Feel the history: a walk along the Bagmati River

Features Issue 214 Sep, 2019
Text by Regina Jiang

I never thought that I could see so many heritage buildings on a walk of such a short distance. When I first heard about the Bagmati Promenade I had to wonder: how could people see sixteen heritage monuments in just two kilometers? With that in my mind, I set out along the Bagmati River, where I experienced a fantastic walk.

The promenade started at Thapathali Chess Park on a sunny morning. I was surprised by the turnout—dozens of people had gathered together, most of them Nepali, with only a few foreigners there, including myself. There were eleven groups in total, and except for the Storytelling group, the rest of them were conducted in Nepali; all the walking leaders were locals who are intimately acquainted with knowledge of the area.

When I first saw the Bagmati River, I could hardly believe that it was the mother river that bred Nepal's civilization, because of its turbid exterior. The river looks like a natural drain instead of a babbling river. We visited the Akhadas which are schools for sadhus along the river bank, as well as some small temples. Intriguingly, I found that people veritably live in the temples. The temples are not some unapproachable holies, they are on the earth. Women were standing beside a well and washing the clothes by hand, active kids playing games around them.

Passing by the Akhadas, there is a tall white architecture surrounded by six small temples. It is the Jung Hiranya Hem Narayan temple. Visually, the pure white and round roof are grand and divine. It is said that Jung Bahadur built it for penance after the Kot Massacre in 1846, when a lot of officials died. Sadly, it was destroyed in the 2015 earthquake but it has just been renovated. Pigeons were still flying around the building, and several monkeys were chasing each other, shuttling through the high beams.

The most fascinating place for me was the Nepali Folk Musical Instrument Museum. It is in a second-floor building, which seems a little obscure at first glance. In this music museum, hundreds of folk musical instruments of various sizes from widespread regions in Nepal are displayed. The appearances of these instruments have some similarities, but each also has its own characteristics. As for the drums, there are dozens of folk drums in the museum, which are made of all kinds of textures and modalities. One of the things that impressed me most was a serpentine horn. My companion explained to me that the snake is also one of the most important gods in Nepal, such as Nāga. Most of the time, the miraculous feeling does not only come from beautiful nature. More, it comes from human ingenuity and human piety. They are not just instruments, they are history and human intelligence.

On the rest of the journey, I did not see any high-rises or foreign tourists, hence the silliest question that I had ever asked popped out, “Is this a local village?” My fellow traveler shook her head emphatically and told me that this is a core area of the Kathmandu Valley. I was amazed and impressed: most of the people I saw were filled with a happy and unsophisticated smile, friendly to all comers. They live in historical sites thousands of years old and worship in the temples of hundreds of years, which is incredible to me. Because in China, such temples are strictly protected and not freely accessible. I was also surprised by the number of temples. A temple is visible every few minutes walking. It is like God is everywhere, and so are the believers.

When we arrived at the temples of Pachali, it was nearly at the end of the walk. One of the temples was holding daily prayers, and the crowds gathered for the ceremony, laughing. The bells in the temples can be used in praying for good luck, as well as the joss sticks and candles. As the guardians, the lions in the corner of the temples have two bodies but one head. To me, the god of the banks of Bagmati is kind and gracious, not only solemn.

All the way, every deity in the shrine was receiving worship from people which intrigued me a lot. It seems that God is mortal together with his believers, not out of reach, which is more real and dynamic than in some of China's remote places. In China, there are many heritage temples in the countryside which no longer have any incense. Even the status of the gods in some popular tourist attractions is that they are for viewing only, which leaves the treasures of history vulnerable.

It was not only a tour trip but also a marvelous historic course. Most of the heritage buildings are being reconstructed now so that I don’t have the pleasure of seeing the original view of them. The earthquake did cause huge cultural loss to Nepal, but it is heartening to see that people are actively working to restore it. At the end of the walk, in Jagannath Temple, a new friend showed me old photos of the Bagmati River. It is hard to imagine how the glamorous river changed so much. Will people see the clean and sparkling Bagmati River again in the future? With so many people and organizations’ hard-work, I believe so, and I'm looking forward to that day.