• Culture & Tradition
  • 27 March, 2024

Hiti Tales: The stories behind Kathmandu’s ancient Water Spouts

Hiti Tales: The stories behind Kathmandu’s ancient Water Spouts
Photo : Sambid Bilas Pant The golden spout of Bhaktapur is known for its exquisite carving of screaming goat being swallowed by the mythical crocodile like creature, Hiti Manga.

Hitis, ancient water spouts, also known as Dhunge Dharas have served as integral components of Kathmandu’s traditional water supply system for centuries. The water from the Hitis serves various everyday needs, encompassing ordinary household tasks, occupational requirements, participation in religious and cultural rituals.

In Nepal, it’s common to observe people drinking directly from a hiti, using it for washing themselves, laundering clothes, or even collecting water to take home for household chores like washing, drinking, and cooking. A rajkulo, known as a royal canal in English, is a distinctive type of waterway prevalent in Nepal, that supplies the Hitis. The rajkulo recharges ground water, channeling the water through systematic flow, ensuring that the water flows uninterrupted from underground sources.

Prior to entering the spout, the water undergoes filtration through a system utilizing gravel, sand, and charcoal. Crafted from stone, wood, copper, and brass, these distinctive structures play a vital role in sustainable water management while showcasing the country’s abundant cultural heritage and skilled artisanal craftsmanship.

Hiti Tales
Thirsty monkeys drinking water from hitis in the Swayambhu Stupa area.
Photo : Sambid Bilas Pant

Over time, however, the extensive urban development of Kathmandu has altered the landscape, unfortunately leading to the neglect and deterioration of the stone spouts. In 2019, the Kathmandu Valley Water Supply Management Board (KVWSMB) identified a total of 573 spouts within the Valley. Among them, 224 were found to be operational
during the survey, while 94 were deemed completely lost.

The Artistic Marvels

In the Lichhavi era, hitis were called “kriti”, meaning creation or work of art. Adorned with intricate geometric patterns, natural elements, and spiritual symbols, these water spouts hold profound cultural significance, often adorned with carvings depicting Hindu and Buddhist deities as well as guardian figures.

Most hitis are carved in the shape of a mythical creature known as Hiti Mangas. Hiti Manga is a legendary being commonly portrayed as a fusion of a crocodile’s body and the head of either a crocodile or a peacock with ears of sheep occasionally incorporating additional features like trunks, antlers or wings. It is recognized as the vahana or divine mount of the goddess Ganga, representing the embodiment of the Ganges River. Throughout the centuries, Hiti Manga has been a recurring motif in art and architectural elements such as stone water spouts, temple engravings, statues, and various cultural relics. Regarded as possessing protective attributes, its depiction is frequently employed to repel malevolent spirits and counteract negative energies.

Almost every dhunge dhara (hiti) or tutedhara (jaladroni), which are two different types of drinking fountains, showcase a sculpture of the sage Bhagiratha right below the spout. His renowned legend involves undertaking a penance to bring the divine river Ganga, personified as
the Hindu River goddess, from heaven to earth. Just below Bhagiratha are carvings of Yakshyas. In Hinduism and Buddhism, Yakshyas are nature-spirits or semi gods living under the earth in the Himalayas. They guard the wealth hidden under the earth. They are also the tutelary deities of the forests and are believed to be spirits of fertility and the essence of water. Hiti can also have other sculptures of gods, chaityas and shiva lingas. Numerous narratives are intertwined with these historical landmarks. Hitis are steeped in mythologies, folklore, and oral tradition. These timeless Hiti tales breathe life into the monuments of antiquity, transforming them from mere structures of stone into living testaments to the human spirit.

Hiti Tales
Bhagiratha, depicted frequently beneath the water spout, is renowned as the sage credited with bringing the Ganges river to the earth. Photo : Sambid Bilas Pant

Manga Hiti

Although an inscription discovered in Handigaun, dating back to 550 AD, mentioning Hiti, stands as the oldest found inscription, Manga Hiti, situated at Mangal Bazar in Patan, holds the honor of being recognized as the oldest operational hiti known to history, having been built in 570 AD.

