Puja for a friend

February 14, 2013

We held a puja for Chris this evening, at sunset, on the banks of the Ganga River (mother Ganga, throughout India, the holiest of rivers), outside the Sacha Dam Ashram in Laxman Jhula. The sun was just setting, perfectly round and glowing pink/orange/red. The air was warm and glorious, the late afternoon unusually still and quiet for India.

Chris died eight months earlier.   We had spent a full week together in Rishikesh a few years back.   On my return, Kai, his widow and my beloved frien, offered me some of his ashes to bring with me.

The “we” of the puja involved four of us: A Dutch woman Yvonne, the only person here in Laxman Jhula who I knew had met Chris – we rafted on the Ganga together seven years ago on a wild, fun white-water trip; Premo (pronounced Pray-mo), a Dutch woman living in Denmark, gifted musician and professional songstress, whose métier is Sanskrit chants and devotional music; Gangaji, a friend of Premo and Yvonne’s, a member of the same spiritual community, who bluntly invited herself along (very helpfully, it turns out – she was a knowledgeable ritual master – douse yourself three times in the river, toss the flowers only with your right hand, that kind of thing); and myself.

I perch a borrowed metal tray next to the river and place on it the velvet sachel with Chris’s ashes, an acacia bracelet and rose quartz from a gathering I’d recently attended with Kai, and a newly purchased, beautifully carved wooden murti of Ganesha. This portable altar is then generously covered and transformed with dozens of marigold buds – yellow, orange, red, multi-hued; the traditional flower of offering, of ceremony, of puja, of the gods. The flowers spill over the tray (which is placed on rocks, not the sand, as per Gangaji), and Yvonne designs a floral mandala in the sand in front. Gangaji places a dozen incense sticks on the altar, held in place by the blooms, perfuming and gently smoking the air.

At Gangaji’s instruction I walk into the Ganga, wash my hands, and douse my head three times. My pants happen to unzip into shorts at the knee, and I go in the cool water this deep.

We sit. Premo plays her guitar and sings the Ganesha mantra, her voice deep and soulful. A gentle dog wanders by and joins us (I think of Aliyah, Chris’s dog who died a few years back). A raft of white-water rafters, finishing their day’s trip, floats by.

Premo finishes the chant. I talk of Chris for five or ten minutes – the size of his heart and the depth of his laugh. His generosity. How much he would love this. A sense of his personhood. Two or three personal stories and remembrances.

Premo plays and sings again: Another chant, the Gayatri mantra. I take up the sachel of ashes and, accompanied by the soft sweet music, walk back into the river. I open the sachel and, in small handfuls, spread Chris’s ashes – gently around me, then tossing them more boldly in all directions. I use my right hand only. Some ash hangs lightly in the air, in the gentlest of breezes, lingering like the smoke of a well-tended fire. Some catches the soft current and flows quickly downstream; some pools around my body. Throughout this, Gangaji, on the shore behind me, showers me, and Chris, and the river, with a continual spray of hundreds of marigolds. Still vibrant and abloom, the overhead spray of blossom mixes with the ash and the music and the sunset and the tranquil air, swirling around, drifting downriver, a Vedic ritual as old as memory.

As if on cue, someone on the other side of the river sets off a small display of home-made fireworks. It is the eve, I later learn, of the traditional start of the spring season.

The ashes are gone. Gangaji insists I also toss the plastic bag, even the green wiry twist that kept it closed, into the river. I do, but not the sachel or the acacia bracelet or the handsome Ganesha. I step out of the water, pick up the altar, and walk back in. Also with my right hand, bit by bit, the entire altar is fed to the river. We watch in silence as the flowers and incense and Chris and the puja, and of course eventually all of us, silently flow toward eternity, coming home.

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