Monday, April 25, 2016

Unusual Occupations - The Undertakers at Manikarnika Ghat

The Undertakers at Manikarnika Ghat

Legend in Hindu mythology has it that King Harishchandra gave away his kingdom, sold his family and agreed to be a slave – all to fulfill a promise he had made to the sage Vishwamitra. After nearly losing everything to fulfill his promise when King Harishchandra  came to the cremation grounds with his son’s corpse, the toll collector at the cremation ground demanded from him  the tax to give a flame from the sacred fire that would light the funeral pyre of his son.  Since he had nothing else left to give, in order to uphold his promise King Harishchandra gave himself up to apprentice at the cremation ground  in exchange of the sacred fire to light the funeral pyre of his son. It was at that moment that the Lord who  had disguised himself as Kallu Dom revealed himself and returned to the king his kingdom, his wife and brought his young son Rohit back to life.

The Holy fire that is kept burning 
The present day Dom’s at the Manikarnika ghat on the banks of river Ganges in Varanasi are believed to be the descendants of Kallu Dom and have since then been the gatekeepers on the cremation Ghats on the banks of the Ganga where it is believed that the dead when cremated will be free of the cycle of rebirth and thus the soul would attain moksha or liberation. 

The Dom’s collect the tax to give the flame from the sacred fire that has been lit there since 3500 years ( and never extinguished ) which would then go on to light the funeral pyre by the eldest son of the deceased or a close relative. The Dom’s have been accused of extortion from the rich and poor alike for giving what they hold a monopoly over and that which is necessary by the Hindu belief for a dead person’s soul to attain liberation.

It is also rumored that in the earlier decades they have extorted title deeds of farm lands written in their name when the poor farmers from the hinterlands  came down to cremate their dead fathers or mothers and asked for the sacred fire to light the funeral pyre.

It used to be a common practice to demand the tax according to the dead person’s net worth when the relatives came to cremate the dead. Like they say there is no going back from the business for the dead person and it would take a really cold hearted and mean son not to give his mother or father a safe passage into eternity all because the undertaker was swindling him. The keys to the passage to eternity are a sole monopoly of the Dom’s. Not very different from the days of Raja Harishchandra one would think.

But then that is not the story you get to hear at the Manikarnika ghat from them where they work 24/7 burning the dead bodies that find their way to Kashi from all over the country.

It is about noon time. Leading to the stairways of the Manikarnika ghat is the temple of the God dedicated to the cremation grounds. Beneath the temple is the sacred fire that is burning on a pile of wooden logs that have been added to keep it alive. It is the fire that has been there since 3500 years and has been kept aflame by the Dom’s at the Manikarnika Ghat.

Ram naam satya hai’ … 'Ram naam Satya hai' … (God is the ultimate truth)

One hears constantly the chorus voices of relatives who bring the dead corpses to the cremation ghat in a stretcher made of bamboo poles carried by six relatives of the deceased person. The chief one being the son of the deceased. Other relatives take turns and hold the stretcher over their shoulders.

The corpse is taken down to the river where it is given its last dip in the holy river. A few drops of Ganga water is poured into the mouth of the deceased by the son before it is brought to rest on the funeral pyre made of about 300 kilograms of chopped wood.

Around the Manikarnika ghat are shopkeepers and merchants who supply all the bric-a-brac required for  cremating the dead. Three hundred kilograms of firewood being one of them. Firewood chopped from different varieties of trees is stocked up in huge quantities inside and around the unused temples that are close to the ghat. With about 350 dead bodies getting cremated everyday it is not easy to keep a healthy inventory. The narrow alleyways that lead to the ghat from the main roads are completely unsuitable for any motored vehicle to carry the load.

Everyday around 1000 quintals of chopped wood is ferried on boats across the Ganges to be stocked up at the Manikarnika ghat by merchants who sell firewood when dead bodies are brought to the cremation ground to be cremated. Apart from firewood huge quantities of ghee ( clarified butter) needed as a fuel to keep the pyre burning, turmeric, sesame seeds , barley , sandalwood scraps, incense sticks, flowers and robes to cover the dead are sold by merchants that have set shop as you approach the Manikarnika ghat.

