M.A. Student, Department of Sociology, Presidency University, Kolkata, West Bengal, India.
The Dom community belongs to the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system and is considered to be the untouchables. But they have the sole right to offer fire to the dead who are brought for cremation. This study concentrate on the everyday life of the Dom community, how it has been represented over the years in various kinds of media, and understanding the involvement of the community in the political milieu of the country.
Keywords: dom, banaras, social environment, life, domraja, raja harish chandra ghat, manikarnika ghat, jagdish chaudhury, yamuna devi.
Popularly known by the epithet of the city of death, Banaras has two famous burning ghats- Raja Harish Chandra ghat and Manikarnika Ghat. The entire process of cremation in these two burning ghats is carried out by the Dom community. They belong to the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system and are considered to be the untouchables. But they have the sole right to offer fire to the dead who are brought for cremation. There is a Dom Raja, the leader of the community, with nearly thirty well-off Doms known as the malicks and 500 odd Dom servants who are assigned to the menial jobs related to the process. This community has been involved in this business of cremation for a very long time, probably from the 16th century.
The study primarily focuses on the everyday life of the Dom community of Banaras, India; how it has been represented over the years in various kinds of media; and also tries to decipher the involvement of the community in the political milieu of India.
In this study, concentrate on how the Dom community has been represented over the years in various kinds of media like newspaper, documentary films, and even commercial art films and to compare it with the reality and to understand the involvement of the community in the political milieu of the country. The print medium portrays the Dom community as involved in some kind of celebratory and sensational activity, trying to reveal their secrets to the readers by entering their households and family life. It is because such reporting is newsworthy and saleable. In most of the newspaper articles and narratives, the common belief is that there is a kind of celebratory curiosity related to their job as the fire giver to the dead, de facto, becoming one of the dominant groups of the city. They are often accused of extortion because of their unique service. In some criminal narratives, they are often portrayed as the criminal caste. However, the mundane reality is that their daily struggle is often overlooked and their job is unjustly glorified. In recent films like Masan, the upcoming generation of the Dom community has been portrayed with a fairytale touch, where the next generation becomes an engineering graduate and seeks a job in a commercial establishment though he occasionally helps his father in times of excess business pressure. He is also shown to befriend women of higher caste for the purpose of establishing romantic relationships. However, all this is still a stuff of dreams because we come to know from the various interviews documented in short films and articles, all of them portray the status of Doms in a very different light. The young boys might acquire school-level education but they themselves know that they are destined to join their fathers’ profession.
Thus, there is a considerable gap between reality and perception about how Doms are represented in the community circles of Banaras. It is impossible for a member of the Dom community to secure any gainful employment in any commercial or business establishment because the owner shall invariably consider it as his ill-omen to employ a Dom in his business, for he is a man who worships Gods like Ganesha and Lakshmi, the Gods of prosperity and wealth. It is also impossible for them to hide their identity to secure jobs because their family names and residential address would expose their true identity. A clear picture that emerges out of the study is that this community is considered untouchable in every sense of the word, vis-a-vis all other communities. No community would maintain any relationship with the Doms, nor are they invited to partake of food in any function, or participate in any social or religious event. In turn, the Dom community has also accepted this attitude and treatment as their fate and does not bear a grudge against the other castes (Jonathan. J. Perry, 1994).
