The Sanctity of Water:
The Value of Indigenous Perspectives in Understanding and Preserving Water Resources in the Kathmandu Valley
My great-grandfather was a stickler for ritual. For many decades, he rode his bicycle to the confluence of the Bagmati and Bishnumati rivers South of the old city of Kathmandu to perform his ritualistic ablutions at the brink of dawn. He had such high regard for the sacred site that he wouldn’t even spit out the water after rinsing his mouth directly onto the flowing river; rather doing so on land a few meters away from the bank. For him, the water didn’t just wash away the physical impurities of the body but also the sins of the soul.
The divinity of water sources is a common theme in pan-Indic traditions, be it in the hymns dedicated to the river Sarasvatī in the Ṛgveda (Griffith,1896) or the river Bagmati in the Nepālmāhātmyam (Chaulagain, 2017). One of the most popular myths found in the epic Mahābhārata tells the tale of prince Bhagīratha and the ordeals he faced trying to bring down the celestial river Gańgā (identified with the river Ganges) on earth (Warrier, 2014; Vajracharya, 2009) in order to absolve the sins of his ancestors. The seven great rivers (whose identities fluctuate but include the rivers Ganges, Yamuna, Indus, Godavari, Narmada, Kaveri and Sarasvati presently) known as the Saptasiṃdhava/Saptagańgā have been extolled in both Vedic hymns as well as later in Puranic texts with devout Hindus uttering their names as they wash themselves every morning to this day (Warrier, 2014). This article, albeit too limited to discuss the myriad of cultures on the sub-continent, will attempt to focus mainly on the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley (the indigenous inhabitants of the region) in order to briefly illustrate the ways in which water has been considered sacred and more importantly, the detrimental effects as seen in recent days that losing such a perspective can have in preserving both our culture and ecology.
In order to understand why water is thought to be sacred in the Newar community, one may start by looking at the ecology of the valley in that The Newars have traditionally been an agrarian community dependent on the annual monsoon and rivers flowing from the Himalayas. In this type of life, water’s necessity is demonstrated every day. When added to the uncontrollable natural forces of climatic cycles, one can see why it may have deified. The dependency on water for livelihood is speculated to be the primary reason behind monsoon-oriented worship, and prayer for good harvest and prosperity has existed for as long as there have been inhabitants in the valley. Such worship is further supported by later Vedic/Buddhist texts on a scriptural basis. The earliest textual/recorded references to such practice are found in the Vedas, with the migrant Indo-Aryan’s who were unfamiliar with the phenomenon of monsoon and annual floods incorporating indigenous reverence for the phenomena in the scriptures they later authored (Vajracharya, 2009). In the Ṛgveda, hymn 10.9 (Griffith, 1896), both atmospheric and terrestrial forms of water are praised.
Many of these water-based cultural practices have been lost in the rest of South Asia but have been preserved to this day and in the Kathmandu valley due to its historical isolation. For example, the ritual reverence of frogs as harbingers of rain (a practice virtually lost in the rest of South Asia) is observed by the farmer community of Newars (Newari; byaṃjānakegu) which is attested in a late Ṛgveda hymn (Vajracharya, 1997). This reverence further extends to the serpents, the nāgas who are deemed responsible for the rain and associated with subterrain waters in wells (Chitrakar, 2011). Thus, not only are the waters sacred but also their non-human inhabitants.
Reference to such aquatic creatures is very common in Newar art and they act as icons of faith, both independently and when in association with a major deity. The mythological aquatic chimera makara is a pan-Indic symbol for water and is depicted on traditional Newar waterspouts (fig. 1) as well as on the tympanum of every Newar temple (fig. 2). The motifs on the tympanum illustrate the sanctity of water as they are central hallmarks of Newar temple architecture. The leonine motif (kiritimukha) represents the atmosphere, the foliage motif represents the clouds, the nāgas represent the rain and the makara terrestrial waters (Vajracharya, 2014). This further shows that the ancient inhabitants of the valley deeply revered not only water resources and aquatic species but the water cycle as a whole, of which humans are just one part.
