A corpse wrapped in gold foil—lightly balanced on the shoulders of a group of men—jostled past me. Its bare soles bobbed as they disappeared into the dark crowded alley leading down to the river. I stared briefly while skirting the cremation ghats—burning fires and dense smoke—and barely avoided falling on the twisting cobblestones of Varanasi as I caught up to Raju.
"You don't allow women at cremation rituals here in India because you are afraid they might still throw themselves on the fire?" I asked, knowing the old custom of sati—widows practicing self-immolation—had been illegal for years.
"Oh, perhaps it started for that reason,” Raju replied, politely oblivious to my cynicism, “but now it is part of our culture. Our brothers, fathers, and husbands perform this sacred ritual."
"And who performed your own good husband's cremation?" Raju continued, not interrupting his effortless weaving.
Saved from an immediate response by another jostling corpse, I stopped to watch a skinny, nearly naked black man weighing large pieces of wood for the pyres that were lit hundreds of times daily in this most holy of places.
I was spending several weeks on Ma Ganga—Mother Ganges—the heart and soul of India's Hindu culture. For days we floated on small boats covered by old cloth canopies, each rowed by two young, gently muscled dark-skinned men wrapped in lungis—the six-foot-long cloths that cover, from waist down, most Indian men in all but the centers of large cities. Often the banks of the river were quiet, just oxen mingling with night herons, an unexpected perspective on this vibrant land. But during the Sonepur Mela celebration in Bihar, near the confluence of the Ganges with the Gandak, we joined over one million people bathing in the river at this auspicious moment—the November full moon.
Moments—like snapshots—imprinted themselves:
A small boat floats along a placid channel, the water pale blue, the sun gentled by constant haze. We—three startlingly white women—relax against colorful pillows, facing oarsmen who lie asleep in the prow while the minimal current does their work. Beneath our idle gaze a group of large black birds—crows or ravens—alights on a body-shaped floating object.
Smoke on a garbage-strewn rocky bank clears to show three sinewy men cremating a young family member. A brother reaches quickly into the fire to pull out remaining shards of bone and throw them in the river. Water is splashed onto the flames in the final step of the ritual.
Our boats approach the night’s campsite—a broad expanse of sand that forms an island in the low post-monsoon river. I jump ashore, avoiding a round white object. Our oarsman says it is a skull, but a fellow traveler laughs and assures me it is an old piece of styrofoam. Tents are extracted from beneath boards that were softened by our bed pillows during the trip on the water; dried cow patties are quickly set on fire for our afternoon tea.
Beneath a quiet alcove a holy man setting up his morning gratitude ritual invites me to sit. In an intensely personal ceremony he steers my soul to my deceased husband and welcomes him to the circle of the blessed. I chant along and toss bunches of seeds, gripped with my thumb and middle two fingers, onto the fire in time with his rhythm. A sense of peace and a decorated forehead testifies to my participation in this puja.
I walk during the Mela with increasingly dense crowds towards the broad river, lined by cement ghats—the ever-present stepped platforms full of life along Indian waterways. A barber snaps his scissors overhead advertising his availability for a child's first ritual head shaving. This day many parents cannot reach the river for the density of the mob; so bald babies are trustingly passed above the crowd, assuring their dunking before the rising sun flashes on the water. Even in this intense swarm people save a smile for my visibly foreign face.
The Ganges flows for 1000 miles through India, its life-giving force evident all along the way. In death, people aspire to bring their loved ones to sacred spots like Varanasi and Haridwar to assure peace for their souls. Tourists also flock to Varanasi—at sunset the river is full of 20-passenger boats rowing up and down between the two large cremation ghats, visitors staring in rapt amazement at the fires. The evening religious ceremony there is now performed under glowing neon lights. Seven priests in gold, in a carefully staged performance, swing flames to loudly broadcast chants. Prosperous Indians fill the front sections, and, in spite of the strong tourist presence, it is believers who crowd the banks.
Standing above this melee, I watched a hawker entice a baby with a poodle shaped balloon—the father too polite to chase him away, the hawker intent on getting the child to demand the toy. The whole scene could fit somewhere between St. Mark's Square and a country carnival.
I headed for the cremation ghats where work continued into the night. Each body is allocated a large amount of hardwood straight from some diminishing forest. The flame is brought from a perpetual fire—lit by Shiva thousands of years ago—and the fee for its use is based on the wealth of the recipient.
The men in the family stay the 3 to 10 hours it takes to complete the cremation, having brought the body on their shoulders through the town. The government, concerned about conservation, has built a sophisticated modern crematorium that sits ignored. People wish their loved ones' ashes to enter Ma Ganga in a traditional manner, and the ceremony is a joyous time in which the soul is freed.
The intensity of India keeps pulling me back, and I feel protective of experiences that touch me in unexpected ways, often dissipating disbelief. When I later share stories of the trip, questions about dead bodies in the river dominate conversation, seconded by awe over the intensity of the cremations and revulsion over the crowding, filth and chaos. It is in this revulsion that I recognize how far my own perceptions have moved.
My mind returns to that one question, innocently asked by a young Indian in the alleys of Varanasi: "And who performed your own good husband's cremation?" At that moment I was horrified to realize I had no idea. Complete strangers—men—took my husband’s body away from my home.
I later received his ashes in a polished wooden urn that I had selected in the sterility of a crematory along the freeway not far from my house. The beautiful small mortuary in the heart of my small town of Healdsburg had been torn down and replaced by a lively restaurant. In our society the real estate was simply too valuable to waste on the dead.
The moment I seriously considered the question about Harold's cremation, I saw my world through the eyes of my Indian hosts. Their rituals of death, the normality of corpses and skulls, the belief that a river can ease the passage to the afterlife—these are all ways in which people accept the unacceptable—the loss of a loved one. Our ways might seem as impersonal and foreign to them as dead bodies floating in rivers are unimaginable to us; our horror might be perceived as callously judgmental.
The floating object with black birds on it did in fact turn out to be a dead body—a lost corpse. The styrofoam ball really was a water-smoothed human skull. The boatman who drank river water from his fingers moments after we passed a corpse was vibrantly alive at the end of our trip. My friends ate river-fish at our campsite and suffered no ill consequences. I didn't choose to dunk myself in the river but I did fall in and survived unscathed. No one drowned on the packed ghats of the Mela in spite of intense crowding and shoving. And the water and air around Varanasi—subjected to the burning of hundreds of bodies daily—mysteriously has no unpleasant aromas.
I could not leave Ma Ganga unchanged. An old fear of crowds dissipated. Faith and fantasy cohabit with greater ease in my scientific Western mind. Death harmonizes more naturally with life today than it did before those weeks I spent on her, and Harold's spirit roams more freely.
Early one morning at my riverside campsite I watched a holy man appear out of the mist. He roamed alone in a land of a billion people; on his river; oblivious. I carry that scene with me, and the memory helps me walk in serenity. From my low angle I saw him effortlessly walk out onto and over the water. Of course, I thought.