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The Kathmandu reaches of the Bagmati River are widely characterised as severely degraded. This article explores the rhetorical life and death of the concept of a 'Bagmati civilisation': a particular configuration of history, cultural identity and river ecology espoused by a prominent Nepali river restorationist. Following the 2001 imposition of a state of emergency in Nepal, the architect of the Bagmati civilisation idea declared that the civilisation, and by extension the river's ecological health, may never be restored. This rhetorical gesture illuminates connections between the 'life' of an urban riverscape and the cultural idea of the state and the nation.