Life and Death on the Ganges

Our boat was a beauty and her name was Sita. For ten days, she was our home on the Ganges – our portal into a world of few boundaries, where Hinduism is palpable and life and death confront the senses with brazen, and equal, abandon.

Women dressed in vibrant saris splash the holy water across the small frames of their children while, just a stone’s throw away, bodies of animals and humans brush against the banks as they work their way downriver.

Never before had I seen so much death nourish so much life. It was astonishing.

India’s river of extremes had called to me for a long time, in the same way Everest calls to the avid climber. But it was five years ago, during a conversation with one of the most well-traveled people I have ever met, the late Waterkeeper Alliance lawyer, Douglas Chapman, that my Ganges fascination reached fever pitch.

When I asked Chapman, “What’s the best country you’ve ever visited?,” he said “India” with a gleam in his eye. When I asked what the worst had been, he replied without hesitation: “India.” That’s when I knew I had to experience it for myself.

Tracing India’s Lifeline

My journey began in Rishikesh, where the Ganges descends from the Himalayas, bringing life, rebirth, and death to millions throughout India.

I had brought two trusted “river rat” friends, Doug and Cliff, who have accompanied me on many previous expeditions along for the ride as well as a first timer, Matt, an entrepreneur who wanted to take a break from the corporate grind. And we were ready for an adventure. 

When we finally reached the banks of the holy river, we submerged our bodies in its cold waters to wash away our sins and bless our travels. Then we met Ravi, our boatman, who makes his living as a private guide for Kensington Tours in Allahabad, and the lot of us began paddling to the dusty town of Gazipur, 250 miles to the east — deep into an India un-glimpsed by most Western eyes.

Brett Rogers as he greets a group of people along the shores of the Ganges. (Photograph by Brett Rogers)
Brett Rogers as he greets a group of people along the shores of the Ganges. (Photograph by Brett Rogers)

Sita’s 40-foot frame sliced through the sediment with ease as we sank our large bamboo oars into the river’s depths. As we propelled ourselves ever forward, with Ravi at the  stern, we passed a magnificent array of contradictions and extremes: ancient ghats, brilliant flowers, bloated pig carcasses, endless farms, forgotten ruins, bustling cities.

One afternoon, as we floated past a funeral procession, I asked Ravi how his people grieved when loved ones died. “When someone has lived a long time, we cannot be sad,” he replied. “We celebrate their passing.”

It made sense. We had rowed past several dozen cremations on our trip, and the scene was always the same: Families and friends looking on as a body wrapped in silk and decorated with marigolds and religious icons was set ablaze beside the holy river.

There was never any wailing or crying. Instead, we were greeted with waves and the odd person eager to practice their broken English proclaiming “Hello!” Death was no stranger on the Ganges. Just like the birth of a child, a good harvest, or an illness overcome, dying was viewed as a vital and sacred part of the human experience.

Hinduism and the Ganges

As a Kensington Tours Explorer-in-Residence, local guides greeted us on the river bank in the holy cities of Allahabad and Varanasi. Proud and spiritual, these men had been born and raised in these cities and provided priceless context to the everything we were witnessing. With their help, we were able to glimpse what life was really like for the people who live along this sacred waterway.

One morning in Varanasi, I watched as a man stood waist deep in the river drinking water from cupped hands and praying, while a decaying dog floated by only feet away. Acknowledging the dog, he displayed no hesitation when it came to bathing in the same water. This was not the exception; it was the rule.

I came to understand the Hindu belief that the stronger your connection to the Ganges, the better your chances of improving your status through reincarnation. For Hindus, the river is literally a living goddess, Ganga Ma. Thus, there is a holiness to all that enters its waters, living or dead.

Further downriver at the foot of an unassuming ghat, Ravi turned to us and said: “Here we embrace death, as it defines life. We bathe in and pray for Ganga Ma, for she washes away our sins and directs our reincarnation. Her waters give us hope that we can one day be liberated from this endless cycle of birth and death, and attain nirvana.”

Every River Runs its Course, Finding Life After Loss on the Ganges

On our last day in India, I found out my Gramma had passed away. She was 83 years old and had enjoyed good health and comfort all her life. Still, I was shocked by her sudden passing. Isolated on the other side of the world, I walked a stretch of beach alone just before sunset to say goodbye to her and to India. In my experience, nature is the best healing agent – the only way to make sense of things that make no sense.

As I watched the sun set, I realized something I had never realized at home. It was something that India, the Ganges, and Ravi had taught me. Ultimately, it was this lesson that unconsciously prepared me to deal with this personal loss.

Without death, life loses its meaning. In the West, death is something we deny and fear because it’s something we can’t control or even understand. But after rowing the Ganges I learned death is as purposeful as the setting sun. Death is necessary for life to continue and, like it or not, we all play our part in the circle.

Brett Rogers is an acclaimed river explorer, filmmaker, Kensington Tours Explorer-in-Residence and Explorers Club Member. Follow his adventures on Twitter @brettonthewater.


  1. Shahwar Hussain
    New Delhi / North East India
    April 14, 2013, 1:59 pm

    Brett…I Love the way you ‘tell’ the story…beautiful….You should come and ride the Bhramaputra river in Assam ( but I think you have already done that!!)..guess you will like the way we cross the river on wooden boats to go to Majuli Island…and for company, you will have people, cars, bikes on the roof, commercial goods, cattle…and maybe the occasional elephant too!!!
    Once again… I LOVE your story telling..
    Shahwar Hussain

    • Brett Rogers
      April 15, 2013, 10:23 pm

      Shahwar, I have always wanted to travel the Brahmaputra River! Thanks for your kind comments, I am glad you enjoyed my blog post. See you on the Brahmaputra one day…

  2. Victoria
    April 11, 2013, 11:59 am

    Hi Brett – love the shot of the boat on the Ganges – reminds me of old roman slaves rowing on the warships. I added you to my twitter to follow and comment in the future.


