Doms of Varanasi make a living among the dead

Life is everywhere in the cremation grounds of Varanasi. On a recent Saturday, people chanted sacred hymns as family members’ bodies burned on pyres of wood. Goats and cows chewed on garlands of marigold flowers left behind from funeral rites, and beggars and sages hung around looking for alms. Nearby, tourists sought a better view of the whole thing.

An earthen pot carrying Ganges water, considered sacred by Hindus, lies on the ashes of a pyre at a cremation ground in Varanasi June 13, 2007. REUTERS/Arko Datta

Situated on the banks of the Ganga, Varanasi is one of the holiest cities for Hindus. Pilgrims and visitors come from around the world to explore its temples and culture. The constant smell of burning camphor from the rituals performed at the temples and the sound of Indian classical music drifts through the city’s streets.

Death is the big attraction. Believers say that those who are cremated in Varanasi attain “Moksha”, or freedom from the cycle of life and death.

At the Harishchandra ghat, amidst a maze of burning pyres, 68-year-old Yamuna Devi watched a corpse arrive, wrapped in white cloth and covered with flowers. Chanting the sacred prayer “Ram Naam Sathya Hain” (“The name of Lord Ram is the truth”), the family members took the corpse towards the river Ganga, for one last dip before cremation. Devi tended to an oven in a temple at the ghat, getting the fire ready to cremate the body.

Just when the cleansed corpse was placed on a four-foot-high pyre built with wood, Yamuna Devi arrived at the scene. She handed over a torch to the son of the deceased. As he circled the pyre and lit the wood, relatives watched in silence. Devi ordered her helpers to wait for the body to burn completely and then collect the ash and release it into the Ganges.

Yamuna Devi is a Dom. Doms are the caretakers of the cremation grounds and the main keepers of the fire that lights the pyres. “One cannot enter the gates of heaven if their bodies are cremated without the presence of a Dom,” said Devi. “But people only respect us when it’s time for death so we have made a life, living amongst the dead.”

According to Hindu mythology, the Doms were cursed by Lord Shiva when a member from their community named Kallu Dom tried to steal an earring of the goddess Parvati. To gain forgiveness, they agreed to become the keepers of the flame.

Today, about 35 families from the community live around the town’s main cremation grounds or “burning ghats” - Manikarnika ghat and Harishchandra ghat. These ghats cover an area of about 7 square kilometres each, lining the banks of the river. The smell of dead bodies and clouds of black smoke fill the air around these cremation grounds. Their proximity to the river is because of the religious importance of the Ganga in cremation rituals. The river is considered the holiest in India. After the cremation process, Hindus release the ashes from incinerated dead bodies into the river, with the belief that the soul of the corpse will be cleansed.

Doms belong to the lowest ranks of the “Dalits”, themselves at the bottom of the Hindu caste system. Some are employed as farmers or weavers, but many earn their livelihood through the “business of death”.

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Devi took over the family business when she became a widow. “After my husband died, I was sent back to my mother’s house. But society looked down on me ... I had to find a way to sustain myself and returned to become a Dom, despite criticism from my husband’s family,” Devi said.

Today, Devi is one of the main funeral directors at the Harishchandra ghat. She spends about eight hours at the cremation grounds, seven days a week. She charges a fee of 300 rupees ($5) per body.

“A few years ago, we used to provide the firewood and other materials needed for the cremation process. But now, people buy these materials from dealers and shops near the cremation grounds, and our job is to only provide the ‘agni’ or the fire,” she said.

She added that the type of wood used to build the pyres depends on the family’s choice. “The rich prefer sandalwood while the poor are happy with any kind of wood,” she said.

Bodies are generally dressed in a white shroud and sacred ash called “Vibhuti” is applied on the forehead. Flowers are also used to adorn the body. Typically, Doms will receive 20 to 50 bodies a day. “There are days when I earn just 300 rupees ($4.5) and days when I’ve made more than 6,000 rupees ($92),” said Dom Shyam Chaudhary.

Dr K.K. Sharma, who has written a book on Varanasi and life in the cremation grounds, said business is good. “When a corpse enters the cremation grounds, you will see about five to 10 individuals surrounding the body. One tries to negotiate a good price for the firewood, while others sell ghee, incense sticks, flowers and other materials needed for cremation.”

“Once the corpse burns completely, the young children from the Dom family collect the clothes or jewels (of) the corpse and sell it in shops,” Sharma said. “Any wood and other materials which have not been used for the incineration are also sold or used in Dom households.”

In 1998, the Municipal Committee of Varanasi got the Doms to charge a standard rate of 100 rupees ($1.5) for their work. But this did not last. In most cases, Doms charge people what they seem to be able to afford.

At the Manikarnika ghat, Ram Yadav, a farmer from a nearby village, was arguing with the main funeral director. Yadav got a quote of 600 rupees ($9) to cremate his father’s body. “Jagdish Chaudhary, the Dom raja at the ghat, was able to judge my financial background with one quick look, but refused to lower his rate,” he said. Unable to afford the price, Yadav exchanged his wife’s gold bangle in return for the sacred flame.

Chaudhary disputed the notion that Doms are opportunity seekers. “Why would I exploit someone when I am treated like an outcast myself? We accept whatever people give us and cremate everybody respectfully.”

Thirty-year-old Shyam Chaudhary wanted to become a motorbike mechanic, but couldn’t become one because he was a Dom. Nobody was willing to train him and he was even denied access to education, making him accept that earning a livelihood at the cremation grounds was his only choice.

But, he did not want his children to work as Doms. “The foul smell of dead bodies is something I don’t want them to live with forever. Times have changed and they are now accepted in schools. I hope they become doctors or work for the government,” Chaudhary said.

Yamuna Devi said that even if some Dom children leave their families, Doms will continue to thrive. “Nothing can threaten the business of the Doms, because of our importance in the Hindu faith.”

Raju Kumar, the owner of a tea stall near the ghats, said many of the Doms might be resigned to working here, but it is hard on them. “Many of them consume large amounts of alcohol, chew on gutka (a mixture of tobacco and crushed nuts) and smoke excessively to forget the kind of work they do,” he said.

Many Doms tend to develop respiratory diseases because of smoke from the pyres, according to Vijay Limaye from the Eco Friendly Living Foundation, an NGO based in Nagpur.

Limaye has been trying to introduce healthier ways of cremating bodies in Varanasi, which he said would benefit the environment and improve the health of Doms. “I have convinced Doms to use cow dung and agricultural waste to cremate bodies. Though they have agreed, the wood dealers are angry - making it tough for us to introduce such a form of cremation,” he said.

Devi plans to continue to do things her way until she dies. “This job empowers me. I am often insulted for doing this job as a woman and a widow. But people don’t realise that on a cremation ground, your gender, caste or marital status does not matter. I live with that belief and will continue serving the dead.”