Some stench or low water, our Bagmati Khola is loved. The annual Bagmati River Festival is an honest, if fleeting, testament of Valley dwellers' affection for the sacred waterway. True, many abuse and neglect the Bagmati over the greater part of the year. But even if it's just for the duration of the festival, people celebrate the source of the Kathmandu Valley's civilisation.
The 4th Bagmati River Festival will continue the now well-established annual tradition of bringing together environmentalists, school children, tourism industry members and concerned citizens. Kayaks and rafts will drift down from the headwaters at Sundarijal to Sankhamul, lead as usual by founder and president of the Nepal River Conservation Trust (NRCT), Megh Ale. However, organisers from NRCT, along with Sustainable Tourism Network (STN), have a lot more planned than just the usual day-long rafting trip to generate care and concern for the once mighty river.
This year, the festival started on 5 June, World Environment Day, which will from now mark the beginning of the yearly festival. Since then, groups including the Women Environment Group, Nawa Aayam Yuva Club, Friends Club Kupondole and Himalmedia have co-organised seven clean up campaigns starting from the Tilganga Eye Hospital area down to the Maternity Hospital in Thapathali, with a concentrated three-session clean up below the Bagmati Bridge. Nepal Tourism Board is promoting the events, and various local business houses have provided refreshments and equipment.
Difficult and often unpleasant as the task may be, there are plenty of people committed enough to the Bagmati's welfare to show up. NRCT co-ordinator Rabin Bastola says that during the 5 June cleanup, 170 participants had officially signed up but another 30 or 40 simply joined in. For those who missed out, campaigns will continue every Saturday until the end of the festival on 21 August.
Getting up close and personal while cleaning up the river banks might not be everyone's cup of tea, so on Saturday 17 July organisers are holding a heritage walk starting at Teku, going through Thapathali and ending up in Sankhamul. Understanding how the Bagmati's waters have nurtured entire cultures and religions is an important part of convincing people to aid the river. Stagnant and pungent with waste, the river is more than a reflection of our inattention for the environment. It is also a sign of our blatant disrespect for history and our ancestors.
Travel consultant Sharad Shrestha, who will be leading Saturday's heritage walk, says, "Our civilisation started from the Bagmati, so the river is part of our religious and cultural heritage. We perform important rituals, ranging from initiation to death rites, at the river. There are monuments and settlements here so old that no one has records for them."
Sites like Chintamani Ghat are said to be thousands of years old. The common belief is that those cremated there will attain enlightenment after death. Kalmochan Ghat, on the other hand, includes several important temples to Bishnu and Ram. "The story goes that the pati was built by Prime Minister Jang Bahadur Rana after the Kot Massacre to show penance for his sins," explains Shrestha.
The ancient architecture, exquisite carvings and peaceful surroundings aren't worth much though, if the river isn't cleaned up. Right now, in the wet season, the walk is bearable but Shrestha can't imagine taking tourists on a stroll during the dry months when the Bagmati turns into an open sewer.
The NRCT's activities for the festival include a live music concert, various races (rafting, kayaking, running), tree plantation, a composting workshop, a research presentation by TU's Central Department of Environmental Science and an eight-day kayaking workshop for school students and others interested.
The trust is also managing an anti-plastic campaign. Plastic bags are a major source of pollution along the riverbanks, so NRCT is trying to get Valley residents to stop using them. "We are targeting supermarkets by providing an alternative cloth bag," explains Bastola. The Women Environment Group has agreed to make the bags, which will be sold at minimum cost at grocery stores. If customers return with the bag, they'll be given a 5 percent discount on their grocery bill.
Under Binita Adhikari's charge, Lion's Club is hosting a women's cycle rally, the first of its kind. "The hope is to give the festival continuity so we realise this is everyone's river," says Adhikari, who is spending whatever free time she gets from counselling rape victims to orgainse the rally. Riders wearing festival t-shirts, courtesy Himalmedia, will hop on their environmentally-friendly bikes, lent by Himalayan Mountain Bike, From Dawn till Dusk and others, at the Sanchaya Kosh building in Thamel at 8AM on 18 July and head out to Chobar along the riverbank, finishing at Balaju. Fifty riders are expected and men are welcome.