Rite of Passage

by Raji Jayaraman and Gayatri Jayaraman*

Spirits of our ancestors in Dhanushkodi

Embarking on a road trip destined for a deserted strip of land on India’s southern coastline had never been on our radar. Neither had we imagined making such a trip in order to consecrate our mother’s ashes to the sea. After her death in September 2019, we had fully intended to do something but going through a religious ritual was not necessarily top of mind. For starters, neither of us is religious. Our brother is a proselytizing atheist and we are both agnostic, on optimistic days. Ironically enough our mother, though deeply religious, had not expressed a wish for rituals. A compulsive altruist till the bitter end, she had wanted to donate her body to science, but this option was not viable so her body was cremated instead. Then Covid intervened. 

For two and a half years, our mother’s ashes sat in a box in Toronto. And during this time we attempted, with mixed success, to cope with the depth of our loss. Our mother was a force of nature, a remarkable woman. She was vivacious, filling each room she entered with her contagious laugh. She listened without judgment, she gave without expectation, she loved fully and unconditionally. True to her nature, she accepted her stage 4 ovarian cancer diagnosis with grace but tried to hold it at bay for as long as she could. Two years after her initial diagnosis she died peacefully, surrounded by her family. We cremated her body the next day. She didn’t want a public service and frankly, neither did we. The loss was too personal. We sent an obituary out to her friends and extended family and published a death announcement in a few Indian newspapers, but we didn’t hold a funeral.

Funerals do, of course, exist for a reason. They provide a space in which the living can mourn the dead and honour their lives. But we didn’t want (or believe we needed) a ceremony in order to do this properly: we mourn our mother’s passing every single day. As for honouring the lives of the deceased, our mother had made it very clear that she didn’t want anyone besides us at her funeral so a memorial service was out of the question. What we have done instead is to honour her life of service by donating time and money to causes that she cared about. She would have liked that.

Then there’s religion. In the Hindu practice to which our parents subscribe, funeral rites secure comfortable passage to the afterlife. While mourning and honouring our mother’s life was something we felt we were doing, this passage to the afterlife business was somewhat trickier to navigate. We don’t believe in an afterlife and although our mother did, she was dead. You can see our conundrum. At the end of the day, the fact that our father believes in an afterlife and maintains that funeral rites are necessary to secure safe passage was reason enough to run with this. We decided to return to India with our mother’s ashes. 

The question was where exactly in India we would perform these rites. There needed to be a body of water, partly because of the Hindu belief that if the deceased’s ashes are dissolved in water—ideally in the Ganges—their soul escapes the cycle of rebirth, attaining moksha. In a culture that believes in reincarnation, the aspiration for moksha is profound. Even to us non-believers, the idea of dissolving our mother’s ashes in water resonated; there was something about a rushing river or an endless sea that seemed compatible with release. Unsurprisingly, our father wanted to conduct the rituals on the banks of the Ganga river, in Gaia or Rishikesh, but we managed to convince him otherwise. The sheer volume of people cremated there has made a commerce of death. It’s filthy and crowded, and we just couldn’t contemplate the idea of our mother’s funeral rites being conducted by a hawker, her ashes festering in sewage. 

Like migratory birds, our parents spent their winters in India and summers in Canada and Europe. During their sojourns in India, they toured temples across the length and breadth of the country. Some of their fondest memories were of these trips. So another option was to relive the experience and deposit small portions of our mother’s ashes into holy bodies of water in auspicious sites. But over the two and a half years that my mother’s ashes sat in the box in our father’s bedroom, he was tormented by the thought that she wouldn’t be able to find her way to the other side if bits and pieces of her were scattered across the subcontinent. Her ashes needed to be consecrated in a single place. 

