Dhungedhara – Nepal’s carved stone water spouts
Dhungedhara – Nepal’s carved stone water spouts
Symbols of culture
Since the dawn of human civilization, humans have invented countless methods to provide themselves with the basic needs one way or another. One of them being the water; also considered the most valuable and the holiest of all. We have explicit examples around the world, of ancient settlements managing the water distribution to fulfill their daily needs. The well-chronicled of these systems in history go back all the way to the Egyptian period. The best recorded ones that we know of is from Roman Empire. Whether it is water supply or water discharge; each region has evolved gradually to build what we now see as well-preserved pillars of modern day water supply system.
Among many things, the imagery of decorative gargoyles spouting water from their mouth have been a common sighting in the world history and can still be seen as remnants in many historical sites. In the ultra-modern world today, they are a popular choice for landscape features, interior decorations, as statuettes; despite their original usage that has waned over the years and if lucky, at times used for their intended purpose. They have stood a stoic watch over so many years that when we speak of gargoyles, we picture Europe. Digging even deeper into the utilitarian water structures, we find Egyptian waterwheels, Roman Aqueducts, the great Bath of Mohenjo-Daro, etc. to name a few. These artifacts clearly show dominance in the world history. They have come to represent a symbol of irrigation system only to be associated with their own place and time. Such is the analogy with Nepal’s carved stone water spout “Dhunge-dhara”.
Water proofing, snakes and toads
Another intriguing fact to notice about these stone water spouts is that even though they are constructed below ground level surrounded by mounting earth that is up to 30 feet in depth, the problem of water leakage from the walls is never evident. In today’s era, while we struggle to keep water from seeping out from our fortified basement walls, our ancestors even then, had already devised a method to keep the leakage problem at bay. The reason behind the entire pit not being swallowed by water that was supposed to ooze out from the walls and turned into a well or a pool is the water proofing system laid at the side and bottom of these conduits. The water proofing system was devised by the application of a layer; almost one foot in thickness, of a lake silt deposit of gray/black soil.
Now one could only imagine the scuffle to keep up with the maintenance of the drainage and the supply system during that time. Although, there is no concrete practices known about the maintenance factor of these conduits, the community did use to celebrate a festival called “sithi nakha” when the entire community cleaned the public and private areas all around out of respect for their culture, deity and religion. According to the local lore, one of the corky practices of maintenance encompassed unclogging the drains and clearing the system by letting live snakes loose inside the drains that slither pass in the pursuit of their prey; most commonly toads.
If we peel off the copious layers of Nepalese history one period at a time, we would come to steadily comprehend the sacred importance of water in every aspect of her socio-cultural norms. Water was sacred; even defining the beliefs of the people, hence, governing the ways of living. Thereby, it is of no surprise that the then prevalent water distribution system would also suffer the same fate.
Two of the main water distribution systems that were in use during the Malla Period2 were wells and Dhunge-dharas. The location addressed to each of them speaks of the prominence supported by the social account rooted behind them. Shallow wells were allocated inside the communal courtyards where it was utilized by the people of same caste that lived around the courtyard. On the other hand, Dhunge-dharas were placed in between two or more communal courtyards. This was because the presence of a water source in a locality was governed by the discriminating tradition that was customary during that time.
In line of the caste system commenced by the 14th Century ruler Jayasthiti Malla, houses aligning these courtyards inhibited people of similar castes and while people of different courtyards lived among each other in harmony, their daily routines and practices were limited to their culture and religious beliefs. The belief that the still water touched by the person of a different caste should never be used by the person of the inferior caste has somehow lived on through generations even to this day, while not in a practical sense. Since the water spouts sprang clean running water, it was considered eligible to be used by all public without any sense of concern. But still some social politics did prevail even within the activity around Dhunge-dharas.
Essentially, two types of Dhunge-dharas were initiated during the Malla Period2.
1) Sarbajanik Dhunge-dhara (Public Water Spout)
2) Rajkiye Dhunge-dhara (Royal Water Spout)
1) Sarbajanik Dhunge-dhara
Sarbajanik Dhunge-dharas were considered predominantly for the general public use and accordingly placed at common reach of the public. These types of water spouts were normally sunken at a certain depth from the ground level. They were not as artistically carved as Royal Water Spouts and exhibited plain carvings. Most of the carvings of these spouts depicted a merger of water animals such as fish, toads, snakes etc. and a certain half terrestrial creature of Hindu mythology called the “Makara”. In common cases these depictions told the story of the dominance of the alpha creature over weaker species. The water spout in a locality was also governed by the discriminating tradition of the people.
2) Rajkiye Dhunge-dhara
Rajkiye or Royal Dhunge-dharas were built for the use only by the royals of that time. The carvings depicted on these water spouts were rich in artistry with intricate and attractive designs. Most often, they had figures of gods and goddesses along with the snakes chiseled in stone. One of the ways to differentiate a royal water spout was the statuettes of snakes that were placed at the head of the spout and at the middle of the sunken pit. In addition, beautiful changing rooms were also built nearby.
Loss of treasure
As the sacredness of water has diminished over the last couple of decades indicated by the mounting pollution of the main water source such as Bagmati, so has the original purpose of these water spouts. Today, we can find the replica of these carved stone water spouts in hotels and restaurants as a landscape accessary but rarely do we spot their original and conserved remnants in the city area. It has only managed to survive as a souvenir of our past; a symbol of our culture like the mere gargoyles of the east. There are only 300 of these water spouts that remain in the Kathmandu Valley as of today and water has stopped running from almost half of them. Before this marvel of technology vanish away as just one of those local myths, we need to think of serious wide scale conservation with local and government participation. Otherwise, the loss of these ancient treasures will one day put a heavy toll on us.