Varanasi: City of Rebirth (xii)

11/09/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

There is nothing like waking up at dawn to take a boat ride down the Ganges, past the men standing mid-waist in water, placing their hands together in prayer and chanting to the mother goddess Ganges. Children jump from the ghats and splash in the water next to women washing their hair, foaming the lengths in suds; old men scoop clay paste into silver bowls, while the priests clang the bells and lift flames for the morning service.

2008-10-10-WomeninWater2x.jpg It is at the main Cremation Ghat--Manikarnika Ghat-- that the sense of life along this river takes its meaning, much as a bas-relief stands out because of the flat surface behind it.

I mounted the old concrete steps past the piles and piles of wood, and sped past men wanting to guide me--to get rupees ostensibly to pay for the logs for the cremation--and went straight up to the four bodies being burned.

A woman's arm was raised in the air, her hand a crispy black, with whitish nails, and a golden bangle along her sizzled forearm. Her face, near mine, was also black. Next to her, a man's wrapped body lay, back curved as if in a yoga pose, belly towards the sky, inbetween the wood.

But the shock of the cremation area were the remains of one body, with one small flame shooting out, that had not completely burned.

It was a half-skull with the brains cooked inside.

"Where is the family?" I said to the guide. "You told me that the family stays until the end (3 hours) and then takes the remains into the river."

"They already left in the night. It was dark, they must not have been able to see."

So this person was left to smolder alone at the end.

I compared my own brains to the ones below me, and marveled that such consciousness could shoot out--almost bodiless, as wide as the sky--out of something that lay compact and small in the remains of charred bone.

And yet these brains--so small--had created a life.

When I got back into the boat, with my fellow tourists (a delightful young French couple in love, since high school), I realized I was shaking.

The boatmen lifted strong arms, despite their skinny bodies, and sweating, in the early morning sun, they rowed us cross-current back towards Asi Ghat.

Their bodies moved; they made jokes among themselves. At one point, the current was too strong and they waded to the edge and pulled us with a rope.

A playful boy helped push.

An old man, near 80, stood chest naked in the water right near the boat, and clasped his hands in prayer and lowered in the Ganges, sprinkling drops between his fingers.

His face was alive and intense with reflection.

The sky--and life itself--the very day--seemed limitless. 2008-10-10-gangesdawnnewx.jpg