Between Masaan And Moksha

Being A Dom Woman In Varanasi

By Adrija Bose

There’s not a single woman at the Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi, one of the holiest and the largest open-cremation site on the banks of the Ganga.

Ironically, the Manikarnika Ghat, named after Jhansi ki Rani Laxmibhai, the queen who is known for her heroism in the Indian nationalist uprising, is no place for women. Or at least, that’s what the Dom community will tell you.

The Doms, a low-caste community of corpse-burners in Varanasi, are used to the pungent smoke that fills the air and the ashes that keep floating around with the pyres burning all day and night, throughout the year. In Varanasi, about 250-300 of them live around the ghats, secluded from the rest of the city. Often, they fall back on copious amount of alcohol and marijuana to deal with living with the dead. But for the women in the Dom community, it’s a just life of silence.

“Women are not allowed to do this job,” said Gurudev Chaudhury. Forty-year-old Gurudev is tired of burning dead bodies and dreams of a better life for his son. “I haven’t studied. This is what my father and his father did. No one will give me a job. But I am sending my son to school. I want him to be a doctor,” he said, with a smile plastered on his face.

Sitting in his 10x10 square feet home that includes two narrow beds, one of which is occupied by his son who is still asleep, Gurudev talks about his dreams for his children. His two daughters, who are standing next to him, don’t find a space in those dreams.

Gurudev has just returned after cremating a bunch of dead bodies following an accident where a bridge collapsed that led to the death of 18 people. “Some of their skulls were broken, and some didn’t have limbs,” he said. As Gurudev talks about his work, that often includes decapitated bodies, he doesn’t blink an eye. His face is still smeared with the grey ash from the previous night’s work. A bright orange scarf is wrapped around his head, a black thread tied to his neck and an orange tika on his forehead. When I asked him about his plans for his daughters, he said, “Wo toh sasural waley jo bolengey (That will be decided by her in-laws).”

The Manikarnika Ghat is named after Jhansi ki Rani Laxmibhai, the queen who is known for her heroism in the Indian nationalist uprising. (Photo: Adrija Bose)


The winding alleys behind Manikarnika ghat, where many of these Doms live, are filled with one-roomed houses lined up against each other. Next to some of these houses, there’s a neatly stacked pile of wood that will be used for cremation. There are also half burnt wood logs that the Doms bring back after the funeral is over— these are to be used for cooking.

The young boys run around with a flat tyre, an elderly man wobbles around in his inebriated state even though it’s just 11 am and the women are hunched over their chullah; they are accompanied by their daughters.

“I love going to school. But if the other girls don’t go, then I am not allowed to go either,” said 15-year-old Muskan. Muskan is in standard VI, but she knows that in about 2-3 years, she will get married. “They have already started looking for a groom for me,” she said.

Every day, at the break of the dawn, Muskan and her sister wake up. They help their mother start the fire and make breakfast for the family. They, then, get ready to go to school. Together.

The days Muskan’s sister is unwell, she can’t go to school either.

“We don’t allow our girls to step out alone,” Vimala Devi said.

Vimala Devi, though not related to Muskan, has taken the role of guardianship for the women of the entire neighbourhood of the Dom community. Explaining the reason behind the strict rule of female members staying indoors, and not stepping out without their family members, Vimala Devi said, “Who knows what goes on inside the head of these upper caste men? We can’t let our daughters roam around alone.” The 56-year-old widow said that it is because of their low caste status that the girls are more vulnerable.

  • The winding alleys behind Manikarnika Ghat are where many of the Doms live. (Photo: Adrija Bose)
  • Devi has four daughters and four sons. Her sons who work at Manikarnika Ghat help in the cremation process. One of them sells flowers and sandalwood at a shop next to the ghat. “I had 20 children, they died one after the other,” she said. While three of her daughters are married, she is worried for her youngest 16-year-old daughter. She said that no one wants to marry her daughter because she has ‘dimag ki bimari’. “Look at her, who will marry her?” she asked pointing at her daughter, as she stood in a corner scared to even raise her head.

    Despite her worries, Vimala Devi knows that she will not find a groom for her daughter outside of her caste. “Whatever we earn, we want to stay within our community. This is our family,” she said.

    With a strict mindset of not intermingling with other caste, it’s quite common for the Doms to marry among family members as well.

    The other women who have gathered around Vimala Devi don’t talk much; they just keep nodding their heads and agreeing with her. “Our women need to stay quiet, we cannot put our lives in danger,” she said.

    Talking about this fear, P.S. Krishnan, former Secretary to Union ministry of welfare, and currently a member of the National Monitoring Committee for Education of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, said that the Doms are not aware of their rights and they have been neglected by successive central governments. “They need education to climb up the ladder, and they are entitled to education. They belong to the SC category so they are entitled to reservation. But the government has done very little to provide them with any access to their rights,” he said. “They usually drop out of school in the 5th or 6th grade, so they don’t reach the level of getting reservation in jobs,” Krishnan added.

    Gurudev has to be pestered repeatedly before he decides to finally allow me to meet his wife. Maya enters the room, her head covered with a chaddar that reaches upto her eye. She walks up to her husband, and stands next to him. All my questions to Maya are answered by Gurudev.

