• Culture & Tradition
  • 02 May, 2024

Finding the Sacred Waters of Nepal

Finding the Sacred Waters of Nepal
The sun illuminates prayer flags over Gokyo Ri. Photo by Gorioushimalaya via Pixabay

A Water Blessing in a Monastery

Standing in the cool semi-darkness of Ramghat Gumba, I found myself gratefully sheltered from the noise and heat of urban Pokhara just outside. Behind me, the soft-spoken chanting of a red-robed monk lent a calming influence to the incense-infused atmosphere of the monastery, punctuated here and there with the gentle percussion of a ceremonial drum. Profoundly relaxed and utterly transfixed by the quiet beauty of my surroundings, I studied the remarkable artistry of a sand mandala protected under glass just before me.

Made of sand or crushed stone dyed in a dizzying array of vivid colors, these intricate mandalas depict the incredible beauty of the universe—as well as its ultimate impermanence, as such works of art are created only to be destroyed. Wondering at the delicate transience of its design, I raised my head to meet the imperious gaze of three figures central to Tibetan Buddhism: the Buddha, the Maitreya (or future) Buddha, and Padmasambhava, or Guru Rinpoche. Depicted in gilded statuary, representations of these important personages had become a familiar sight during my travels in Nepal.

Soon, a gentle tap on my shoulder interrupted my reflections. A young monk had approached me silently from behind, bearing a simple brass urn. With a wordless gesture, he indicated that I should proffer my hands to receive the contents of this unadorned vessel. I held out my cupped palms, and he gently tipped the spout of the urn, loosing a gentle trickle of water into them. Nodding at me, the monk encouraged me to sip the water: it was cool and fragrant, perfumed with oils and herbs. I thanked the quiet monk with real sincerity as I allowed the water to drip onto the crown of my head. Receiving such a benediction was more than an honor: this simple act of inclusion and recognition made me feel welcome in a place far from home.

My curiosity was sparked: what, exactly, was the significance of this blessing?

The Role of Water in Nepalese Traditions: Sacred Waters

As it turns out, holy water serves any number of purposes in Tibetan Buddhism: purification, ablution, and the cleansing of defilement and impurity. Water is also used to impart specific blessings for birthdays, weddings, and any occasions requiring good fortune to ensure future happiness.

But in the wilds of the high Himalayas, certain bodies of water are especially sacred. They may mark a place of legend, where a demon was subdued and converted to Buddhism, the location of a holy text hidden by Padmasambhava, who is widely credited with introducing the Buddhist faith across the length and breadth of these mountains, or even the place where dedicated monks performed minor miracles, transforming the color of the water and restoring its purity. All told, holy water is of no small significance to the Buddhist faithful, particularly in the high places of the Nepali Himalayas.

The fluidity of religion in Nepal means that you’ll discover sacred sites which are common to multiple faiths, and the holy waters of the Himalayas are no exception. While there is no body of water more sacred to Hinduism than the River Ganges, the high-altitude frozen lakes of the mountains are also renowned amongst Hindus for their curative properties and long-standing association with important deities like Shiva.

Even Pokhara’s own Phewa Lake is associated with the goddess Barahi, or Durga, and a temple dedicated to her can be found on a wooded island on the lake, under the watchful eyes of Machapuchare, Dhaulagiri, and the Annapurna mountains. And is it any wonder that these holy waters are sacred to multiple religions?

In a high-altitude region far from the sea, the pure water flowing down from the Himalayas has sustained life for untold generations. They’ve also attracted both pilgrims and curious travelers from across the world, eager to receive sacred blessings or simply to stand on the shores of these holy lakes. So where can some of these hallowed waters be found? You may be pleased to learn that you can actually visit some of the most sacred lakes in the world on Nepal’s best trekking routes.

Pilgrimage to the High-Altitude Lakes of Langtang National Park

Gosaikunda Lakes – Rasuwa District

Nepal’s most accessible series of high-altitude sacred waters can be found in the highlands of the Langtang National Park, in the country’s Rasuwa District. The Gosaikunda Lakes are situated at approximately 4,380 meters in elevation and drain ultimately to the Trishuli, one of the country’s principal rivers.

The lakes are frozen for six months each year, and you can reach them yourself by embarking on the Langtang Valley Trek or Helambu Trek. These popular and well-defined trekking routes typically take just one or two weeks to complete.

