The Bathing Ghat
K SS Pillai
It was my first visit to my native village in Kerala in many years. Like other places, the village had undergone a lot of changes. Tarred roads had replaced sandy ones through which we used to walk to our school barefooted. Gone were the houses and shops with thatched or tiled roofs. Magnificent houses, with gleaming cars in their garages, stood in their place. The only building that defied the change seemed to be the ancient church with its weathered compound walls.
I wanted to meet some of my childhood friends. My host and nephew, who had recently returned to the village after retiring from the Border Security Force, did not know whether they were even alive. I had, therefore, no hesitation in agreeing with his suggestion that I stay with him for some days.
I was put up in a room with an attached bathroom that had a bathtub with hot and cold water inlets and a shelf stocked with all the stuff needed for a new generation bath. In the old days, the village had hardly any house with bathrooms. The ghat on the bank of the river Pamba was the ‘bathroom’ for the rich and the poor.
People were habituated to take baths both in the morning and evening and washed their clothes on the stone steps of the ghat. Before the morning bath, we always rubbed our head and the whole body with home-made oil prepared with medicinal herbs.
Instead of toilet soaps, the soft bark of the soap bark tree was used to cleanse the body. Before going home, we would visit the nearby temple, wrapping the wet bath-towel around our waist, and smear our forehead with the sandal paste thrown into our outstretched palms by the priest.
Domestic animals like bullocks, cows, buffalos, goats, and the only elephant of the village also had their bath a little further downstream.
The river was an integral part of our life. Devoid of farms that used chemical fertilizers and insecticides, housing complexes, and factories on its banks, its water was so clean that it was used even for drinking. There was plenty of fish in the river and those caught overnight by the fishermen residing in the village across the river would be auctioned in the morning, and women fish-mongers would go from house to house, carrying their ware in large bamboo baskets for selling them.
During the winter and summer seasons, the river, though deep, was a gentle, placid body of water with hardly any flow. We would swim to the other bank a couple of times before winding up our bath. It would, however, don an awe-inspiring mantle during the two rainy seasons – one starting in May and the other in October.
It would then be swollen with muddy water from the eastern mountain ranges, hurtling towards the Arabian sea, carrying with it everything from tree-trunks to dead animals. No one would dare to venture far from the steps of the ghat, most of which would be under water.
The only one whom the river failed to intimidate seemed to be Maria, the ferry woman. Though in her late fifties, her bony hands would deftly propel her small country boat, tossed about mercilessly by the rushing waters, with deft rowing with her paddle and bring the anxious passengers to the landing point.
Would the modern bathroom be able to replace the bathing ghat of the bygone era?
(The author is a retired professor of English. Apart from The Kashmir Vision, his articles have been published by The New Indian Express, The Deccan Herald, The Herald Goa, The Hans India, and elsewhere)