Thursday, March 24, 2011

Rollin' on a River

Many cities hug the banks of rivers that have shaped their geography and fortunes since their founding. London has its Thames. Paris, the Seine. Kathmandu has the mighty Bagmati River. Behold:

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Something about this river does not scream "sunset boat cruise for tourists."

And yet, this river is considered holy by Hindus, said to have originated from the laughter of Lord Shiva. Pashupatinath Temple, one of the world's largest Hindu temples to Shiva, sits on the banks of the river just east of downtown Kathmandu. It is here where many Hindus are cremated on ghats at the river's edge. Bathing in the river is for some a part of the mourning rites.

The Bagmati's holy stature clearly does not save it from decidedly unholy acts of desecration. Pollution, including untreated sewage, plagues the river. Just one whiff makes that clear. When stuck on a bridge while crossing the river (and when crossing between central Kathmandu and Patan on a hot day, you will get caught in traffic on that bridge with a light breeze wafting eau de Bagmati) my only advice is to cease breathing for as long as possible. How people have managed to survive living on its banks is beyond me. Sadly, something tells me forces other than desire for waterfront property are dictating the terms of that arrangement. And yet, no matter the pollution in the waters coursing through the Valley, life goes on:

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Whether as a final resting place, waste disposal mechanism, or backyard, the Bagmati is undeniably intertwined with the lives of people throughout the Kathmandu Valley. Surely the issues that led to this river's sorry state are complex, and I don't claim to be an expert on them or how to best go about rectifying them. But seeing this river as it exists today in contrast to how it must have first appeared when pouring as laughter from a deity, I can't help but feel compelled to reflect on the destructive impact we can have on nature and just how, well, unfunny that can get.

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