According to Ray Davies, this song is about the loss of his sister, who lived for a time in Ontario, Canada. Upon her return to England she developed a sickness and died while dancing at a night club. Just before she died she gave Ray his first guitar for his 13th birthday. Inspiration for the song came after a stopover in Bombay, where, finding himself jetlagged on a beach, Davies encountered two fishermen chanting on their way to their morning work. "I remember getting up, going to the beach and seeing all these fishermen coming along," said Davies. "I heard chanting to start with, and gradually the chanting came a bit closer and I could see it was fishermen carrying their nets out."
He wrote the song while traveling in India years later when he heard about the significance of the Ganges river in the Indian death ritual. Two years later he again used the metaphor of crossing a river in his song "Waterloo Sunset