How the Bagmati Civilisation is becoming uncivilised

Bagmati River in the 1950s.

“As far as I know, there is no one conducting the ritual these days,” began Ganesh Maya Khadgi as she gazed out from her home on the banks of the Bagmati River to the grey, slow-moving water just outside her door.

She is referring to Naworatri, a ritual practiced by the Newas of Kathmandu during first nine days of the Dasain festival, which this year fall in end-October. When she was young, she would join crowds of worshippers at two or three in the morning and they would walk together to the tirtha, holy sites on the banks of the river.

On each day of the nine-day festival, they would travel to a different tirtha to cleanse themselves with holy water and offer puja to the river in the form of flowers placed on chaitya, small mounds of riverbank sand.

“Why would anyone participate in this ritual anymore?” Ganesh Maya’s friendly, open face clouded over as she further poured out her disappointment.

The communal pilgrimage along the rivers facilitated contact with the sacredness of the holy river, she says, but due to the highly degraded quality of the water, even the most devout worshippers no longer want to make that connection. In some places, worship is not possible due to the accumulation of solid waste on the banks.

Even if people are willing to make the holy ablutions with the polluted water, Ganesh Maya says that there is not enough sand left in the riverbanks to construct the chaitya. She speaks fondly of her memories of conducting the rituals despite the pain she feels from their loss.

Neither her children nor her grandchildren have visited the tirtha for Naworatri, but she understands their reasoning for changing their ritual practice. Due to river pollution, the entire purpose of the ritual has been lost.

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Across South Asia, rivers are regarded as sacred and are often worshipped as gods and goddesses, revered for the way they link heaven and earth. Some believe the rivers are homes to the divine, while others pray to the life-giving power inherent in the water. Because of this, rivers have historically played an essential role in the daily functioning of the communities built upon their banks.

This is especially true in Kathmandu where the history of life in the valley is intimately connected with the rivers that define the landscape, so much so that its residents have often been referred to as members of the ‘Bagmati Civilisation’.

Early settlements within the valley were clustered on hilltops with farmland below on the river floodplains to utilise the natural flow fluctuations of the monsoon. Despite the way that the rivers served agricultural functions, they were perceived as more than as natural economic assets.

Instead, people saw themselves as living a balanced life with the environment, a belief that was reinforced by the traditional rites and rituals that have historically been tied to the rivers. Therefore, a harmony that emphasised co-existence and regeneration existed in the name of culture and religion.

Now, however, those ties are being severed due to pollution and ideas about modernisation that relies upon the exploitation of natural resources and spaces. But what happens to the Bagmati Civilisation when its people can no longer bear to stand on the banks of their sacred river?

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Tej Maya Maharjan also grew up going to the rivers for ritual events, watched this change occur throughout her life. She was elderly at the time of this interview, and has since passed away. Tej Maya visited the Kankeshwori Temple almost every morning for 70 years, and said the time she spent there was the highlight of her days.

These visits were essential parts of both her religious and social life. She was widowed at a young age without children, and spent most of her life as a single woman. Instead, she found a family and a sense of community at Kankeshwori Temple. Tej Maya and her friends would gather along the river at the temple and whether they were singing songs, performing puja, or gossiping about their daughters-in-law, these morning trips for religious and social connection brought her joy throughout her entire life.

Tej Maya emphasised the importance of conducting rituals at the temple for their role in childhood development. From a very young age, she would join her friends at the Bishnumati River every day during the Newa month of Yalaato collect Nil La:, sacred water, and make chaitya.

“We would collect leaves from the pipal tree which had fallen on the ground. We would put some rice grain, tika power, and flowers on the leaf and twist the top and bottom ends, light a wick on the leaf then put it on the flowing water and watch it flow down the river. Then we would all walk to the temple with Nil La: to offer it to all the shrines present in the temple and offer puja,” Tej Maya said.

For Tej Maya, conducting this ritual was the first time she and her friends had done puja or gone to the temple unaccompanied by adults, and therefore, they learned the procedures of the rites and how to take responsibility for the rituals on their own. Because children are no longer spending time at the rivers and riverside temples, with or without family members, Tej Maya and many others say that the youth of Kathmandu does not have the same understanding of the rituals or how to conduct puja.

Although religious activity continues, increasingly, people say that the rituals are often conducted simply because they are tradition but there is less consideration for, or knowledge of, the meaning behind the actions being performed. This has a fundamental impact on the practice of religion and some of the most foundational tenets of the Bagmati Civilisation.

One example of this is the way that the practice of bara (gufa halne in Nepali) is shifting. In a Newa girl’s life, the bara has traditionally been one of the most important and celebrated milestones. In this marriage to the sun, girls who are approaching puberty are kept in a dark room for eleven days, during which they cannot be exposed to the sun, nor see any men. This is not a period of isolation though, and instead, the days are filled with visits by female friends and relatives.

In the past, parents would bring pebbles from the nearby river to the room for the girl to play with. But these days, since there are no pebbles in the river, people use construction gravel instead. After the marriage to the sun was completed on 12th day of the ritual period, the girl would return the pebbles to the river on 13th day and perform puja on the banks, using her newfound knowledge to give thanks to the river for all that it provides.

Increasingly though, families are sending their daughters to monasteries for a few days where they are taught the rituals by religious practitioners. In this changing practice, there is no connection with the river, and many say that a key component of bara is lost. Instead of being a coming-of-age period for elders to teach young girls about womanhood and religious practice that culminates with puja on the riverbank, the ritual is now frequently celebrated in banquet halls and party palaces staged for Instagram-worthy spectacles.

