The Holy Waters of the Ganges

by Krista Buecler

It is the golden necklace that wakes me. It feels like it is constricting, choking me. I lift a mehndi-covered hand and tug it from my neck, pulling out the three knots he tied there two nights ago. I sit up and look at the two gold pendants—one for me and one for him—and the cord coiled in my hand. His name is there, hidden in the intricate designs on my palm. I wonder why I didn’t see it before, but there it is staring out at me like his wide, dark eyes, surprised and afraid.

I put my bare feet—they, too, are covered in henna designs and a toe ring glitters on the second toe of each foot—on the cool tile floor and get out of bed. I am still wearing my dirty wedding saree. It is stained with yellow turmeric and the red powder of haldi kumkum and something a darker, crustier brown that might be henna, or it might not.

The sun has not yet risen but the thrushes and koels are singing boisterously outside. The day is promising to be hot as I go out on the veranda and draw a closed lotus in rangoli to honor the auspicious day. It is the festival of Diwali, so I am not the only one awake so early. Back inside, I massage fragrant oil into my skin before walking in the new sunlight down to the river. I can smell aromatic smoke, at once earthy and botanical, woody and sweet. The holy waters of the Ganges are already filled with bathers purifying themselves, washing away the sins and hardships of the year.

I walk into the water, near my neighbors in their sodden sarees. The older woman who lives next door greets me with palms pressed together and I do the same and bow. She cups water into her hands and delivers it over my head and shoulders. I say a prayer to Durga, alleviator of suffering, thanking her. The woman rubs utane paste over my skin and I pray to Kali, destroyer of evil. The strength of Kali has helped me to face my worst fear, and now I am free, my fear conquered.

More women arrive, and I help to wash them in the holy water. Finally, I climb from the river, water streaming off my body in rivulets, cleansed. I help the other women from the water, and we walk back arm in arm to our houses. I discard my wedding saree and don a new one, green for life and happiness.

Later, when the sun has set, I light two diya lamps. I leave one in the house, letting my wedding scarf trail into the flame. My scarf was tied to his during the ceremony. The first time I set eyes on him. I leave the house.

I stop at Shiva’s temple. Shiva the destroyer, Shiva the creator. I touch the stone bull outside the temple, and I ring the bell to let the gods know I am there. I bow my head over my joined palms, and I leave an offering of flowers. I take a piece of coconut and a bit of sugar from the temple priest and pop it into my mouth, sweet like life beginning.

Carrying my lamp, I join the masses returning to the river, wide and sluggish and dark. All of us holding our lamps in the night, we look like vast inverted constellations. I look up at the sky but, of course, the smoke from Diwali crackers obscures the real stars. Chanting, we move together down the ghats until we have reached the lapping water. Across the river, we see mirrored images of ourselves as another crowd approaches the water on the opposite steps down the bank. We release our lamps, and the river turns to molten light, rippling and twinkling, floating downstream, lighting the way for the gods to come home.

I put my palms together and lift them to my forehead, looking up at the heavens.

Krista Beucler received a degree in creative writing from the University of Mary Washington. Krista’s creative work has been published in From Whispers To Roars and is forthcoming from Under the Sun magazine. You can find her at her website ( or on Instagram @authorkristabeucler.