30 May - 5 June 2014 #709

Keeping wells well

As monsoon signals the beginning of a busy 4-month long planting season, residents go about cleaning their houses and water sources
Ayesha Shakya

The monsoon’s life-giving rains brings much respite from the dry heat of summer and Kathmandu Valley’s farmers prepare for the rice planting season that starts 1 July.

The original inhabitants of the Valley celebrated the monsoon with the Sithi Nakha festival, which has pre-Hindu and pre-Buddhist animist antecedants. According to ancient beliefs, clouds, which are perceived as mothers, conceive in autumn for ten lunar months and give birth to rain, perceived as the babies, at the very beginning of the monsoon.

In conjunction with this belief, Newars celebrate the birth of the child-god Kumara as the beginning of the monsoon planting time. “In this sense, Sithi Nakha is the birthday celebration of the rain child. Based on ancient customs, birthday celebrations normally only take place after six days of birth when the mother and child are out of danger, which is why it is called ‘Sithi Nakha’, or the festival of the sixth day,” explains Gautama Vajracharya, a Nepali Sanskritist and scholar specialising in South Asian art and culture.

Since the monsoon signals the beginning of a busy 4-month long planting season, residents go about cleaning their houses and water sources such as wells, irrigation canals, water spouts and fountains, so that the water is not contaminated. The proof of this tradition is a 15th-century inscription on the wall of the Malla palace at Bhaktapur stating that people should clean the roof of temples and other buildings, streets and water sources, such as irrigational canals, fountains, wells and tanks before Sithi Nakha.

With modern urbanisation, the collective practice of worshipping and cleaning water sources is being forgotten. However, Newar guthis have kept the tradition alive and water sources such as Alko Hitti in Lalitpur and water wells in Dattraya Square in Bhaktapur have been maintained comparatively well.

Chief Secretary Leela Mani Poudyal has directed government agencies to mark Sithi Nakha nationwide so that it is celebrated not just by the Newar community but used as an occasion to clean water sources everywhere. This year, Sithi Nakha falls on 4 June.

Says Sandhya Khanal, a PhD researcher on the Valley’s stone spouts: “Most of the wells are drying up and water spouts are being degraded. Locals need to be proactive and work together to preserve this dying tradition.”

Read also:

Take me to the river

Cleaning up

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