Then a river was born out of the laughter of Siva,
and came out of a cave in the mountain,
white with the garlands of the foam and waves and with
pure and clean water.
Look at this river Vagmati here with holy water,
destroyer of great sins, the best of the rivers,
coming out of the mouth of Lord Siva.
From the Nepala-mahatmya
TABLE OF CONTENTS
PRODUCTION OF MULTIMEDIA COMMUNICATION MATERIALS
THE EXHIBITION AS A CATALYST FOR PUBLIC FORUM
EDUCATIONAL PROGRAMS TO STUDY KATHMANDU VALLEY ECOLOGY
THE RIVER FESTIVAL: A CELEBRATION OF CULTURE AND ENVIRONMENT
RIVER GREENWAYS AND NATURE CORRIDOR
One evening as we walked along the Bagmati River, we saw pilgrims cleansing themselves in preparation for their visit to Pashupatinath, one of the holiest Hindu shrines. A short distance upstream, we later encountered a sewer outlet spewing polluted water directly into these sacred waters. This experience made us realize that the quest for spiritual purity and life-generating powers, once associated with the rivers, still exists even though the water is no longer clean. It symbolizes the tragic neglect of those environmentally conscious, cultural values that have guided and defined Nepal's identity for centuries.
The current environmental crisis is a result of a breakdown in many of the social and natural ecologies of the Kathmandu Valley. Its rivers and watershed have disintegrated due to the rapid influx of populations, which are straining the archaic infrastructure. To mitigate this problem we seek long term solutions in reclaiming and maintaining the riverine ecosystem while reviving an environmental ethic. This ecological artwork, The Myth of the Nagas, draws upon the values and philosophies indigenous to the region in addition to scientific and technical approaches to the problem.
As Nepal strives to modernize its traditional foundations, it is essential to maintain those aspects of its former beliefs, which once provided the basis for a sound environment. The ancient text of the Swayambhu Puran tells the mythical tales of the Naga Rajas, Serpent Kings, and the geographic history of the Kathmandu Valley, which was once a lake. From this book, we can infer the value of clean water in sustaining a healthy, human habitat.
The nagas ruled the lake before it was drained to establish human settlements and were angered by this intervention. Symbols of fertility and guardians of the waters, the serpents threatened to leave the valley and render it barren. This crisis was averted by giving the nagas dominion over certain sites along the river and declaring them places of pilgrimage. In this way, the power of nature was recognized and the serpents revered. They are worshipped each year on a special day called Nag Panchami. Recognizing the fragile ecosystem of the valley, early settlers believed that nagas breathed polluted air and released fresh air so that all life could exist.
Serpents are associated with the sacred tree that holds the universe together and symbolizes the center of being. In this way, forests and rivers are interwoven. TheNepala-mahatmyarefers to the Kathmandu Valley as a sacred forest, called Slesmantika, where its pristine rivers held the promise of salvation. For this reason, the god Shiva made his home here.
This artwork emphasizes the connection between air, land and water by interpreting such myths from an ecological perspective, making them relevant to contemporary environmental issues. We plan to revive other native legends and traditions to generate citizen interest and active participation in the revitalization of the Bagmati River and its tributaries.
To dramatize its current environmental condition, the river will be documented from its source in the Shivapuri watershed to the Chovar Gorge -- its drainage passage out of the valley -- by creating videos, photo collages, maps and accompanying text. This work, in turn, would travel as a multi-media installation, used for education and as the catalyst for a public forum for creative dialogue between citizens, specialists, policy makers and organizations to conceive a multidisciplinary action plan to reclaim the Kathmandu Valley watershed.
The Myth of the Nagas attempts to renew environmental ethics and reconnect people to the rivers and forests by celebrating positive native values as they relate to the ecology of the Kathmandu Valley. This project takes into account not only the natural ecosystem, but also considers the social ecology of the area. It seeks to restore the human bond with the rivers that is now lost and was once sustained through a spiritual and personal understanding of the environment.
The ultimate goal of this work is to foster a long-term consciousness about the value of a healthy riverine ecosystem. In addition to the exhibition and public forum, we will collaborate with Nepali artists and writers who will create contemporary posters, comic books and other visual materials for both children and adults, fusing mythology and environmental activism. An annual river festival is envisioned to celebrate Nepal's cultural heritage and emphasize environmental rehabilitation. The reclamation work consists of designating open spaces of native fauna and flora along the river as a nature corridor that will function as an ecological and cultural pilgrimage route and a buffer from the effects of urban growth. Underlining the connections between culture and nature, contemporary sculptures and artworks that interpret Nepali art and myth from an environmental viewpoint will be created. Placed at the confluence of the Bagmati and its tributaries, they will mark the sites of ancient pilgrimage. The nature corridor and its artworks will provide needed breathing space for people and the river as well as a focal point for environmental education.
