Friday, December 16, 2016

BLOG: The Holy River

by Sara Brock, The Groundwater Foundation

My friend and guide,
Praveen, in Pashupatinath
Nepal is a very spiritual country.  As I walked the cold, crowded streets in January, I saw little shrines dotting the streets, often smeared with a dye made of semi-crushed flower petals in bright red and yellow hues. Larger Hindu temples, the ones the massive 2015 earthquake missed, stood tall and ornate. Among the grandest of these temples, and certainly the most important temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, is Pashupatinath (Pa-shoo-pa-tea-not), located on the banks of the holy Bagmati River in the Kathmandu Valley.

Shiva is the Hindu Supreme Being of creation, destruction, and transformation. Believers come to Pashupatinath to pray and help their deceased relatives achieve nirvana by cremating the bodies in a special ritual beside the river. Once the ritual is complete, the ashes are brushed into the Bagmati River which is believed to have the power to purify, ensuring that the spirit is fully released from the body.  

These rituals are performed every day of the year from sun up to sun down. Families bring their dead from thousands of miles away, some even from India, to take part in this special ritual. The air is thick with ash and oil. My friends and I sat and sneezed out black mucus, watching as more and more ashes were pushed into the river. On top of this, the water continues to flow slowly through the city, used upstream and downstream for drinking, bathing, irrigation, and dumping trash and untreated sewage1.

Women basket-fishing from the river.
It seems counterintuitive to use a holy river with little regard to environmental or health concerns and indeed; Nepali citizens are starting to recognize and react to the hazards of indiscriminant disposal. However, for centuries, the river had provided clean, accessible water to the dry and mountainous region. The Kathmandu Valley was a resource hub and quickly drew a large population along the Bagmati’s banks. Hindus and Buddhists alike worshipped the river, sourced from a trinity of headwaters from the Himalaya and Green Mountain Ranges to the north and seasonal monsoons. 

In the 70s, a huge spike in urbanization driven by economic opportunity caused Kathmandu to quickly develop the infrastructure necessary to support the population surge2. Unfortunately, the city skipped over many steps that have since negatively affected public and environmental health, like sanitary disposal of human and industrial waste. With more and more people to provide resources for, the government focused on source augmentation rather than sewage transportation and treatment systems. However, thanks to increased education and cooperation from world health and environmental organizations, many point source polluters have since been shut down and the Bagmati has gotten a second chance3.

Nepali people may have prioritized their personal and spiritual water needs over the long-term conservation of the Bagmati, but they have never ignored its importance. On Saturdays, the national holy day of rest, a group of about 100 Kathmandu residents gather to pick up and properly dispose of the trash on the riverbank. As it gets progressively cleaner, locals appreciate the symbolic river and take more care to dump their trash in a designated area4. The river moves a little more swiftly and is transforming the countryside after the destructive aftermath of the earthquake. So while Pashupatinath continues to cremate the honorable dead and the valley reconstructs, Nepal now has the momentum and hope to restore purity to its holy river.

The earthquake shelters are now shrines of the country's
national pride, love for each other, and restored faith.

1. Keane, Katrina. “Suitably Modern.” KATRINA KEANE, 13 Apr. 2013,
2. Platman, Lauren, "From Holy to Holistic: Working Towards Integrated Management of the Bagmati River Corridor" (2014). Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection. Paper 1808
3. Bhaduri, Amita. “Living Rivers, Dying Rivers: Bagmati River in Nepal.” India Water Portal, Arghyam Initiative, 1 May 2012,
4. Jenkins, Clare. “Bagmati River Story.” Kathmandu Post, Ekantipur, 24 June 2016,

No comments: