Rivers sing their ornaments, their nemesis
The rivers in Kathmandu valley have metonymic relations with the myth, culture, and art of the region. Rivers in Nepal originate from the icy Himalayas or the Mahabharata range¹. As they descend, they turn murky and dark, sweeping across the urban areas, and gradually, after a long course in the plains of India and Bangladesh, disappear into the Bay of Bengal. This is their memory-mythical attribute, from their origin to end. Then there is the prolonged middle, where, according to Hindu belief, they wash away the sins of the people, before flowing onwards and into the ocean. Wherever the rivers flow, they inspire artists who pay homage through the creation of songs, art, poetry, crafts, etc. This is the collective creativity brought about by the ancient rivers of the region.
I am a mother and there is a river in me. Its fount is dormant and course unplanned. Its stream is so gentle that sometimes I forget it even lives. But when my infant cries, the fount awakens with an unyielding force and the river charts its course. I feel it move. It is unstoppable. The river flows in me, drawing its strength from my body and the best of my senses to nourish my child. My child, my ocean, makes the river disappear. She cackles and coos in joy and the river is calm again. It waits – patient but alert, quiet but listening, listening for hunger cries. My child grows from limb to limb, never thinking twice about the river that sustains her. But like all rivers, I do not mind. I am just there – ever-moving, ever-giving, on the backdrop of a lifeform
Three occasions have brought us to write about the rivers of Nepal. The first, was our performance, which we conceptualised as “River Stage”². The second, was our photographic study of Chittagong (now called Chattogram), Bangladesh, which we titled “Chittagong symphony.” The third and most recent, was our visit to the painting exhibition, “Symphony of Rivers and Hills”³ , at the Gandhi Memorial Center in Washington DC.
River Stage, which was performed on Bagmati River, Nepal in 1996, with recitations, paintings and music, was a diversion from conventional theatre. “Chittagong symphony” was a photography exhibition at Premier University, Chittagong in 2019. The exhibition featured photographs of the Karnaphuli river by Renuka Khatiwada. The title of our paper is taken from the Chittagong exhibition of a photograph titled, My Ornament, my Nemesis. An evening photograph of Karnaphuli river shows big ships and boats. The ornaments are the commercial booty they carry and the nemesis are the machines belching pollution into the waters. The river flows along its course, singing to both beauty and nemesis.
There are two major rivers which run through the cities of the valley, Bagmati and Bishnumati. Bagmati originates in Baghdwar, some fifteen kilometres north of the city, Sundarijal. Other streams also merge at the same place. The river flows southward and merges with Bishnumati river. The source of Bishnumati is some five to six kilometres west of the source of Bagmati. Bagmati passes by the famous Hindu temple Pashupatinath, and Bishnumati flows northward overlooking the famous Buddhist stupa Swayambhu. Bagmati is linked with two other rivers, Sali and Manohara of the valley before converging with Bishnumati. Alongside Bishnumati, Bagmati gurgles through the Chovar gorge. The gorge was carved by the mythical Bodhisatwa Manjushree according to the Swambhu Purana4 and many other mythical narratives. As it enters the Terai plains it travels south to merge with the Kamala river in Bihar, India. It then merges with Koshi, and disappears into the Ganga, Hoogly, Buriganga, and Padma in India and Bangladesh.
The Bagmati is the archetype of valley civilisation. It must have filled the primordial valley with its water. The lotus (Padma in Nepali and Sanskrit and Poddo in Bengali) myth begins here. The river, which may have filled the valley with water, gave the lotus as the first object of creation. The lotus is the primordial memory of the beginning of civilisation. The river is also the space of death. The bank(s) on which the death rituals are performed is also the space of liminality, the ghat5, the in-betweenness of the two worlds in religious imagination, where the gods and goddesses are believed to dance. The life, the death and the dance-space of the two worlds are the memory-mythical attribute of the river. We present and analyse these three attributes.
One of the myths of the flower begins with the description of a thousand-petalled lotus. The lotus was as radiant as the sun. It was as if the divine creator had opened up the petals of the flower emerging out of the waters. Then out of this opening, life was born. This is how the myths narrate the significance of the lotus as the primordial flower emitting life into the valley. The flower-narrative is the mythopoetic attitude to comprehend the story of creation. The lotus narrative represents sublime fantasy – the poetry-making ability to explain the origins of human evolution, the gods and goddesses, and ideas of creation of the valley.
There are many images of gods and goddesses in the Hindu and Buddhist temples in Nepal. These deities can be seen holding a myriad of objects, ranging from weapons to flowers, bows and arrows to battle-axes, swords to drums, clubs to tridents, and conches to books. Among these icons, a very familiar one is the lotus6. The myths that tell that the lotus was the first to emerge out the valley lake, metaphorically tells the story of the rise of culture. It is a mythical interpretation, a narrative about how emergence of the lotus signifies emergence of culture.
If lotus is life out of the water, rivers have the space of cremation. They wash the bodies in the Hindu death rituals. Rivers carry the ritual ashes of the dead from thousands of years. Even before one dies, assuming the person is certain to die, the dying body is taken to the river complex at Pashupatinath temple. The river imparts solace to the dying, though sometimes, the person does not die and returns home. The river is the only final abode after the body is burnt on the pyre. The fire evaporates the body, and the ashes which remain, merge with the river water. In recent times, it has not been as sacred as it looks, however: the pandemic saw discarded bodies on the banks of the rivers and in the rivers in South Asia.
Bagmati, like Ganga, is both the fire and the water. The burning ghat is infinitely ablaze, either by the holy smoke from the funeral pyres or the prayer ritual called arati. The cremation fire is eternally there by the ghat and hence the dead is always lying by the banks of the rivers. The process is not always in accordance to the glorious myths; often, insensitivity takes over, and the ancient river’s edge is turned into a dumping ground. This murky aspect has overpowered the sacredness of the myth. Since the memory-myth is always there, however, the river still flows.
The third memory-myth in Hindu imagination is the ghat as liminality, a symbolic space of this worldliness and the otherworldliness, where the Hindu god Shiva dances tandava7 with his consort Parvati.
The second well known dance of Shiva is called the Tandava, and belongs to His tamasic aspect as Bhairava or Vira-bhadra. It is performed in cemeteries and burning grounds, where Shiva, usually in ten-armed form, dances wildly with Devi, accompanied by troops of capering imps. Representations of this dance are common amongst ancient sculptures, as at Elura, Elephanta, and also Bhuvanesvara. The tandava dance is in origin, that of a pre-Aryan divinity, half-god, half-demon, who holds his midnight revels in the burning ground. In later times, this dance in the cremation ground, sometimes of Shiva, sometimes of Devi, is interpreted in Saiva and Sakta literature in a most touching and profound sense. (57)
The cremation ground by the river is the liminal space where the dead is laid for the preparation for the transcendental journey. The enactment of the art is the mythical space where fire and water, dead and living, male and female, art and reality engage in the creative act within joy and sorrow, the double bind where dance becomes both of blissfulness and sorrowfulness. Why is art performed by the ghat? How does myth create a space of art in the very midst of in-betweenness? How is the stage such an indeterminate space? It is the river which becomes ghat with its infinite journey in the human habitations. River is always a ghat in relation to culture. The ghat in riverine culture is the space of duty, rituals, creeds, cultures and performances.
The lotus, death and dance have always formed a metonymic connectivity with the rivers. The prolonged middle of the river’s journey, is metaphoric to feeding and being fed, destroying and being destroyed, consumed and being consumed. Rivers wash the sins of the devotees, consume immense civilisational waste, deliver life to the forests and fields, devour people and places, flow shallow, slow and stagnant, and change as the seasons change.
The rivers find themselves torn and disheveled in urban spaces. The murky, stinky waters of Bagmati and Bishnumati are her nemesis. During winter, all the valley rivers are almost dry, reeking with chemicals mixed with decaying floating objects. The river corridors, the driveways in Kathmandu are walled by uneven buildings, clogged with plastic and debris stuck in the drainage pipes. Signs under a bridge dictate “Let us keep the place clean” – the most iconic commandment of the desire to cleanliness in South Asian urban spaces. “We used to swim in the rivers,” is a memory among old men and women. People follow priests to the bank, where “dip three times,” is the most suffocating perlocutionary act, enacted daily. The commandment, the story, and the duty are the nemesis disavowing the lotus, the dead, and the dance myths associated with rivers.
