Devotional Art of Hitis


Manga Hiti, Patan Durbar Square
[ Photo courtesy Pangdu @ Panoramio ]

Aug 04, 2013 — CANADA (SUN) — A look at the ancient waterways of Nepal, and the Vedic devotional art embodied in its stone water spouts.

The history of Kathmandu Valley begins with the story a great lake surrounded by mountains. Known as Nagadaha Lake, named for the Nagas and daha (lake) they habitually reside in, this great lake was also the abode of the Goddess Manjushree, who came to Swayambhu to perform austerities.

In Nepal's Swayambhu Purana it states that Manjushri came from China. At the time, the great lake covering the Kathmandu Valley was known as Nagadaha or Kalidaha, and Vipaswi Buddha is said have came here and planted a lotus seed in the lake. The seed blossomed into a thousand petals, and a dark blue flame emanated from the water. This a self-manifesting flame is known as known as Swayambhu-joti.

The Kathmandu Valley is understood by many to be the mysterious Shangri-La. In723 A.D. King Gun Kamdev founded the settlement known as Kathmandu, made habitable by the draining of Nagadaha Lake and the fertile plains growing out of the released water.

As discussed in our recent Feature series, "Nepal in the Mahabharata Period", many kings from different dynasties have ruled the region of Nepal. Major dynasties like the Gopala, Mahispala, Kirantis, Lichhavis and Mallas were followed by the Shahs ruling the Valley.

Manga Hiti, Patan Durbar Square
[ Photo courtesy ]

Among these great kingdoms, the Lichhavi and Malla rulers were particularly known for patronizing art and architecture in the region. This devotional art was not limited to temples, stupas and shrines alone. One of the least discussed, but most outstanding features of Nepali devotional art are the Hitis, or waterspouts that are found everywhere in the Valley. Most embody non-Buddhist Vedic images, and therefore provide an important historical record of the Vaisnava influence in the region of Nepal.

Hiti, the stone water spouts, are known by many names: the Newari call them Lon Hiti, Hiti Gaa or Gaa Hiti. In Nepali they are Dhunge Dhara, Makaradhara or Hiti. These stone monuments are sculpted in the form of many gods and goddesses, makaras (Ganga Ma's vahana), other birds and animals, and the famed King Bhagiratha, who prayed for Ganga to descend to earth.

Among all the varied images, the makara, or croccodile, is one of the most common. The Hiti spouts are typically found in multiples, appearing in a small complex where the ancient water systems of Nepal deliver water to the people.

Both Hindus and Buddhists of Nepal believe that the Hitis are gifts from the Nagas. The Nagas are always closely associated with water, thus the Hitis are ritually cleaned and worshipped during Nag Panchami or Siddi Nakha, when puja is offered to Prithivi Mata, the earth goddess. Kings in the region sometimes built ponds with elaborate figures of Nagas at the center.

Valley devotees understand the water pouring forth from Hitis to be sacred, and taking bath beneath Hitis washes away the accumulated results of sinful activity. Hiti water is thus used in all types of household and temple rituals, by members of all religions.

The history of stone Hiti spouts began when Lichhavi King Mandev I built the very first Hiti in Hadi Gaun, Kathmandu in 550 A.D. His daughter Bharavi, following in her father's footsteps, built another Hiti at Mangal Bazar of Lalitpur in 570 A.D. Gradually the practice expanded to other parts of the region, including the ancient city of Lalitpur.

From the 14th to 16th Centuries, during the Malla period, many more Hiti systems were built. King Pratap Malla of Kathmandu, King Siddhinarasingh Malla of Lalitpur and King Jitamitra Malla of Bhaktapur are all renowned for the remarkable efforts made on behalf of their people, and this included the development, maintenance and artistic perfection of the waterways and spouts.

The last Hiti known to have been built in Kathmandu before modern times was at Sundhara village, where Bhimsen Thapa built one in 1829 A.D.

As this brief series progresses, we'll focus on the excellent design of Nepal's ancient water systems, and also on the beautiful devotional art found in the form of the Hiti spouts.

Sundhara (gold-plated) Hiti
[ Photo courtesy Sunil Manandhar ]


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