In the end, we settled upon Dhanushkodi. It is here that the God Rama atoned for having killed Ravana, the King of Lanka. As such, Hindus consider it to be an auspicious place to perform last rites. Perched on the southeastern tip of Tamil Nadu, Dhanushkodi lies in one of India’s most spectacular coastal stretches. It is approximately twenty kilometres east of the town of Rameshwaram with Sri Lanka’s coastal settlement of Talaimannar barely thirty kilometres away. Once a bustling town, it was permanently destroyed by a cyclone in 1964. Today, only a handful of fishers call it home. 

At 6:00 a.m., we arrived at the priest’s house in Rameshwaram. It was peak summer, and we wanted to get the three-hour ceremony completed before the sun fried us to a crisp on the naked beach. As the priest gathered puja items for the funeral rituals, we spotted his neighbour drawing a kolam using rice powder on the threshold of her house. A typical Tamil tradition, kolams are drawn to welcome the Goddess Lakshmi, the bestower of prosperity, and to drive away evil spirits.  The neighbour could have been a younger version of our mother. After we complimented her on the beauty of her design, she asked why we were there. 

When we tell people in the West that our mother died, they express their condolences. They mean well, but it’s awkward. It prompts tears, which we would rather shed in private. Besides, what is the correct response? “Thank you”? “We miss her very much”? “That’s ok”? Nothing seems adequate. Sometimes we end up comforting the enquirer. Surely, that should not be our role. The neighbour was different. She didn’t express her condolences when we told her that our mother had died and we were there to conduct her funeral rites. She wasn’t “sorry for our loss”. She acknowledged the information we had just shared with a solicitous nod and then went quietly about her business, drawing her kolam, symmetrical in shape: a reminder that the universe is in balance.

We encountered this type of response from almost everyone in India. And we found it strangely comforting. In our mother’s death, we had suffered a profound loss. But it was the natural order of things. Parents are supposed to die before their children. Besides, for the people in India to whom we spoke death didn’t mark an ending. It represented a passage, and that is what the funeral rites were about – marking and honouring that passage.

Danushkodi lies on an impossibly narrow land bridge with the Indian ocean on one side and the Bay of Bengal on the other. We stepped out of the car onto a deserted, windswept beach.  And then it hit us—we were in a sacred space where the sea meets the horizon, at the tip of the bridgehead leading to the pearl of the Indian ocean. The perfect place for our mother to cross over.

As women, we had no formal role in Hindu funeral rituals. This responsibility lies with husbands and sons of the deceased. So it was our father who played the lead role. We were bit players with no lines, until the priest generously assigned to us the choir, instructing us to recite over and over again, “mamma mathrumukthi pradho bhava”, which we were told meant, “give our mother moksha”. The priest guided our father through various rites. There was the consignment of our mother’s ashes to the sea (asthi visarjan); the prayer for her safe passage, with the request that she be received like a queen on the other side (pinda pradhanam); and prayers for the wellbeing of those she had left behind (lingam abhishekam).

The ceremonies ended with the three of us walking through the crashing waves into the Indian Ocean, carrying a banana leaf laden with flowers, a garland, puffed rice, and our mother’s favourite foods. Thatais, which she devoured noisily while telling us stories; laddoos, which she sneaked when she thought no one was looking; and rava-laddoos, every bite of which she relished. How she loved sweets. We immersed the food in the ocean as an offering to her, returning empty-handed to the beach. The puffed rice, washed back to the shoreline, drew undulating lines as the waves receded. Then as if from nowhere crows, said to embody the spirits of our ancestors, swooped in to have their fill.

The memory of our mother, always with us, is ephemeral. But in those three magical hours, she was front and centre. And it was the rituals—the purposeful action, rather than abstract thoughts, which followed antiquated protocol that was distinct and apart from the quotidian use of language and objects-–that we found so moving. It was not what we had expected but the rites made us feel lighter, physically almost. They allowed us to celebrate our mother, mourn her death, and most importantly, focus on the passage to what comes next. Not because we believe in an afterlife, but because death is the natural order of things, and life somehow must go on.


*Gayatri Jayaraman is Lalitha Jayaraman’s first born child and Raji’s sister.