In the lanes of Dhobichaur, a laundry woman tucks in the edges of her loosely fitted kameez; she sits on her knees and scrubs the stains off a cloth, the bristles of her brush making familiar, slow swooshing sounds. Nearby, her children play.
The clothing lines, entangled with the electrical ones, surround her and speak of her day’s hard work; at some points, bed sheets tied around the wires to avoid blinding unsuspecting passersby appear like cradles for the Gods.
Not long ago, many more were involved in her profession; water flowed out of the sacred stone spouts of Dhobichaur, presided over by spiritual and religious motifs, such as serpents. For centuries, these spouts (or dhunge dharas) provided water for washing, cleaning, and the worship of local deities. But with the modernisation of the supply system and the destruction of the hidden infrastructures that once fed them, many are now abandoned. Today, water is costly in Dhobichaur.
“If they earn around Rs 10,000 a month, maybe Rs 8,000 is spent on buying water,” says Supriya Shrestha, Miss Nepal Earth 2020. Supriya’s journey in contributing towards the well being of environment started since she was a school kid. From volunteering in community work during college to featuring environmental issues in the mainstream media, she never missed any chance to do her part towards the environment and the society.
Through her project, Supriya wants to erase the image of Nepal as a poor country. “I want to build the image of Nepal as a self-sufficient country and highlight its beauty, culture and age-old knowledge,” she states.
Supriya and a team of noted experts, including Sushil Shrestha, Alok Siddhi Tuladhar, Anil Chitrakar, and Shilshila Acharya, are searching for hope on the other side of concrete. After successfully discovering the source of a hiti in Dhobichaur, they are working on repairing and hopefully restoring the flow of water at this ancient site.
While deceptively simple looking, the hitis work on a rather complex mechanism and are, to some extent, at the mercy of the forces of nature. Tracing the origins of the dhunge dharas is like unveiling a reservoir of recorded histories, starting from the Lichchhavi era (c. 450–c. 750 CE), although their roots can be traced further back.
“In this community, most of the jobs are done by women. It would make their lives easier,” says Supriya, who hopes to present their work at Miss Earth 2021.
“The hiti system is unique to Nepal. Our ancestors built this. Why should we always expose the vulnerabilities of our country when we have so much to offer to the world,”
“When I saw the community come together to make this happen, I saw a ray of hope that it is not just that mankind is destroying nature, but if we come together, we can actually give back to nature,” she adds.
Supriya’s mission is urgent.
According to her, knowledge related to dhunge dharas is generally confined to the older generation, which means further neglect of this knowledge could lead to an irreversible loss.
“When I speak to young Nepalis, some tend to say these cliches like Nepal ma scope chhaina,” she recalls. “Nepal is self-sufficient. It is just that we are not paying attention. We should not be undermining our own country or underestimating what we have. This is the wealth of our nation,” she says proudly.
But beyond the enterprise and labour of the community, Supriya says the government should take more initiative to back ongoing efforts.
“They paint it and make it look beautiful, but there is no water,” she says.
Citing her own experience, she adds, ‘Whenever there is a Miss Earth or Miss World or Miss Universe crowned, the government of the country is so involved. They align with them and support their projects.”
“When we go to international platforms and pageants, we are not called by our names; we are called Nepal. But in our country, it is us individuals who have to do everything.”
With their fundraising efforts, Supriya hopes to raise enough money to restore the site in Dhobichaur, along with other hitis in the region.
“The title Miss Earth to me is the passion and dream of a young girl turned into the responsibility of a woman. I am responsible and accountable to all the Nepalis who hope that I will make Nepal proud in the international arena,” she says.
“I think it is a call from Mother Nature to be that someone who is going to speak for her. We have been so harsh on and reckless with nature. You need someone to speak for the Earth.”
Supriya recalls a poem she had heard as a young girl. She paraphrases the lines of Robert Frost, an American poet: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep; And miles to go before I sleep; And miles to go before I sleep.”
“It has stayed with me ever since. Whenever I achieve something, I settle down and congratulate myself, but then I push myself even harder. You just have to keep going.”
While the future of the dhunge dharas remains uncertain, Supriya’s faith is anchored in her commitment to improving the lives of the communities and reviving what is unique to her homeland, its sacred water.
Built by the grandson of the Lichchhavi King Mandev around 550 AD, the hiti at Handi Gaun in Kathmandu is the earliest known of these structures.
It is estimated that over 600 stone spouts existed in the Kathmandu Valley.
A 2019 survey by the Kathmandu Valley Water Supply Management Board found that almost a sixth of the 573 hitis believed to exist in the Kathmandu Valley have disappeared or dried up completely.