At the temple door
we pause. An old man beckons:
Come, sisters, come. The god is great.
Canopied in gold, the inner shrine
glitters with gems and silver, dazzles us
as we search
for the black basalt image.

The pilgrims' guidebook says
whoever sees Lord Badrinath,
from his diadem to his holy feet,
will gain release from life and death.
We can't decide
if what we see in the distance is the god
or only a dark, accidental
gap between lamps, garlands,
cloth of gold.

We never asked
release from birth and death,
but only that the world should come to us
again and again; that we
try on the masks of men and animals,
of pilgrims, wizards, whores,
of crows and dolphins.
The old man whispers, say
the god is great.

We join our palms,
offer some coins and flowers, turn
to go. Outside,
the marble bull of the god Shiva kneels,
his testicles smeared with saffron
by pious wives. And from a niche in the wall
a blood-red face
with river-pebble eyes and a slit mouth
sacred, terrible.