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 aq