“Jerrod, let’s walk through the marketplace and then head out to the river today. I feel God’s prompting us to take a prayer walk to seek His will in this place.”
“Sure, I’m game. Let’s get started.” Brian’s enthusiasm was contagious. Despite the fact that this was only our second day in the country, I was anxious to begin my first missions’ experience.
As we headed through the city center of Varanasi my mind literally whirled with the activity of thousands of people on scooters, bicycles, in cycle rickshaws and on foot. Crumbling stone created dusty walkways. Painted advertisements brightened the stark structures in places, while in many areas peeling paint obscured the original messages. The sights were quite a contradiction in eras—electric wiring strung across alleyways, western dress mixed with saris and bare feet. Oxen pulled wagons weighed down with bags of grain shouldered up against motorcycles.
“Keep your eyes open, Jerrod. You could just as easily get run over by a cow on the street as you could by a car.” Brian’s thin lips turned up in a playful smile.
“Yeah, I see that,” I shouted back as I sidestepped to avoid a silvery grey, floppy-eared bovine. “No sidewalks here.”
Saying a little prayer of thankfulness for Brian and his experience in India, I followed his back into a narrow lane. The marketplace was a labyrinth of tiny alleyways bursting with boisterous hawkers. We navigated countless twists and turns. The two of us could barely walk side by side in the congested marketplace, yet hundreds of people crowded the shops bargaining for pots and pans, herbs, vegetables, religious articles, and all manner of trinkets. Rainbow-colored silks laced with gold thread flapped from the tops of vendors’ stalls creating a spectacular canopy. The sound of sitars played upon the breeze. And, at various intervals, the drone of chanting and bells and smell of incense overwhelmed us as we passed by countless Hindu temples.
Brian looked back over his shoulder. “We’re almost there.”
We pushed our way through the crowds and I caught a glimpse of the river. Men, women, and children were everywhere—some bathing in the murky water, others bent over, brushing their teeth near the river’s edge. Children played and laughed on the stairs while others prayed.
Brian stopped, allowing me to take in the scene. He looked at me, his eyes filled with sadness. “This is the heart of India . . . the Ganges is regarded as a deity. Hindus bathe in the water, believing it will cleanse them from their sins. They even cremate their dead here and scatter the ashes in the river, hoping for redemption.”
Jumbles of stone buildings were thrust upon the shores of the river anchored by ramps of stone stairways leading right into the waters. One large pink-painted tower hugged the water next to us with its catwalk balcony suspended high above the water. I noticed tiny shrines set up with pictures of deities, bulbous silver vases filled with bright orange flowers, incense, and flower chain necklaces.
Despite the painted landscape, my heart also ached for these lost people worshipping a river that could never save them. The darkness of this place disturbed me, engulfing me like the waves of the Ganges. “Brian, can we pray here on the stairs and then move on up the river?”
“Sure.” Bowing his head, Brian led us in prayer for the people of India. After some time, we felt God’s Spirit calling us to resume our walk.
Winding our way up and down stairs and around Hindu pilgrims, we walked and prayed together. A few times, in looking up to check our whereabouts, I noticed thin tails of smoke curling out across the river.
A sickening sweet aroma began to make me heady. It filled my mouth, reaching like bony fingers into the back of my throat. Instinctively, my hand rose up to my mouth and I coughed. “What’s that smell?”
Suddenly, it felt as if we’d hit a wall—head-on. An uncomfortable darkness settled upon us. A small man, stripped to the waist, held his hands up, blocking our path. The whites of his eyes glowed yellow from the smoke; his fingernails tinged with grime. He chattered angrily in Hindi, waving us away. Our prayers were cut short, our intercession ceased at the cremation ghat. The river of death had won—at least for now.
Loosely based on a true story.
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