No trip is complete to my elderly parents in Florida without my Italian father’s reference on the second day to the “gray metal box” hidden deep in his closet.  This is not just any box but a symbol of his life’s achievements along with instructions about his last wishes when he passes on.  Many years ago when this ritual began it was quite disturbing to me as my parents were healthy and middle aged and seemed as though they would live forever.  Through the years I’ve learned to accept and respect the fact that I have parents who live their life according to their belief system and have made it known that they also want their wishes met when they die.   Although particulars may differ every country and every person has their own ritual when facing finality.

Sunrise over the Ganges.  I feel fresh, new. Two days ago I caught the overnight bus from Kathmandu to the Nepal/India border catching the connecting bus at 5:00AM to Varanasi which arrived late in the evening after several stops and two flat tires.  Now I stand on the banks of this sacred river where Hindu people bless their newborns and cremate the dying.  The Holy Mother Ganges is amazing, she takes it all.

The procession is headed my way, toward the river, six men carrying the deceased on a bamboo stretcher covered with a golden, silk fabric laden with orange and scarlet marigolds.  They are followed by flute players and a Brahmin priest chanting Hindu prayers.  They approach the ghat which has a real wood altar ready to be set ablaze.  I watch the ritual, the placement of the body, still covered on top of the platform.   The wife, long white hair dressed in a lavender sari with gold threads, stands in front while the eldest son with his traditionally shaved head lights the pyre.  Now, everyone is chanting, praying for the deceased.  I also chant, become one with them and their celebration of  impermanence.

The body leaves in strange ways.  This is my first cremation, I am without words, tears swelling inside, “this is life, this is death”!  After my epiphany I turn to the right smack dab into a brown, skinny, toothless man who says in perfect English,  “Madam, you need a bidi”, no thank you, “but yes, Madam, you need bidi”, no thank you.  I turn to the other side to plot my escape when I hear a whisper in my left ear, “You don’t need bidi Madam, you need boat!”  “Yes, Madam that is exactly what you need!”   Need bidi, need boat?  

It was two in the morning when we receive the news that Sonam had been killed in a fluke accident.  Another casualty in what some people call Sikkim’s “inherited” war.  Such a loss, he was only 29 years old. The gellings and bells began shortly after his body had been preserved on an altar.  For 45 days pujas or prayer services would be performed around the clock during the 45 day bardo in which time was allowed for Sonam’s spirit to find a new body.    

The “bardo” refers to the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth. According to Buddhist tradition, after death and before one’s next birth, when one’s consciousness is not connected with a physical body, one experiences a variety of phenomena. These usually follow a particular sequence of degeneration from, just after death, the clearest experiences of reality of which one is spiritually capable to, and up to terrifying hallucinations arising from the impulses of one’s previous unskillful actions. For the prepared and appropriately trained individuals, this time offers a state of great opportunity for liberation, since transcendental insight may arise with the direct experience of reality.  For others it can become a place of danger as the created hallucinations due to karma can impel one into a less than desirable rebirth. 

This was a very important time for Sonam, who had enjoyed a rather preferred existence in a well to do family during his short time on earth.   We visit Sonam’s family, the puja well underway, taking the traditional offerings of fresh milk, newly butchered meat and katas with neatly placed rupees in the fold.   We sit cross legged with due respect chanting for his safe passage in hopes that he is not too uncomfortable.   In a meditative haze I feel Sonam, his kind smile, his do anything for you attitude and also his confrontational style of outspokenness and defensiveness of his country maintaining its identity.   Sonam was a sign of his times and he had died for his right to be Bhutia, to be Sikkimese.  I can’t help but wonder how this will impact his finding a new being.

Muniyakka lives in a small hut in a far corner of the Raos garden, the family for whom she does cleaning, washing clothes and other household tasks assigned to her.  She has mastered the art of living alone since her husband passed away many years before.  Every day after her work is done for the Rao family, she proceeds to the nearby temple where she cleans the floors and shrine for additional rupees.  Muniyakka lives a peaceful existence during the day but when the swaying palms do their devil dances at night to the ocean’s breeze a darkness falls over her.

Today is the anniversary of Bairappa’s death and annually she performs sraddha or the Hindu death ritual and prayers.  She dresses in her cyan colored sari and puts golden marigolds in her hair before placing her husband’s favorite foods, fish curry, spiced rice, gently cooked cabbage and sweetened buns with jaggery on a banana leaf directly across from her.  She places a small bottle of toddy and a package of bidis between them.  The trees begin to dance wildly in the strong breeze.  Muniyakka looks into her husband’s eyes, yelling and cursing, “Why did you go, Bairappa, and now what is my life?”