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When Gagan Chaudhary is immersed in telling his story, he looks directly at you with his pale yellow eyes. With his face smeared with grey ash, bright orange scarf wrapped around his head, and black thread necklace around his neck, he smells of ganja (cannabis) and sweat. Chaudhary belongs to the Dom community, a low-caste community of corpse-burners in Varanasi. He works at Manikarnika ghat, the largest and most important open-cremation site on the banks of the Ganga.

It is past 9pm and we are sitting on the steps of the ghat, a few feet away from burning corpses. Thick black smoke rises from the pyres. Paper-thin ash flakes swirl and sting the eyes. In the background, amid the burning pyres, the chant of Ram naam satya hai (God’s name is the truth) ascends, while bells in the nearby temple ring in unison. In the distance, a corpse-burner picks up a bamboo stick to tend to one of the pyres, releasing bright red embers into the air like glitter thrown into the night.

“When I was 13 years old, I began drinking," Chaudhary says in Hindi. “It was the only way I wouldn’t faint from the smell of melting flesh." The 27-year-old has seen death in every form. “I’ve seen bodies cut up and stitched back to a whole. I’ve seen headless corpses; I’ve seen bodies covered with scars. And I’ve burnt them all," he says.

An overhead shot of Manikarnika ghat and the Ganga. Photo: Radhika Iyengar
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An overhead shot of Manikarnika ghat and the Ganga. Photo: Radhika Iyengar

As a child, Chaudhary recalls working at the ghats, swallowing sooty black smoke while hunger swelled his stomach. “I have been working since the age of 8, right after my father began drinking more and working less. He still burns bodies, but when we were young, my elder brother began working at the cremation ground with him, and soon I was brought on board to follow the family tradition. My father is an alcoholic, and he would spend all his money on drinking. So the burden of earning for the family came on to my brother and me."

In Varanasi, the profession of cremating bodies is carried forward through the law of inheritance. The Doms, the lowest rung of the social ladder, were given the task centuries ago, and they came to be known as “untouchables". Traditionally, only the men of the community work, the women are relegated to the confines of their homes.

Chaudhary, who is unmarried, works relentlessly, burning six-seven bodies a day. He earns about Rs150 for each. But the task of burning is arduous. Each body takes about 4-5 hours.Chaudhary works for close to 18 hours a day, usually in loose trousers, with a scarf wrapped around his face to protect himself from the heat of the flames. He often removes his flimsy slippers for better traction when he has to run from one pyre to another, when he is handling more than one corpse. When I ask him if he has ever been injured while running barefoot across the cremation ground, which has shards of wood and nails lying around, he extends his legs to exhibit his scars. A 2-inch-wide wound marks the sole of his right foot.

Gagan Chaudhary with a coin in his ear. Photo: Radhika Iyengar
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Gagan Chaudhary with a coin in his ear. Photo: Radhika Iyengar

If you are a corpse-burner in India, your time is not your own. And in Varanasi, it can be a round-the-clock job. “We work for maaliks(richer Doms within the community) who hire us as labourers," he says. The maaliks interact directly with the families, with payment depending on the amount of wood used, anything from Rs6,000-7,000 to Rs10,000-12,000. Labourer Doms only get a fraction of this money. “Sometimes they even gift a cow," adds Chaudhary.

“There are three seasons when the number of bodies is very high in Manikarnika—during the monsoon, peak summer and, then, winter. At that time, we have to work extra hours, because we need to get rid of the corpses, for more bodies to come in. There have been times when I’ve been woken up in the dead of night by a maalik who has come knocking on my door to pull me by the collar and send me to work. It’s a pitiful existence," Chaudhary says, staring at the ground.

Chaudhary’s friend Ganpati, who has invited himself to our meeting and has been sitting quietly, slurping on his tea, joins our conversation. “That’s why I refuse to burn bodies," he says, slapping his palm on his knee. “We have too many maaliks, and all of them drink, kick us around and abuse us like we are some rodents. We quietly listen and suffer because they are our bosses. They drink and hit us around, and I can’t deal with all of that. I prefer working in the Ganga."

