In Nepal, the waters live. Lakes, streams, rivers and glaciers have a spirit all their own. Nag, the Nepali name for the gods of the water, or lhu, the Sherpa term, inhabit all water bodies. These spiritual and religious beliefs seep into the day-to-day actions and perspectives of communities.
At all water sources, communities pay homage to the spirits of the water with white flags, shrines, and prayer flags. If the nag is happy, then the community will be blessed with good fortune. But if the nag is unhappy or disrespected, then it can inflict illness or other harm. A community can stay in the good graces of the nag by respecting the water bodies through puja (offering rituals) and by not polluting the water source.
In recent years, these beliefs have been put to the test. Human waste, mainly sewage, from trekking expeditions should be removed from the mountains. Where can it go? Many lodge owners have compromised on the spiritual rules of the water and put the waste back in the rivers and streams, polluting water sources across the Khumbu region. With the pressures of tourism, cultural norms have shifted. A sustainable solution to waste in the high-mountains is needed to solve both the problem of pollution and to ease the spiritual tension.
Our expedition incorporated the spiritual aspects of water into our work at Imja Lake. Before we started our trek to Imja Lake, we held a community meeting with the Khumbu Alpine Conservation Committee. Within the first few minutes, the spiritual aspects of water came to the forefront the conversation. Community members recommended that we bring a lama, the key religious figure in the Khumbu, to bless the expedition site at Imja Lake — and of course we did. By paying homage to the water spirits through religious ritual, we appeased the nag at Imja Lake and ensured the safety of our expedition team.
Looking to the future of this project, the communities’ spiritual beliefs will be incorporated into any solution or action that our team develops. By honoring the spiritual aspects of water in Nepal, we honor the culture of the local communities. As a result, The Mountain Institute will gain the support of local communities and the respect the powerful nag of Imja Lake.
- Kate Voss