American Civic Life

Reflecting on Death at the Edge of the Ganga

October 29, 2021

I only vaguely remember the discussions around a trip to India to scatter my Mum’s ashes in the Ganga River. I was still in a mist of grief, waxing between peace & acceptance and acute, searing anxiety … but I recall a strong urge to go.

My mother was the matriarch of not just our nuclear unit, but her wider clan in India, whose lives were carved and framed by her influence, provision and oversight. These would be their moments, as much as ours. It was the first time I had given much thought to Hindu cultural death rites. I saw my mother’s spirituality broaden in her last days. Yet, the scattering of parts of her ashes in the Ganga was the natural culmination of her Hindu heritage and my father’s deep knowledge of Hindu life cycles and their rituals. Cremation allows dissemination, and parts of her ashes were scattered through sites in Auckland, New Zealand where she had resided. Just as she lived, impelling and shaping lives on either side of the Indian Ocean.

There is a surreal, spiritual ambiance to the Ganga River system. The junction of Jamuna and Ganga is in Allahabad, coincidentally where my parents studied and my dad worked, and where I lived for a year when I was four years old. It is called the Triveni Sangam, the “tri” being Sanskrit for ‘three’, the third river being an invisible, mystic river called the Saraswati. My family members are Hindu and believe that one is released from the cycle of birth and death if buried here. I am not Hindu and had no preconceived ideas or expectations of this place, but even I was struck by the feeling of peace and poignancy on arriving. There is a large sandy foreshore, and, despite the presence of the typical life and color of India, there is a peaceful stillness in the atmosphere, a quiet reflection that is neither morose nor brooding but just gently soothing. Small boats sit on the water’s edge and silhouette against a grey sky. Dark figures, draped in loose jewel-toned cotton, dot the sandy plain leading down to the water. We hired a boat, and we were sold food to feed the seagulls.

The author, Rashmi Dixit, at the Ganges River.

The author, Rashmi Dixit, at the Ganges River.