Manga Hiti, the sunken water spout with three beautifully carved hiti mangas was built by Bharavi, the grandchild of King Mandev I for the benefit of the residence according to an inscription engraved at the base of the central spout of Manga Hiti. It has witnessed the ebb and flow of history and this majestic stone spout stands as a timeless symbol of resilience and continuity, having quenched the thirst of generations for over fourteen centuries. The spout holds significant social, architectural, and religious importance. Perched above the Manga Hiti tank, two wooden pavilions, renowned as the Mani Mandap, were constructed in 1700 specifically for the grand ceremonies held during royal coronations.

Tusha Hiti

The Royal spout in Sundari Chowk of Patan, constructed in 1647 AD by King Siddhi Narsingh Malla, is adorned with intricately carved stone figures portraying various tantric deities. Known as Tusha Hiti, it is believed that the water flowing from this spout possessed a taste reminiscent of sugarcane juice, hence its name derived from “tu” meaning sugarcane and “sha” meaning taste. Many historians speculate that it served as a Royal bath, with the King possibly reclining on the nearby massive stone bed after bathing.

According to historical accounts, the water was warmed and scented, customized to the King’s preferences. However, alternative theories suggest that the water source of the hiti might have originated from a well, as evidenced by the Newari language where “tun” signifies a well and “tunsala” refers to water drawn from a well. Regardless of its precise function, the Tusha Hiti remains a symbol of both architectural elegance
and historical intrigue, inviting contemplation on the opulence and customs of Nepal’s royal heritage.

Alko Hiti 

Alko Hiti, alternatively recognized as Alkwo Hiti, Aluko Hiti, or Alok Hiti, stands as a 15th century Hiti situated within the urban landscape of Patan. The construction of Hiti dates back to 1415 AD, attributed to Tumha Dev Bajracharya, a renowned Tantric Buddhist and healer. It was erected adjacent to the north-western entrance of the ancient Patan city.

According to local legend, a female Naag (snake god) faced an eye ailment, and she visited Tuhudev Bajracharya, a renowned Tantric. He successfully healed her. Grateful, her male Naag spouse rewarded the Tantric with five exquisite stones. Tuhudev discreetly stored them in a clay pot within his locked storeroom, unknown to his wife. One day, she, intrigued by the pot, explored its contents, discovering only five seemingly useless stones.  Unaware of their significance, she discarded them out of the window. 

Tuhudev, upon learning this, searched for the stones and was astonished to find out that water was bubbling from each spot the stones landed on. Utilizing his Tantric abilities, he fashioned five spouts at those locations, now known as Alko Hiti.

Lun Hiti

Hiti Tales
Originally constructed at an elevated position above street level to accommodate the evolving surroundings, one now finds it necessary to descend a few steps to reach Lun Hiti. Photo : Sambid Bilas Pant

The ‘lun hiti’, the golden spot located in Sundhara Chowk in Patan, was built in the early Lichhavi era. There is a Licchavi inscription dated to Manadeva era year 34 preserved in the Hiti premises. According to a folklore, two friends, one from Satigala (Saugala) and another from
Nugaḥ Ṭola used to serve in the royal place. The one from Saugala built Satigata Hiti (Saugaḥ Hiti) with the help of the king. The other friend from Nugah got jealous of his friend and thus announced that he, too, will build a Hiti in his Ṭola.

Since he did not get any help from the king, he worshipped Goddess Phūlcokī and pleased her. She granted him a boon for his successes and gave three water conduits. He then constructed a water channel from Nāykhyaḥ (Nagakhela) to Nugah and constructed 5 stone conduits. He also cladded and gilded the stone conduits, which are known as Sundhārā at present. 

Golden Spout of Bhaktapur

Hiti Tales
The golden spout of Bhaktapur is known for its exquisite carving of screaming goat being swallowed by the mythical crocodile like creature, Hiti Manga. Photo : Sambid Bilas Pant

The “Lun Hiti” golden water spout of Bhaktapur is inside the Lun hiti courtyard of 55 window palaces. It is also known as Nag Pokhari (snake pond) because of an artistic monument, a stone sculpture of a snake that surrounds a pond below the water spout. Legend has it that King Jitamitra Malla (1672 to 1696 A.D.) experienced a divine dream where the goddess Taleju herself appeared, delivering a celestial message. She told him to construct a water spout that would serve as a conduit for offering water to her temple on a daily basis.

