Smoke at Three Rivers

BHAKATPUR, Nepal—We thought we were lost. This lonely, muddy road didn't look like the way to Hanuman Ghat, a cremation site sacred to Buddhists and Hindus in this ancient city. According to our map, the ghat was at the meeting spot of three small rivers, and a local had told us to turn at the bridge between two of them. But we were the only ones following this path, hopping over puddles and mounds of discarded trash left in the dirt, trailed by a man muttering to himself and walking in circles around us.

Then, where one river curved left, we found it. It was something I felt I couldn't fully understand, or something I didn't deserve to see: sculptures and shrines rising up from the banks, the bright flowers and colored powder left as vibrant offerings against grey stone. On the opposite banks of the river, dozens of old men sat in the wet grass, and a cloud of smoke that drifted the other way. We had intruded on this: Under the roof of an open structure, fire rose from a darkened heap, its color a bit too orange, its flames a bit too high.

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