Fig. 1: A makara waterspout (Eichmann, Gerd. Bhaktapur-Naga-Pokhari. 2013. Naga Pokhari, Bhaktapur, Nepal)
Fig. 2: A tympanum of a Newar temple door (Shrestha, Bikhyat. Torana at Rubin, 2018. The Rubin Museum of Art, New York, NY)
The Newars draw their sacred perspective on water from a long-standing belief system that has been orally passed down from time immemorial as well as ancient scriptural assertation. While our culture has strong references to the important role played by water, the intrinsic relationship between our theology and water does not seem to be widely understood nor appreciated by younger generations. The cultural and spiritual value of water is now endangered due to haphazard urbanization, ignorance of tradition, unmanaged in-migration into the valley and lack of understanding of the inherited philosophical and tangible heritage. Today, the same waters of the Bagmati which were held in such a high regard by my great-grandfather (to an extent that he refused to even spit in them!) are now a polluted sewage dump, a deformed visage of what he used to recall as “the mighty river with crystal clear water”. In my great-grandfather’s 96 years on earth, he saw the rapid transformations that plagued the Bagmati and its associated tributaries firsthand, accompanied constantly by the heartbreak of witnessing places of sanctity and beauty being defiled.
Today, water is viewed merely as a commodity flowing into our sinks and its mindless accessibility is being taken for granted despite growing water shortages across the valley. The common populace has become detached from water’s crucial role in our lives and has lost the sheer awe of uncontrollable natural phenomena. The cost of water’s easy accessibility has more than a cultural impact; the “out of sight out of mind” mentality towards our resources has led us to neglect the environment causing far reaching ecological damage. The ponds, waterspouts and reservoirs that were built by indigenous people with a keen understanding and respect for nature are increasingly forgone for more modern water distribution technology which not only contributes to significant cultural and traditional loss, but is also does not always feasible for a valley with limited resources. To illustrate, the history and current state of traditional waterspouts in the valley presents a relevant case study.
The Kathmandu Valley is dotted with free-flowing waterspouts (Newari, hitimanga) built during the early and middle ages. These spouts are intricately decorated with images of aquatic creatures and deities like the aforementioned makara, nāgas, prince Bhagīratha as well as major divinities like Śiva and Bodhisattvas. Apart from their sacred status and religious iconography, these spouts are connected to a globally unique water system. The system channels water from springs and channels it many miles into the central neighborhoods of the city (Chitrakar, 2020). Sanskrit texts like the Vāriśāstra (“Treatise on Water”, preserved in the National Archives, Kathmandu) give instructions as to how to build these waterspouts which take “admirable skills and techniques to bring water from considerable distances” (Vajracharya, 2009). As a result of these structures, clean mineral water flowed within the precincts of the populated city with epigraphical evidence pointing that such was the case since at least the Lichavvi period (200-879 CE) (Vajracharya, 2009). It is therefore ironic that the same city is now facing a water scarcity crisis. Most traditional waterspouts have dried up as a consequence of unplanned construction of concrete buildings whose foundations now block ancient underground tunnels through which spring water was channeled. Furthermore, these waterspouts are neglected as they no longer fulfil their practical purpose and have been converted into waste dumps or worse, buried underneath modern structures.
As put by leading heritage activist Alok Siddhi Tuladhar,
“Water is a basic need. To protect it, our wise ancestors ritualized it. Thus, water sources became heritage.” (A. Tuladhar, 2020)
Apart from undertaking reconstruction and preservation of existing water structures, Nepal must consider the perspectives of the native community and reference traditional knowledge even while constructing of new water infrastructure. South Asia is home to many complex belief systems associated with monsoon/aestivation culture. We hold a rich history filled with unique spiritual practices. Our identity is tied to our water resources and it is imperative that we conserve this heritage. To heed native outlook is beneficial not only to the preservation of culture but also of ecology. Educating the materialistic, profit oriented generation of the modern era about their root philosophical heritage and discussing its value as presented by indigenous belief systems may change the objectified view of natural resources and add more incentive for the preservation of both the tangible and intangible heritage. Scientific validation of indigenous views is also essential for strengthening the legendary claims and for providing a solid stream of reason. If the sanctity of water resources is restored, the deleterious impact of water resource exploitation on both culture and ecology maybe restored as well.
Chaulagain, B. (2020, July 21). Reviving a River. The Kathmandu Post. Retrieved January 7, 2021, from https://kathmandupost.com/opinion/2017/07/27/reviving-a-river
Chitrakar, A. (2011, July). Sacred serpents. Retrieved January 07, 2021, from http://ecs.com.np/heritage-tale/sacred-serpents
Chitrakar, A. (2020, September 20). Kathmandu valley's globally unique water systems. Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://www.himalayanwaterproject.org/post/kathmandu-valley-s-globally-unique-water-systems
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