The smoke from the funeral pyres danced in the rising sun, cascading downstream with the river and rising above the morning bathers. The smell of burning wood and incense hung in the air, stagnant, as the sun peeked over the horizon and reflected off the rippling currents. Crows flocked at the piles of ash and bone that used to be human. I trailed my hand absent-mindedly along the cool surface of the water. The boat we were in was small and shallow, the size of a canoe, and rocked gently in the glow of dawn. I turned to my friend.
She nodded. We slid off of the boat into a shallow part of the river and waded further in, the water still warm from yesterday’s harsh heat. Women brushing their teeth at the banks smiled and pointed us out to their children, bemused by the sight of two little white girls paddling in the Ganges. I tried to push back thoughts of stepping on dead bodies as the river bed grew slimier and, when I could no longer touch the bottom with my toes, I took a breath and let myself sink into the holy waters. It was silent, calm; completely different to the world above.
By the time we swam back to shore the sun had already scaled up the pink sky and the crowds at the banks had doubled in size. We exchanged a few soggy rupees with a street vendor for small cups of chai before clambering back into our boat. The river was alive with sounds of neighbour’s gossiping, naughty children being scolded and tour groups ‘ooh-ing’ over historical facts and points of interest.
At one of the ghats up ahead a funeral ceremony was taking place and we asked the man steering our boat to stop. We watched as people gathered on the banks. Four men dressed in white placed a limp body, their mother, onto a concrete slab at the river’s edge. She was wrapped in beautiful saris, elaborate and glittering but they were sobered by the white of her face. I strained to get a better look and realised I’d never seen a dead body before. The men slowly and meticulously built a platform of logs to lay her on, a final gesture of love. No one was crying, worried that tears would bring trouble for her soul.
Prayers were said and the fire was lit. The noise from the rest of the world slipped away as I continued to watch, mesmerized. The growing flames engulfed her, her saris blazing. Clouds of thick, choking smoke obscured the mourning family; the crackle of the fire grew louder.
There was a taste of mourning in the air, a sinking feeling of hopelessness as her body went up in flames, but the smoke clearing was like a sigh from the universe; people dried their tears as her smouldering remains were pushed into the waters, her soul cleansed and free to pass on to another life. A small boy handed out candles on dishes decorated with flowers. They were lit and sent into the river, floating serenely before going under, and I realised the spiritual significance of what I’d just seen. It was raw, and humbling. We remained silent for a long time.
About the Author – My name’s Alice Berry and I’m a 21 year old creative writing and philosophy student. I love travelling and want to spend my life exploring the world, although I’m currently living in rainy Bath. I’m a travel writer for Pie Magazine and an avid Kerouac enthusiast.