Water and Culture

Water and culture is the theme of the World Water Day 22 March 2006. Please add any planned World Water Day events to the site maintained by IRC. WWD 2006 is part of the Water for Life Decade 2005-2015 set by the UN to boost the chances of achieving international water-related goals and the United Nations Millennium Declaration.

The WWD international celebration on 22 March this year will be in Mexico, linked with the Fourth World Water Forum.

Facts and figures about water religions and beliefs

The UNESCO Water Portal newsletter has published some facts and figures about water religions and beliefs: Water plays a central role in many religions and beliefs around the world. It is a source of life that represents (re) birth. Water cleans the body, and by extension purifies it, and these so has a highly symbolic even sacred - status. Water is a key element in ceremonies and religious rites.

Water is often perceived as a god, goddess or divine agency. Rivers, rain, ponds, lakes, glaciers, hailstorms or snow are often interpreted in this way in cultural and religious spheres.

Water is never seen as neutral and passive. It is considered to have powers and capacities to transform this world, annihilate sins and create holiness. Water carries away pollution and purifies physically and symbolically. Water is a living and spiritual matter, working as a mediator between humans and gods. It often represents the border between this world and the other.

Buddhism: In Buddhist funerals water is poured into a bowl placed before the monks and the dead body. As it fills and pours over the edge, the monks recite As the rains fill the rivers and overflow into the ocean, so likewise may what is given here reach the departed.

Christianity: Water is linked to baptism, a public declaration of faith and a sign of welcome into the Christian church. A person being baptised is fully or partially immersed in water, or has a few drops of water sprinkled on the head. The sacrament has its roots in the Gospel, where Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. Water symbolizes purification, the rejection of original sin. In the New Testament, 'living water' or 'water of life' represents the spirit of God, that is, eternal life.

Hinduism: Water is imbued with powers of spiritual purification. Morning cleansing with water is an everyday obligation for Hindus. All temples are located near a water source, and followers must bathe before entering. Many pilgrimage sites are found on river banks, and sites where rivers converge are considered particularly sacred.

Islam: For Muslims, water serves above and beyond all for purification. There are three sorts of ablutions:

  • The first and most important involves washing the whole body; it is obligatory after sex, and recommended before Friday prayers and before touching the Koran.
  • Before each of the five daily prayers, Muslims bathe their heads and wash their hands, forearms and feet. All mosques provide a water source, usually a fountain, for this ablution.
  • When water is scarce, followers of Islam use sand to cleanse themselves.

    Judaism: Jews use water for ritual cleansing to restore or maintain a state of purity. Hand-washing before and after meals is obligatory. Although ritual baths, or mikveh, were once extremely important in Jewish communities, they are less so now; they remain, however, compulsory for converts. Men attend mikveh on Fridays and before large celebrations, women before their wedding, after giving birth and after menstruation.

    Shinto: Shinto is based on veneration of the kami, innumerable deities believed to inhabit nature. Worship of the kami must always begin by a ritual of purification with water. This act restores order and balance between nature, humans and the deities. Waterfalls are considered sacred.

    Look out for the latest information on the site

    Contact: WWD secretariat UNESCO e-mail:

    Woman praying at Pushkar Lake, India Photo Thomas Cluzel

    Water lilies, Great Mosque, China


    holy water, christianity

    Hindu bathing

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