    This chaddar has a historical significance. Utpal Pathak, a senior journalist based out of Varanasi, explained that this tradition of covering the head with a black cloth existed in Varanasi during the Mughal period. However, with time, women started dropping the chaddar. But the women from the Dom community still use it. “Now it has become a symbol for them. That’s how you recognise a Dom woman,” Pathak said.

    Maya and Gurudev have been married for 14 years. “I must be 25-26 years old now,” she said.

    Gurudev intervenes at this point and said that this is how it works in their community. “Women have to get married early, this is the only way to remain safe,” he said.

    To attain ‘Moksha’, many travel to Varanasi and live next to the ghats, waiting for their death. (Photo: Adrija Bose)


    Death is a big attraction in the city situated at the banks of the Ganga. It is believed that people in Varanasi attain ‘Moksha’, freedom from the cycle of life and death and will never return to Earth. In Hinduism, that’s the idea of heaven. To attain that, many travel to Varanasi and live next to the ghats, waiting for their death. Amidst all of this, the people who are responsible to carve out the path live in poverty, and isolation. And the women from this ‘untouchable’ community have the added burden of living in fear.

    “You think woman can do this job? Can they smell human flesh and not fall sick?” Ajay Chaudhary, a 38-year-old man asked. He breaks into a laughter immediately after that. “They can’t,” he said.

    Ironically, Ajay’s master happens to be a maalkin. Yamuna Devi, 68, is the only woman who inherited the rights over a sacred, earthen oven lighted for centuries after her husband died. It contains what she claims is God’s eternal flame, without which the funeral pyres cannot be lighted.

    In the Dom tradition, it’s always a male family member who inherits the business. But Devi had taken it upon herself almost four decades ago to support her two young sons.

  • Harish Chandra Ghat is named after a mythological King, who once worked at the cremation ground here for the perseverance of truth and charity. (Photo: Adrija Bose)
  • “A Dom woman’s job is to make her husband’s job easier. They are forced to leave schools, they are married off early and while most marginalised communities are provided with some form of training like pottery making and weaving, no one wants to teach the ‘untouchable’ Doms,” Pathak said. So, Devi had no choice but to take up her husband’s job to ensure her sons get education.

    But Devi, the maalkin, has stopped visiting the ghats after her sons grew up and took over the business. She stays at home now and refuses to talk to outsiders.

    When I asked about Yamuna Devi, Vikram Chaudhary, her nephew said, “She doesn’t even come to the ghats.” He does not respond when asked if she is no longer allowed to.

    Vikram Chaudhary was about 12 years old when his father gave him a log of wood and asked him to place it over a dead man’s boy. “That’s how it started for me,” said the 35 year old, reeking of alcohol. For years before that, Vikram and his brothers would go to the ghat with their father and watch him conduct the rituals. But Vikram doesn’t want to take up any other job. “Why should I? This is our family business,” he said.

    The Hindu mythology may suggest that the Doms were cursed by Lord Shiva when a member from their community named Kallu Dom tried to steal an earring of the goddess Parvati, and in turn, making them the keepers of the flame, but Vikram sees it as a ‘blessing’. “We are Doms. We have been chosen to do this job. No one else can,” he said with a sense of pride.

    Vikram belongs to the family of the Dom raja, Jagdish Chaudhary. It’s the Dom raja and his family members who own the burning ghats. The others work for them. While the Raja and his relatives make about Rs 500- Rs 12,000 for each body, the other doms only get a fraction of it, ranging from Rs 150 to Rs 300.

    The importance of Yamuna Devi now lie in that one meal that she cooks every day using the half burned woods used in a funeral. “We go to her house to eat that meal,” said Vikram.

    While everyone at the ghat knows about Yamuna Devi, not many have met her.

    The Hindu mythology suggests that the Doms were cursed by Lord Shiva making them the keepers of the flame. (Photo: Adrija Bose)

    When I reach Yamuna Devi’s house, her grandchildren open the door. They go inside to call their father. “Why do you want to meet her? I am her son, you can talk to me,” said Anil Chaudhury.

    Despite Yamuna Devi’s courageous act decades ago, the life of Dom women haven’t changed. And, neither has her own. The only female gatekeeper of heaven is now shut indoors and has been reduced to the job that all Dom women must do-- stay silent.

    Daughters are to be kept at home, they need to be kept safe till they are married off.
    Pathak pointed out that many international organisations have failed to help the community because the locals do not want to intermingle with them. “Even sharing food with the Doms or talking to them are seen as a sin here,” Pathak said.

    Meanwhile, Vimala Devi tells me that there are rules set for the girls in the Dom community. They are not supposed to talk to strangers, they can’t step out alone, they need to cover up, and the only thing they should dream of is marriage. But Vimala Devi hasn’t made these rules. The rules have been passed over the generations to the Dom women, just like the job of lighting the funeral pyre has been passed to the men.

    “Daughters are to be kept at home, they need to be kept safe till they are married off. We can’t let them roam around like the boys,” Vimala Devi said. Immediately after, looking for some assurance, she asked the other women who had gathered around if they agree with her. “Do you let your daughter go outside? Should we allow them?” Unanimously, they respond, “No”.

    When I ask Vimala Devi if she wants the young girls to pursue higher education, Muskan taps on my shoulder and says, “Didi, I want to study. I want to become someone.”