According to mythology, Doms were originally Brahmins who were cursed by Lord Shiva to become impure corpse-burners for stealing his wife Parvati’s ear-ring. From then on the Dom community has been cursed by their fate to do the most lowly and reprehensible job. Another legendary story is that of Kalu Dom, the ancestor of the present Dom Raja, who had helped Raja Harish Chandra to secure a job under his tutelage, thereby giving a kind of unearthly respect to the Dom community. Kalu Dom came to be known as the iconic figure among the Dom community kings. At present Jagdish Chaudhury is the king of the Dom community at the Manikarnika Ghat while Sanjit Chaudhury is the Dom Raja of the smaller Harish Chandra Ghat. A peek into the household of Dom raja bares the abominable conditions of the Dom community their near-total ostracizing in Banaras. Even in the twenty-first century, Doms have hardly gotten any governmental help; they are still stigmatized by society and lead a very pitiable existence (Patra). Doms, including Dom Raja, are prone to rough language and abuse by society. There is no proper housing facility for them except for the Dom raja. Proper sanitary and health conditions are almost non-existent and the people live in inhuman conditions. Teachers refuse to teach Dom students for their caste position. Moreover, students do not find any interest in the courses leading to an increase in dropout rates and illiteracy. Small boys of 12-13 years are taken to the Ghat to pursue their ancestral work. They are abused verbally and physically by their mallicks and resort to drinking and marijuana smoking from a very tender age (Jonathan. J. Perry, 1994). Those who refuse to obey the harsh commands of their mallicks gets involved in scavenging valuable like gold and silver from the burnt-out corpse, which the family members might have kept out of love and reverence. It is relevant to mention that the different intoxicants like alcohol and marijuana help them to tolerate the constant vision of corpses. Some mutilated beyond recognition and rotting fresh adding to the unbearable stench that is crudely a part of the burning ghats. Thus, the intoxicants help the worker to forget the sordid reality of death in its darkest form.
An average of fifty to sixty corpses arrive every day and the Doms charge around Rs. 4000/- per body which includes the cost of wood, the payment to the servants and helpers, and the charge of the sacred fire from the hearth of the Dom Raja as has. The Dom raja must feed every worker of the community at least one meal every day, which itself can impoverish any household, however rich it might be. Furthermore, the business has broken up into segments been mentioned in one of the interviews. and vendors of wood and other materials provide cheap alternatives to the corpses’ party. This has reduced the income of the Mallicks substantially. Previously the Mallicks acquired quite a good amount of gold and silver ornaments from the corpses which are no longer given by the relatives of the dead; they also fiercely bargain with the rates, often forcing the Mallicks to reduce burning charges. The presence of a large number of CCTVs and police personnel has made it impossible for the Dom workers to take away any valuables because they would be charged with extortion (Patra). Although the Dom community belongs to the lowest stratum of the society and obviously fall under the backward category, they do not get any help or subsidy from the Government nor are they aware of the concessions that they can wrest from the Government because of their low caste. There are no NGOs to help them mostly because of the widespread idea that Doms are extorters and are therefore economically affluent; hence, they need no external help. Dom Raja is supposedly richer than other Doms. However, he lacks the knowledge of proper economic planning or the requisite education to uplift his people even his own family from such a lowly life. The community over the years has accepted it to be their undisputed fate.
An interview in a documentary film portrayed an interesting aspect of the community. Akash Chaudrury, a young Dom member, narrates his woes in social circles when he describes how badly they are treated even by the street vendors and tea stall owners. They are not handed over the tea directly and the teacup is kept at a distance on the ground. The money is to be kept in some part of the table indicated by the owner from where the owner picks it up, without coming into direct contact with the Dom member. Such ill-treatment is silently tolerated by the Dom community and their only consolation is that they have the right to beat the corpses of the other class during the funeral rites.
Like any other community Dom women are not allowed to mix freely with others. Dom girls are not allowed to send to school, their heads need to be covered, they are under constant supervision of the male community. These poor women are subjected to a torturous life as their movement is restricted within their household and they are not allowed to venture out of the community circle, as the people of the upper caste can harm these women and get away scot-free without the fear of any punishment. The fear of the upper class is always prominent in the minds of the Dom community (Patra). Although widow remarriage is possible within the community it has to be done with the permission of the head patriarch of the society. Women are not allowed to work and are considered immoral if they try to do so. There are no social welfare groups or NGOs to help these poor women with the right inputs. However, there are examples of exceptions like Yamuna Devi, who had become the first female Dom raja of Manikarnika ghat after her husband’s death. She had to fight all her life to overcome all sorts of societal odds to keep hold of her throne but with old age, even she has confined herself within the confines of her home. It is still a mystery whether such confinement is forced on her or not, more so because she is not allowed to talk to outsiders or give interviews.