We can compare rivers to the arteries and veins of the human body, transporting vital nutrients essential for its optimal functioning. The urban areas of the river are clogged by pollution, which will ultimately be fatal, not only for the river, but for the inhabitants of the valley. This situation has an immediate impact in the area of public health. The following action plan is intended to invite public discussion in order to reexamine the current direction of Nepali society and its impact on the environment. Through town meetings where people can participate in an exercise of democracy, the planning and execution of environmental redemption will be established. There already exists a growing awareness among urban dwellers of the Kathmandu Valley's environmental degradation. An effort to plant trees and install educational signage has been made along some of the rivers, like the Dobhi Kola, by the Kathmandu municipality. It appears that both government and the public are ready to accept the challenge of implementing the concepts embodied in this ecological artwork. The Myth of the Nagaspromotes an activist approach towards achieving sustainable solutions that bring together established traditions and innovative environmental ideas.
This ecological artwork is based upon the concept that art is no longer a static object, like painting and sculpture, but a way of thinking which fuses activism and creative problem solving in an attempt to remediation environmental problems. Similar projects have been undertaken internationally by artists and The Myth of the Nagas is the first attempt to create an ecological artwork in Nepal. The ideas embodied here can be developed and applied to similar environmental conditions elsewhere. Ecological art offers a means to integrate social and natural ecologies. While restoring the natural environment, we also envision a renaissance of culture, which will help to regenerate environmental ethics and Nepali identity. Art, myth and ritual are reinterpreted through The Myth of the Nagas, which injects new meaning into traditional ideas, making them relevant and vital to a country in transition.
Our work acknowledges that the lack of environmental ethics is not inherent to Nepali culture, but results from a breakdown of traditional values due to rapid change. For this reason, we celebrate those traditions and ideas that encourage sound environmental values. Just as ecology is founded upon a network of interrelationships, our approach to environmental issues is multidisciplinary, integrating natural history, anthropology, mythology, public health, science, and technology. We envision this work to be collaborative in nature, communicating with both specialists in many fields and the residents whose lives are directly affected by the environment in question. The project functions as a bridge between experts and the general public. We seek to form a coalition with organizations and institutions to help implement this proposal.
Our plan conceives the entire Kathmandu Valley as a watershed for the lands below. Although The Myth of the Nagas will focus on the Bagmati River and its tributaries down through the cities of Kathmandu and Lalitpur to the Chovar Gorge, the concepts here eventually could be expanded through out the entire valley. We recognize the immensity of the watershed's environmental problems, which require the latest scientific and technical ingenuity to clean up the rivers. Some aspects of this proposal are conceived in conjunction with such an effort, while others should be implemented independently and immediately.
We will study those Nepali traditions and artworks that provide a framework for rebuilding environmental ethics and examine the ancient Hindu and Buddhist texts and ceremonies that refer to the sacred rivers and forests. We will also investigate the wide array of ethnic myths describing the respectful and balanced interrelationships between animals, plants and people. In order to obtain a wide variety of perspectives regarding the problems facing the ecosystem, we will consult with scientists, naturalists, health specialists, and representatives from government and business. Their responses will be videotaped and later incorporated into a video used for exhibition and educational purposes. In collaboration with naturalists and scientists, research will be conducted to determine what indigenous plants and animals existed prior to the destruction of the riverine environment. This information will be the basis for the regeneration of natural ecosystems along the river greenways.
In order to examine the condition of the Bagmati River and its tributaries, we will journey along the banks of the river from the Shivapuri watershed to the Chovar Gorge, considering both rural and urban causes of pollution. During this walk, we will document the environment using video, photography, and journal accounts.
At this time, contacts will be made with local residents, village development councils and representatives from school groups, activist organizations and local governments. This will be the initial stage in the building of a grass roots coalition, which will help rejuvenate and protect the rivers. As we meet people during our walk, flayers explaining the concepts of The Myth of the Nagas and the importance of a healthy riverine environment will be circulated. We will survey existing open spaces and identify locations along the rivers for potential green ways: places to sit, areas to plant trees, sites for rituals and contemporary public artworks and a nature corridor linking these spaces.