Just as elements of bara are changing partially out of convenience and partially to distance the ritual from the polluted riverbanks, residents of Kathmandu, both religious practitioners and lay people, have observed a gradual shift in conceptions of the water that can be considered jal, or holy water.

Chudamani, a Bajracharya priest, explains that river water is the purest of all forms and sources of water and has therefore traditionally been considered the only source of jal. “But instead of trying to preserve and restore river water, which is so essential for religious purposes, people are making changes in their cultural rituals due to the pollution,” he continued. In practice, this means that the definition of what counts as sacred water has expanded as an adaptation to changing environmental conditions.

Macha Bhai Maharjan is a Niti Puja Pujari meaning he performs puja daily to the deity of the Kankeshwori Temple. He has spent innumerable hours at the temple and on the banks of the river, collecting sacred water for cleansing the temple. The river was a source of life for him but after he saw human feces floating in the water when collecting jal for a ritual, he says he has never returned to the banks of the Bishnumati.

Macha Bhai’s experience is not an anomaly. As the rivers became more polluted, people began sourcing jal from wells bored near the river, their proximity affording the water extracted from them the same ritual significance as the river water once held. However, due to the rapidly depleting groundwater table, many of those wells have gone dry, or have become just as contaminated as the rivers that worshippers were trying to avoid. Once again, the devout were forced to search for alternative sources.

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In the Hindu belief system, while river water is considered the most sacred, all water that is moving is pure. Under this definition, people could interpret the water coming out of the taps and dhunge dhara also as jal. Initially, water stored in tanks was not considered to be suitable for ritual purpose, but for many, this has changed once again. Now every temple has a tank that is filled by the municipality and there is no longer a need to visit the river.

Macha Bhai’s experience with contamination in the Bishnumati was the moment he says he realised the sacred river no longer held its religious significance. He too uses water sourced from a tank at Kankeshwori Temple for his daily puja. While changes like this are upsetting to Chudamani, he says that despite his role as a priest, he and the others in his lineage profession “cannot do anything about it” and that he too limits his exposure to the once sacred water.

The dissociation from the rivers, which have historically been considered the lifeblood of the city, happened gradually over a couple of generations. Just 30 years ago, many residents of Kathmandu remember swimming in the rivers and creeks that cross the valley. The rivers were wide and shallow with sandy bottoms that they could wade across. But a population growth rate that places Kathmandu among the fastest-growing cities in South Asia, coupled with the widespread adoption of water-intensive household and commercial amenities including flush toilets, washing machines, and solar water heaters without the construction of adequate wastewater treatment infrastructure has resulted in vast amounts of grey and black water end up in the riverways. Additionally, direct solid waste dumping, encroachment, and illegal and uncontrolled sand mining have all contributed to the degradation of the riverscapes.

When this period of urban development first began in the 1980s, sewer and stormwater lines were directed to the Bagmati River intentionally with the idea that all pollutants would be washed away. Although the Bagmati naturally experiences wide fluctuations in flow rates because it is a seasonal, monsoon-fed river, now regardless of the season, the dilution capacity of the river is so low, and the level of contamination is so great, that the flow is predominately wastewater. In many places in Kathmandu Valley, the river is considered dead, meaning it can no longer support biodiversity. Many say that with the death of the Bagmati, the Bagmati Civilisation has also been lost.

Despite the biological and spiritual death of the Bagmati and its tributaries, the rivers have become points of focus for infrastructure development in the name of modernisation. Currently, the construction of walled river corridors, managed by the Kathmandu Valley Development Authority (KVDA), is used as the primary intervention to address flooding in the urban core. These corridors are also meant to help improve the flow of traffic and to reduce congestion in other parts of the city.

Now almost every stream and river in the valley has been straightened and confined by concrete walls, the widths of which are set as per the 20-year flood provisions. But due to changing monsoon rainfall patterns and the concretisation of the valley, 20-year floods are occurring every five years or less.

The riverbeds have also long since been depleted of sand, mined for concrete to fuel the construction boom of the metropolis. Now that the rivers contain few natural resources, some have gone as far as to advocate that they are covered completely in concrete. In some places, they already have been.

***

Shiv Kumar Basnet, the Executive Director of the Water Resource, Research, and Development Center at the Ministry of Energy, Water Resources and Irrigation says that encroachment on the rivers and settlement in the rivers’ right-of-way has made it so that normal flooding events now cause property damage and seem even more devastating.

“Constraining the rivers is like putting a bird in a cage,” Basnet says. He thinks that from an ecological standpoint, as well as when considering what is best for urban development, the rivers ought to flow freely.

Many agree with him, including the late Huta Ram Baidya, a prominent social activist who spoke extensively on the need to save the Bagmati to save its civilisation. Baidya used to say: “The river is our nature, we should never destroy with nature, but live side by side with it. Instead of controlling its rivers, Kathmandu must work to conserve them.”

When Huta Ram Baidya looked out across the Bagmati from his home near its banks at Thapathali, he wondered about one thing: “Can modernisation exist without culture?” For truly sustainable development of cities such as Kathmandu, the centuries-old cultural rites and rituals associated with the rivers, which incorporate knowledge of both spiritual beliefs and sustainable land-use practices accumulated over thousands of years, must be preserved to help the city grow in harmony with natural ecological systems.

Rajani Maharjan is an environmental anthropologist affiliated with the Small Earth Nepal (SEN), an environmental research group.

Madison Wrobley is a 2019-2020 Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellow who studies water insecurity, primarily in Kathmandu Valley, and is now based in Colorado.

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