The sun shone fiercely and my senses succumbed to the smell of burning body. It’s shocking how particular smells evoke memories. I was on the first of many travels to India, floating down the Ganges River. My mother stressed this trip would give us a deeper understanding for distant people. Dazed from minimal sleep, and disoriented by the foreignness of an unfamiliar environment, a part of me yearned to be back at home. But the pungent scent that hung heavy in the air forced me to realize: I was in Varanasi, India, watching a sunrise over traditional Hindu cremation ceremonies.
Bonfires scattered the scarred earth of the Ganges. Ashes lifted up off the banks and drove gray plumes into the air like sluggish smoke. The finest ash did not settle back into the river, but lingered into the endless sky. The heaviest ash crept up on the banks and whirled into the water, which – we came to learn – is believed to overcome the continual cycle of life and death. Along the shores, natives continued their daily lives, seemingly, as though nothing uncommon had happened. Mourners grieved beside the elderly taking a morning bath and children soaking their vibrantly colored clothing. It astounded me that a family could proceed with such an intimate ceremony so openly among their neighbors, while displaying such strength and vulnerability.
For a time, my view was blurred, and as my sky became pale, so my life became pale, grey in the home country and color in the foreign country. Floating down the Ganges that morning, though, I found myself admiring the openness of the mourners. They seemed to view life in a way unbeknownst to me until that moment, a life that encompasses both fortitude and openness simultaneously, binds the dead to the living – that even bound a naïve American girl to mourners along the Ganges. Separated by cultures but connected through experience, I began to wonder if perhaps we were all part of something larger, if the opportunity to observe this contrasting lifestyle might also be an opportunity to embrace community and uncover strength within myself. I left that morning with a new mindset. Exposure to a drastically different way of life opened my eyes to human diversity. Moments like these act as reminders to openly embrace different cultures, reserve judgment, and reveal myself to others.
Link to view this on waterbordies: http://waterbodies.org/node/284