“As far as I know, there is no one conducting the ritual these days,” began Ganesh Maya Khadgi as she gazed out from her home on the banks of the Bagmati River to the grey, slow-moving water just outside her door.
She is referring to Naworatri, a ritual practiced by the Newas of Kathmandu during first nine days of the Dasain festival, which this year fall in end-October. When she was young, she would join crowds of worshippers at two or three in the morning and they would walk together to the tirtha, holy sites on the banks of the river.
On each day of the nine-day festival, they would travel to a different tirtha to cleanse themselves with holy water and offer puja to the river in the form of flowers placed on chaitya, small mounds of riverbank sand.
“Why would anyone participate in this ritual anymore?” Ganesh Maya’s friendly, open face clouded over as she further poured out her disappointment.
The communal pilgrimage along the rivers facilitated contact with the sacredness of the holy river, she says, but due to the highly degraded quality of the water, even the most devout worshippers no longer want to make that connection. In some places, worship is not possible due to the accumulation of solid waste on the banks.
Even if people are willing to make the holy ablutions with the polluted water, Ganesh Maya says that there is not enough sand left in the riverbanks to construct the chaitya. She speaks fondly of her memories of conducting the rituals despite the pain she feels from their loss.
Neither her children nor her grandchildren have visited the tirtha for Naworatri, but she understands their reasoning for changing their ritual practice. Due to river pollution, the entire purpose of the ritual has been lost.