Technically these are not the jobs done by the Dom’s. Their chief occupation is to give the funeral pyre a flame from the sacred fire, on a dried piece of grass brought into Kashi especially from the hinterlands of Bihar and Uttarpradesh. Once the fire on the funeral pyre is lit the Dom’s take over and ensure that the body is burnt completely. About ten to fifteen minutes after the funeral pyre has been lit, one hears the sound of the skull cracking open. This signifies the escape of the soul from the physical body. Later the bones and the flesh are pushed into the central part of the funeral pyre so that all parts of the body are burned and turn into ashes in about two to three hours. It is widely believed that nobler the soul, the quicker it turns into ashes.

At Manikarnika ghat death is an open affair for all to see. There are curious visitors especially the tourists for whom death and the rites involved around the death is a very private affair. It does send shock waves and a bit of repulsion for the first time viewer upon this scene of cremation of dead bodies in as raw a form as it can get.
At any point in time there are bodies that are yet to arrive, i.e. people who have 
called an undertaker broker to book a slot for a cremation, 
then there are dead bodies that have just arrived, 
then there are dead bodies that have been given the final dip in the river Ganges  
then there are bodies that have been set on the pyre, 
then there are bodies whose last rites are being performed, 
then there are bodies that are burning  at various stages in a cycle of three hours, 
then there are bodies that have been half burned and a little bit of a push of the limbs or the skull into the fire is necessary lest some part of the flesh may just about fall out without turning into ashes, 
then there are bodies which have turned completely into ashes which is when the relatives come back again after three hours, collect the ashes and scatter it into the river. 

The eldest son of the deceased circumambulates the pyre with earthen pot filled with water from the holy Ganga held over his left shoulder and throws it away on the ashes and walks away from the cremation ground without looking back. This signifies the severance of all the worldly ties with the dead at a physical level.

If you stand at a vantage point atop one of the balconies of the 'Moksha Bhavan' the building skirting the Manikarnika ghat which was built to serve as a hospice for all those who have come to Kashi to live out their last days for about two to three hours you can see all of these stages of the last rites of the dead. 

In all this the Dom’s are constantly stuffing the wood and the flesh into the pyre and stirring it up. Along the river particularly during the day time they would be clearing up the ashes that has been scattered in the river to check for any gold that would have been difficult to remove from the corpse at the time when it was taken for the cremation like a gold filling in the teeth or a gold ring tightly wound on the corpse before the person died. The heat of the funeral pyre would melt the gold and it would be bound to lose shape. However small pieces would be found scattered in the ashes that are then thrown into the river. Two Dom workers sieve the burnt ash immersed in water through a fine red cloth checking for pieces of gold before throwing it out into a mound that would then be carried away and dried up to serve as coal for other uses.

The Dom Raja is the chief of the Dom community. They are keepers of the sacred fire. Until the previous generation that is about thirty of forty years ago, there was only one Dom Raja by the name of Laxman Choudhury. All Dom’s hold the surname of Choudhury. 

In the hierarchy of caste they are untouchables because anybody who touches the corpses is supposed to be impure and therefore implies that the ones who make their living cremating the corpses would be untouchables.

After Laxman Choudhury passed away, his two sons peacefully  took over as Dom Raja. After the elder son passed away without any children, his brother took charge of what was proprietory to the family and that is when the family feud erupted over.

Jamuna Devi, the childless widow of the elder son took her brother-in-law to court to assert her rights to the collection of 'agni-kar' the tax collected to give the sacred flame.  After years of court battle she won her rights for collecting the taxes for about half the week. She holds control over all the taxes collected for 3 and a half days in the week while her co-sister (after the other brother passed away) holds control for the other half. 

Jamuna Devi adopted her nephew who though not the direct descendant of the Dom Raja aspires to be part of the family in the next generation. Meanwhile there is peace at the Manikarnika Ghat albeit until the lifetime of the 68 year old JamunaDevi and her co-sister.

