Holy men, faces framed by dreadlocked beards, naked bodies smeared in ash, are lashed by the winter winds. White bearded swamis and their shaven-head disciples walk beside common traders and laborers.
They are a multicolored sea: garments of fuchsia, brilliant yellow, scarlet, and emerald splash the horizon, stretching beyond the limits of my eyes. Wave after wave, they roll across this land in a temporary suspension of caste or creed. India has become one heart with one cry, “Ganga!”
Among these pilgrims, I trod, blistered feet covered in cakes of blood and grime. A merchant’s cart rumbles behind me, and I stumble from its path. The oxen, grunting under their yokes, brush my shoulder. Their pungent odor lingers with the scent of human waste and unwashed bodies.
The predawn sky begins to bloom, hiding the stars under shades of rose. A cheer echoes from the hillcrest as the worshippers catch their first glimpse of her. With desperation, the masses surge forward. Unable to stand against the press, a small boy falls into the dirt path of three lumbering elephants. A scream escapes the child’s mother as she lunges toward him and drags him to safety.
Up the hill I run as if with wings, soaring to lofty heights, where gods and demons spill their immortal nectar into our holy river. I gasp for breath as I watch the morning sun smile down on her, illuminating the golden nectar coursing through her veins.
The drums rumble to life; their throbbing pulse keeps time with our footsteps as the Hindu monks and mystics take up their lead to the river. The sweet soprano of a young girl leads us in the mantra chant. Oboes and flutes complete this euphony of praise.
The banks of the Ganga are a carnival of festivities. The aroma of spices from chaat stands tempts hungry travelers. Graceful girls sway to the rhythm of the odissi dance as boys wrestle on the sands. Jugglers twirl flaming batons while palm readers promise good fortunes for a few rupees.
A vendor rattles his gaudy trinkets before my face; I am uninterested. Karma has left me untouchable to both god and man. My only desire is to dip into this holy river and be cleansed from the curse of my sinful lives.
Stepping into the icy waters, I lower the bundle from atop my head and spill my offering of pink orchid petals into the silver-gray, swirling water. I cup my hands into the river and fling the water heavenward. It returns in glistening droplets, an unaccepted offering that mingles with the tears flowing down my cheeks.
A police whistle signals that my chance at salvation has expired. I wade to shore and drag my heavy heart up the muddy banks. I stand in agony, shivering in the stark cold of hopelessness.
A stranger drapes a blanket across my shoulders. I stare in wonder at this high-caste Brahmin woman who dares to touch me. She smiles, her face radiating a serenity unseen in Hindu monks or priests.
“The river couldn’t save me either,” she says. “My name is Jeevitha and that is my husband, Suresh.” She gestures toward a young man sitting near the campfire. “Please, come warm yourself.”
I follow her into camp and stretch my numb fingers toward the flickering flames. Suresh motions for me to sit and opens a small, black book. Its words embrace my soul as the love story unfolds. Suresh reads of a loving God becoming flesh and paying for the sin of man with His own blood. I weep as His presence surrounds us, confirming every word.
“I believe! I believe that Jesus paid for my sin. How can I be forgiven?”
Suresh finds the answer in the holy pages, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Jeevitha holds my hand as we journey back into the river. Her husband stands beside me, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.”
The burdens of my sinful heart are forever buried in the mire of Ganga. I am raised a new woman – clean, pure, forgiven. Splashing in the water, I giggle like a child – God’s child.
And in the whisper of the Indian wind, I hear my Father’s voice, “This is my beloved daughter in whom I am well pleased.”
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