Like a river, I come in fractions. It is a great privilege and a tragedy that you never see me whole. You chart my course by tracing the parts of me that you see, but you don’t know where I’ve been, or where I truly go. You say you know the river, but you only know the channels that flow unassuming and untroubled in the city. You say you have seen it in nature, but only when it has suited to be seen by you. You are oblivious to its resounding freezes in the mountains or its vehemence in the forests soon after. I, like a river, am two – the seen and unseen. It is a pleasure that my depths are unknown and a nuisance that my depths are unknown and therefore forgotten
The only respite is when the river disappears in the depth of nature. Bagmati flows in the seclusion with such environmental attributes:
The soil of Bagmati basin is fertile and the texture varies from sand and boulders at Gokarna to clay, sand and fine gravel at Balkhu. The soil of the area is slightly acidic and has a pH of 6.88 to 6.9. Organic carbon and organic matter content are high in the soil. Water quality tests of the Bagmati River and the tributaries are being carried out by the Department of Environment on a regular basis. As per the analysis of Bagmati River, turbidity in all the locations is higher than the standards except in Sundarijal. Total dissolved solids (TDS) at all the locations are within NDWQS standard limits. Dissolved oxygen (DO) level varies in different stretches. In upstream, DO levels are more than specified limits of NDWQS, however, in downstream of Gokarna, DO levels decrease drastically. DO levels are within the limits in monsoon season. River quality of Bishnumati and Dhobikhola river is poor, Turbidity at Teku is very high. DO level is also zero. Biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) and chemical oxygen demand (COD) are also very high, not meeting NDWQS standards. Fecal coliform was also found to be high8.
Acid, carbon, solids, NDQQS, turbidity, BOD, and COD are the cultural encounters with the rivers. The ancient rocks, geologically called pre-Siwalik rocks9, which are sedimentary or meta-sedimentary, flow along with the Bagmati as it trails southward. Sal trees, rich moisture, and a vast loneliness in the hills amidst the forest in the rainy seasons, accompany the river. These are the rare moments of the river in the forests and hills of Nepal. One does not find the nemesis of the river when Bagmati flows with immense force in such loneliness. The seclusion ends and it soon dries and stagnates in the winter and again, with the rain, Bagmati joins Kamala and then Koshi in Bihar The habitations of people have fatal impacts on the rivers in the forms of rituals, festivals, and urban drainages. Bagmati has some respite from human habitation in the mountains south of the Himalayas, though it brings all forms of cultural waste with it from Kathmandu, Makwanpur, Rautahat, Sarlahi and many Terai10 and Indian habitations. From the festival of Goddess Durga, called Dashahara or Dashain in Nepal, to Chhath festival of the Sun worship, many rivers bear the admiration of the people who offer and dump all manners of ritualised materials into the water. The admiration is a devotional act and the rivers have to contain all that is culturally offered. Ritual surplus, sewage, garbage, agricultural, industrial, medical waste have mocked the mythical attribute of the river as holy as Ganga. Holiness of the river has mythical origin of descent (avatarn in Sanskrit) from the heavens, as the archetypal Ganga¹¹ descends.
Bagmati delivers all the time as a goddess in Hindu mythopoetic imagination. The deliverance is both glorified and lamented by poets, artists, activists and walkers, or silent poets. In Nepali and South Asian religious traditions, walking has always constructed or added to holiness. In Islam, Buddhism, Christianity or Hindu traditions, walking to sacred places is part of ancient rituals.
In Kathmandu, every now and then, there are heritage cycling programs, although nothing much happens except intentions. Intentions are South Asian pastimes. There are intentions to resist establishments, to bring changes, uplift the status of women, etc. Similarly, cycling is an intension of energetic youths – they are poetic in nature, they are celebratory, creative acts of willingness to do good. In the midst of such intentions, Bagmati and Bishnumati flow along their path.
