Devotional Art of Hitis, Part Two


Nagini/Makara figure
Hiti water spout, Darbar Square
The Huntingdon Archive

Aug 05, 2013 — CANADA (SUN) — A look at the ancient waterways of Nepal, and the Vedic devotional art embodied in its stone water spouts.

In addition to the beauty of the devotional art images that serve form and function, as the stone water spouts known as Hitis in Nepal, the subject of how they fit into the overall water delivery system is a fascinating one. Those interested in rural community development varnasrama infrastructure will see the many aspects of this ancient water system that could be applicable in many other places around the world.

There are 137 Hitis in Kathmandu, 47 in Patan and 80 in Bhaktapur. These figures do not include those Hitis which have already been lost over the ages. The Hitis of Kathmandu do not have the same potential for delivering water discharge as the Hitis of Patan do. Despite the presence of a large number of Hitis in Kathmandu, their total flow is much less than the yield of those in Patan where total daily production exceeds 5 million litres. Bhaktapur Hitis are much less productive, despite the good physical structures that are maintained by its inhabitants.

A properly functioning system throughout Kathmandu Valley, on a stable water table, could support about 300,000 people, yielding about 18-20 million litres per day. There is a tremendous overall productio for such a low-tech and organic delivery system.

Nagdaha, Patan

How Hitis work

Rainwater infiltrating into the ground forms pockets of shallow aquifers wherever geologically possible. These aquifers provide water to Hitis through water conduits, the water being purified by means of a filtering media placed in gray water filter chambers, before reaching the Hitis. In dry seasons, when the groundwater table drops, nearby ponds are used to recharge the shallow aquifers to maintain the flow in the Hitis, and ponds get their water supply from rajkulos. So the system overall is comprised of shallow aquifers, rajkulos, ponds, intakes, conduits, gray water filter chambers, jadhus and stone spouts, all of which are briefly mentioned below.

Shallow aquifers

Shallow aquifers are the main sources of water for Hitis. In Patan, there are eleven known shallow aquifers while in Kathmandu, only seven have been identified so far. In Bhaktatpur, there are four. The main source of their water, of course, is rainwater. Thus, the groundwater table in shallow aquifers fluctuates significantly with the variation of seasons, with a quick rise during the rainy season and a corresponding drop in the dry season.

Aquifers with their shallow depths (80 cm to 6 m) and traditional recharging systems are characteristic of the Valley, most of which are to valued in terms of their capacity to provide water to Hitis year round. On top of that, almost all the aquifers are firmly supported by water bearing strata at the upstream side of the catchments and thick layers of Kalimati (black clay) at the downstream sides near the river banks.


Rajkulos were the canal systems built to fill up historical ponds, irrigate farmlands en route and provide water. Among the three Rajkulos, only Lalitpur Rajkulo is surviving to date. However, part of the Rajkulo, mainly from Sunakothi to Patan have stopped functioning due to encroachments by the local people.

With regard to the Kathmandu Rajkulo, it is not known when it was built. However, there are assumptions by historians that it must have been built during the Lichhavi period. The name of King Pratap Malla is also somehow linked with this Rajkulo, as it was Pratap Malla who built Rani Pokhari (Queen's Lake), whose main source of water was this Rajkulo.

In relation to the Bhaktapur Rajkulo, there is a belief that the legendary queen Tula Rani had built it, with some historians linking Tula Rani's name with the Lichhavi King Narendra Dev, although their relation is still unknown. At the same time, some believe that it was King Jitamitra Malla, who built Bhaktapur Rajkulo in 1733 B.S. age. However, inscriptions found in some of the Hitis of Bhaktapur provide evidence that most of the Hitis were built during the Lichhavi period. In this regard some historians infer that it might be the Queen Tula Rani who first built the Rajkulo, while King Jitamitra Malla might have improved and expanded it later on.

[ Photo courtesy Tunza Eco-Generation ]

Historical Ponds

The main function of the historical ponds was to recharge the shallow aquifers during dry seasons. There were many historical ponds inside the historical cities of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, most of which were built near to the shallow aquifers. Unfortunately most of them have disappeared due to encroachments by government, local government, institutions and public buildings.

In Kathmandu alone there were 21 ponds, out of which four were believed to be fed by the Rajkulo. Among them, the Lainchaur Pokhari is believed to be the major one. It has now been converted into a building owned by Nepal Scout.

Patan had 39 historical ponds, out of which 18 were fed by the Rajkulo. Only 10 survive today, with some of them in poor condition. The oldest historical pond of Guita Pukhu, which was believed to have been built by King Sarvananda, the 17th king in Buddha Jatak, still survives. Another important pond surviving to date is Lagankhel Pukhus built by King Ashok Varma. It serves to recharge the potential aquifers of Naricha and Nayekhyo. In Bhaktapur, out of 30 ponds, only nine were recorded to be linked with the Rajkulo. Others were either fed by rainwater or by Hitis, and some have their own source (natural springs).


