A Riverscape Undone
A MArch
The bright, festive invitation contained an unexpectedly somber plea:
“Help save Bagmati,” it read, listing a roster of prominent figures who
would attend a late- December rally to raise awareness about the plight
of Kathmandu’s degraded rivers. It was 2002, and Kathmandu’s resi-
dents had witnessed a rapid decline in river conditions for more than
a decade. Certain residents, activists, and policymakers had decided
they had seen enough, and the next step was to make a collective and
visible demand for change. A well- known Nepali environmental group
organized the event, inviting officials, activists, journalists, and tour-
ists to the two- day program of riverbank walks. Each walk would ter-
minate at Teku, the confluence of the Bagmati and Bishnumati rivers.
There, from a large stage, river improvement advocates would deliver
passionate speeches about the rivers’ past, present, and future. Each
would argue that, without action, the rivers and the city would suffer
irreversible losses.
The rally began with a parade- like procession. A Newar dāphā en-
semble marched at the head, its musicians clad in black vests and hats
(topīs) and sounding cymbals, mādals, and other large drums. ngo
(nongovernmental) workers, journalists, and invited guests followed,
some sporting large ViP tags pinned to shimmering blue ribbons. At
the rear of the group marched a handful of foreign tourists, dressed in
the colorful patterns sold in the shops of Kathmandu’s tourist district.
Each held aloft a sign neatly written in Nepali, furnished by the event
The combination of musicians, dignitaries, and activists gave the
procession the simultaneous air of cultural celebration and politi-
cal protest. But the setting, river channels choked with garbage and
sewage and riverbanks host to seemingly countless shacks of the city’s
poor, framed the festival as a portrait of despair. As the marchers’
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