Where The Rivers Flow

Features Issue 26 Jul, 2010
Text by Keshab Poudel

Ramman Pode, 65, a priest at Chamunda Temple in Kumbeshwor, remembers the heyday of the Bagmati River, when people from all walks of life used to visit nearby Sankhamul to take a dip into the water to obtain salvation. In the festival seasons and other special occasions, from sunrise to moonrise, the riverbanks were virtually covered with visitors. For Pode, the memory seems to be a part of story.

“If I explain my past experiences to new people, nobody believes them. Till two decades ago, Sankhmul was full of cultural and religious activities. Whether in the eclipse, Dashain or Gulan (a ritual performed by Buddhist Newars in the ninth month - approximately July - of Nepal Samvhat), the rivers and temples filled with devotees,” said Pode. “Since the river has turned into a sewer, people use tap water even after completing a cremation to purify themselves.”

 Pode has also seen the transformation of fertile land along the riverbank turning into a concrete jungle. The land adjoining the rivers used to produce rice, wheat, potatoes and other vegetables including cauliflower and radishes. The irrigated lands were part of the cultural and economic prosperity of the Valley. Because the Valley’s fertile land produced surplus food, the Valley was self-reliant in terms of food production.

Now not only is Sankhamul deserted, but there are many other sacred religious spots on the verge of ruin. Since the process of urbanization continues to break down both traditions and the sites themselves, there is a little possibility of revival of these places.

With growing pressure from the public, the government has built a water treatment plant at Guheshowri to clean the water at holy sites in the Pashupati area, helping to revive the religious and cultural life at that section of the Bagmati. But the situation for other parts of the river has not improved.

Symbol of Civilization

The river is a symbol of culture and civilization of Kathmandu Valley. From the Licchivi age to the Malla period, the Valley’s civilization and culture evolved in and around the river system, so that the cities and shrines lie along the riverbanks. The rivers were used for all kinds of religious and cultural activities. From cremations and performing sradha (commemorating the death of a relative) to purification of the body for seasonal religious festivals, taking a dip in the rivers was regarded as opening the way to go to heaven. “All historical and religious books based on Buddhism and Hinduism hail the rivers as a source of salvation. Our religion and cultural practices are incomplete without purifying at the river,” said Dr. Safalya Amatya, a cultural expert.“Be it the Bagmati, the Vishnumati (Keshbati), or the Dhobikhola (Rudramati), each river has it’s own importance.”

Kathmandu Valley has five major rivers and numerous streams, all joining the Bagmati at some point. The system includes the Vishnumati (Keswati), Hanumante, Manohara and Godavari rivers, and the Dhobikhola (Rudramati), Karmanasa, Tukucha (Icchumati), Nakkhu (Pravavati), Balkhu (Ratnavati) and many other small streams. All of the river sources are used to celebrate some festival or other. Since the Bagmati is the biggest and main river, there used to be a festival along its banks almost every month. The Vishnumati (Keswati) River is also the site of many festivals. Interestingly, Nepal’s oldest festival, Gurudwara, is celebrated on the banks of the Vishnumati. Both Buddhist and Hindus legends have linked the rivers with their religious myths and practices. This is one of the reasons almost all rivers in the Valley have at least two different names, one from Buddhism and one from Hinduism.

The Bagmati river system includes temples, ghats, maths, bridges and the water of the rivers. On different parts of the Bagmati and other rivers, there are many Hindu and Buddhist shrines, including many holy places that people used to visit to obtain salvation: Punya, Sant, Sankara, Raja, Manoratha, Nirmala, Nidhi, Gyana, Chintamani, Pramoda, Sulakshan, Jaya and many others. During the Rana and Shah periods, some portions of the Bagmati including Teku and Kalmochan were developed as pilgrimage points and places where older people could go to spend their remaining life, similar to Benares, India. “Our river system had everything for pilgrimage including crystal clear water, open space and temples and religious sites,” noted Amatya. Since Hindus in the Valley regard the Bagmati River as equivalent to the Ganges (it eventually empties into that holy river), even the small streams that are its tributaries have religious importance.

In spite of its importance, the Bagmati is probably the most polluted river in Nepal. According to a study conducted by the Environment and Public Health Organization (ENPHO) an NGO for urban water and sanitation, the Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD), level varies drastically at different points of the Bagmati river. The maximum recommended COD level, the highest that organisms can easily tolerate, is around 40 milligrams per liter.  But COD levels in the Bagmati range from 25 in Sundarijal to 454 in Chobhar, where the Bagmati leaves the Valley, indicating pollution levels more than ten times higher than those suitable for sustaining life. The increasing volume of pollution is destroying the ecology of the river system. Many indigenous fish species, which have religious as well as ecological importance, have already disappeared.

The pollution in the Bagmati is caused by several factors, among them the practice of throwing garbage directly into the river, the withdrawal of sand, and the disposal of untreated wastewater from homes and businesses. The rapid population increase – from 400,000 to 1.6 million in the last fifteen years – has exacerbated the problems. “The level of pollutants in the Bagmati river is, indeed, very disturbing. We are running out of time in attempting to save the river,” says an expert in environmental science.

The pollution is not only a health concern, but also a spiritual and a cultural concern. “The Bagmati is the mother of all civilization. It has a tremendous importance in the socio-cultural, religious and other day-to-day life of ours. The water of the Bagmai is part and parcel of everyday life of people of Kathmandu. Not only its water but even its sands are useful. Sands of Bagmati are necessary to perform various religious rituals including Ghatshpana (at Dashain)” said Hutaram Baidya, Presdent of Save the Bagmati, working to restore the river.

All activities related to the river have been hampered by the pollution. The practice of taking holy ablution in the Bagmati has vanished around many parts of the city as people fear the waters of the Bagmati instead of respecting them. They do not the touch water even when performing puja. The ceremony of worshiping the river has all but stopped.

A Clean Future?
Organizations like Save the Bagmati, Friends of the Bagmati and Global Visions have made some efforts to save the rivers, especially by educating the public, for example through the Bagmati River festival and having schoolchildren test water samples for pollution in the Vishnumati. There is hope from other countries’ histories of severely polluted rivers having recovered, for example the famous efforts to clean up the Charles River in Boston in the U.S. and sections of the Danube River in Europe.  But a success story for Kathmandu’s river system will require much more awareness and concerted effort over many years.