The van veered off onto a gravelly trail and stopped short. We disembarked into bright sunshine, and wondered if the muggy air meant we'd be treated to a monsoonal downpour. Happily, the clouds were huddled into the lush green hills behind us. We made our way down to the river bank, where a whole crowd of fellow-rafters had congregated, and were milling about chatting, laughing, taking photos, and splashing water on the waiting rafts. The artificiality of the grey inflated rubber rafts, lying indolent like walruses on a rocky shore, contrasted with the pristine pastoral of the river winding down south.
If it wasn't quite the raging serpent white-water rafters associate with their idea of a good time, all present seemed impressed by the clarity of the waters they were about to ride. It took some time for the organisers to calm their spirits enough to get them to hold hands and file into the water, to 'listen to the river'.
As we stepped into the waters and ferried each other across, a group of monks on the other side broke into a dirge-like melody, with horns and drums. The solemn atmosphere was riven with the laughter of those watching each other stumble in the surprisingly strong current; if not for the hands holding them up, some might have been knocked off their feet and swept a few paces downstream. Centred on my own passage, I paused to listen to the gurgle of the water I could feel cooling my skin. The clouds had massed above us now, and the mercury had dropped.
Soon, our circle stretched out across the river and onto the banks. Someone started it Ė then all broke rank in an infectious flurry of splash-your-neighbour. Within seconds, we were all soaked to the skin and raring to get into the rafts. An hour's frenetic rowing and seven kilometres later, we tumbled out the rafts, exhausted, wondering where the packets of reviving Glucose-D were when you really needed them. But our day was done. It was back to the city: back to the grime and social mime of the capital. How many of us remember that day now?
Did I ever think I would be soaked in Bagmati water? Not in my lifetime; if this wasn't explicitly articulated by all those around me, they were surely making the most of it, in the most wonderfully juvenile manner. My friends may have been the last children to have swum in the clear waters of the Bagmati and Bishnumati downtown. We discovered that day was that this was still possible, albeit not far from where the river drops down the Shivapuri massif and hits the valley floor on the first leg of its journey south. What if this were possible throughout the length of the river, in all seasons?
You may sneer at such a suggestion, or shake your head sadly, saying things have gone too far for us to dream of the past. For most of the denizens of the Kathmandu Valley, the Bagmati is little more than a channel for sewage outside of the monsoon. But if the Bagmati River Festival doesn't pretend to have all the answers, at least it has shown some of us what the river was and still is in some parts. For the boys frolicking naked in the water downstream of Sundarijal, hemmed in by verdant paddy fields, little has changed.
In the mid-nineteenth century, untreated sewage in the River Thames led to The Great Stink, and the House of Commons even considered relocating. Granted, the greater stink may be inside the Nepali Parliament, but it's remarkable how predictably we are following the West in all its industrial follies. New, separate sewers solved the problem for London, and in more recent times the Thames has become renowned for the turnaround it has achieved. If it was possible for the British to turn back the clock in the face of continuing growth Ė metropolitan London hosts around 13 million souls across an area of 1,706 square kilometres Ė then why can't we?