Tuesday, 6 June, 2023

Bagmati Yatra Once A Grand Pilgrimage


Aashish Mishra

It was the 14th day of the dark lunar fortnight of the month of Baisakh in the Bikram Sambat Year 2005 and Indra Kaji Joshi, who was 11 years old at the time, had woken up at two in the morning. He was getting ready with his father to go to the Shikhar Narayan Temple in Pharping to participate in the grand Bagmati Yatra.
“It was my first time so I was very excited,” the now 84-year-old Joshi recalled.
“I am sorry but what exactly is Bagmati Yatra?” this puzzled reporter asked, getting a big smile in response. Joshi was about to break into laughter when a thought struck him and turned his smile into a frown.
“The Yatra was a tradition that died long before you were born,” a sad Joshi remarked.
As the name suggests, Bagmati Yatra was an annual journey along the 44-kilometre length of the river Bagmati. It was a pilgrimage, Joshi explained, to every ghat, shrine and temple along the river’s banks from Katuwal Daha all the way up to Bagdwar.
The story of this pilgrimage is long and complicated and is explained in full in the 88,191st chapter of the Himwatkhanda. However, a shortened and simplified version was presented by the Department of Archaeology (DoA) in the July 1970 edition of its ‘Ancient Nepal’ journal.
Going by the DoA’s version, Virupaksha was a child born to the virtuous Brahmin Dharma Sharma in the city of Anatrvedi. From a very young age, Virupaksha developed a dislike for his father and his good deeds and instead chose to walk a path of sin. Over the years, these sins took a toll on his health and he developed boils and wounds on his skin. This made him ugly (Virup) and his friends and family started calling him Virupaksha.
Feeling mocked, Virupaksha left home and started wandering the earth. He visited many doctors and healers but none could cure him. One day, he reached the Kaushiki (Koshi) River in Nepal. Tired, he decided to freshen up by taking a bath. But the river’s cold water on his open sores felt like thousands of knives stabbing him all at once.
The agony was so great that he began crying. He begged the gods for mercy and forgiveness of his past misdeeds. The great sage Né, who happened to be passing by, saw Virupaksha’s pain and advised him to bathe in all the holy rivers and visit all the holy places of the country to rid himself of his sins. Virupaksha did as told and sure enough, his wounds healed and he attained divinity.
“Bagmati Yatra commemorates Virupaksha’s journey along the holiest river of Kathmandu – Bagmati, visiting the shrines he visited and bathing in the ponds he bathed in while in the valley for his countrywide pilgrimage,” Joshi added, raising an interesting point, “Have you noticed that almost all the major holy places of Kathmandu, from Pashupati and Guheshwori to Dakshinkali are near the Bagmati River? So, a yatra along the Bagmati was also a yatra to all these places.”

The Yatra
In his 2004 book ‘Hamro Bagmati Sanskriti,’ the late historian and cultural expert Madan Mohan Mishra documents the process, route and significance of Bagmati Yatra in great detail. According to the book, the Yatra took 17 days and had 15 stops.
On the first day, devotees used to gather at the Shikhar Narayan Temple in Pharping and start preparing for the journey ahead. On the second day, they used to bathe in the Damodar Kunda and worship Dakshinkali. On the third day, they reached Gopaleshwor at Katuwal Daha and on the fourth, they stopped at Khokana.
The pilgrims used to travel to Jal Binayak on the fifth day where they prayed for protection from water-borne disasters. The sixth day was special because the devotees would be joined by high-ranking government officials and members of the ruling Rana and Shah families on their walk to Kalmochan Ghat. On the seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th days, they used to reach Shankhamul, Rajrajeshwori (near Tilganga), Pashupati and Guheshwori respectively.
At Guheshwori, the worshippers were required to take a dip in the waters at Suryaghat, Gaurighat and Sankasta Nasini Ghat and give alms to the poor. The 11th and 12th days were spent at Gokarna and from there, everyone walked up to Sundarijal and Bagdwar on the 13th and 14th days.
From the 15th day, a separate leg of the Bagmati Yatra began, Mishra explains in the book. Some devotees went home but many travelled to Gokarna to purify themselves in the river and worship Budhanilkantha Narayan and Sankhu Bajrayogini. From there, they went to Changunarayan on the 16th day and on the 17th, worshipped all the religious shrines there, took a holy dip in Manimati (Manahara) and then returned to Pashupati to offer yoghurt and beaten rice to the statue of Virupaksha. On the evening of the 17th day, upon the conclusion of the Bagmati Yatra, the pilgrims made offerings to the head Brahmin of their group and worshipped him as a representative of the sage Né.
“In the 17 days, devotees passed through a total of 166 pilgrimage sites,” the book says, adding, “It was believed that they who completed the Yatra would be free from diseases and absolved of all their sins. They would achieve Siddhi.”
Of all the 15 stops, however, Shankhamul was particularly significant because the Rudradhara stream flowed here, Joshi told The Rising Nepal.
But what is Rudradhara? The answer to this question can be found carved on a stone inscription standing near the Garuda pillar in the premises of the Jagat Narayan temple in Shankhamul. The inscription, written in Rana-era Nepali, mainly sings the praises of General Jagat Shumsher Jung Kunwar Rana (the fifth brother of Jung Bahadur Rana) who built the temple but also includes a paragraph on the origins of Rudradhara:
“Shankhanam was one of the three sons of the daemon Bali and a great devotee of Lord Shiva. Once, to prove his dedication to Mahadev, he came to the confluence of Bagmati and Manimati and meditated, without food or water, for a long time. Satisfied with his devotion, Shiva appeared in person to bless him. Hearing that Shivaji had arrived on Earth, Bhogbati Ganga hurriedly came from Pātāl in the form of a conch (Shankha) and washed his feet with her water. This water that flowed into the confluence after touching Shiva’s feet is known as Rudradhara.”
According to the temple’s caretakers, the water of the Rudradhara still bubbled out of the ground at the Manahara-Bagmati meeting point until two decades ago. But it stopped after stone embankments were built in the area to prevent the two rivers from breaking their banks.
“Shankhamul is also important because it has 12 of the holiest pilgrimage sites of Patan,” Joshi said, naming them as Nirmalawati, Bayuwati, Yugwati, Amarawati, Prayagwati, Umapati, Sahodar Tirtha, Dhanush Tirtha, Shankhamul Tirtha, Rudradhara, Uttar Prayag and Mrityunjaya.

