Himalayan Water Heritage Sites

From the very beginning of our civilisation, Indians have made intimate connection with water, not for just survival but also religiously, culturally, spiritually and aesthetically. India’s incredible water heritage: Naule- Dhare is the water lifeline of Uttrakhand. Naule Dhare and many more traditional techniques tells the story of Indian water heritage in all its diversity. It reveals the technical ingenuity that water heritage has always inspired, and it presents the challenges that this heritage Naule Dhare faces, along with possible solutions of water crisis in uttrakhand. Our main purpose is to credibly present the importance and value of heritage Naule Dhare and their historical experience for water and sustainable development, and vice versa, present the importance of water management for the protection of heritage.Its presence has always been ascertained in a variety of ways and the development of human society everywhere is connected with various forms of water management.

Presence of water in the Earth is main cause of life in the universe. Himalaya which is popularly known as the “Water Tower of Asia” has 33,000 sq km of glaciers. With greater snow and ice cover than any other region on Earth, barring the North and South Poles, the glaciers and rivers that originate here provide water for over a billion people downstream. Even then, the Himalaya is fast becoming water scarce. The Himalaya, an integral part of the Indian heritage and its forests provide vegetative cover for the major river systems in India, serve as water reservoir, and are a warehouse of biodiversity, and a climate architect for the whole of Asia.

Uttarakhand state of India situated in the western Himalaya, is richly endowed with water. It is the catchments area of the Indo-Gangetic plain and the cradle of the Indo – Gangetic civilization. The Gangetic basin is the largest river system in India, draining almost a quarter of the country. The main sources of water in Uttarakhand are glaciers, rivers, lakes, streams (of all sizes), rainwater, and springs.

The rivers of the Indian peninsular plateau are mainly fed by rain. During summer, their flow is greatly reduced, and some of the tributaries even dry up, only to be revived in the monsoon. Uttarakhand lies in the monsoon belt and the communities in this region learned to collect rainwater, store it and use it for a variety of purposes throughout the year. Thus, a unique water harvesting civilization took shape in this region. In the pre-colonial period although the state was not responsible for providing water to its citizen; it had no intervention in the various uses of water by its people. There was community management of water for irrigation and drinking as per the need of the people. Traditional water management took birth from this system. The local communities had the right of ownership over the use of local natural resources and the state recognized this right. Water sources were always regarded as sacred sites. Since, the water bodies were considered to be sacred, they were well maintained. Traditionally in Uttarakhand, the main systems of water harvesting are Naulas, Dharas, Guls, Khal, Simar, Lakes, Kund or Gazar and Gharats (water mills).

Many of these technologies are still in use and provide a significant proportion of the water requirements of the people. Generally, an idol of lord Vishnu is always placed at the natural sources of all water. Archaeological evidence shows that their practices of water conservation are deep-rooted in the science of ancient India.  Their traditional systems of water conservation involved:



Naula is perhaps the most unique and elaborate water storage system in Uttarakhand. It is a small structure with a roof and a porous floor which houses an aquifer. These small hut-like structures dot the mountains and hold within them the great treasure of these mountains ‘the water’.

Structurally naula has a roof sloping on all 4 sides like a temple, and not on two sides like a house. This was considered a sacred site as on the top of the roof, a round stone is always placed which is considered to be the idol of lord Vishnu.

