Nepal’s holy Bagmati River choked with black sewage, trash

KATHMANDU, Nepal (AP) — High on a mountain in the Himalayas, pristine drops fall from the mouth of a tiger statue installed at a stream thought to form the headwaters of the Bagmati River, long revered as having the power to purify souls. From there it wends its way downhill past verdant forests and merges with other waterways, irrigating fields of rice, vegetables and other crops that are a livelihood for many Nepalese.

But as the Bagmati reaches the valley of Kathmandu, the capital, its color changes from clear to brown and then to black, choked with debris, its contents undrinkable and unsuitable even for cleaning. During the dry season, an overwhelming stench pervades the area by its banks.

Tainted by garbage and raw sewage that is dumped directly into the waterway, Nepal’s holiest river has deteriorated so greatly that today it is also the country’s most polluted, dramatically altering how the city of about 3 million interacts with the Bagmati on daily, cultural and spiritual levels.

In the capital, the Bagmati’s sludge oozes past several sacred sites, including the Pashupatinath Temple, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979. The sprawling complex comprises a golden-roofed main temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, surrounded by hundreds of smaller ones.

Hindus flock to the riverbanks in Kathmandu to worship at shrines and celebrate festivals. Women dip in the river to wash away sins during Rishipanchami, a day for worship of the seven sages revered as enlightened beings guiding humanity through the ages. Visitors also wade in during the festival of Chhath, praying to the sun god Surya. During Teej, married women come to pray for the health and prosperity of their husbands, and single women, to find a good one.

Families have long carried the bodies of deceased loved ones to these banks to wash the feet of the dead on a stone slab and sprinkle their faces with river water. Beliefs hold that that washes away a person’s sins and sends their soul to heaven before their physical remains are cremated atop heaps of wood, also alongside the river, and their ashes scattered into the waters.

People still bring departed loved ones to the Bagmati, but many no longer dare to have any contact with its contents. While the bodies are still cremated here, they’re cleansed with purified water bought in nearby stores.

“That is no more now. The water is so dirty and stinks. People are forced to bring bottled water and do the rituals,” 59-year-old Mithu Lama, who has been working with her husband at the Teku ghat cremation grounds since she married him at age 15, said on a recent day as she stacked wood for a funeral pyre.

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