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Life amidst the dead

Columns 2023-12-03, 12:20am


Sudhirendar Sharma

Sudhirendar Sharma

The theatre of death has remained a burning spectacle.  

The ceaselessly burning pyre at Manikarnika Ghat in Banaras is a living spectacle, where death asserts itself as the last witness to life. That cremation along the banks of the sacred Ganges on the steps of this ghat alone can liberate one’s soul from the endless cycle of death and rebirth is entrenched in the Hindu psyche. It is at Manikarnika Ghat that Lord Shiva whispers the ferryboat mantra into the ears of the dead before escorting their souls to heaven. So enduring is this belief that countless Hindu families prefer to have their loved ones cremated at this ghat. On this belief rests the ritual of sending off the departed from this ghat. 

The sacred fire at Manikarnika is what makes this place special. It is unclear when and how the sacred fire was first lit. It is used to set dead bodies alight. It is believed that, without this, the soul may not achieve moksha. Lighting each pyre with the sacred fire is considered both auspicious and crucial. The sacred flame has been burning for centuries and this has made Manikarnika ghat the unofficial headquarters of the corpse-burning business. No wonder then that mourners queue to give their loved ones a spiritually dignified send-off at this specific ghat. For others, the theatre of death remains a burning spectacle.


Fire on the Ganges

Manikarnika ghat is perceived as a place for the dead; but it is a place for the living too. Fire on the Ganges portrays the lives of the Dalit community entrusted by Hindu society to perform its ancient funeral services. The Doms are keepers of the sacred flame. They are also untouchables, who lead a life that is often crueler than death itself. Bound by traditions, this Dalit community lights funeral pyres and carries the stench of death back in their daily lives. Their essential traditional role in cremation notwithstanding, the community has not been spared caste prejudice.      

Poor and socially neglected, the Doms face persistent acts of oppression by the upper castes, who have an overpowering hold on their lives. They give the dead a respectable send-off, but their lives remain at a mercy. By studying the lives of some three dozen inter-related individuals from the community, the author Radhika Iyengar pieces together a narrative about their struggles for self-respect and growth. The stories of those whose livelihoods depend on the dead are heartbreaking and uplifting too. Clearly, the voice of the voiceless is worth listening to.    

Why don't they escape their circumstances, you ask. To venture out in search of another job is a nightmare for the Doms. “People still consider us untouchables, if inadvertently touched they immediately run off to take a bath,” says one. Consequently, the idea of seeking a job outside remains an alien concept. An inward-looking community, it continues to align itself to the diktats of orthodoxy and to practices imposed by the caste system.

Fire on the Ganges is possibly the first attempt to chronicle the lives of those who give the dead an essential send-off. Banares may have got a facelift in recent times, but the burning pyres still obscure the lives of the community engaged in putting the dead to rest. The corpse burners toil in a debilitating work environment; Community children scavenge unburnt firewood at the pyres for domestic use and the young steal and resell good-quality shrouds. Survival amidst the dead remains a daily reality.

Can they ever escape the caste system that has forced them to burn corpses, even if the task has been glorified for centuries as the only way of providing moksha? Iyengar gives voice to the feeling and concerns of community members, many of whom are trying to free themselves from this doomed existence. While some are moving out in search of education and jobs, others are following their hearts and pursuing love interests from different castes. Yet, escape is no less an ordeal. What eventually emerges is the sociocultural irony that allows little scope for Doms to escape the ordeal of corpse burning.

Written with empathy and concern, Iyengar presents lived reality and compels the reader not just to acknowledge the plight of the Doms but also confront their own complicity. She presents some difficult questions too: since the Doms are doomed to burn the dead, shouldn't they be given an economically and socially respectable position in society? This is especially pertinent given that no upper caste Hindu would ever take on the task of burning corpses even though it has been glorified for centuries as the only way for the deceased individual to attain salvation. Fire on the Ganges makes for interesting reading. It draws attention to an essential social act that doesn’t get the attention it deserves while also helping shape our collective understanding of India.  

Fire on the Ganges: Life among the dead in Banaras

by Radhika Iyengar

HarperCollins, New Delhi

Extent: 482, Price: Rs. 799.

(Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma is a writer and researcher specializing in development issues. He is Based in New Delhi, India)

First published in Hindustan Times on Dec 2, 2023.