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Water In Life And Death


new internationalist
issue 207 - May 1990

Spiritual tumult. As dawn breaks over Varanasi, Hindu pilgrims and worshippers gather to bathe in India's most sacred river, the Ganges.
Photo: Maggie Black

Water in life and death
From time immemorial water has exercised a spiritual force
in people's lives. But now our trust in it is ebbing away.
Some reflections from Nepal by William Raeper.

At primary school, we stuck out our tongues to catch raindrops. It must have been an odd sight, all those children in the playground with their tongues stuck out. We were doing a term project on Water. Miss Dalmeny drew a chalk circle on the board.

'You see, class, a drop of rain falls here into the reservoir. It comes into the tap and then into you. When it comes out again,' (giggles) 'it goes down a pipe and into the sea where the sun shines and turns it back into a raincloud.'

Miss Dalmeny drew a wispy cloud rising from the Forth Estuary and blowing away. 'One drop,' she said, 'goes round the world. One drop can fall in Scotland, then in Africa, then in India. Wherever you go in the world, it's the same drop.

'This,' said Miss Dalmeny in her most superior accent, 'is called a cycle. It is one of the Miracles of Nature.'

At Pashupatinath, the area of the Hindu temples in Kathmandu, pilgrims pushed up and down the stone steps along the sides of the pool. Women in brilliant white saris squatted and chatted while sadhus stood in a ragged line bathing. Their normal saffron robes removed, these holy men wore torn Y-fronts and boxer shorts.

Respectable businessmen and their wives, barefoot, splashed themselves with care and a cluster of naked boys screamed and played on a floating tyre.

Around us, a crackly voice from a loudspeaker made strident announcements in Hindi and Nepali. It was the solemn festival of Shiurasi, the Night of Shiva, on which Hindus believe that all sins are blotted out. Those cremated and thrown into the water on this day can escape reincarnation.

Rain fell continually and heavily on our Scottish playground. Rain was a nuisance - it stopped you playing football or going on picnics. If only God would turn his Big Tap off and let the weather improve. But Miss Dalmeny clapped her hands for attention. 'Water,' she declared in her most inspiring voice, 'is the Source of Life.'

Beneath the noise of the loudspeaker, leaves floated idly on the pool and the sun dazzled on the water. The pool was holy, filled with water from one of the rivers that joins the Ganges, the holiest river in India, which Hindus believe springs from Shiva's head.

On the far side, the onion tops of the temples poked above the ugly brick colonnade blackened by continual cremation smoke.

'The water's filthy!' grunted a Californian.

'No, no!' said a pilgrim. 'The water is very holy, very clean!'

A double row of youths dressed in white dhotis appeared by a wrapped body as a soldier began a shaky rendition of the La.tt Post. People slowed to watch.

Water is Life. We begin our lives floating in the womb. Christians baptise with water to signal the start of a new life. Fonts stood in the back of churches to keep away the spirits, and holy wells brought healing if you drank their draft.

We are made of water, or almost. 'Two-thirds of your body weight and nine-tenths of your body volume is water,' said Miss Dalmeny in her authoritative, fact-conscious way. 'Humans can only live a few days as most without water.'

The dead man, the loudspeaker announced, was a general. The crowd edged closer as the corpse was prepared for cremation. The pyre of logs was laid crosswise. Cloth and orange garlands were thrown as offerings into the water. Farther down the Ganges at Varanasi, the holy city of the Hindu faith, there are at any time of day or night rows and rows of smoking cremation bonfires. The ashes from these join the living faithful performing their ablutions and doing their laundry in the waters.

'The water must be dirty, filthy!'

'No, no! The water is very holy, very clean!'

Not so long ago kelpies (water-spirits in horse form) used so frisk in Scottish rivers, and women used to dip their babies in pools to secure protection from the fairies. But the fairies have gone, and the kelpies have galloped away. We have science now. I trust the water that arrives in my home because is has been treated. The pilgrim at Varanasi, as Pashupatinath, trusts the water because it is holy.

Things are changing. Water, the symbol of life, now brings death. Rain falling in Europe strips trees of their leaves and slaughters river life. Pollution churns into the sea and drizzles from the sky.

The sun melts the brilliant snowcaps of the Himalayas into streams of silvery water, water that is sacred and clean. But in Nepal, many children under the age of five die from diarrhoea caught from polluted water.

One drop goes around the world. The same water that kills a tree in Europe and a child in Asia comes out of your tap.

The young men circled the funeral pyre three times before one of them, probably the general's son, set it alight. He stuffed bundles of flaming straw into the pile of wood while the soldier stood smartly to attention. Thick yellow smoke drifted across the pool.

I suspect the pool, but now we also view the water flowing from our taps and faucets with suspicion. The European Community murmurs about standards, about lead, about chlorine.

Still, in Britain at least, you can become an H2Owner now. So every little drop of rain that falls belongs to someone if they want it. Advertisements appear in newspapers advising us how to reinvest money culled from water shares. Pennies from Heaven indeed.

People began to lose interest in yet another body being cremated. They had come all this way to wash themselves in holy water to gain darsan - blessing. Many filled their brass pots from the pool. They were taking holy water home with them to use in their puja or prayers.

As the last of the general went up in smoke, an aircraft thundered overhead leaving a trail of vapour against the clean sky. All eyes lifted as its engines drowned out the clamour of worship.

I wiped my sweating forehead and edged away in the afternoon heat. I felt I could do with a drink.

William Raeper is a writer of fiction and educational books.

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New Internationalist issue 207 magazine cover This article is from the May 1990 issue of New Internationalist.
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