It is noon time and Jamuna Devi is seated on a cushion in a shade very close to the sacred fire. Her nephew, after supervising the cremation ground comes and sits beside her. The minions are busy cleaning up the place and getting it ready for the daily Puja rituals before commencement of their shift. 

 In about 30 minutes the chief Dom Raja ( Dom Rani ???) would preside the thanksgiving to Kallu Dom, the ancient chieftain of the Dom community .

The Dom’s believe that Kallu Dom was a direct incarnation of god himself who took form as Kallu Dom to test King Harish Chandra and his penance. A painted potrait of Kallu Dom is placed centrally and garlanded with Rose and marigold flowers. Three small earthenware pots, the size of tea cups are placed in front of the potrait. In yet another circle made out of a garland a piece of burning coal taken directly out of the sacred fire has been placed. Incense is lit and Jamuna Devi ascends from her cushion to preside over the puja ritual. The minion Doms who are yet to start the work for the day (they have to work in shifts since this is a 24/7 time sensitive process that cannot afford backlogs) are gathered around. Some of them touch her feet and she blesses them.

Her nephew who is making the arrangements for the ritual now opens three small whisky bottles of local liquor and pours them out into the three earthen cups. He then places a packet of Capstan cigarettes in the middle of the flower arrangements. These are the offerings to Kallu Dom.  

Jamuna Devi lights the incense and the camphor using the sacred fire. and circles some sacred water from the River Ganga water around the entire set of offering. At the end of the Puja ritual all of them raise their hand in unison and say ‘Har Har Mahadeva’ in the typical way of invoking the supreme god who rules Kashi.

Har Har Mahadeva loosely translates as’ hail the supreme god’.

Jamuna Devi then offers obeisance to the sacred fire that is burning besides the puja and pours out another cup of country liquor from the whisky bottle. Alcohol rouses the sacred fire and the wood momentarily burns brighter.

The offerings, the prasad including three cups of country liquor are then distributed across all the workers who attend the puja. 

Once the offerings are distributed the worker Dom's fall at Jamuna Devi’s feet and take leave to replace the current set of Dom’s who are at work, about 100 meters away down at the cremation ghat.

This is change of guard at the crematorium. They busy themselves with the freshly arrived corpses that have been waiting around for a while on the stairways.  

It is about 30 minutes past noon and an off peak hour. Most corpses that arrive at this time of the day are the ones that have been carried from faraway towns and cities by road on vehicles or even as cargo in the flights that arrive into Varanasi. 

The Varanasi airport is possibly the only airport that has, apart from a taxi stand, a stand where a number of mortuary vans - called the shav vahini that transport the dead are available for hire. You could rent them like you would rent a Taxi at any other airport. 

As the change of guard ritual is over the worker Doms take leave and Jamuna Devi sits back on her cushion. Her adopted son sits besides her with a note pad tallying the collection. 

She is dressed in a grey and black cotton sari with her head and partially her face covered under her Gunghat -the veil of her saree .  Her Ghungat constantly slips away and her wrinkled face is visible. 

The noise and the din around the place and the constant smoke and thick black soot emanating from the sacred fire are not helping either. My eyes are red , my nose is blocked and I am constantly blowing my nose into a bunch of overused tissues.

Jamuna Devi is used to all this and sits there unfazed drawing attention and respect from all around. She says she sees a lot of  people especially foreigners curious to know about her life and cannot comprehend what could be of interest to them in her ordinary life.

Anil kumar, the adopted son takes leave and steps out on some errand and I am offered a seat beside her at a slightly lower pedestal.  

I ask her what it feels to be the only woman around this place. 

In Hindu tradition, women are prohibited from coming until the crematorium to see off the dead. It is believed that when the corpse passes on to eternity at the crematorium one should be devoid of any sadness as this is the point when it attains moksha or liberation. The tears that women shed, is believed to bring upon ill luck to the soul’s passage into eternity. Thus it is always a son or a close male relative in the absence of a son that accompanies the dead to the crematorium.

Jamuna Devi pauses reflectively and then says ‘jeh tho hum hi ek abhagan hai jo idhar roji roti ke liye aathi hain’ - She thinks she is just the most unfortunate to have to be sitting here overseeing the job.

