Maitra, a well-to-do Brahmin from East Bengal, has assembled a group of Pilgrims to journey by boat to a bathing-festival at the mouth of the Ganges. While the boat is being loaded, Moksada, a young widow, suddenly appears and begs to be allowed to join the pilgrimage. She says that her son Rakhal can stay with her sister Annada, who dotes on him. Maitra agrees to let Moksada come and she goes to fetch her things. While she is away, Rakhal is discovered hiding on the boat. The Boatman says that the boat is overloaded, but lets him stay. Moksada returns and unintentionally curses the boy in her irritation. A great storm gathers and Maitra blames Moksada. The passengers throw Rakhal overboard and Maitra’s conscience forces him to follow.
Dawn. As the boat hired to carry Maitra and his group of pilgrims is being loaded, Moksada appears, begging Maitra to let her join the pilgrimage. His concern is for Moksada's son Rakhal; but when Moksada says that Rakhal will stay with her elder sister Annada, Maitra agrees to let her join them. While she is away collecting her baggage, Rakhal is discovered hiding on the boat: he too wants to join the pilgrimage.
Moksada, returning, is horrified to find her son there. Although the Boatman claims the boat is overloaded, Rakhal's eagerness persuades Maitra to let him stay. Moksada, furious, curses her son, but immediately realises what she has done, seeks forgiveness and clasps her son to her.
Annada rushes in, appalled at losing Rakhal, and fearful for his safety on the journey. As the wind rises, the Boatman casts off.
An orchestral interlude evokes the voyage and the festival.
The pilgrims wait for the tide to turn so they can return home. Rakhal is now restless and homesick, while Moksada's anxiety about her curse remains, despite the festival.
The tide swiftly rises and the boat sets out. At first, Maitra and the Pilgrims are exhilarated by the strong wind and current, but Rakhal is frightened, clinging to his mother. The wind turns to a storm: the Pilgrims call on the Boatman to head for the shore, but the boat is now out of control. The gods are angry, claims the Boatman, at having been cheated of their due: the Pilgrims throw their belongings overboard, but to no avail.
Maitra now points to Moksada as the one to blame, and in their panic and fear the other passengers urge that Rakhal be sacrificed to save the rest. Moksada desperately tries to protect him, without success: Rakhal is thrown into the water.
The boy's drowning screams awaken Maitra's conscience. As the sun sets and darkness falls, Maitra leaps into the sea.
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