If you’re trekking during the full moon of August, you might find yourself sharing the trail with hundreds or even thousands of Hindu pilgrims. This is the time of Nepal’s annual Janai Purnima festival: a splendid occasion for devout Hindus, who take this opportunity to pay tribute to Shiva. All over the country, celebrants prepare lentil feasts, seek to purify themselves in the country’s holy waters, and visit temples dedicated to Shiva. Thanks to its storied history and close association with this principal figure of Hinduism, the Gosaikunda Lakes also represent an important pilgrimage site: thousands of Hindus and Buddhists are drawn to its lonely shores from across Nepal and neighbouring India each year.

Sacred Lakes of Nepal
A semi frozen lake in the Gosaikunda area and its surrounding mountains. Photo by Sergey Pesterev via Unsplash

Panch Pokhari – Sindhupalchowk District

But the Gosaikunda Lakes aren’t the only high-altitude glacial lakes that receive a tremendous influx of pilgrims at this time of year. In the nearby district of Sindhupalchowk, you’ll find the five lakes known collectively as the Panch Pokhari. These alpine reservoirs are also located within the confines of the Langtang National Park, and they sit at about 4,100 meters in elevation. The lakes attract pilgrims en masse during the Janai Purnima festival, but the devout are drawn to the Panch Pokhari’s Shiva temple throughout the entire year.

Panch Pokhari is a place of surpassing beauty: deep blue waters, rolling green hills, and the towering masses of the Jugal Himal mountains. And whether it’s festival season or not, getting there couldn’t be easier. The Panch Pokhari Trek begins in the village of Bhotang, just 40 kilometers from Nepal’s capital city of Kathmandu. This off-the-beaten-path Himalayan hike takes fewer than five days to complete, and you’re more likely to encounter local travelers than international tourists on the trail.

Of course, the Himalayas of Nepal are a huge place, and there are plenty of sacred waters to be found beyond the Langtang National Park. In fact, this region is just one part of what’s known as the Sacred Himalayan Landscape: a vast network of protected woodlands and mountains that encompasses parts of Nepal, India, and Bhutan.

The Gokyo Lakes of the Everest Region

The highlands of Nepal’s Khumbu region also fall within the boundaries of the Sacred Himalayan Landscape, and they’re home to rich coniferous forests, soaring alpine heights, the world-famous Sherpa people, and—of course—the mighty Mount Everest. But did you know that this region is also home to some of Nepal’s most sacrosanct high-altitude lakes? Fed by melted glacial snow and ice, the region’s six Gokyo Lakes are located at altitudes between 4,700 and 5,000 meters above sea level. Their sacred waters drain eventually to the Dudh Koshi river, and the lakes are revered by both Hindus and Buddhists.

Pilgrimage to the Gokyo Lakes

If you’d like to visit the Gokyo Lakes for yourself, you’ll need to trek into the heart of the Khumbu. This is likely to be a challenging adventure for all but the most seasoned hikers, as the Gokyo Lakes Trek involves climbing to high-altitude mountain passes where the rarefied air of the Himalayas becomes genuinely thin. But your efforts will be rewarded: there’s nothing quite like standing on the shores of these holy lakes, with the massive bulk of the Ngozumpa Glacier rising like a bulwark behind their turquoise waters, shimmering in the light of the sun. You’ll also be pleased to know that any reputable trekking agency in Nepal will have an itinerary that includes the Gokyo Lakes, and they can easily be combined with a visit to Everest Base Camp to make for the ultimate Himalayan overland expedition.

Sacred Lakes of Nepal
Gokyo Ri, located on the west side of the Ngozumpa Glacier, which is one of the largest Himalayan glaciers. Photo by Kalle Kortelainen via Unsplash.

Wherever your trek takes you, visiting the high-altitude lakes of Nepal is a spiritual experience at any time of year, and sharing that experience with pilgrims from all over the country is truly unforgettable. But it also comes with certain responsibilities. Studies have shown that—pilgrimages notwithstanding—these high-altitude holy lakes exist in some of Nepal’s least-populated regions. But they’re also some of the least studied, and it isn’t yet clear what effect thousands of international trekkers have on the lakes when they visit each year.

Scientific and Spiritual Significance of Sacred Himalayan Waters

Meeting these local travelers makes for one of the most authentic experiences one can have whilst trekking in the Himalayas—but when it comes to pilgrimages, there’s more than meets the eye. To learn what these committed devotees are hoping to find in the frozen lakes of the world’s highest mountains, I spoke with Dr. Santosh Pradhan, a Nepali physician specializing in emergency medicine. Pradhan has practiced in the Gosaikunda Lakes during the height of the Hindu pilgrimage at Janai Purnima, where he served as a volunteer with the Himalayan Rescue Association Nepal. His experiences have shed light on both the scientific and spiritual elements of visiting the holy waters of the Himalayas—and it turns out that the two are inextricably intertwined.