Ganpati sifts through the ash that is swept into the river from the cremation ground, to scrounge for remnants of gold and silver jewellery. “I skim for jewellery which families have left on the dead out of respect. But we don’t care; we have to be heartless in these matters. We are poor and this is god’s way of helping us. It doesn’t matter how long I am in the river—1 hour, 2 hours, 4 hours or 6 hours—no matter what the weather is, whether it is raining or it’s terribly cold, I work because it’s better than wading through fire."

I am the one giving ‘mukti’ to everyone—I am the one liberating Hindus from the cycle of rebirth by cremating them in these holy grounds.... I have the most important role to play.- Gagan Chaudhary

Alcohol and marijuana are a few ways the men cope. When Chaudhary was younger, he joined a group of six boys who would work at the ghats, assisting their fathers. Since he was relatively taller, the seven-year-old assumed the role of a bully. He drew attention to himself by beating up children smaller in size, smoking up and abusing anyone who crossed his path. Ganpati describes him as a “pig high on drugs". “It was a guard I had to put on," Chaudhary says defensively, showing his tobacco-stained teeth. “If it wasn’t me, there would be someone else who would be doing the bullying. I’ve been an asshole since childhood, I admit, but it’s a way of coping for many here."

Chaudhary speaks quickly: “Drugs and alcohol are available in plenty. I got addicted because it dulled my senses and allowed me to work among decomposing corpses."

Drugs kept him awake, high-strung, and, therefore, efficient. “There were times when the sight of a body paralysed me. But I was forced to work, I had no choice, and ganja helped. I’ve seen bodies where the skin has been ripped apart; I’ve seen bodies with tongues hanging out and blood flowing from orifices. All this while growing up—and you wonder why I smoke up?" he laughs.

Panchkosi, another corpse-burner at work. Photo: Radhika Iyengar
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Panchkosi, another corpse-burner at work. Photo: Radhika Iyengar

Ganpati nods in agreement. “I have been doing drugs since the time I saw a body chopped into pieces, which was brought in a bundle to burn. I was just 12, and I was horrified. But my uncle slapped me on the head and told me to carry on with my work and burn the pieces." He shifts uneasily, sipping tea from a plastic cup.

Manikarnika ghat, believed to be a gateway to heaven by devout Hindus, is hell on earth for Doms like Chaudhary and Ganpati. Yet the young men appear to be proud of their identity. “This is a kind of work which has no respect. Many will abuse you; they’ll spit on you. It is extremely debilitating, because they’ll make you think that you’re good for nothing. For the longest time, I believed them. I thought I was useless. But without us, who will get rid of the bodies?" asks Chaudhary.

He remembers the time he would go to the local market to have chai. “There was one tea seller who knew who I was and where I came from." He always refused to take the money directly from Chaudhary’s hands. “He would ask me to place the money at the counter and would pick it up from there. If he needed to return the change, I would have to cup my palms like a beggar and he would drop the coins in them. At that time, I would wonder why caste discrimination existed and why god created me like this," says Chaudhary. “But every time I felt disappointed, I had to calm down and tell myself, ‘I am the one giving mukti to everyone—I am the one liberating Hindus from the cycle of rebirth by cremating them in these holy grounds.’" According to a Hindu legend, Lord Shiva gifted Doms “the eternal fire" which liberates a Hindu’s soul. “I have the most important role to play. Deep down, I know that I am doing the most respectful work—I am freeing their souls," says Chaudhary, a slight vehemence in his voice.

He leans forward and looks me directly in the eye. “There are still some people who call me achhut (untouchable) even today, but when they die, you know, they will come to this very cremation ground," he says, “where I will beat their bodies four-five times with my bamboo stick. I will break their skulls during kapalakriya. In their death, they will come to me and I will have my revenge."

This is the first in a three-part series on the Dom community in Varanasi. The writer is a Sanskriti Prabha Dutt Fellow 2017 and this piece was produced as part of the fellowship.

The writer tweets at @radhika_iy

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