Kathmandu Valley Legend (Satis Shroff)
“I have a strong interest in the legend of Manjushri,” said Fumio Yonechi, a geo-morphologist from Yamagata city, when I met him in Kathmandu a long time ago. We were talking about the origin of Kathmandu Valley, which is located in the lap of the Himalayas.
“I have heard similar popular legends in Kashmir, Tibet and in Khotang,” he said.
Basically it is always the same, that is, a holy person cuts a path across the grilling mountains and draws out the water, resulting in the appearance of a new and fertile land from the bed of the lake. And Kathmandu Valley is not only the heartland of Nepal but also the most developed area in the Himalayas, due primarily to its physical setting. The Kathmandu Valley is a basin, and has a mild climate and fertile land. It is an amphitheatre in shape about 24km across, around the headwaters of the Bagmati River. Most of the rivers of Nepal have their origin in the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau, and they cut deep gorges through the Midland Region. But the Bagmati is an exception, rising in the Midland itself and having higher valley flow.
“I’m studying similar basins in Japan and Nepal, that is, low lying areas surrounded by mountains,” said Fumio Yonechi. “My hometown Yamagata Valley is a basin much like your Kathmandu Valley. And I find that once upon a time, the north-eastern lakes of Japan were drained of their water and became small fertile plains. These lakes are known to have existed 50,000 to 10,000 years ago during the latter part of the Pleistocene often referred to as the Wulm Ice Age,” he said.
“In Japan we have the same kind of legend centred around a Buddhist who is known to have cut a mountain and drained out the water, leaving a rich land behind. Personally, I feel that our ancestors in Japan could have made that legend as they had not seen real lakes at all, because the Pleistocene lakes were too old, for in those days there were only marshes in Japan. So it is probable that our Japanese ancestors made legends out of these existing marshes “he said.
“When I first came to Nepal I heard about the legend behind the Chovar Gorge and I developed a great interest and wanted to find out the facts behind the legend.” According to the Nepalese legend, once the place where Kathmandu Valley now stands there was a vast lake called Nagahrad, which was then drained by Manjushri, a Buddhist missionary ,and then the bottom of the lake dried up. However, deposits of the former lake were identified as Pleistocene through paleontological evidence. To confirm the Pleistocene age of given to Kathmandu Valley’s fertile soil, Fumio Yonechi sampled peaty clay from lacustrine deposits at the road cutting near Khajal hamlet, located in the vicinity of Budanilkantha, which was found to be 33,200 years old. The age was determined by using radiocarbon measurement carried out by K. Kigoshi of Gakushin University, Tokyo. It is a well known fact that most sediments in the Kathmandu basin are lacustrine, and peat layers are exposed at many places.
“I surveyed Kathmandu Valley and found many peat layers,” said Mr.Yonechi.
“From the peat sample, we found many pollens of tall grasses that are normally specific to Steppe types of grassland. From that bit of information we deduced that Kathmandu Valley then was not a stable lake, but that it changed seasonally from lake to dry grassland. At that time, the climate of Kathmandu Valley was far more clearer than now: dry and rainy. Since all this took in the last Ice Age, the temperature must have been very low as compared to nowadays.”
In 1966 two Nepalese geologists discovered the jaw of a fossilised elephant: Stegodon ganesha. In order to qualify as a fossil, the remains of a dead animal or plant have to be at least 10,000 years old. Perhaps in the hoary past there were elephants in Kathmandu Valley itself, even though they are confined to the lowland (Terai) area of Chitwan today. Perhaps they roamed and fed in the grasslands of Kathmandu Valley during the dry season and went in the rainy season to other areas because the Valley would then have been flooded with water. Mr.Yonechi went on to say, “In Japan too, fossil records indicate that in the Ice Age there were elephants in existence, but now there are no elephants in our country. Archeologists have made several important excavations of prehistoric sites, and it is my dream that in future we may be able to get more information on the pre-history of Kathmandu Valley and Japan.”
The drainage pattern of the Kathmandu Valley is the most typical instance of centripetal system, according to the geologist Arthur Holmes. The Bagmati River has many tributaries from every direction: Vishnumati from the north, Manohara and Upper Bagmati from the south-east, small tributaries from the east, Godaravi from the north-east, small tributaries from the west and Nakhu from the south. Nakhu is the only river in the entire Kingdom that flows from south to north. And the Bagmati River leaves Kathmandu Valley through the 500 meter long Chovar Gorge.
The Chovar Hill is composed of limestone and there’s a cement factory also located there.
Mr.Yonechi said, “The Chovar Hill resisted the erosion by the river and dammed up the water of a big lake once upon a time on the northern side of the hill. And gradually over a span of time, the groundwater must have made a kind of karst tunnel under the Chovar Hill. A part of the water was drained through this tunnel. By and by, the roof of the cave fell and formed the gorge.
Nepal was not Nepal then. We only know about the pre-historical periode which was 200 BC, the Licchavi dynasty from 200 till 750 BC, the Thakuri dynasty from 750BC, the early Malla dynasty from 1200 till 1482, the later Mallas from 1482 till 1768 and the recent Shah dynasty since 1768 till 2007. The human history of modern Nepal began towards the end of the 18th century with the Gorkha conquests, even though the fertile, culturally rich Kathmandu Valley was the object of conquests at all times in its past and they had a tough time thwarting the marauding people from the craggy mountains. Even after the establishment of the monarchy and later democracy, the old saying that ‘Kathmandu is Nepal’ still holds, for the country is still centralised. Will the future governments bring more decentralisation to the people of this land-locked country? It would be only in the interest of the Nepalese people to do so.
Time will tell us.