Making a living from the dead: the sad plight of Varanasi's 'traditional cremators'

Working from dawn to dusk at Manikarnika Ghat on the Ganges, carrying wooden logs, setting up pyres and burning the deceased

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On a humid afternoon, a visibly exhausted Panchkoshi Chaudhary rushed into an open stone hall on the ground floor of a crematorium on the edges of a flooded Ganges river in India’s holy Varanasi city.

Mr Chaudhary, 35, had just returned to the room after performing countless funerals on the upper floor of the structure that houses the country’s busiest and most sacred crematoriums.

With bodies being cremated round the clock, the air outside the building is often filled with the smell of burnt corpses, while clouds of ash rise from the metal chimneys. Nearby, stray dogs and mourners mill together.

Inside the room, two pots with rice and chicken were brimming on the eternal embers that are used to set fire to endless pyres.

Mr Chaudhary and nearly half a dozen of his colleagues, all sweating and covered in ashes, sat unfazed from the horrid scenes, desperately waiting to have the hearty meal. They were all famished from hours of exhaustion from burning dozens of pyres.

Mr Chaudhary is a Dom or a traditional “cremator” at Varanasi’s Manikarnika Ghat, one of the holiest cremation grounds by the river Ganges, earning a living from the “dead” and claiming their place in society.

“We have been burning bodies, day and night. This is a service that we offer to people irrespective of their background and the money they could give us,” Mr Chaudhary told The National.

Corpse burners in India’s Varanasi make a living among the dead

Corpse burners in India’s Varanasi make a living among the dead

Moksha and death business

Many Hindus believe the sacred city situated on the Ganges river and the abode of the deity Lord Shiva, is touched by spirituality, and those who die here attain Moksha or salvation — a concept of freedom from the eternal cycle of death and rebirth.

According to the Hindu faith, after death the soul transmigrates depending on karma — or one’s actions, to a new body for the next life, with many believing those dying in the holy city attain instant salvation.

Some even say mere cremation of the dead in the city will bring salvation to the deceased, bringing droves of faithful to the ghat, with the bodies of friends and relatives, every day.

The Ganges, the holiest river among Hindus, is also significant as mourners immerse the ashes from the cremations in the river to attain salvation and make cremation one of the biggest businesses in the city.

Rows of shops and large boats line the area selling firewood and priests roam to help relatives go through mourning and funeral rituals.

Sacred fire

According to Hindu beliefs, the Doms were once Brahmins — the highest caste among Hindus, who were cursed by Lord Shiva when a member of their community named Kallu Dom tried to steal an earring of his consort, Goddess Parvati. In anger, the god cursed him to live the life of an untouchable.

After Kallu Ram pleaded for mercy and sought to return the jewellery, Lord Shiva gave him the Manikarnika Ghat — meaning “earrings” and a sacred fire for cremation.

The Doms say they are Kallu Ram’s descendants and have been engaged in the cremation work for ages.

There are about 40 families who live in the winding alleys of the Ghat — the steps linking the banks to the sacred river, surrounded by temples, but secluded from the rest of the city.

They work for Jagdishwar Chaudhary, the Dom Raja or King of Doms, a wealthy owner of the Ghat.

The Holy Flame

For centuries, the 35-year-old man’s ancestors have been the keepers of the Holy Flame — believed to have been burning for thousands of years — that is used to supply the torch to ignite all the funeral pyres in the Ghat.

Twice a day, Mr Chaudhary visits the Ghat, where he performs a prayer ritual and looks at the rota to assign the task to his colleagues. It is only after his approval that the fire is supplied for burning pyres.

“I am proud of our work. This has been assigned to us generation after generation. This is a tradition and we will continue doing this,” he said.

Whether people are kings, Brahmins, rich or poor, Doms supply fire to cremate everybody, without asking for any money in return.

The local municipality set a standard rate of 100 rupees for their work in 1998 but Doms don't demand compensation.

“People offer us cattle, houses, and money. But we don’t ask anyone for money. We are doing social work. At times, we do it for free for people who have no money, we even pay for their pyre and other expenses,” he said.

However, he pays 250 rupees ($3) to the workers for each cremation.

Life after cremation

Doms live an impoverished life.

They live in one-room houses lined up against each other with hardly any basic facilities.

They work from dawn to dusk, carry wooden logs, set up the pyre and burn the dead irrespective of the season and the weather. But in return, they make paltry sums. Once the embers from the pyre fade, the children bring pots for collecting coal to use for cooking.

The Doms also sift ashes in the Ganges for any gold jewellery the corpse had worn. More often, they suffer from health issues due to the constant inhaling of ashes.

“Money is not enough. If we find some jewellery pieces, it helps … we live in extreme hardship,” Srikant Chaudhary, 24, said.

The job of the Doms is male-dominated and women in the community don’t step out of their homes. And while some send their children to school, most Doms don’t see any other future for them except joining the ancestral work, due to alienation in society.

Hinduism is a caste-driven religion where people from the lower castes are discriminated against by dominant castes. The government runs several schemes for the education and betterment of lower castes, but more often, a culture of disrespect towards their communities and entrenched inequality stymies their growth.

Babu Lal Chaudhry, 38, has three sons and two daughters. He sends his children to school but is worried about their future.

“People look down upon us because we cremate people. But this is a job that has been passed down to generations.

“I do not have any shame but I want my children to study and get a well-paying job.”

Updated: November 21, 2022, 6:54 AM