Walk up the steep, honking hill to the tiny temple at the top. Pass through the throbbing throngs of people, and under the golden gates. Kick off your shoes and emerge into sunlight. Here, people stream in and out like ants, chaotic, constant, smiling despite the crush. On one side is the temple, housing Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma, colorful deities who stare with blank eyes. On the other side are the baths.
Walk into the tiny corridor, and hope there are no women coming out. Two people is too many in a passage as tight as this. In seconds, step out into sunlight once again. You have entered another time.
Women bathe, naked, in the steaming pool to the right. Some are brave, and go all the way in. Others dip a demure toe, and then gasp in surprise as their skin is scalded. Some commit half-way, sitting on the black marble steps with just their legs in. They soap one another, and dump bucket after bucket of water over each other’s heads. Their hair is black, streaming down their backs, or tied in tight knots on top of their heads. One woman is wrapped in a transparent white sari, her enormous breasts resting on her knees as she soaps her calves. Another woman is scrubbing an errant child, even as the child giggles and tries to run away. All of the women are bedecked in jewelry- silver toe rings, flashing gems in their noses and ears, countless bracelets climbing up their arms.
Walk to the left, and take off your clothes. Hang them from a hook on the cobbled stone wall, and step gingerly down. Steam is constantly rising off the surface of the pool, and it is much too hot to enter. But on the other side, where women pound soiled clothes and rinse them under the piping water that gushes from the spouts, you spot a free tap. No children frolic under this one, and no women rinse bubbles from their hair. It is here, to the end of the black, marbled channel, that you go. The spring water pouring out of these taps is scalding hot also, but you can temper its heat by splashing small handfuls onto your body, or filling up buckets and waiting for it to cool.
The tiny woman to your right is grinning at you toothlessly. She looks Tibetan. Her hair is gray, flecked with black. She has gold bands on her arms, and gnarled feet. Her eyes are black and clear. Every time you turn, she is smiling at you. She speaks some words in a language you can’t understand, and you just nod back, unable to contain your own huge smile. She is gorgeous at seventy, her breasts pert, her back strong.
Further down, two Indian women wash each other’s backs, scrubbing, scrubbing, scrubbing, working the soap into a slippery white paste. They take turns dumping buckets of water over each other, washing the soap away in a flood that rushes down the channel and swirls around your legs. You dump buckets of water over your hair and face, your arms, your belly, your legs. Then you turn your bottle of shampoo upside down and pour a dollop of Body Shop Nettle shampoo into your palm. Rub, rub, rub it into your head, making a lather thick enough to rival the art on the Indian women’s backs, and then flip your head upside down and rinse, rinse, rinse it clean, all the while taking hissing breaths of air into your mouth, feeling your scalp tingle in a heat so hot it feels icy cold.
When you flip your hair back and tie it on your head, you see that a beautiful young girl has descended the steps. She takes the place of the toothless Tibetan woman, who has now stood up and is walking away. The girl sits down beside you, and you see that she too, is decorated. She wears black and white beads around her neck, and silver bangles on her arms. Her fingers and toes are painted red, and her skin is dark brown. She lets her black hair loose, and it falls down her back. Her nipples are dark and puckered in the cold afternoon air, and she shivers as she pours the first bucket of steaming water over her body. Goosebumps rise on her arms and legs, just as they do on your own when the cold wind blows. Behind you, a little boy slides back and forth along the slippery channel, his laughter rising with each diving slide. One day, he’ll realize how lucky he was 😉
Meanwhile, the women come and go, and chatter fills the cold mountain air as the steam rises. They talk and they laugh, and they soap each other and they gasp as they pour buckets of water over their heads. On the other side of these tall stone walls, men take pictures of the temple, and little boys tug on their parent’s hands. But inside, the scene is timeless, women washing, women laughing, women scrubbing laundry and each other’s bodies. You watch two young women working furious lathers into each other’s backs, white on brown, swirls, swirls. They throw water on each other and then lather again, paining more designs onto each other’s skin, scrubbing arms, legs, necks, ears. You watch a bubble rise up off of one woman’s shoulder. As girls laugh and shriek all around you, the bubble lifts shakily, pauses, and then pops, gone, in the cold mountain air.