A star falls from the sky and into your hands. Then it seeps through your veins and swims inside your blood and becomes every part of you. And then you have to put it back into the sky. And it’s the most painful thing you’ll ever have to do and that you’ve ever done. But what’s yours is yours. Whether it’s up in the sky or here in your hands. ~C. JoyBell C.
We boarded our boat shortly before dusk leaving the chaos of the ghat behind us. The quiet that accompanied our rowing boat was a perfect prelude to the sight that awaited us. The Manikarnika Ghat was visible long before our arrival. Cremation pyres burned brightly. As we neared we put our cameras down, respectful of those participating in this somber ritual. At one point we counted eleven pyres burning; scores of shrouded bodies lined the steps awaiting their time.
Before leaving the growing cluster of onlookers, a boy hopped aboard our boat. Satisfied with a few more rupees in his pocket, he left behind his goods; palm-sized paper boats, diyas they’re called, each filled with a candle and a few marigolds. We were to make a wish before setting our diyas afloat, with right hand only. I went first; thinking of Peter, peace and letting go as I touched the Ganges for the first time. When Peter’s brother Ken took his turn, I readied my iPad. What appeared on the screen did not match what I saw with the naked eye, and I kept looking over the screen to confirm what I saw. Every photo was the same, until Ken’s diya was in the water.
I can’t begin to explain it, and I won’t even try to understand. I’m content knowing that I was witness to something incredible.
We then returned to the Dashashwamedh Ghat for the evening aarti, a ritual performed daily by Hindu priests. Facing the river, the pandits circle lighted candelabras in a clockwise manner, accompanied by chanting in praise of Mother Ganga. The idea is that the lamps acquire the power of the deity. After the ritual is complete, devotees will cup their hands over the flame and raise their palms to their forehead in order to get the Goddess’s purification and blessing. It was an intense spectacle; noisy and beautiful all at once.
Thursday morning we rose before dawn in order to experience sunrise on Mother Ganga. Once again, our boat took us from the ghat onto the river. We witnessed people taking a purification dip in the river, some after chanting at the top of the steps. We rowed by the laundry ghat, seeing the Dalits slapping their wash on the rocks.
As we turned away, our tour director and now friend, Hemesh, indicated to me to get ready. Earlier I had told him what I had planned.
You see, I had carried with me from New York to Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Kolkata, up the Ganges and back to Calcutta and finally to our little boat back on the Ganges in Varanasi that morning, a small container with a portion of Peter’s ashes along with some of Kerry’s. As we headed into the rising sun, Hemesh gently touched my shoulder and told me it was time. My dear Peter and sweet Kerry are now a part of this mighty river in this amazing country.
Our final stop before boarding our flight back to Delhi was Sarnath, the sight of the Buddha’s first sermon following his enlightenment. This very ancient place, nearly 2500 years old, was eventually partially destroyed by the Afghans centuries past and lost to man, buried until just over one hundred years ago. It is one of four Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India. Large groups of pilgrims were visiting from Sri Lanka at the time we were there.
Although Buddha was Indian, the number of Buddhists in India is very low. Hemesh explained that many centuries ago, as the Buddhist faith was growing, Hindu priests wisely named the Buddha as an incarnation of one of the Hindu gods, thereby returning potential followers to Hinduism. Clever.
We circled the remaining stupa clockwise. My thoughts at this time were of Peter, peace and moving forward.