PRODUCTION OF MULTIMEDIA COMMUCATION MATERIALS
In order to help in implementing this ecological artwork, we will collaborate with local Nepali artists, writers and educators to create the following materials based on our research and riverwalk:
1. RIVER GUIDE - including photographs, drawings, maps, myths and other pertinent information relating to the riverine ecosystem.
2. ENVIRONMENTAL COMIC BOOK - based on the traditional comic book format, includes short stories interpreting important myths that relate to environmental issues.
3. NAGA POSTERS - Inspired by the old Nag Panchami posters that "guard" the entrance of every Nepali home against natural calamities, we will design versions which incorporate environmental themes. In addition to distributing these posters to the general public, the original designs will be exhibited in a special exhibition.
4. COLLAGE - By using photographs, drawings, maps and text, we will create a collage of information that interprets the present condition of the Kathmandu Valley.
5. VIDEO - We will weave together images of the rivers, mountains and forests, interviews with residents and specialists, and traditional artworks depicting Nepali legends, particularly the myth of the nagas. All of these materials will be displayed in an exhibition and some will be widely distributed through schools and information booths established at temples and stupas.
THE EXHIBITION AS A CATALYST FOR PUBLIC FORUM
The Myth of the Nagas and the Kathmandu Valley Watershed exhibition will feature sculptures made from natural, native materials, a video installation, photocollages, maps showing potential greenway sites and original artwork for the river guide, comic book and posters as well as text panels and object labels.
The exhibition will evolve in three stages:
1. A small, portable, multimedia presentation, including some of the materials mentioned above, will travel from village to village and act as a catalyst for organizing town meetings to provide environmental information while soliciting people's comments and suggestions for the revitalization effort.
2. An expanded exhibition, to be held in the city of Kathmandu, will be used as the opportunity for organizing a public forum, which will stimulate a dialogue between local residents, professionals and other diverse voices in the community. During the course of the exhibition, a series of panel discussions, workshops and seminars composed of scientists, engineers, environmentalists, politicians, writers, artists, NGO's, health specialists and local residents will be formed in cooperation with environmental organizations. The ecological artwork will thus provide the focus for an intellectual exchange and examination of important issues as well as practical solutions to the problems facing Kathmandu Valley's rivers in particular and its ecology in general. Both town meetings and a public forum are means of enabling the public to participate at the onset of the planning process so that they can grasp the situation and implement and maintain environmental solutions.
3. The exhibition will travel internationally, demonstrating Nepal's attempt to creatively solve its environmental problems. A catalogue documenting the exhibition will be written and published, containing essays and illustrations of the varied components of the work. It could be used as a prototype for others to initiate ecological art projects by providing information on the creative proceses involved.
EDUCATIONAL PROGRAMS TO STUDY THE KATHMANDU VALLEY ECOLOGY
Environmental educational programming encompasses the following:
1. An interdisciplinary approach that integrates art, history, science, environmental ethics and public health.
2. An emphasis on field trips which provide experience in nature.
3. Creative interpretations of environmental conditions that will provoke independent thinking and imagination directed towards problem solving.
4. An awareness of conservation and sustainable development so that environmental remediation will not burden future generations. To meet the challenge of addressing these criteria, visual and written materials such as an environmental river guide, comic book, poster, photocollage and video (mentioned above), will be produced with special attention paid to children and illiterate adults. The opportunity for children and adults to learn about nature and the human pressures contributing to her destabilization can be realized by designating and establishing demonstration sites along the rivers. Here, water and soil samples can be taken and the results distributed to citizens living along the riverbanks in order to dramatize he rivers' plight. In addition, trips organized to forest preserves would help familiarize students with balanced ecosystems. In conjunction with the effort to expand and maintain open spaces, urban gardens could be planted and maintained at schools in order to encourage a hands-on approach to learning about the cycles of life while maintaining Katmandu's traditional link to the land which is rapidly being severed. Conceived as a laboratory for study, students would learn about responsible land stewardship through agriculture and tree farming. In order to encourage creative thinking and activism, students to interpret the results of their ecological studies can use art. Each school would stage their own exhibition after interpreting a regional environmental problem. The Myth of the Nagas will hopefully be used as an example to influence schools and civic organizations to come up with innovative projects, which find environmental solutions in their area.
THE RIVER FESTIVAL: A CELEBRATION OF CULTURE AND ENVIRONMENT
Traditionally, celebrations play an uplifting role in society, emphasizing its positive aspects while bringing diverse communities together. Based on this concept, a festival will be organized to communicate the ancient myths and their connection to healthy riverine environments. This celebration will use the arts to reinterpret vanishing customs and beliefs, linking them to contemporary environmental problems and stimulating creative action for sustainable development.