Naulas mostly found on the hill slopes in the lesser Himalayan region of Kumaon are covered reservoirs and exhibit masterpiece architectural features. Naula in Kumaon are more famous for their architectural splendors. The Naulas have a common design. They consist of a tank that is closed on three sides and covered. The fourth side, which is open, has steps that lead down to the tank. There is a pillared verandah around them with engravings. Animals are not permitted to enter by making small entrance of Naula and the system is so designed that the users do not contaminate the source. All the water is considered sacred, even to this day the basic rules of sanitation and hygiene are mostly observed. As the construction of Naulas was considered prestigious, these structures can be found in ancient towns, in and outside villages and on important roads. Some naullas are emblazoned with intricate architectural designs. At times they are massive in size with a raised platform for both bathing and washing. The structure and design of Naulas is the evidence of great ancient scientific knowledge of the ethnic people of Himalaya. As for example the interior of the Naulas was always designed like series of layered steps which were built to narrow and deepen the Naula which helped in minimizing the water loss due to evaporation. There are still some unsolved mistries hidden in these structures as for example the number of steps were always built odd in count the reason of which is still unknown. Some of the the oldest functioning Naula in Uttarakhand are the 1,000-year-old Naula in Suryakot (Almora), the 700-year-old Haat Kalika temple Naula in Gangolihat (Pithoragarh), Badrinathji-Ka-Naula in Chamoli district which dates back to 7 BCE etc. Sadly, these traditional Naulas are falling by the wayside as people increasingly turn towards the convenience of piped water supply. Urbanization, with its concentrated construction and transient populations, has a role in the loss of the Naula as has post-colonial alienation from natural resources.

Naula are designed to collect water from subterranean springs. The flow of these springs is very sensitive and can be disturbed by seismic activity and human disturbance. In many parts of Uttarakhand Naulas or Dhara have dried up owing to the tremors of earthquake. For the craft of Naula building to be continued, it is important that the awareness among people and communities should be increased and their active involvement in conservation process has to be ensured.


Dhara viz. springs provide the main source of freshwater for drinking and other household consumption in the Uttarakhand Himalayan Mountains. It also forms a main source of irrigation water in many parts of the mountain regions of Uttarakhand. Dharas occur where sloping ground and impermeable strata intersect with the groundwater table. The water sources of such springs, in most of cases, are unconfined aquifers where the flow of water is under gravity. It is a common source of drinking water and can be compared with a drinking water fountain. Dharas located both in mountain crests and in valleys are also popular in townships. In Dharas, the practice of planting trees was in vogue for symbolizing the sanctity of water. The water from a spring or a subterranean source is channelled through carved outlets. The water from the source was channelized and the Dharas were normally built at the middle of the village so that all the villagers have a common distance to cover to collect water for their use. They are often in the shape of a pipe, through figures of animals like tigers and cows also in vogue. There are 3 types of Dharas depending upon their heights and nature of flow. If an individual can easily drink water from the Dhara in a standing position, then it is called Sirpatia Dhara; if one has to bend over for drinking water, then it is called Murpatia Dhara. Both these types of Dharas are decorated with animal figures. The third type of Dhara is not perennial in nature. During the rainy season, some wooden spouts or broad leaves are stuck in the path of a flowing stream or a spring that gets recharged during that period. As they are temporary in nature, they are called Patveedia Dhara (Patveedia means ephemeral). The Dharas are also still considered as sacred sites this is evident from the fact that after wedding a new bride has to first visit, Dance and prey on Dhara for her successful new wedding life before she enters her new house. Similarly, on many occasions like that of child birth the mother go and prey at Dhara for the wellbeing of her child is a common custom in Kumon till toaday.


All major rivers are largely defined through the flow of many major streams called gadhera in Utarakhand. Small water channels originate from natural resources from makes a gadhera and gadhera make Gad (tributary) following which Gad make river. Uttarakhand state is blessed with major water resources including large riverine system with its tributaries. In spite of the plethora of water resources, the people of the state are facing the problem of safe portable water due to many anthropogenic environmental conditions and recent variations in global climate.  The dam system was well known in traditional irrigation system of Uttarakhand. It is evident from the fact that in some areas of Uttarakhand, water from the stream is first dammed and then the irrigation channel is made. The small dam constructed for the purpose is known as ‘baan’ in local parlance and ‘kulayana’ in the local Kumaoni dialect, which means to irrigate the field with gul or kul.


Gul is more of a system to divert and supply water rather than to store water. Gul are small channels that originate from a source (usually underground) and then are diverted to fields or wherever needed. Nowadays, guls are a permanent feature and usually built from stone masonry works and channelize water primarily for supply into agricultural fields. In Uttarakhand cultivation depends largely on terraced fields and in since ancient times, the problem of irrigating the fields was resolved by diverting water from nearby streams or rivers through channels called guls. They are the best example of water resource management in the hills and are usually dug along the contours of the slope. Apart from irrigation, guls were used for drinking water and for running water mills locally known as gharats .

