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Thursday, 28 February 2013

Body of the Ganges, Varanasi - Page 4

Written by Adrienne Rose Block
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On our last day in Varanasi, we returned to our room at the Hanuman temple after dinner. Rain had fallen throughout the day but ended by twilight, leaving the air cooler and the humidity somewhat dissipated. Steve and I stood on the terrace looking out across the Ganges. In the last light of the fading day, I could see a strip of land out near the horizon. The land cut through what would otherwise have been a continuous view of calm sapphire waters mirroring the sky. One solitary touring boat remained, and I could make out three figures inside of it. Two were seated in the back while one stood at the front and worked his oar. The boat moved smoothly, parallel to the shore, and headed up the river toward the lights in the distance.

“I think we should go in,” I said to Steve.

“You do?” he said, a smile in his eyes. 

Over the course of ten days, the river had come to seem less menacing. People washed their clothes in it, bathed in it, drank it, worshipped it, trusted it to take away their sins. Pilgrims of limited means journeyed thousands of miles to immerse themselves in its waters, to open their mouths and allow it to mix with their bodies. Every day I watched rains from the sky pour into it and refresh it. I didn’t understand quite when or why something had changed in my mind, but in that moment I had no doubt that the river was holy, that the city was holy. All the millions of people that had bathed their living bodies in it, entrusted their corpses and ashes to its currents—that made the river holy. The act of mixing my own molecules with those of other people, living and dead, past and present—that was a holy act. Perhaps I would never have another chance like this; perhaps I would never return. Maybe the residue and grime of millions of people, their bones and tears and flesh and ashes, would somehow make me clean. 

We walked down to the river by way of the Hanuman Ghat, next to the temple where we stayed. It was after 9:00 p.m. and the ghat was nearly deserted, but the emptiness felt safe and comforting. I knew we’d be able to go into the water unobserved, avoiding the curious stares and comments that a foreign man and woman bathing in the Ganges might attract during the day. The fires of the burning ghats flickered in the distance and a stray dog lingered along the staircase, skinny and tense from hunger. 

I took off my sandals and left them on the concrete. Women keep their clothes on during ritual bathing. Steve undressed to his underwear, as is common for men. He stepped into the river as I watched tentatively from the pier. 

“How is it?” I asked. “Is it warm?”

“Just come in,” he said. “It’s nice, you’ll see.”

I approached the water slowly, at my own pace. My feet found the bottom of the first stone stair underneath the water’s surface. The river felt warm and thick and soft. From the shore it had been impossible to see any current at all, but as I continued down the steps I began to feel its strength. I reached for Steve’s hands and he put his arms around me. I went down one more step, up to my knees. Down another, and my thighs were covered. Down I went until the river soaked my t-shirt, lapped at my collarbone and neck. My clothes filled with water and floated as the Ganges wrapped itself around my limbs and waist. My footing faltered on the steps as the current tugged at my body and I held tighter to Steve. 

“The current’s stronger that I thought.”

“Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ve got you.” 

I looked out into the mighty Ganges, my eyes almost level to the river’s surface. A light drizzle began to fall, and concentric circles rippled out into the water from where we stood. Infinite other circles overlapped and collided around us, some as fine and delicate as hair. Underneath flowed the zigzag shimmer of the current, fragmenting ripples into fingerprint whorls. All I could hear was the soft rushing of water. Both of us stood deep inside the river, Steve still holding one arm around me. 

“You can let go now,” I said.

 

©Adrienne Rose Block

(Page 4 of 4)
Last modified on Friday, 01 March 2013

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