My morning started at 5. I awoke early to partake in a tourist ritual of a sunrise boat ride on the Ganges. As I lay in my bed, part of me wondered why I had wanted so badly to come to Varanasi. It had been a long travel adventure to reach here – with some of the worst driving and shady driver experiences I had ever had in India. Part of me wanted to catch a plane back to a safe and familiar place. The other part of me knew that this is India. She tips me over and uproots me from all that is known. I always feel like I am in outer space and my loved ones are so very very far away. I have learned to ‘notice’ the feelings and stay with them. I remember a friend gently and wisely telling me “You don’t have to always like India.” And so I rose, got dressed and went into the smokey dark to meet our friend and guide and get on the boat.
The “sunrise” never really happened because there was a bank of clouds, but the view from the water of the ghats (stairs) and the city and the people and dogs, cows etc all sharing space on the river was fascinating. Men and women bathing (separately), laundry drying, dogs fighting, bodies burning, Muslim temple bells ringing, sadhus posing for a professional photo shoot with magnifying screens (for real) – it was all surreal.
As our boat approached the main burning ghat, I could see the billows of white smoke rising up. It’s forbidden (rude) to take photos so I was fully present and taking it all in. It’s hard to describe the mountains of wood – this is a 24 hour burning ghat so bodies are burning day and night. There are swarms of men scurrying about bringing more wood, dumping ash into heaps, putting more kindling under the bodies. The buildings closest to the fire are black with centuries of smoke – making the place look like a scene from the darkest movie. Dogs are curled up in the piles of ash to keep warm.
Our boat was front and center, very close and I watched a body, wound in white ceremonial cloth, as it started to burn. I saw the cloth burn away and I could see the man’s feet turn dark and blister in the heat. As close as I get to death in my hospice work, this was a new level of intimacy I have never experienced.
I feel that it will take me days to process this experience, perhaps longer. This city holds an intensity that is hard to describe, as feels right and natural given that death is front and center amidst a city so alive and busy. The contrast is at once dumbfounding and inspiring.
I went back to my hotel to rest and warm up and prepare for the evening’s full moon ceremony Melanie and I had planned. I was feeling drained and tender.
When I first asked friends and family to send me their prayer requests so that I could release them on the Ganges, I never imagined the depth of sweetness I would experience reading people’s heart felt prayers. I was and still am so touched by the honesty and rawness of some of them as well as the good kind hearted earnestness of them as well. What beautiful friends I know who are wanting to make the world and themselves better.
Melanie and I sat in prayer and meditation. Later we bathed and dressed in ritual white. We met Somit, our friend and organizer of the ceremony and he led us to our boat. The boat man and priests and a curious traveler from the UK were already in it. We rowed across the river to the sandbar in the middle. There we got out and waded (yes I put my bare feet in the river in Varanasi) to the sand.
In the twilight we entered into ceremony, making offerings of rice, sandal wood, flowers and coins to Hindu deities and the 9 planets. Prayers for our ancestors, our beloveds, the group of women who will be joining us in a few short days – all were offered to the fire.
As the huge orange full moon rise in the purple sky (India has a way of blowing you away with her beauty) and the sky darkened, dogs crept closer to us, smelling the offerings of food we had. As the priests chanted the centuries old Sanskrit mantras, I closed my eyes and thought to myself “This is why I am in Varanasi. For this moment in time.”
Our boat rowed back across the river as the full moon cast her light across the river and our ritual fire burned on the shore as the dogs gently picked up the small burning dishes and overturned them in the sand to eat the ghee inside.