Most of the traditional Hiti intake structures (dating to Lichhavi period) were built using a porous clayey pot filled with sand and gravel and connected at the bottom with a conduit made of either timber or stone. Some of the Malla period intake structures are similar, but most of them have been found to be made of brick in mud mortar.

Hiti builders were aware of human habits even in those early days. To discourage people from excavating Hiti intake areas, stone figures of the human hand were installed to discourage people from seeing beyond the demarcation line set by them. It was common lore that if someone tries to see beyond this demarcation line, he or she would die by vomiting blood. This belief has played a good role in preserving Hiti intakes, even to date. Beyond the demarcation line, there normally used to be a swastika-shaped filter system for purification of water.

[ Photo courtesy Tunza Eco-Generation ]


Traditional water conduits used in Hitis are found to be made of either stone or timber or burnt clay (terracotta). Although most of the Hitis built during the Lichhavi period had timber conduits, some stone conduits have also been found within the same alignment. A possible reason for this change in material of the conduit could be due to either swampy area or drain of watercourses crossing the alignment of the conduit.

The interesting part of this conduit system is its technology of making it tight against any leakage or infiltration. All the conduits dug so far have been found covered by bricks and a layer (30-40 cm thick) of special impervious clay known as "Gathu Cha" (cha is clay in Newari).

Gray water filter chambers

Gray water filter chambers are traditionally built filter chambers made primarily of stone and placed in fixed locations within the alignment of water conduits. The bowel shaped filter chambers have been found to be placed at an interval of 60 to 80 meters in most of the Hiti alignments dug so far for repair works. Similarly, the filter media found were mostly river gravel and coarse sand. In addition to that, charcoal has also been found to be used together with sand and gravel. Use of charcoal (one form of activated carbon for killing bacteria) in gray water filter chambers provides enough evidence that the ancient Hiti builders were aware of the quality of water.

Hitis (Stone Spouts)

The Hitis themselves are sunken courtyards, most of which are enclosed in a compound wall with one or more decoratively carved stone spouts bearing artistic images of demigods, vahanas, Sri Bhagiratha, etc. Decorative carvings are found above and below, but mostly below the spouts.

Some Hitits also consist of a Jaduh or Jaldroni (jaldroni in Sanskrit), or tank. The depth of the sunken courtyards varies from place to place depending upon the location of source and head difference between the water source area and the Hitis. The lowest figure in this regard is 60 cm and the highest is more than 5 meters.

With regard to architectural settings, some Hitis are very beautiful in design and shape. Though most are rectangular or square in shape (little bit prolonged at the center), there are octagonal, flower and club shaped Hitis as well. Some Hitis are built in traditional bricks and some are carved in stone, but in all cases, they come with decorative elements like Nagas. Bricks or stones at the level of the first plinth or at the top of the enclosed wall, decorative cornice bricks or beautifully carved stones and niches placed at various levels with images of various gods and goddesses are also common.

The main element of the Hiti is the stone spout. Most of the Hitis have one or more decorative spouts with either Makara designed heads or heads of other animals or birds, like cows, tigers, peacocks, elephants, goats, sheep, birds and fish. Some spouts have gold plated heads, and these are popularly known as Sundhara (sundhara means 'golden plated' in Nepali) or Lun Hiti (lun is 'gold' in Newari).

Outlets of Hitis are the other things to be noted. Despite their depths, some Hitis have excellent outlets in terms of their physical condition and flow. Their size also varies from Hiti to Hiti. Some have large cross sectional area approx. 35 cm x 80 cm, while some are smaller. The smallest one found is 10 cm x 10 cm. In most cases, outlets are connected either to the irrigation channel or city drain, but some Hitis have their outlets connected to ponds located at the downstream areas.

Manga Hiti, Patan Durbar Square
[ Photo courtesy Pratap Maharaj ]


Jaduh (jaldroni in Sanskrit) is a traditional water tank built in stone. Jaduhs are found built on roadsides to provide service for passersby. Jaduh is also a common structure found inside most of the Hiti premises. But the function of a Jaduh inside the Hiti is different. It works as an overflow structure when the conduit gets excess flow during rainy season. The excess water is stored inside a tank-like structure at the back of the Jaldroni, for ultimate use by the people.

The front part of the Jaduh may be either simple or artistically decorated, some with one or more human breast-like structures, with holes for flow of water. There are also some Jaduhs designed like a spout with Makara heads, etc.

In all cases, these ancient water systems are highly functional, organic and decoratively beautiful water delivery solutions.

Adaption of reports from and


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