Bagmati Yatra did not only constitute the river Bagmati though, Joshi clarified. “Sometimes, we would leave the river to go bathe in different Kundas (ponds),” he recounted.
Each Kunda had its own significance. “Some were believed to cure illnesses, some believed to ease aches, some were specifically for women and some Kundas were specifically for children,” Joshi shared.
Looking back though, Joshi feels that the process of encroaching upon and burying the ponds had already started in 1948 (2005 BS). “Some Kundas were not ponds at all. They were more like wells. And some places were called Kundas but there was no water in sight.”
On this note, Joshi remembered a story he had once heard from his maternal grandfather. “Once upon a time, there was a magical pond in Pashupati that used to show your past life if you stared into it for a while. One day, Jung Bahadur Rana came to see his past life. He expected to see greatness but instead, the pond showed him that he was a poor beggar. This made him angry and he ordered his soldiers to bury the pond,” he said.
The late Madan Mohan Mishra writes that Bagmati Yatra had as much to do with health as it had with religion and culture.
Kathmandu’s rivers did not flow through barren land. On their path across the valley, they passed through forests and fields and had many different kinds of herbs growing on their shores and beds. This made their waters rich in nutrients and medicine. “So, bathing in them and letting the water enter the body helped cure illnesses,” his book says.
To support Mishra’s claims, we can perhaps take the example of Sundarighat, Chovar. According to local Madhusudan Basnet, the section of the Bagmati flowing through this ghat held the power to cure leprosy and skin diseases. “This ghat is called Sundarighat because those that bathed here became beautiful (Sundar).”
Basnet, 59, remembers Bagmati Yatra from his boyhood days and believes that it was a way to get people to bathe in the medicinal waters of Bagmati to boost their immune system ahead of the disease-bearing monsoon months of Ashad and Shrawan.

The decline
As the valley’s population increased, so did the pressure in its rivers. Gradually, Bagmati’s water became too polluted to bathe in. Haphazard excavation of sand and clinkers and human encroachment started shrinking the river from all sides. The ghats along its banks disappeared and, in some portions, even became private property.
“By 1980, the ghats in Teku, Thapathali, Shankhamul and Chovar had become slums. The river was less than half its original size and carried more sewage than water,” Indra Kaji Joshi recounted the third and last time he took part in the Bagmati Yatra.
According to records with the Pashupati Area Development Trust (PADT), the last Bagmati Yatra was held in 1984. PADT officials of the time cited pollution in Bagmati and its tributaries and the loss of interest among people as the main reasons for the pilgrimage’s decline.
In 2018, on the initiation of the then Minister for Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation Rabindra Adhikari, PADT revived the Yatra but shortened it to seven days. The number of places visited was also reduced from 15 to seven. Discussions were underway regarding the feasibility of reviving the Yatra in its full original form. But then, the pandemic hit in March of 2020 and changed everything.
The revived Bagmati Yatra was held for two years – 2018 and 2019 – but has not been held since due to the health risks posed by COVID-19.
As a native of Patan who grew up around Bagmati, Mishra claims in ‘Hamro Bagmati Sanskriti’ that he was devastated when the Bagmati Yatra came to end. “Bagmati was the soul of Kathmandu’s civilisation and the Yatra was the soul of Bagmati. Now, neither the Yatra nor the river remains.”

(Mishra works at this daily)