Take a walk down the steps of the ancient stone water fountains (Dhunge dharas) of Kathmandu and take a closer look at the stone image of Bhagirath just below the water spout. In the Kathmandu valley, the principle source of fresh water in the urban areas has been stone water fountains known as gaa hiti in Newari and gairi dhara in Nepali. The spouts themselves are excellent pieces of art carved in stone (dhunge) and/or covered or cast in metal and gilded (sun dhara). According to Hindu mythology, Bhagirath was a great sage who walked the earth when it was covered in “ash and dust”. He prayed and practiced great austerity to appease the gods to bring Ganga, the goddess of the river Ganges, to heal the earth. The gods agreed but realized that the descent of the great river could threaten and damage all beings on earth. A plan was devised to therefore let the river first fall on Lord Shiva’s head as he meditated on Mount Kailash. Upon landing on Lord Shiva’s head, the Ganges split into seven different streams and finally flowed down to the surface of the earth.
Bhagirath is referred to as a king in some texts and a sage and yogi in others. He is said to have ruled the ancient kingdom of Kosala and was a descendant of great King Sagara of the sun dynasty. The legend of King Sagara is that he wanted to perform the ashwamedha yagna or the fire ritual which involves the sacrifice of a very special selected horse. Just as the final preparations were underway for the sacrifice, the horse managed to escape and run away. King Sagara who was furious ordered his sixty thousand sons (yes sixty thousand) to track the horse down. They created a path of total destruction in search of the horse and tore down the whole area in their path. Finally they found the horse standing next to a meditating sage by the name of Kapila. The sons threatened Kapila and insulted him, calling him a horse thief and pressed him to release the horse so that their father could complete the sacrifice and the ritual. When the sage opened his eyes, his great power turned the sons into ashes.
Once Ganga or Bhagirathi (as in Bhagirath’s daughter) hit the earth, it is said that he guided it across the plains “full of ashes and began cleaning the earth”. Ganga then washed the ashes down to the sea thus liberating the spirits of the dead. The great river Ganges today rises from the Himalaya and then gives life and sustenance to millions on the Gangetic plain. To this day the river meanders across the northern plains of India from the Himalaya all the way to the Bay of Bengal. Along the banks of the sacred river are numerous cremation ghats where the ashes of the dead are immersed allowing to be cleansed by the sacred Ganga. All water systems and rivers in the region ultimately flow into the Ganges; and it must be for this very reason that most stone water fountains in the valley have the image of Bhagirath at the base, literally holding up the water channel as the water flows down and cleanses all who use it.