‘Often, We Bring Home The Half Burnt Logs Of Wood From The Pyres To Cook Food On’
On the ghats of Ganga in the ancient city of Varanasi, the Dom community is indispensable to the last rites of the deceased. Yet its people are socially ostracised, have no access to education, and lead a life of poverty. But, winds of change are blowing…
Dewesh Pandey 16 Aug 2023 11:23 AM GMT
Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
Vipul Dom works out of the steps of Manikarnika Ghat, one of the holiest ghats on the banks of Ganga in Varanasi, where hundreds of pyres burn non-stop every day in the hope the dead person attains moksha.
Vipul has no fixed working hours — there are days when his work begins at Manikarnika Ghat with the first rays of the sun — and there are no lunch or tea breaks either.
Pungent smell of burning dead bodies and ashes flying thick in the air are his work environment, and over the years he has got used to the sights and smells of the corpses. There are days he eats nothing, busy burning pyre after pyre, and filling his stomach with water.
“We remain hungry because there is no ‘fixed timing’ for the dead,” Vipul told Gaon Connection. “It is our responsibility to light the funeral pyre as quickly as we can, so that the relatives of the deceased who travel long distances, do not have to wait unnecessarily. We just fill our stomachs with water,” he added.
Vipul belongs to the Dom community of the ancient city of Kashi (Varanasi) in Uttar Pradesh, whose members live a life of seclusion along the ghat. Neeraj Ghaywan’s Bollywood movie Masaan, released in 2015, is centred around the Dalit Dom community of Varanasi that faces ostracism and discrimination.
Also Read: Waiting To Die In Kashi
The Doms have been poetically referred to as ‘gatekeepers to heaven’, because it is they who first torch the funeral pyre of the deceased. And, they do this day in and day out throughout the year. But considered ‘lower caste’, they lead a life of abject poverty and are caught in several social ills, including under-age marriage.
Though Doms are indispensable to perform the funeral rites, even of the high born, they are considered ‘untouchable’ by many, even today. “People from ‘upper castes’ won’t drink a drop of water from our home,” Ajay Dom said as a matter of fact.
Doms work with fire, but often they cannot afford a stove at home. “Our earnings are meagre and we usually can’t afford to buy wood or get a gas cylinder. So we often bring home the half burnt logs of wood from the pyres, and our women cook food on it,” Sanjay Dom told Gaon Connection.
The community has no fixed income from the work it does at funerals. “There are times the family members pay us what they think is fit or they can afford,” said Vipul.
It is a hard life. And one that sometimes shakes their souls. “In a day Manikarnika Ghat receives about a thousand corpses. Largely, we have got used to the dead, and funerals are just a job to be done. But, there are days when the body of a child is brought for cremation and it is heartbreaking,” said Pravin, another Dom. “We too have children and lighting up the pyre of a child who could have been our own is horrible,” he sighed.
For most of the community, there is no getting away from their job. “We are born into poverty and bred in poverty for generations, and are mostly unlettered,” said Ajay Dom, who had just returned from the ghats and a funeral pyre.
According to him, their challenges are tougher in the sweltering summers in the months of May and June when they have to light pyres with temperatures crossing 38 degrees Celsius. “When Ganga floods between July and August, the ghats get submerged. In such times we do the last rites right in the lanes and bylanes near our homes,” said Pravin.
“Sometimes the damp wood being used in the funeral pyre smokes so much that our homes are filled with black smoke. On those days we order food from outside,” he added.
Only the Dom menfolk work. The women are married off early, sometimes when they are only fourteen or fifteen years old, and the men no more than 18 or 20 years old.
But the women do have one important role in the funeral rites. They decorate the agni kund or fire pit, from where the first torch is lit for the pyre. “The women take turns to do it. Anyone can do it. Only the woman should not be having her periods, she should not be pregnant, and she should undertake the decorating work in utmost secrecy without telling others about it,” explained Ajay.
A large number of Dom community members are unlettered. “Not too many people in our community are educated. For one, our parents did not think schooling was important at all, and for another, we were always poor. The pressure was on to start earning as soon as we could, so schools took a back seat,” said Ajay.
But, there are winds of change that are blowing through the community. “Now, we leave no stone unturned to ensure our children go to school. Our hope is that education will open doors for them and they will get respect from society, something we have been deprived of,” said Pravin.
“We are constantly fighting to get a better life for our community. Better homes and free education for our children,” Onkar Chowdhury, who heads the Varanasi Dom Community, told Gaon Connection. We have represented our demands to the government many times, he added.
When Gaon Connection approached Ashok Tiwari, the Mayor of Varanasi, he said, “The Dom community is an intrinsic part of our society. We are working on a plan to provide the children a better education using the Municipal Fund Budget.”
Despite the special exclusion, the Dom community is proud of sharing the story of how its people were denied entry into the presence of Shiva at the Kashi Vishwanath temple along with none other than Maharaja Harishchandra. When that happened Raja Harishchandra, set up temples of Shiva on the ghats, who came to be known as Baba Masan.
“Baba Masan is our deity. He is there with us in joy and in sorrow. He carries us through life and is always there for us,” said Ajay. Every morning, before they set off for the burning ghats, the Doms worship Baba Masan.
“Without Baba Masan it would be very difficult to do what we do. The smell is intolerable and sometimes when we get bodies after post mortems, it is awful,” said Pravin as he rushed out of his house to light another pyre at Manikarnika Ghat.