The festival will be a time to bring artists, performers, writers, poets and musicians together to channel the creative energies necessary for revitalizing the natural and cultural environments. Performers will reenact myths, stage puppet shows about the environment, and engage people in traditional dance and song at each stop along the river. Introduced as a yearly environmental celebration, the festival will take place after the Nag Panchami holiday. It is conceived as a time to reevaluate the ecological, social and cultural issues facing Kathmandu Valley. The festival can be used as an opportunity to plant Banyan (ficus indica), Pipal (ficus religiosa) and other native trees, shrubs and flowers and renovate and construct new chautaras (resting places around trees) in inner city courtyards and along the trails in the valley. The festival is conceived as a collaborative effort between the city governments of Kathmandu Valley and other civic organizations. Local communities will be encouraged to organize their own events in conjunction with a central coordinating committee that will help provide guidelines, resources and publicity. A detailed plan can be drawn depending upon the scope determined.
Arts festivals globally have provided cities with a myriad of benefits, including economic return on investment; attraction of tourists; voluntary citizen participation and morale boosting; and renovation of infrastructure. This festival is envisioned as a prototype to create a "Nepal 2000" international travelling exhibition that will present selected aspects of traditional and contemporary Nepali life. It would provide an occasion to promote the richness of the land and people of Nepal in their new effort to revitalize their culture and environment.
RIVER GREENWAYS AND NATURE CORRIDOR
In the past, open space was not an issue for the residents of the inner cities of Kathmandu Valley. Taking environmental conditions into account, settlers of the valley selected the high plateaus to build their towns. The remaining lowlands were cultivated and used for various community activities. Recently, urban sprawl has encroached upon these open spaces which are disappearing at an alarming rate. To compensate for the loss of open spaces and increasing congestion in city streets due to vehicular traffic, which prohibits pedestrian access, we propose a series of greenways from the Shivapuri watershed to the Chovar Gorge linked by a nature corridor. This will demarcate the ecological and public boundaries of the waterways, which is imperative for a society where the overwhelming majority of citizens walk as their primary means of mobility.
In collaboration with scientists and naturalists, native trees, shrubs and flowers as well as indigenous fish, amphibians, reptiles and small riverine mammals will be reintroduced where possible to enhance the biodiversity of Kathmandu Valley and provide space for the rivers to assume their more natural state. In addition to promoting biodiversity, the greenway will encompass the renovation of cultural and historic sites.
The nature corridor is conceived as both an ecological and cultural pilgrimage routes. Contemporary sculptures will be created to reinterpret the legends that describe the importance of the river and its wildlife. These will be placed at the confluence of tributaries, the traditional pilgrimage sites, and at key locations along the trail. Ritual ceremonies will take place to mark the dedication of each sculpture, further heightening the link between environmental awareness and Nepali tradition. Local priests and monks will be provided with information that will help them to interpret those parts of the religious scriptures that have environmental significance.
To initiate the greenway plan, we seek a collaboration in establishing ecological demonstration sites at key points along the river. In these areas, indigenous flora will be introduced and interpretative signage will be installed. This will provide a fertile ground for people to examine the current state of the river and inspire them to implement ideas for its regeneration.
The proposed greenway spaces will help to improve the quality of life of the residents and visitors of the Kathmandu Valley. Not only are they important for people and the ecosystem, they would help in an effort to attract international corporations, which are looking for cities where the quality of life is reflected in the health of the environment.
For economic development of the valley, emphasis should be placed on promoting service-oriented industries instead of manufacturing, which is responsible for many of the current environmental problems. Given its unique natural beauty and temperate climate, Kathmandu Valley could attract such investment. The recent loss of agricultural land in the city and its vicinity due to development pressures have deprived the people of a way of life that provided a close bond with nature. In order to prevent this valuable relationship from vanishing completely and maintaining the agrarian character of Kathmandu, we propose to create a demonstration organic urban gardens to promote the idea of the indigenous kitchen garden. We envision the creation of a land trust funded by the public, government, business and foundations.
We sent this proposal to government officials, donor agencies, and members of the scientific and artistic community. The response was encouraging and we spent four months in dialogue to acquaint people with the concepts of ecological art. We were invited by the Asian Development Bank to create an exhibition for World Environment Day, organized by the government of Nepal and the United Nations Development Program. The exhibition consisted of artworks that illustrated the ideas written here, see Installation page.