Life and Death – Sarayu River, India

By the time the first takeout approached my body ached everywhere from the rivers batting. The river and our boats had been the only mode of transport for the previous five days, but it was back to the terrifying roads and down to the Sarayu river.

After a few days of no rain on the river, slow fat drops fell on our window shields. We passed through huge towns with black smith shops. Wooden street shelves full of carrots, cabbages, bananas, and mangoes. Sweet shops showcased rows of strange squares under glass cases. Cages of chickens, mismatched sandals, and bags of chips hung like flower garlands on the sides of wooden shops.

The shopkeepers always seem to be men who spend half their time rolling cigarettes and talking to their compadres. Voda phone orange covered shops, and a suspiciously white man with gray hair painted for a cement company. We passed roadside tea shops made of smoky tin shingles. They seem pieced together like a Jenga set. The wheels rolled over concrete bridges and past temples built on islands.

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A holy man watches us pack buses. 

The culture of India was inescapable. In the wilderness camped on lonely Kali beaches, we had visitors almost every evening and morning. The night before, ten boys jumped into their tubes and paddled furiously across from Nepal. Their faithful dog followed them across a river as wide as a four lane highway. Every rapid scout was met by a rag tag gang of children shadowing us.

Water buffalo drank happily on the river sides while hordes of monkeys drank on the other side. The birds constantly flew in front of our boat, Himalayan griffins, king fishers, and more.

The mountains flashed by and we arrived at the Sarayu river. The fields were a piercing green as we wound through them to the banks with our gear. The rhythm of river life easily took to us again as we wound down the Sarayu’s warm water.

The river ran into the Kali again after a few days, pushing its blue waters into the green Kali. A huge temple graced the banks of the confluence. In India river confluences are holy as are the rivers themselves.

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The white walls sat high above on stone stairs. We anchored our turquoise boats to the rocks and walked up the large steps. They rose high as if made for gods not mere mortals. The warm sun hit my face as I pulled my shoes off and entered the holy space.

The temple air hit me, infusing me with a presence I could not name. The white buildings capped by red roofs scattered around the grounds. I walked clockwise around the monks and flags. A quiet entered my mind as I thought back to the past days on this river in India. Life here was so intricately intertwined with death.

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Entering the temple barefoot

A few days ago as we passed a beach with vultures devouring a corpse. The first body I’d ever seen shocked me. It wasn’t a graphic scene but a raw one that I was not use to experiencing in my sheltered western life. The river had taken this man and given him back to nature. The power of the waters shook me to the bone. Here on the water, I was at the complete mercy of the river and nature. It is not often we live so simultaneously with death in America.

Below us burial ceremonies began on the banks. Buses pulled in with families. They slowly built funeral pyres and delicately lifted the dead, swathed in their red cloth, to the river bank. As the smoke lifted into the air, the line between death and life was as tangible as the blue water meeting the green. The spirits and energies of death filled me with an immense sense of life.

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Much like the purity of river living, existing in such a stark reality distills your existence. I followed the footsteps out of the arch under the bell and walked back to our rubber boats. A vast sense of gratitude for my being hit me as we surrender to the river’s journey again.

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