The Ganges: River of Life and Death

On the ghat the bodies burn. It is an ancient, primeval scene, unchanged in its essence for millenia. On two concrete platforms, a smoke-blackened temple above them, five pyres burn in the late afternoon, their flames head-high. Periodically a near-naked figure, dark against the flames, will approach a pyre and vigorously wave a blanket or large fan at its side, stoking the fire, he himself, at this distance, looking bone-thin, a skeletal psychopomp attending his charges. Upon the steps to either side are laid more bodies awaiting this final transformation, wrapped in saffron shrouds and marigolds.

The cows seem to enjoy eating the flowers (discarded when the bodies are laid on their biers), and five or six browse idly on the ghat, along with a single stray goat, profoundly untroubled by reminders of mortality. The humans nearby, too, whether participants or spectators, seem imbued with a deep patience, the timelessness of the ritual communicating itself unspoken. The bodies will each burn in time; they cannot be hurried. On either side of the steps, piled high against the walls, and on boats near the shore, are enormous stacks of cut ironwood, awaiting more pyres, more bodies. The fires burn twenty-four hours a day, ceaselessly, day after day, night after night, century after century.

Evening approaches. Most of the dozens or hundreds of kites out earlier have been drawn in, but one fellow on a nearby boat still tends his, jerking rapidly on the line and then playing it out, the little diamond bobbing and darting directly above the ghat, entirely unheeded. You’re not supposed to take pictures, but periodically a tourist will anyway, to be reminded of the taboo with an unsurprised word from their guide. Our own guide taps at his cell phone in the forepeak, exchanging the occasional word with the boatman, who leans back on his elbows. The boat rocks as another vessel passes behind us, engine chuffing gutturally. The horizon fades to white in all directions, a haze enveloping the far shore of the floodplain, the reaches of the river, the irregular contours of temples, palaces and hotels upon the shore, the smoke overtaking the light. Finally’s it’s dark. Time to go.

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