The annual festival of cleaning of water sources and spouts in and around Kathmandu Valley won't be held this year too due to pandemic-induced prohibitory orders


Many public wells and traditional water reservoirs of the Valley will remain uncleaned this year too, on the day of Sithi Nakha, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Celebrated every year on Jestha Sukla Sasthi, which falls on June 16 this year, this is an important cultural festival of the Newars when locals come together and clean the water sources in their localities, especially public wells. But this will be the second year in a row that the festival won't be observed in most places of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and Lalitpur because of the pandemic-induced prohibitory orders.

The Siddhi Temple and wells of Jaisi Deval area in Kathmandu used to be cleaned on the day of Sithi Nakha. They were not cleaned last year due to the pandemic, and this year too there are no plans to clean these water bodies, informed Udaya Chudamani Bajracharya, Chairman of Ward-21 of Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC).

"A few years ago, the KMC allocated some budget to clean the wells on the occasion of World Environment Day as well as on Sithi Nakha. But since the last year there are no such plans and programmes due to the COVID-19 pandemic," he informed.

Otherwise, the local community used to do the cleaning with the support from the Ward on the day of Sithi Nakha.

Bikash Dangol, Chairman of Ward-12 of KMC, also informed that the community won't be able to carry out the cleaning programme of local wells as gatherings are banned currently.

"This festival of social cleanliness is possible only with group effort," he shared.

For the celebration of Sithi Nakha, people from the community gather to make a ladder for the person who cleans to go down into the well and clean around the water sources; all this ends with a feast - carrying out such activities is not possible due to the restrictions, as per him.

The case of Lalitpur Metropolitan City (LMC) is no different.

As per LMC Spokesperson Raju Maharjan, the wells of LMC were not cleaned last year, and they won't be cleaned this year too. However, they tried to keep the festive spirit alive by allocating some budget and arranging for some people to clean the temples, stone taps and wells of some areas last Sithi Nakha. They plan to do the same this year as Maharjan said, "It will not possible to clean wells of every municipality during the pandemic."

Cleaning continues

The case of a public well at the Dattatrya Square of Bhaktapur, that used to be cleaned three times a year, however, is a bit different.

Krishna Bhai Jyakhwa, who has been cleaning the well for the past 15 years, will clean it this Sithi Nakha too. He used to clean it every four months but since last year he stopped doing so due to the COV- ID-19 pandemic - it requires many people to come together and help him which is not possible due to the prohibitory orders.

Jyakhwa said he will miss the group activities where the community would come together to make the bamboo ladder for him to go down the well to carry out the cleaning.

This year the cleaning will be carried out following health protocols with only a couple of people helping him.

Cultural and practical significance

Culture expert Om Dhaubhadel said the water sources, especially the wells of residential areas, used to be the major sources to get water for daily use in the past in the Newar community. Of the significance of cleaning, he said, "As the wells that used to be the sources of drinking water, were left open and there were chances for things like stones, pebbles, mud, bricks et cetera falling into it.

So, they used to be cleaned once a year - all the water from the well along with the dirt and waste inside it would be taken out on the day of Sithi Nakha, and the tradition continues even today."

The cleaned wells are left unused for four days from the day of Sithi Nakha - on the fifth day the senior-most person of the tole (neighbourhood) worships the well. During this time the well is recharged with groundwater naturally, Dhaubhadel informed.

He added that people used to clean the wells only on the day of Sithi Nakha as they used to get busy planting paddy after this day. The other reason for cleaning the wells on this day was to refill them with the monsoon rainwater that would follow.

However, today the water from these public wells of Bhaktapur is not used for daily use like in the past as individual houses have piped water supply, as per Jyakhwa, also the treasurer of Dattatraya Temple Conservation Organisation.

Similar is the case at LMC. Maharjan feels it is okay to clean the wells once a year, on the day of Sithi Nakha, as people do not use water from public wells these days. "As the wells are not used, they do not get polluted soon. So, they can be cleaned just once a year," he said.

But as they are not being cleaned even once a year due to the pandemic, their water might not be usable when needed.

"Usually, the public wells are overlooked as they are not used on a regular basis. Their importance however, is realised by the locals only during the shortage of water, mostly in the dry season.

As a result, the locals in Bhaktapur have been raising their voice demanding their preservation throughout the year," said Jyakhwa.

That was the reason Dattatraya Temple Conservation Organisation had been cleaning the water on a regular basis once every four months, which has been halted due to the pandemic.

A version of this article appears in the print on June 16, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.