On She Goes

Saying Goodbye to Grandma on the Ganges

My family has been bringing their dead to Haridwar, India for over 900 years.

Tara Anaïse
Tara Anaïse
January 25, 2018
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As someone who is half Indian, the first time I felt a real and genuine connection to my father’s homeland was when I traveled to Haridwar, India, in the spring of 2013. My paternal grandmother had just passed, and we were there to perform antyesti—Hindu funerary rites—and immerse my grandmother’s ashes in the sacred water of the Ganges River. Tradition dictates that the eldest son—in this case, my father—is the one who should preside over the rituals along with the priest. It’s not necessary that the ashes be scattered in the Ganges, but it is considered the holiest of rivers, and millions of people make pilgrimages every year to bathe in its water. A dip in the Ganges is thought to wash away sins. I’m not religious and neither is my father, but my grandmother was, and this is what she’d wanted. Even though I didn’t know her very well—we spoke different languages, and I was born and raised in the States, while she lived in Bombay—I wanted to go to India for this.

My father and my cousin picked me up at the airport in Delhi, and we headed five hours northeast into the foothills of the Himalayas. A hundred-foot-tall statue of the Hindu god Shiva rose up high above the road as we entered the holy city of Haridwar. The sun was setting over the river when we walked down the ghat, the concrete steps that lead down to the Ganges. Ornately carved stone temples lined its banks. People bathed in the river, grabbing onto the long metal chains bolted into concrete to keep from being swept up in the rushing current. Thousands were packed in along the ghat waiting for the nightly Ganga aarti ceremony to begin.

Temples on the banks of the Ganges in Haridwar, India.
photo by Tara Anaïse

On this trip, I learned that my family has been bringing their dead to this particular spot along the river for over 900 years. We’re Sindhis from Shikarpur, and there’s an area in Haridwar that’s specifically for us. I met Deepak, the Brahmin priest who comes from a long line of Brahmin priests, all of whom have worked with my ancestors. He led us down the narrow streets of the city’s market, winding around stalls made from sheets of plastic and corrugated tin, ducking through alleyways, until we reached a small hotel on a cobblestone street. In his office, Deepak unlocked a tall metal cabinet and pulled out a thick book of records that opened vertically. He flipped through its yellowed pages filled with Hindi, words I couldn’t read. These were the names of all the people who’d come here before us to perform the same rites, including members of my own family. He showed me the page my father had signed when he’d brought my grandfather’s ashes to the same spot many years before. I signed my name below, indicating that I’d come for my grandmother.

Deepak and another priest prepare for the first ceremony.
photo by Tara Anaïse

At home in the States, people constantly ask me where I’m from or “what” I am. But in India, I’m just another American tourist. There was something about seeing a physical representation of all of that history that made me realize that I do, in fact, come from this place, from these people.

The next morning, we woke at dawn and met Deepak at the ghat. We sat on the cold stone as he emptied my grandmother’s ashes onto a white cloth. He recited Sanskrit prayers as he let my father know what he should do: now place these marigolds on top of the ashes, now these seeds, now this water. It was clear that he, the son, had the most important role in this ritual. My cousin and I were hardly more than onlookers. Every once in a while, Deepak would point at us, instructing us to add a flower here or there, but it seemed like an afterthought. I didn’t mind. I liked the fact that neither my father nor my cousin understood Sanskrit. It made me feel less like an outsider.

Antyesti (Last Sacrifice) from tara anaïse on Vimeo.

I made a documentary of my trip to Haridwar, including the entire ceremony. The excerpt above is from a longer documentary, showing Deepak at the river and immersing my grandmother’s ashes in the Ganges. It was uncomfortable at first; it felt like I was filming something taboo. But I’m a filmmaker; that’s how I process and understand the world around me. I was making the film for my grandmother. After the last of these prayers, we immersed her ashes in the Ganges. Then my father did the Pind daan ceremony, where balls of rice are blessed and put into the river to symbolically nourish the soul on its journey to the afterlife. My father and I each took a dip in the icy water.

The nightly Ganga aarti ceremony begins.
photo by Tara Anaïse

We met Deepak again for another set of prayers the next morning. A group of Indian men near us looked at me, then said something in Hindi to my cousin.

“What did they want?” I asked.

“They asked what you were doing here. They said this place is for Sindhis from Shikarpur,” my cousin said. “I told them you are a Sindhi from Shikarpur.”