I spotted a beautiful prayer about the Ganges and was inspired to write a little sketch about Varanasi, one of the seven sacred cities.
It’s not really a story, per se, but I’m struggling with writer’s block again at the moment, so it’s something!
Born of a glacier
Mother of India
White crowned Goddess
Who flows to the Bay of Bengal
The tourists sit passively, twelve or more to the boats that paddle up and down the silken back of Ganga Maiya, our Mother Ganges, as she winds through Varanasi. White and fat like birds, they pick their way through the city, crowing loudly to each other and picking at things that appeal to their tastes. They throw money at our richest hotels and feed sticky balls of dough to the fish in the river, but they never stay for long.
The city’s buildings crowd the river like children, splendid in their faded colours as they scrabble to be the closest to the edges of their mother’s skirts. Their sullied faces, stroked with saffron at sunrise and cast with blazing fire at sun-down, look down on the river as she flows. Black and empty windows, winking with rough curtains that stir only slightly in the rising heat, peer down through sepia air.
A true mother, Ganga Maiya embraces us from birth until death, washing our skin and clothes, accepting our clumsy gifts of flowers and incense, and taking the husk of our body if we are blessed enough to die near her feet. The lucky are burned, freed from their shells at the ghats and their ashes scattered on her silken face. Those too poor to burn for long are slipped gently whole beneath the river’s inky surface when the moon is high and the smoke from the day’s funerals still rises to cloud its face.
We women are supposed to stay away from ghats, where men pile wood and bodies high on the shore, and fling ashes and garlands of marigolds out into the river. But, the way I always saw it, what a girl is supposed to do and what a girl does may well be very different things.
My whole life, pictures of Mother Ganges have been a part of my landscape. A beautiful woman, with flowing black hair against a skin of palest gold, she smiles sweetly as she holds her water jug and lily-flower. She rides out over the river on her beloved white crocodile, travelling instantly from the mountain glaciers to the Sapta Puri – our seven sacred cities.
Imagine then, this awesome Goddess, this daughter of Earth and sky, concerning herself with what is supposed to be. While I would never dare to compare myself to her, and would only throw myself on her shores in the hope of salvation, I cannot imagine that she would frown upon my mischief. I sit high in the boughs of the bunyan trees set back from the river, hiding from my duties and watching the sun – then the moon and the flames – pouring out across her waters, and I dare to hope for redemption.
I know that soon, a day will come when I will leave Varanasi. Cluttered and dirty roads will be my way from the city, and my back will turn against my mother as she lies there, proud and glorious in the low evening sun.
But I have hope that our bond will not be broken. That Ganga Maiya will look kindly on me if I return to her one day, bowed and frail with age in a way she will never be, and throw myself at her merciful feet.
As a night wind blows in across the water, lifting the tang of the river up over the city and shaking the leaves of the bunyan tree so that they flash in the setting sun, a prayer I once heard comes to me.
Will a day come to me, Beloved Mother,
To sit on Thy bank,
To shed tears on Thy lap,
And merge in Thee for ever?
I am thine, O Mother, Thou art mine,
The duality has vanished now,
The bridge that separates us has broken now,
Let me dwell in Thee, Mother,
For ever and ever.