In reality it is long drawn legal battle that she has fought over the rights of being the Dom Raja ( Dom Rani ???) after her husband passed away and the rights over the agni-kar taxes for the sacred fire were to be the sole proprietorship of her brother–in-law and later his family. With complete monopoly over the right to charge for the sacred flame, the money that comes in everyday is lucrative to say the least. It does not get taxed by the government.

After many years of going to the courts in cities of Allahabad and Varanasi, the access to the crematorium’s sacred fire has now been divided between Jamuna Devi ( and her adopted son) and her devrani, co-sister and her sons.
A man clean shaven except for a tuft of hair at the back of his head, draped in a white piece of cloth and dhoti comes over. A worker Dom brings a bundle of blade of grass from the store room and folds it into two.  He then picks up a small piece of coal that is burning in the sacred fire and puts it on the blade of grass and hands it over to the son of the deceased. Two crisp hundred rupee notes are passed on. The Dom who gave the sacred fire comes and hands it over to Jamuna Devi who then puts it down under her cushion where there are many more notes of hundreds and five hundreds lying there. The nephew makes a note in a notepad that is kept in a leather bound file which has recently been kept for the puja ritual.  He makes the entry with a pen while the son of the deceased carries the flame down the stairs to where the dead body draped heavily in gold and silver tinsel is lying.

The ones that have lived a full life which implies men who were married, borne sons and grandsons and lived up to a reasonably ripe age are covered with colourful tinsel wrapped cloth and garlands of marigold flowers around them. 

Then there are corpses wrapped in red and decorated with flowers and vermillion which belong to women who have lived a full life (i.e. borne sons at the least and have predeceased their husbands). They are called Suhaagan  i.e. the fortunate ones.
 Then there are ones wrapped in white cloth and not decorated with any kind of flowers. These are widowed women irrespective of the age they have died.

Men who die relatively young also are 
wrapped in white, although their corpses would be decorated with flowers.
Occasionally there are corpses that arrive but they are not to be cremated. They are flown into the Ganga and left for the living creatures to be eaten up. These are the ones who are supposed to have had an ‘akaal mrutyu’  an untimely or incomplete death. People who have taken their own lives, pregnant women, children below two years of age, people who have died due to a snake bite and lepers are not burnt because their souls have not yet been readied to free from the liberation of birth and rebirth.

There are various places within the Manikarnika Ghat reserved for people from various strata of society. The Brahmin caste has an enclosed space that was leased over from the Dom’s in order to ensure that the Dead Brahmin is not burnt besides another’s from an untouchable caste. Similar the Royal families and their descendants and relatives have leased out a platform where their dead are cremated. The commoners that include the untouchables and the poor are burnt at the main platforms of the ghat. The taxes for the sacred fire are also different for different caste irrespective of their economic status in today’s society. 

As I sit beside Jamuna Devi, she on her elevated pedestal and I beneath her feet on a sheet that has been spread out for me, yet another corpse carried in a plank made of bamboo sticks by six relatives descends down to the ghat. As they descend down the steps, Jamuna Devi takes a sharp glance at the corpse and the relatives and there is a twinkle in her eye.
Khatri jaat ka shav aaya hai’… a corpse from the Khatri community( upper caste) has come, she says.

How do you know? I ask in amazement.

All my life I have been around this place. Will I not know this? She asks with a knowing smile on her face. 

I learn later on that a high caste corpse will entail an INR 500 as tax for giving the sacred flame compared to the one for the commoner which is INR 200. She is in for more money today and that explains the twinkle in her eyes.

I ask her if the boys of the current generation are keen to take up the occupation. I also ask her what the young girls in the community do after school and when they grow up. Do they seek work outside of this town? 

She gave me a condescending look that clearly indicated that my question was out of context. A woman’s job is to take care of the family. It is only the most unfortunate like me, who have had to go to the courts and come down here to earn my living’ she says normally and in a matter of factly way.

