fountains known as dhunge dhara or hiti, fashioned in the likeness of the mythical makara—a legendary sea creature in Hindu mythology. While these dhunge dharas may lack the grandeur of the ancient Roman aqueducts, the ingenious technology that brings water to these spouts are no less impressive.

An 8th century hiti in Nagbahal. Photo credit: Ritesh Man Tamrakar/Flickr

Dhunge dharas first emerged during the Licchavi Kingdom (circa 400–750 AD). Some scholars believe that a similar system may have existed from earlier times, and the Licchavis had simply organized and given an artistic shape to the existing form.

In Nepalese culture, offering water to the gods is considered a highly meritorious act. Hence, both kings and communities of the past were deeply involved in the construction of dhunge dharas within their towns. It was believed that those who contributed to the building of these structures were blessed, as access to clean drinking water was deemed one of the utmost essentials for human life.

Manga Hiti in Patan, built in 570 AD, is considered to be the oldest working dhunge dhara. Over time, more hitis began to dot the landscape of the Kathmandu Valley. The Malla period (circa 1201–1779 AD) witnessed a proliferation of hiti systems. Notable rulers such as Jitamitra Malla of Bhaktapur, Pratap Malla of Kathmandu, and Siddhinarshinha Malla of Patan are renowned for their contributions to water management in their respective cities. The hiti erected in 1829 by Queen Lalit Tripura Sundari Devi and Bhimsen Thapa in Sundhara village (now part of Kathmandu) is widely regarded as the final addition to this ancient tradition.

The spouts of Manga Hiti, Patan. Photo credit: Kumud.parajuli/Wikimedia Commons

The primary water source for a dhunge dhara is the network of water channels known as rajkulos, which carry water from mountain streams. Alternatively, some draw water from underground aquifers. Dhunge dharas that tap into underground sources are typically constructed over shallow basins, the depth of which is dictated by the level of the water table. These basins are crafted from a blend of stone and brick, with spouts protruding from the walls. While most basins accommodate a single spout, there are hitis boasting two, three, five, nine, or even more spouts, such as the impressive Muktidhara in the Mustang District, which features a staggering 108 spouts. Positioned above each spout is usually a shrine dedicated to a specific deity. Any excess water is either collected in a pond or directed to agricultural fields for irrigation purposes.

Prior to the late 17th century, before the introduction of piped water, hitis served as a vital source of drinking water. Though their significance has diminished since then, they still play a crucial role in providing water, albeit to a lesser extent. It's estimated that hitis currently cater to approximately ten percent of the population in the Kathmandu Valley, where the majority of these water spouts are concentrated.

Manga Hiti in Patan is the oldest dhunge dhara still working. Photo credit: S Pakhrin/Wikimedia Commons

Even today, dhunge dharas remain integral to daily life for many residents. They are used for public bathing and laundry purposes. They also provide a place for religious ceremonies, such as washing of images and idols of deities. Certain hitis also hold special significance during festivals, such as Bhimdhyo Hiti in Bhaktapur, Manga Hiti in Patan, and Sundhara in Kathmandu. For instance, the water from Manga Hiti is employed in the daily ritual worship at the Krishna temple and is specifically utilized for puja ceremonies during the Kartik month. Similarly, in Bhaktapur, there is a longstanding tradition of offering water from Sundhara to the Goddess Taleju.

A number of hitis are also believed to possess healing properties. For instance, water from Sundhara in Kathmandu is reputed to alleviate arthritis, while the water from Golmadhi Hiti in Bhaktapur is thought to be effective against goitre. Similarly, the water from Washa Hiti in Patan is renowned for its medicinal qualities.

The traditional custodians of hitis were the local community organizations known as guthis. However, with the advent of piped water systems around the turn of the 20th century, many hitis fell into disrepair due to neglect. Furthermore, frequent earthquakes have damaged the royal canals, leading to the drying up of numerous hitis. Encroachments on hitis and ponds, as well as the depletion of aquifers caused by the proliferation of private wells and industrial usage, have further exacerbated the decline of these ancient water sources.

The gold spout of Nag Pokhari in Bhaktapur. The spout has the shape of the mythical makara (also called hitimanga). This is a creature with the snout of a crocodile, the trunk of an elephant, tusks and ears of a wild boar and the tail of a peacock. Photo credit: Gerd Eichmann/Wikimedia Commons

Some of the 108 brass spouts of Muktidhara. Photo credit: Felix Dance/Wikimedia Commons

An elaborately carved spout at Mangahiti, Patan Durbar Square. This spout depicts four animals, each born from the mouth of another. Photo credit: Shadow Ayush/Wikimedia Commons

In recent decades, there has been a growing movement to revive the country's hitis. This resurgence is driven not only by a desire to preserve Nepal's cultural heritage but also by the pressing need to address water scarcity. With a burgeoning population, the demand for water has surged beyond the capacity of municipal piped water systems. During dry spells, many residents rely on hitis to fulfill their daily water needs.

In Kathmandu Valley alone, there are nearly three hundred hitis that continue to function. In recent years, concerted efforts have been made to restore many of these hitis to working condition. Additionally, some hitis have been adapted and modified to better cater to the needs of the local population. One common adaptation involves connecting hitis to the municipal water supply, providing a more reliable and consistent source of water. Furthermore, storage tanks have been installed in certain hitis to collect and store excess water from the spouts, which are then distributed to the surrounding communities.

In 2022, the dhunge dharas of Kathmandu valley were placed on the 2022 World Monuments Watch by the World Monuments Fund (WMF), an organization dedicated to raising awareness of culturally important places in the world and supporting the people who care for them.

Tusha Hiti in Patan Durbar Square. Photo credit: Rajesh Dhungana/Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: francesbean/Flickr

# Riddhi Pradhan, Dhunge Dhara: A case study of the three cities of Kathmandu Valley


  1. This really beautiful article about hiti. Thank you


Post a Comment

More on Amusing Planet


{{posts[0].date}} {{posts[0].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[1].date}} {{posts[1].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[2].date}} {{posts[2].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[3].date}} {{posts[3].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}