Water Ceremonies, India: Rishikesh & Hardwar (part I) a poem by Janet Grace Riehl

I. India


Strolling on the banks of the Ganges
Sacred gravel crunches underfoot.
A sadhu* stretches boldly over high drop-off
to collect holy water in just-cleaned leather pouch.

I finger the rushing stream just delivered from melting mountains.
Then, pull out my finger, fast.
Frozen hot pink, finger drips a blessing to forehead, throat, and heart.
“Deliver me from myself,” my heart prays through my throat.
Bottom gravel magnified through sheer current states the choice.
I choose current.
“Carry me along. Take me with you from source to sea.”

A smooth-skinned sadhu smiles my way.
Invites me in for tea and sweets.
With lowered head and flattened back
I crawl through the arched opening.
Bent wood supporting white canvas
specked with weather.
Our knees encircle the fire.

He boils condensed milk for Indian sweetmeats.
Chats in perfect English while I try not to stare
at his bare chest or below. Let me not imagine
treasures inside dhoti wrapped around each thigh.
Tucked in an elegant front drape.

My heart burns hot pink. Parches my throat.
He presents tea made with holy water,
milk clouds, and wilderness honey.
My third eye closes in languid sleep.
I long for glory.
How much holy water can a young woman stand before folding?
Before opening her folds to his folded hands?

(Note: A “sadhu” is a *wandering holy man who has forsaken material life to search for God.”)

From this night at Hardwar on the Ganges, seeing the lit candles on their leaf boats, years later, would emerge my public art performance “Water Ceremonies” in Lake County, California, funded by my grant as Bioregional Artist in Residence through University of California at Davis. (Photo by Crystal Austin)


River widens here
so souls can breathe.
Bathe. Wade right in. Saturate yourself.
No ordinary salvation, this.
Hindu baptism dedicated to deities
with more than one hundred sets of hands.

They’ll need them! So much work to be done.
My sari floats with my sisters’ in the women’s stream.
You’d think cloth would grow sodden and sink.
But, no, that comes afterwards, on land.

Out here wedding trains trail behind us, around us,
in front of our soft bodies.
Water heated to steam and froth by milling ladies.
Bride of Christ is beyond me,
but I cannot resist the elephant-headed god.

Lit candles launched in leaf boats
carry prayers past funeral pyres.
Prayers doused not by waters of life,
But clogged by excess.
Hot wax dribbles into well dug by flame.
Singed leaves curl at edges.
But the spines hold.

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