First published by Nepali Times
One man’s journey to trace the 160 or so traditional bathing places along the now-polluted river


When American researcher William Forbes recently surveyed some of the temples and ghats along the Bagmati River to see if they survived the earthquake, he was greeted with much enthusiasm at a small tirtha just north of Pashupatinath called Hatyamochan.

The smiling face was of social worker Rohit Limbu, who has made it his personal mission to preserve the temple. Limbu led restoration of an old well which is now being used as a sacred bathing spot for women during Rishi Panchami. “I dreamt about you the other night,” Limbu told Forbes. “You were one of the few people who believed in my dream, and look what happened.”

[youtube]Like Limbu, Forbes’ relationship with the Bagmati is one of preservation and appreciation. In 2013, when various social organisations launched the Bagmati Clean Up Campaign, Forbes embarked on a challenging mission of his own: to trace the 160 or so traditional bathing places along the now-polluted river.

Better known as ‘Swayambhu Billy’, the longterm Kathmandu resident till then had been translating ninth-century Sanskrit texts called Nepala-Mahatmya and Himavatkhanda into English. Forbes’ first translation, published as The Glory of Nepal in 2000, focused on the mythology of the Kathmandu Valley that retraced an ancient pilgrimage route.

For his second book, Forbes sought to translate Sanskrit and Nepali sources describing Nepal’s holiest river. The translations include the geo-mythological origins of the Bagmati traced to Shiva’s laughter. “That booming laughter rolled out of his mouth took the forms of an unsullied river, swirling with sacred water, and whitened by foamy waves,” the text reads, clarifying the meaning of Bagmati: ‘Replete with the Voice’. Forbes also painstakingly noted the 1,000 names of the goddess Bagmati, chanted during special worships.

The text goes on to translate an account of the annual nine-day Bagmati pilgrimage conducted in Baishak (April-May), written by Damodara Paikurel from Naxal in the 1950s. “It describes a verdant valley, much of it forested, with arteries of crystal clear water flowing through it,” says Forbes.

However, since the passing of Tirtha Guru of Pashupatinath, who used to guide devotees, the Bagmati pilgrimage seems to have become a thing of the past. “Before he passed away in 1999, the guru told me no one came to him for guidance on the Kathmandu pilgrimage, but he still instructed five to six people on the Bagmati Yatra each year. After his death no one has taken over his role and I am under the impression no one walked the Bagmati since,” says Forbes.

GUARDIANS OF GHATS: Rohit Limbu (left) and William Forbes are among few working to preserve the Bagmati ghats.

Without a guide, finding the holy places along the river proved a challenge for the American translator. The starting point at Katuval Daha, below Chobar, proved inaccessible. “The river there is very polluted and full of industrial foam. During the annual festival, people no longer bathe in the river. From here till Chobar I was unable to find any temples or lingams,” recounts Forbes.

Between Guheshwori and Khokana again it was difficult to walk along the river. However, from Khokana till Bagdwar inside the Shivapuri National Park, conditions were much better as the source appeared as clean as it was during the times when Shiva laughed.

As the river has become a symbol for everything that went wrong in modern Nepal, it is the work of such activists and that of social workers like Limbu that give hope for Bagmati. Last August during Rishi Panchami, Limbu counted over 7,000 women bathing at Hatyamochan. Although few people still bathe in the river and many temples were badly damaged by the earthquake, the religious and cultural significance of the Bagmati River is being kept alive.

Forbes’ book, The Holy Bagmati River, might play an important role in the preservation of its spiritual heritage.

1. Bagdwar

Located inside Shivapuri National Park, this brass tiger spout is the pristine source of the Bagmati river.

2. Sundari Mai

The temple is located in the middle of the Sundarijal forest with the crystal clear waters of Bagmati as they tumble over boulders. A dip here is supposed to wash away sins commited by devotees in seven previous lives.

3. Uttara bahini

The clear water flowing down from Sundari Mai turns into a murkier brown as it flows past this temple.

4. Gokarneshwor

Situated at the confluence of the Bagmati and the Chandrabhaga rivulet, the river now functions more as a dumping site than a pilgrimage site. Wastes from rituals are mindlessly thrown into the river.

5. Hatyamochan

A few kilometers downstream from Gokarneshwor is Hatyamochan. Bathing here can cleanse the sin of even killing a Brahmin, it is believed.

6. Pashupatinath

This is the holiest of holies, and used to be much dirtier and smellier until the Pashupati Development Trust started managing the temple premises.

7. Sankhamul

Once known to elevate pilgrims bathing here into a state of nirvana, the place has now become home to scavenging animals and birds.

8. Kal mochan

The Bagmati’s floodplain here below the bridge used to be wide and the waters clear. Today the smelly black water flows through a canyon. Still, bathing here is believed to bless one with virtues.

9. Pachali Bhairav

Plastic bags, bottles, shoes and clothes floating in the polluted waters of the Bagmati are a common sight along what used to be a holy ghat.

10. Teku Doban

The Vishnumati merges with Bagmati at this point. Still regarded as a holy bathing place, only the most faithful pilgrims approach the fetid water here.

11. Jal Vinayak

This Ganesh temple located just below the Chobar gorge is where the Bagmati exits the Valley carrying with it the capital’s waste.