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Ma Ganga

Photo by Tania Amochaev

A corpse wrapped in gold foil—lightly balanced on the shoulders of a group of men—jostled past me. Its bare soles bobbed as they disappeared into the dark crowded alley leading down to the river. I stared briefly while skirting the cremation ghats—burning fires and dense smoke—and barely avoided falling on the twisting cobblestones of Varanasi as I caught up to Raju.

“You don’t allow women at cremation rituals here in India because you are afraid they might still throw themselves on the fire?” I asked, knowing the old custom of sati—widows practicing self-immolation—had been illegal for years.

“Oh, perhaps it started for that reason,” Raju replied, politely oblivious to my cynicism, “but now it is part of our culture. Our brothers, fathers, and husbands perform this sacred ritual.” Without interrupting his effortless weaving through the crowd, he continued, “And who performed your own good husband’s cremation?”

Saved from an immediate response by another jostling corpse, I stopped to watch a skinny, nearly naked black man weighing large pieces of wood for the pyres that were lit hundreds of times daily in this most holy of places.

I was spending several weeks on Ma Ganga—Mother Ganges—the heart and soul of India’s Hindu culture. For days we floated on small boats covered by old cloth canopies, each rowed by two young, gently muscled dark-skinned men wrapped in lungis—the six-foot-long cloths that cover, from waist down, most Indian men in all but the centers of large cities. Often the ...