    • Brett Rogers
      April 13, 2013, 4:01 pm

      There is nothing like an epic shot of a wooden row boat on any river! And yes it does resemble a roman warship. Thanks for the twitter follow, see ya on the water. I thought you like this… a link from my Mississippi trip. That boat we built…

  3. Vinay Prabhu
    April 8, 2013, 8:00 am

    Hi Brett,
    Very well described so it turns out to be a great article.
    Your article and experience seems like you were born in varanasi near Ganges.
    And that what i called a intelligent travelling.
    I suggest you to visit Kanyakumari in india next time, you will get another great experience and will get another great article.
    By d way nice photos

    • Brett Rogers
      April 8, 2013, 8:25 am

      Vinay thanks for the note. I look forward to reading up on Kanyakumari which I trust is an incredible place. I have had the good fortune to travel many miles on many rivers, and I can tell you all rivers are connected to the same energy. We’re all brothers and sisters of water! From the Ganges to the Great Lakes, see ya on the water.

  4. Patricia
    April 7, 2013, 12:35 pm

    Your article was so beautifully written. Your depiction of the circular beauty of life and death that you experienced while rowing down the Ganges has inspired me to add this trip on my list of things I hope to one day do/see!

    • Brett Rogers
      April 7, 2013, 1:06 pm

      Patricia thanks for the post. I hope you can experience India too, as it will change the way you look at life and death.

  5. Kathy Thomas
    April 7, 2013, 10:43 am

    Can’t wait to see the movie Brett! What a great story. Thanks for sharing.

    • Brett Rogers
      April 7, 2013, 1:07 pm

      Thanks for the support. See ya on the riv!

  6. Joan Smith
    April 5, 2013, 11:46 pm


    • Brett Rogers
      April 6, 2013, 10:32 am

      Hi Joan. Yes India is one of those places, a land of extremes… never enough or too much! And yes I did sleep on your deck out on Vancouver Island, unfortunately no bears came to visit me that night. Enjoy the best coast.

  7. Susan Sgro
    Burlington On
    April 5, 2013, 9:35 pm

    Your adventures are fascinating Brett. You are ” living your dream” thanks for sharing

    • Brett Rogers
      April 6, 2013, 10:32 am

      Much appreciated. Thanks for the support, see ya on the water. :)

  8. praneet
    April 4, 2013, 12:02 pm

    Hey Brett,

    sure will take your advise and visit Varanasi..
    maybe then, i will be able to relate to ur experience there..
    Thanks for replying…

  9. Jmac
    Vancouver, BC, Canada
    April 2, 2013, 8:25 pm

    What a beautiful article!! Your writing is so vivid, I felt like I was in the boat with you, rowing down the Ganges. Is there anyway to see more pictures?? I have always wanted to go to India, Varanasi included and hope to do so when I am done University this spring… Merci

  10. praneet
    April 2, 2013, 2:05 pm

    Hey Brett,

    I liked the pic and ur interest in the country. but i would like to tell u that fear death as well..everyone wants to live. right?
    i have not been to varanasi but i still wonder how u and other people (whose blogs i have read) are able to see or percieve things the way u do about varanasi..i so wanted to go there but after reading bout it, it feels like it may not be a place i would wanna go..
    however, i do agree that india can be the best and worst!
    thanks for sharing ur experience;-)

    • Brett Rogers
      April 2, 2013, 2:17 pm

      Thanks for the note Praneet. The majority of the cremations that we witnessed did not take place in Varanasi but at unassuming locations all down the river. Most of the cremations took place on a sand bars with a couple dozen people standing around; no Ghats, no temples, no city beside it. That said, Varanasi is still an incredible place and I would highly recommend you make the trip. With regards to your comment about fearing death, I had never witnessed so many people (the people of the Ganges) live their lives surrounded by so much death with seemingly no fear of it. This was truly an eye opening experience, especially when I had to come to grips with my Gramma passing away while I was on the other side of the world. It simply made me think about things a little differently.

  11. isabella
    April 1, 2013, 7:00 pm

    awesome pics i love that town! dont you? lol im eight and smart i lovethat place! its sooo pretty!

    • Brett Rogers
      April 2, 2013, 7:45 am

      yes India is an incredible place. I hope to one day go back but if I do not, I am very fortunate to have seen India with my own eyes as are you. Thanks for the message Isabella.

  12. wendy watts
    Four Marks. UK
    April 1, 2013, 12:42 pm

    Brett, I really enjoyed reading this article. I’ve just got back to the UK after living in Delhi for 2 years. I travelled extensively (season & heat permitting) throughout my time & I recognise your words to be a true reflection of life & death in India. My Mum died suddenly (age 80) half way through my time in India and to help my grief I took a month long trip from Delhi to Leh in Ladakh by road. Every day I saw death, near death and birth. It helped so much. How and where can we see your film of your river journey? Thank You

    • Brett Rogers
      April 1, 2013, 12:47 pm

      Wendy, thanks for your message. I am glad my blog post was able to touch a cord with you. I am sorry about your Mum but happy to hear that India was able to help you put life and death into perspective. I am still working on the film from India which will be posted on my blog down the line… Best

  13. Andrew Orr
    New York City
    April 1, 2013, 9:43 am

    Slick article, amazing trip. I remember reading about you and your river travels in NG Travel before. Will you be making a doc from the trip?

    • Brett Rogers
      April 1, 2013, 9:54 am

      yep, making a short travel doc from the trip. it won’t be polished or fancy but it will take you on a journey down the Ganges through our eyes. tx’s 4 sharing your comment.