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Souls released on the Ganges River

The Red Fort, the red girl
September 2, 2016
Watching the aarti
A crowded ceremony in Varanasi
September 2, 2016

This is chapter 5 of the Graduate & Live 2016 Summer Tour of Asia, where three traveling freelancers take advantage of their freedom. In this installment, Ryan, Aom and Ashley travel to India's holiest city, where Hindus hope to one day have their bodies burned.

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Ashley Lombardo


I watched as bodies burned on the banks of India’s most sacred river. Believed to free souls trapped in the cycle of reincarnation, the cremation ceremony compelled me to confront my own mortality.

Also known as Banaras, Varanasi is a hub of Hindu spirituality. It’s home to thousands of Sadhu monks, a nightly aarti celebration and the Ganges, one of the holiest rivers in the world.

After a 7-hour bus ride, we arrived in Varanasi just as the sun began to rise. Our travel agent arranged for an auto rickshaw to scoop us from the station. I saved some files to work offline, so I was able to spend the night writing. I stepped off the train and soaked in the morning light, feeling free and unrestricted.


A few minutes later, the morning routine was in full swing. Locals boiled water, peeled potatoes and swept the streets to prepare for the day’s work. We headed to our new home, the Monu Family Guesthouse, and I started to notice different shades of orange. Women weaved strands of marigold flowers, kids painted foreheads with pale Tilaka paste, monks wore robes as bright as citrus peels, and even the cows donned vivid floral necklaces. Orange, one of the most joyful colors, is everywhere.

Two weeks in India taught me to always carry a cloth to cover my mouth. I grew accustomed to the open-air autos and the clouds of dust that came along with them. I lifted the scarf from around my neck, pulled it over my mouth and tucked it behind my ears as we made our way into the city, which had just started to stir.


On our first night in Varanasi, Ryan planned for a Ganges River boat ride. Thousands of people are cremated on the riverfront steps before they’re set adrift in the sacred body of water. In India, it’s an honor and a privilege to be buried in this way.

But for someone who grew up in the United States, the word “funeral” sparks images of an immaculate casket, a sequence of speeches and an air-conditioned church or temple. To be frank, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

We hung out during the day, eager for the sun to set. Around 6 p.m. we hopped in a local’s rowboat and headed to a staircase, called a ghat, where the ceremony would take place. Plenty of people swam in the river, which is known to be highly polluted. Our boat leaned slightly to the left so Ryan, Aom and I made a note to mind our balance. Despite the heat, no one was in the mood for a dip in the Ganges.


We floated about 10 feet from the shore and I watched as family members crowded around a shrouded, lifeless figure draped in white sheets. They placed the body on a bundle of wood and before setting it on fire, someone took a picture with their cell phone. The family nudged the pyre with a stick. The flames engulfed it.

Men bowed to cup handfuls from the water, splashing their faces and filling plastic bags. The river, actually a living incarnation of a goddess, is significant in Hindu mythology. The spiritual belief in the power of the Ganges is strong. If a person is cremated here, Hindus trust that the deceased will achieve moksha, a release from the cycle of death and rebirth.


I will never forget that night. Rowboats filled with pounds of logs docked at the shore. A cow stood near the pyre, snacking on pieces of trash. I smelled the flesh burn. A string of marigolds drifted across the murky surface as people chanted Shiva mantras. I felt the heat on my face. The words vibrated in my chest.

As we started to row away, I noticed a change in Aom. She seemed softer, more introspective. She lifted two prayer bowls, lit an oil candle and held them close. One by one, she placed the bowls in the river.

First, she spoke a dedication to her father, who died when she was young. And second, to her German stepfather, who passed after a car accident. Ryan wrapped his arms around her. A tear dripped down her cheek. She smiled.


For Aom, the ceremony gave her a chance to remember the people she lost. For me, it was a moment of self-reflection. I lifted the bowl and lit the candle.

I don’t fear death because I never think about it. The ceremony compelled me to confront it head on, to stare directly into the fire. I thought of Aom, who constantly tells me to “make good every day.” I realized that race, class, gender, nationality… none of it really matters. We’re all mortal and we will all die. And if I am just a soul stuck in a bodysuit, I will celebrate this impermanence and live every day like it’s my last.

Ashley Lombardo
Ashley Lombardo
Ashley Lombardo is a freelance writer.

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