Along the length of the guls are outlets, which lead to small secondary channels, known as hawarr. Irrigation channels are of various sizes, the one, which is smaller than kul is known as baul.

A boulder is placed at the outlet controls flow of water. There is also an outlet at the lower end of the field, which allows the excess water to flow on to the lower terraces from where it ultimately drains back to the stream. Sometimes, the flow water in the gul is obstructed by a boulder or hard rock. In that case, the peeled bark of a banana tree is used as a water carrier or it is channelized through a wooden pipe.


Large depressions are dug in mountainous areas used for rainwater harvesting are called khals. Mostly they are on top of ridges in the saddle between two crests. At times small ponds are also dug for collecting rainwater. During the lean period, water accumulated in khals is used for irrigation purposes. When discharge of water in guls is reduced owing to the searing heat of summers, then water is accumulated first in a khal and subsequently used for irrigation. The khals are also constructed in the pasturelands and they work as the water tanks for the grazing cattle.


Simar / Gajar is a marshy tract of land in an agricultural field which is naturally created by the groundwater. It is aptly suited for paddy cultivation. Cultivation of high-quality crops like basmati rice, medicinal plants and herbs are a common feature in Simar. These Simars and nearby Naula are very important for the health of water rejuvenation or recharging of groundwater.


The traditional water harvesting system were not only human centric but also based on the concept of biodiversity conservation. Chuptaulas are one of such example. These are basically water holes for animals and are found mostly in high altitudes for use of grazers. They are not permanent in nature and water is collected in them from springs or from points where water oozes out from the ground locally known as Chho. Faunal and bird life also use this accumulated water and at times they serve as an important source of water for human consumption at high altitudes.


Water collected from small and big streams gives the shape of a lake. The accumulated water is used for bathing of domestic animals and irrigation. This traditional system of water management is similar in the hilly terrain of Garhwal and Himachal Pradesh.

Why We Save Water?

Without fresh water, we will shut down.

Many ingenious systems like Naula, Gul, Dhara, Dhan, Simar, Khal have been in place to collect and supply water to the regions in Uttarakhand.

Despite such extraordinary efforts to conserve water one out of five villages in Uttarakhand today faces a water shortage in summers due to recent climate change events. They are forced to pay for what they have not done. The Himalayan watersheds are under constant threat of mass wasting and erosion caused by depletion of forest cover, unscientific agronomic practices, hydrologic imbalances and natural calamities. Replacement of water holding trees like Himalayan Oak (White, Green and Brown) and Cedar with coniferous trees like Pines are also one of the major reasons fordrastic decaying of water level due to which the natural water conservation techniques such as the Naulas start drying up. The ever increasing population, the need to provide a better quality of life to the people and the pressure on natural resources are further compounding the problem. With growing population rates and such a small percentage of all the water, it only makes sense that we must preserve and conserve this precious resource. We have to take various measures to bring about real water savings, including recharging and revival of groundwater level or rehabilitation of the main old water tributaries that delivering water to main river, land levelling, canal lining, and improved drainage.

Thus, it is essential that all agencies related to water resources, should have an integrated practical approach and local communities should be involved in this process. Their vast experience and traditional knowledge can be a game changer in this regard. Saving water does not mean we should just conserve it but also keep water fresh and clean too. Regular efforts should be made to save the traditional water sources and its mechanism which is based on hundreds of years of traditional knowledge and is hidden in these ancient water storage systems such as Naula, Gul, Dhara, Dhan, Simar, Khal etc.

Water conservation requires forethought and effort, but every little bit helps, so don’t think that what you do does not matter. We must all make changes in our lifestyles that will change the course of our water usage, conserve its quality and make conservation a way of life — not just something we think about once in a while, It will serve as a pilot for preserving more of the remaining ancient water storage systems called Naula in Uttrakhand.