The king built the Lunhiti, within the confines of his palace, just outside the revered Taleju temple. Legend has it that, when the water gushed forth from the spout, a pair of swans emerged from the mouth of the golden spout, gracefully gliding into the pond below. These mystical swans, believed to be celestial messengers, captivated the hearts of those fortunate enough to witness the divine spectacle. Just as miraculously as they had appeared, the swans returned to the golden spout, disappearing into its depths. For years, the people of the kingdom were blessed with the opportunity to witness this mystical display reinforcing the profound spiritual connection between the ruler, the goddess, and the sacred waters of Lunhiti.

The Narayanhiti

The Narayanhiti Durbar, situated in Kathmandu, has historically functioned as the primary residence and administrative center for the ruling Monarch of the Kingdom of Nepal. However, many people aren’t aware that the Narayanhiti Durbar is named after a hiti (stone spout) with a Narayan’s idol above it. It consists of three spouts, with one adorned in gold plating while the other two are crafted from stone. There are many legends associated with the legendary Narayanhiti. One of the legends states that, Kathmandu valley had a drought in the Lichhavi era and the Narayanhiti also dried. The ruling king at the time consulted a tantric practitioner to look for a solution to end the drought. The tantric practitioner suggested only a human sacrifice can end the drought. 

The king ordered his son to sacrifice anyone he sees walking around the hiti at midnight. The prince and his soldiers saw an old man in a robe and he was killed.  Later, the prince found out the old man was none other than the king himself. Suddenly, it started raining and water gushed out of the hiti again. The tale of a king sacrificing himself for the betterment of his kingdom has endured through centuries, serving as a precedent for subsequent monarchs and leaders that followed.

Stone Spout with Multilingual inscription

Just outside the Kathmandu Durbar square there is a massive stone with water spout to dispense water to travelers. Dating back to 1654 AD, during the zenith of the Malla dynasty, this stone spout is no ordinary relic; it bears upon it a remarkable inscription, etched in not one, but fifteen languages—a testament to the polyglot ambitions of its creator, King Pratap Malla. Above the spout, the inscription stands proud, inviting curiosity and speculation from all who behold it.

Among the languages engraved upon its surface are Nepali, English, French, German, Tibetan, Arabic, and Persian, forming a mosaic of cultural and linguistic exchange reflective of Nepal’s rich tapestry of influences. Each script tells a story—a narrative of trade, diplomacy, and pilgrimage that traversed the ancient routes connecting the Himalayan kingdom to distant lands. Yet, unraveling the enigma of the multilingual inscription remains an elusive quest. While scholars have pieced together fragments of its message, the true significance of its words continues to evade complete comprehension. Legend has it that deciphering the inscription holds a mystical promise: the transformation of water into milk—a whimsical notion that has captured the imagination of generations. Though skeptics dismiss it as mere folklore, the allure of the stone spout persists, drawing linguists, historians, and curious souls alike in search of its hidden meaning.

Bais Dhara (22 taps)

Nestled beneath the serene slopes of Nagarjun Hill lies the enchanting Balaju water garden, home to the revered Bais Dhara, or 22 taps. The 22 stone water spouts in Balaju, Kathmandu, were carved intricately in the form of Hiti Manga. Bais Dhara was established as a holy site in the 18th century during the reign of King Jaya Prakash Malla, the final king of Kathmandu who is remembered for his patronage of the arts, architecture, and religion, contributing to the rich cultural heritage of the region.

Hitis are typically accompanied by idols representing Hindu and Buddhist deities and Shiva linga highlighting their profound spiritual significance. Photo: Sambid Bilas Pant

Every year, the 22 stone spouts within the Balaju Water Garden become the central focus of the Balaju Baise Dhara festival as thousands of devotees assemble to partake in the sacred ritual of bathing in the 22 water spouts of Balaju. It is believed that this ritual holds the power to cleanse the soul and purify the spirit, offering solace and healing to those who seek it. The devotees believe that these sacred waters possess mystical properties capable of curing various afflictions and diseases.

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