Yes, I do not have a moment to sit. Like a river, I am never still. But just because I move, don’t think I can move away from inclemency. I get afflicted. My body changes. My mind is bruised. Because the river flows, you divide its waters into old and new. You think your waste and grime won’t stain it, because you imagine that the parts you stained have flowed away. But no matter how fast it moves, it doesn’t escape human austerity. The river takes it on for days, months, and years and decades, until the day it can no more. On your hike, you then look at an empty channel and tell your child, “When I was your age, there used to be a river here.”
Then come the poets and artists. “I’m always motionless, and keep my profound movement secret, but O river, you maddeningly flow by your own speed. My movement is in the fresh leaf, my movement is in flowering.” The champaka sings about her and about the river in Rabindranath Tagore’s song O river¹². Bhupen Hazarika, the Assamese singer lamentingly questions Ganga why she flows silently, shamelessly, lazily in the midst of immense sufferings of humanity. In Abhi Subedi’s Kathmandu Sun, the sun “takes a dive in the holy Bagmati . . .”¹³ and turns murky.
Bagmati, like Ganga still retains the stature of holiness through mythical memories, myths as rituals and narratives. Cultural acts are its nemesis. But we live in the double bind of beauty and grotesque by what we do to the rivers, their ornaments and their nemesis.
Arun Gupta is a professor and the Academic Director of Institute of Advanced Communication, Education, and Research (IACER), Nepal.
Pallabi Gupta is a professor at the English Department at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, USA.
The father-daughter are working on multiple cultural studies projects together. They are associated with South Asian Foundation for Academic Research (SAFAR).
¹The Himalayas, the mid-hills called the Mahabharata range, and the Chure or Siwalik hills from north to south are the three topographical divisions of Nepal.
²River stage was performed in 1996.
³The exhibition was held between Oct 15-30 at Gandhi Memorial Center at Bathesda, Washington DC and was organised and curated by Ajinta Art Gallery, Bangladesh. The exhibition featured the works of Bangladesh artists, Jamal Uddin Ahmad and Kanak Chanpa Chakma.
4There are multiple Puranas, the Hindu religious narratives. Swambhu Purana is a Buddhist local narrative.
5Ghat is literally the constructed steps by the river bank
6In Buddhist sacred spaces, one notices an open Padma above the left shoulder of Avalokiteswara Padmapani, one of the Bodhisatwas. Furthermore, the Hindu God of creation, Brahma springs from the lotus that arises from the navel of Vishnu, the god of preservation. The flower is linked with Vishnu by an umbilical cord issuing as a lotus-stalk. Hindu deities like Krishna, Radha and Laxmi are also associated with the lotus. In Buddhist tradition, Padma symbolises self-creation, which is why it is referred to as Swayambhu. The blue lotus is designated by the word Utpala or Nilotpala. In tantra texts, Padma is the day lotus, while Utpala is the night lotus. The flower is an archaic symbol of creation, purity and beauty. When the lotus shows petals in both the upper and lower directions it is called Viswaspadma.
7There are three kinds of dances performed by Shiva according to Anand Coomaraswamy. The first is the evening dance in the Himalayas, with a divine chorus. The second is the Tandava. The third is Nadanta. See Anand Coomaraswamy. (1918). The Dance of Shiva: Fourteen Indian Essays. New York, The Sunwise Turn.
9Siwalik hills are the sub-Himalayan hills in central Nepal
10 The Terai is the Southern plain of Nepal running from East to West. There are many provinces and districts in this region.
¹¹Ganga is a Hindu goddess who, according to many myths, descends to the earth.
¹²“Ogo nodi” is Tagore’s song where the champaka (magnolia champaca) flower compares herself with the river. My translation from Gitobitan
¹³See Chasing Dreams (1996), Kathmandu, Mandala Book Point.
The rivers in Kathmandu valley have metonymic relations with the myth, culture, and art of the region. Rivers in Nepal originate from the icy Himalayas or the Mahabharata range¹. As they descend, they turn murky and dark, sweeping across the urban areas, and gradually, after a long course in the plains of India and Bangladesh,…