Myths and legends about the birth of Kathmandu Valley speak of the deity Manjushri cutting the hill at Chobhar into half with a mighty sword, letting out the water of a primordial lake (Taudaha Lake) and opening the fertile valley for habitation. The scar of Manjushri’s sword can still be seen at Chobhar. This is where legend meets science: the hill is actually made of limestone and the lake was drained when water seeped through the soft rock and created a gaping cleft.
Either way, Chobhar has always been regarded as a holy spot, just like Pashupatinath and Gokarna where there are similar gorges. The elegant Jalbinayak Ganesh shrine is located at the base of the gorge and the devout used to throng here by the thousands.
About 8km south of the Ring Road, Chobhar gorge today shows signs of the malignant intent of modern planners. Thirty years ago, they decided to locate a cement plant near the holy site. The factory-owners were drawn here by the same limestone ore that allowed geology to carve the gorge. Thankfully, the factory was closed down two years ago. The picturesque Chobhar village on top of the adjoining hill could be one of the most desirable residential areas in Kathmandu Valley, but the stench of the river now makes it unbearable in the dry season.
Chobhar was always a favorite picnic spot and fishing area for Valley residents, but today, it gets few visitors. On Saturdays the occasional student driver practices on the hairpin bends. Otherwise, there isn’t much happening. The holy Bagmati itself is now an unholy mess. The water is black, with detergent foam building up on the eddies between boulders, and the smell drives away all but the most zealous pilgrims.
“There was a time when we could see the coins in the water; it used to be so clean even used to drink from the river. Chobhar still figures significantly in all tourist guides. Websites for Nepal travellers still advise tourists not to miss it, especially since it makes a good day trip from Kathmandu. But many will be disappointed. Things will be even worse when a proposed bridge across the Bagmati to Bhaisepati is built because it is sure to harm the spiritual and aesthetic values of Chobhar.
At the moment, there is a pedestrian suspension bridge built by Scottish technicians in 1903 across the river, which provides a rare glimpse of the gorge. At one end of the bridge, two roadside vendors wait for passers-by to buy their food. Local villagers say the gorge “has become a place for the dead”, as crowds only appear when a cremation takes place.
There are two cremation stands, one on each side of the river. After the death rituals, these sites are often left dirty, and the trash flows into the river during the rains and adds to the already polluted waters. But there is still hope for Chobhar. Kathmandu residents come here, and some give exploring Chobar’s many limestone caves a shot.
However, some amateur speleologists get lost and locals make good money rescuing tourists trapped inside the caves. A rescue can cost up to Rs 4,000. Young local boys are on standby near the entrance to the caves hoping someone gets stuck inside. “Anybody could get lost, but we are here for them,” one boy tells us. Beyond Chobhar on the Pharping road is Taudaha, the lake where the holy serpents of the Valley are said to have retreated after Manjushri let the waters out.
The cement factory left a gaping hole where it gouged out limestone ore, and this has turned into a pretty little lake. Local children show off their diving skills, jumping 25m down from the surrounding cliffs. There are some Olympic diving champions in the making here. The scenic and spiritual aura of Chobhar still inspires awe and wonder.
If the government and tourist entrepreneurs get their act together, there is still time to turn Chobhar into a park, preserving the area’s historical value and giving Kathmandu another lung. But with the government’s poor track record of actually implementing such ideas, chances are slim that we will rescue this relic of the Bagmati River Civilization from ruin.