A day in the life of a corpse-burner

#1 Nov 20th, 2017, 23:12
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Gagan Choudhury at Manikarnika ‘ghat’. Photo: Radhika Iyengar

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When Gagan Choudhury 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. Choudhury 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,” Choudhury 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. As a child, Choudhury 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.
A day in the life of a corpse-burner

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