As to the young men from the Dom community some have taken to doing other odd jobs here or elsewhere in other towns. Her own brother who was an exception to the community was a jail warden, which implies he had a government job. The Dom boys go to school. Some drop out and some go on to pass high school. Some choose to go away and do other things but then this is our occupation and has been handed over to us by the gods. The young realize it more often than not, she says.

I would later on learn that the license to ‘Practice’ at the Manikarnika and Harishchandra Ghats is a hard earned and a very lucrative one and no one ever gives it up. It is like an ancestral licence that is handed over from generation to generation to every man born in the Dom community. If ever a Dom gives up his rights there is normally a heavy exchange of money. They are in millions of rupees if not in dollars, I am told by someone who has lived in the town all his life. The haveli  locality around which the Dom community lives bears no indication of all that wealth accumulated over the generations. 

From Jamuna Devi’s perspective all is not well for the future of the Dom community. With the amount of firewood required to cremate the dead and the polluting effects the ashes have on the holy river, the government has been encouraging people to get their dead to the electric crematorium for a nominal charge before immersing the ashes into the Ganga.

But then this is Kashi. Among the hardcore believers it is still not accepted that the soul will indeed go through the passage to eternity as much in an electric crematorium as it would on a wooden pyre. Moreover as in life’s rituals, death rituals are also a show of money and wealth for the family of the deceased.

 Satyavadi Raja Harishchandra electric crematorium
Only those who have come to live out their last days in the nearby hospice and those with no means to pay for their funeral rites are the ones that cremate their dead in the electric crematorium. Unlike being cremated on a pyre of 300 kilograms of wood chopped down from atleast 4-5 mature trees and burned for three hours, the electric crematorium takes no toll on the trees and ensures the ashes within 5-7 minutes. The ashes are then handed over to the relatives who then go on to immerse it in the River and ensure the safe passage to eternity. 

However before they are cremated they need to pass through the Manikarnika ghat to get the corpse a holy dip in the Ganga before taking it into the electric crematorium.
The electric crematorium poses loss of revenue for the Dom’s and potential loss of business for the others selling wood and other items for funeral rites. About 5000 people are employed directly or indirectly in this trade within a radius of a few hundred meters of the ghat.

Attempts have been made to coerce the relatives to pay the sacred fire tax despite them not having had to use it. This has in the past met up with some resistance until a more rationalist government put a ban to this and announced free cremation at the electric crematorium.

Nevertheless the business for the undertaker of the dead goes on unabated. On a normal day about 300-350 corpses are  cremated by the Dom community at the Manikarnika and Harish Chandra ghat on the banks of River Ganges in Varanasi.

Click here to watch this five minute video from Assocaited Press Archives where Jamuna Devi is featured.


  1. Thank you for that detailed insight into an important part of the culture of your area.
    When you say that some corpses are 'left for the living creatures to be eaten up', does that involve vultures and, if so, what has been the effect of the disastrous collapse of vulture numbers over the past couple of decades?

    Keith Channing A-Zing from

    1. The dead being put out to Vultures is a custom followed by the Parsis - yet another religion. Hindus Cremate the dead unless the person has had an untimely death. Read my post Y - yogis and Sadhus in himalayas on Aghori Sadhus who eat the flesh from corpses.
      Well more often than not the fish and other living creatures in the river eat up the dead bodies.

  2. Another amazing and well-written post! I loved reading it. So interesting, and a glimpse into a world and tradition I knew nothing about. Thank you!

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    The Multicolored Diary

  3. Jayanthi this was so interesting, I never knew so much about Manikarnika ghat or the concept of Dom! Your in depth research and unbiased reporting style is simply brilliant! I have to catch up on a lot of your posts and will definitely do so as and when possible. This is one blog I am really glad I discovered via A To Z!
    @KalaRavi16 from

  4. so much involved in this event - not just a cremation, a celebration to be shared with all!
    an unusual undertaker occupation indeed!
    we're in the homestretch of a to z now!

    The Really Real Housewives

  5. Myself big time traveler by nature and loves exploring new places & food dishes and your blog is perfect stop for people like me.Varanasi Tour Packages


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