Before our Women’s Journey to India started, I shared with Nancy that I felt 2 themes were emerging around this trip, based on the few things I was learning from the participants and our itinerary. The two themes were ‘mother’ and ‘water’. I knew we were going to Mother India and I was curious to see all the ways these themes might express themselves to each one of us. We had chosen to go to places in India that celebrated life, death and rebirth – many of these life/death rituals happened near or in the Ganges river – otherwise known as Mata Ganga (Mother Ganges.)
We landed smack dab in the middle of Durga Puja – a celebration of the Goddess Durga – the mother of the universe, mother of us all. What a “coincidence”! The time of Durga Puja is a holy time celebrated throughout all of India. Sculptures made out of clay are formed in her likeness – a powerful woman with 8 arms – and she is honored for several days with parades and dancing in the streets. In Varanasi, the beautiful statues are decorated and worshipped, the streets are clogged with processions down to the river, and Durga is sent off in boats to the middle of the Ganges to be set free in the river, clay returning back to mud.
When we arrived in Varanasi, the weather was ominous with frothing white caps on the river that was at a record high and rain lashing at our hotel windows, creating puddles of water that soaked anything left on the floor. The scene was all too familiar for those of us from Colorado. We were dismayed to learn that all boat trips were cancelled indefinitely due to dangerous weather conditions. I stared longingly out my hotel window at the river – Mata Ganga – churning wide, brown and swift, wishing to be on it.
The Ganges is considered one of the holiest rivers for Hindus as well as a goddess: Ganga. Unlike other goddesses, she has no destructive or fearsome aspect, accepting all and forgiving all. It is considered an honor to die at the banks of the Ganges if one is a Hindu, and if that is not possible, to be cremated on her banks with the ashes set free in her current. It was my first time to Varanasi and I had come with the special task of releasing some of my dear friend and world traveler Lance’s ashes into the river. What with the late monsoon floods, and rains from the typoon happening to the East, I was dubious if I would get the chance to fulfill this task.
On our last day, we were told that boats could make the trip and we would indeed be able to take our evening ride with a priest (Pujari – one who officiates puja – offerings/ceremony) so that all of us who were releasing ashes (symbolic or otherwise) would be blessed. The current had finally died down enough so that the boat motors could power their way back up the river once they had drifted down to the burning ghats (the place of cremation in Varanasi that is at the water’s edge.) Punam told me later that she had prayed “day and night” to make sure we could have our boat ride and I shared that I had been praying too!
Before I left my room at the hotel, I lit some incense and prayed to be present and open for the ritual I was about to participate in.
In some ways, it felt like the end of my journey with Lance. From holding his hand as he slipped into a morphine sleep, to lying with his body in the wee hours of his death, to painting silks that wrapped around his body while he lay in his casket, to honoring his life at his memorial months later, here I was, in a final moment with him, releasing a baggie of ash and bone in India.
On the boat, a fresh wave of grief hit me and I sobbed in the dark. The women each held my story about Lance and his family in their hearts and gave me the strength to honor my friend.
After my wave of sorrow passed, came a joyful knowing that Lance would have LOVED knowing his ashes were in the Ganges, in a place that had meant so much to he and Nancy. I felt lighter and calm. A nice reminder for me that resistance is really the only thing that causes my suffering.
Do not stand at my grave and weep;
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn’s rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush,
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry:
I am not there. I did not die.