Jagdish Chowdhary, a dom who calls himself the gatekeeper of heaven and lives in a 14th-century building near the sacred Ganges, never felt he would be among those in the high-profile list of four proposers
A member of the century-old untouchable caste that handles cremation in Varanasi is elated to be counted among the proposers for PM Narendra Modi’s candidature from India’s oldest city.
Jagdish Chowdhary, a dom who calls himself the gatekeeper of heaven and lives in a 14th-century building near the sacred Ganges, says he never felt he would be among those in the high-profile list of four proposers. Others include Dr Annapurna Shukla, a noted academician and a trained physician and also the grand daughter of BJP ideologue Pundit Madan Mohan Malviya, four-time Indian National Congress president and founder of Banaras Hindu University (BHU), BJP veteran from Varanasi Subhash Chandra Gupta and veteran agricultural scientist Rama Shankar Patel
What separates Chowdhary from the rest is something very simple, very basic. Others have a life and a face, Chowdhary has death as permanent companion.
He handles cremation, overseeing the earthly end of a Hindu’s spiritual journey. He is the keeper of the sacred fire at Manikarnika Ghat, the holiest crematorium for Hindus, who believe a cremation at Manikarnika prevents rebirth, ensuring entry into heaven. His oven has been been lighted for centuries, containing what he calls the eternal flame, without which the funeral pyres cannot be lighted. Chowdhary says every day, he walks around the sacred fire five times to honor the five elements — fire, water, earth, air and ether — as part of a Hindu custom to ensure livelihood.
“I am happy to be of help to the Prime Minister,” Chowdhary told BTVI from Varanasi, a city where life exists everywhere in the cremation grounds. Every day, people chant sacred hymns as family members’ bodies burned on pyres of wood. Smell of dead bodies and clouds of black smoke fill the air around these cremation grounds where goats and cows chew on marigold garlands left behind from funeral rites, beggars and sages hang around looking for alms.The constant smell of camphor from temple rituals and sound of Indian classical music drifts through the streets of the holy city. Death is the big attraction, many believe those cremated in Varanasi attain Moksha, or freedom from the cycle of life and death.
Chowdhary, who doesn't use a handset but used a friend’s handset to speak to this reporter, said he only hopes his profession gets the status it deserves. “We should not be untouchable anymore. We are the gatekeepers to heaven. One cannot enter the gates of heaven if their bodies are cremated without the presence of a Dom,” said Chowdhary.
An estimated 100 bodies are cremated daily at Manikarnika, where a pyre burns 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Across Varanasi, nearly 200 bodies are burned every day. Manikarnika in Sanskrit means ear-rings. It is an important place of worship for the Shaktism sect of Hinduism. Many say the ghat was formed when the ear jewel from Lord Shiva fell on the earth while he was dancing angrily, the act described as Tandava Nitya in ancient Hindu scriptures. Doms - according to Hindu mythology - were cursed by Lord Shiva when Kallu Dom, a member from their community, tried to steal an ear-ring. To gain forgiveness, they agreed to become the keepers of the flame.
Today, about 35 families from the community live around Varanasi’s main cremation grounds - Manikarnika ghat and Harishchandra ghat, covering an area of about 7 square kilometres each, lining the banks of the river. The Doms spend about eight to ten hours at the cremation grounds, seven days a week, charging Rs 3000 per body. After the cremation process, ashes from incinerated dead bodies are released into the river, with the belief that the soul of the corpse will be cleansed.
Once the Dom provided firewood and other materials needed for the cremation process. But now, people buy these materials from shops near the cremation grounds. The type of wood - the rich prefer sandalwood - used to build the pyres depends on the family’s choice. The Doms only provide the sacred fire.
Chowdhary says he does not want his grandchildren to work as Doms. The children are now accepted in schools, use handsets and are PubG addicts. Some want to become doctors, others want to work for the government.
But Chaudhary says Doms will continue to thrive. Nothing can threaten the business of the Doms, because of their importance in the Hindu faith. He says his job empowers him, people don’t realise that on a cremation ground, gender, caste or marital status does not matter. “I live with that belief and will continue serving the dead.”
After all, his life, and livelihood, is all about waiting for the dead.