“Most Hindu pilgrimages have some sort of belief that sufferings are attached to the attainment of enlightenment,” says Pradhan. “The more suffering you have, the sooner you reach your spiritual goal.” That’s why devout Hindus and Buddhists are willing to risk dehydration, hypoglycemia, hypoxia, and exhaustion: conditions associated with rapid ascent to the high elevations where these holy lakes are found. There’s also some risk of contracting hypothermia, as many pilgrims choose to bathe within the cold waters of the Gosaikunda and Panch Pokhari lakes. Symptoms of these conditions may even contribute to the sense of accomplishment and enlightenment that some pilgrims achieve, as short-term exposure to high elevations can induce dopamine-driven sensations of euphoria.” But Pradhan is quick to acknowledge that the medical field may not have all the answers.

“The scientific world is always challenged by the spiritual world,” Pradhan notes, “and there are many instances where what the scientific world thought to be superstition was proven to have logic and evidence.” So it goes with the high-altitude lakes of the Langtang National Park, where the Hindu and Buddhist faithful have sought the blessings of unity, good fortune, and enlightenment since time immemorial. Should you choose to join them, there’s no telling what spiritual fulfillment you may discover for yourself in the splendid company of Nepal’s holy waters.

The Fragile Ecology of Nepal’s Sacred Waters

“Solid wastes left by the trekkers are the most visually striking impact,” says Anu Rai at Wetlands for Nepal: an organization dedicated to research, community education, and restoration of the country’s wetlands. “Even organic waste can have a big impact, because the low temperatures can cause the waste to break down more slowly.” And that may pose a risk to the flora and fauna that call these lakes home. Approximately 100 species of flowering plants have been recorded at the Gosaikunda Lakes, and 80 have been found in the vicinity of the Gokyo Lakes and nearby wetlands. The lakes are also an important habitat for many species of migratory and resident birds: coots, shelducks, grebes, pintails, and more. As visitors to these waters, it’s important to travel responsibly and to minimize our impact in these fragile mountain environments.

What’s more, climate change may also be affecting the ecology of these sacred high-altitude sites. “Many of these wetlands are glacier lakes,” says Rai, “so the impact of rising temperatures can be directly seen with the high volume of water.” As global temperatures increase, the sacred lakes of Nepal may be at greater risk for flooding, turbidity, and pollution. And as climatic conditions change, invasive species may become a greater threat to the lakes’ ecologies. To learn more about how climate change in the region, I spoke with Dr. Emily Eidam, an oceanographer who conducted research at the Gokyo Lakes as part of a multi-year project with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“We were interested to see large seasonal changes in the water level of Lake 4,” says Eidam. Such changes aren’t often observed in lakes like these, and her team concluded that the sacred waters of the Gokyo Lakes actually drain through the region’s porous soil, creating a sort of natural dam. The team installed thermometers and pressure sensors at the lakes, revisiting them over the course of several years to check their readings. What they found is suggestive: increased precipitation and rising water levels.

“We are curious if the seasonal change in lake level might be impacted in the future by climate-driven changes in snowmelt, precipitation, and the elevation of the adjacent glacier,” says Eidam.  But she cautions against drawing any definitive conclusions just yet: this is the sort of scientific study that will take years to produce authoritative results. It’s likely that studying the results of climate change in the Nepal Himalayas will be the work of many generations to come.

Visitors must be respectful of deities and the environment

Still, there are certain precautions that all visitors can take to ensure the integrity of these sacred waters. “The lakes are very significant to the local residents, not only because of the presence of a deity,” says Eidam. She conducted a research project in cooperation with park officials and community representatives in order to ensure that the study respected local values and traditions. This is a lesson we can all stand to learn. When you’re mounting your own expedition to the high-altitude lakes of Nepal, it’s important to be respectful of what the lakes represent to both locals and devout pilgrims. It’s also critical to reduce your impact on these fragile environments: carry out what you carry in, don’t leave waste behind, and stick to the trail in order to avoid trampling endemic botanical species.

And whether you’re standing at the banks of the Bagmati River or climbing to the alpine heights of the frozen Gokyo Lakes, the sacred waters of Nepal are waiting for you to discover their fascinating history and natural beauty. And thanks to the tireless efforts of organizations like Wetlands for Nepal and the cutting-edge research conducted by leading universities like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, there’s every reason to hope that they’ll be there to welcome generations to come.

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