There is another offshoot of the Dom community that exists in Banaras who are the sweepers and cleaners. According to history, their ancestors at some point in time had refused to perform jobs related to burning corpses and had developed into a community of cleaners. Poverty, illiteracy, lack of identity have also struck their life as hard as any other factor. They are neither identified by the greater Dom community of Banaras as their own nor by the society (even after leaving jobs related to burning of the dead for many generations) (Kumar).
A new dimension has been added recently that has enhanced the position of the Dom community. The Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi has nominated Dom Raja Jagdish Chaudhury as his proposer for the candidature of the forthcoming Lok Sabha Election along with three other members of the upper caste community (TOI). Predictably Jagdish Chaudhury is highly elated at this sudden recognition but he is rather sceptic about how much material benefit will come to the Dom community because of this newfound attention. All he wants is a government job for his son who is presently studying in the eighth standard. He is hopeful that through his community has always been neglected and ostracized, the visits by Powerful politicians and other important people could reduce the alienation. The prime Minister has visited the Dom Raja even in 2014 before the previous Lok sabha election, but nothing has changed much for the Dom people. The only marginal improvement is seen in the sphere of education when the Dom male members are encouraged to attend government schools. The other notable improvement can be seen in the form of Swach Bharat Campaigns on the famous ghats of Banaras which have been cleaned to the help of the Dom community (Economic Times). This could be a welcome beginning for the upliftment of status for the Dom community who has been neglected and remained downtrodden from time immemorial. It is time that the Dom community is given its proper status and position in the social setup of Banaras in particular and in India in general.
Bose, A. (2017). Between Massan and Moksha: Being A Dom Woman In Varanasi. News 18. Retrieved from https://www.news18.com/news/immersive/being-a-dom-woman-in-varanasi.html
Guha Ray, S. (2019). Moksha On The Ghat. Yahoo News. Retrieved from https://in.style.yahoo.com/moksha-ghats092400555.html?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAALhtjOoO1UpMvrFpa_8pL_k4CRtXPNnDry2PbvVYhgPEor0W0oJds6q9LODLlq5Mh2k8ur30mSssR08LwWRuHoU77s_xbKIfk9vLJ_y4gFRQ6JRj8fiPCRwAXfVBEHbYD1DBBF32ZekotXo_i5MHIAFTQz6E4e1tdfLSn5-yLQB6
Guha Ray, S. (2014). In Varanasi, a Lifetime spent in a world of Death. New York Times. Retrieved from https://india. blogs.nytimes.com/2014/03/16/in-varanasi-a-lifetime-spent-in-a-world-of-death/
Guha Ray, S. (2017). A passage to heaven: Varanasi’s Manikarnika Ghat is a place for Last rites, and deliverance. Firstpost News. Retrieved from https://www. firstpost.com/living/a-passage-to-hea ven-varanasismanikarnika-ghat-is-a-place-for-last-rites-and-deliverance-38 67083.html
Husain, Y. (2017). Neglected lives of those who give dignity to death. The Times of India. Retrieved from https:// timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/lucknow/neglected-lives-of-those-who-give -dignity-to-death/articleshow/575263 45.cms
Iyengar, R. (2017). A day in the life of a Corpse burner. Livemint news. Retrieved from https://www.livemint. com/Leisure/rbcQ3K5FhR8fTddOmV8UGM/A-day-in-the-life-of-a-corpseburner.html
Iyengar, R. (2017). Born a cremator: An Indian boy’s fight for an education. ALJAZEERA. Retrieved from https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2017/5/14/born-a-cremator-an-indian-boys-fight-for-an-education
Iyengar, R. (2017). The unseen Dom women. Livemint News. Retrieved from https://www.livemint.com/Leisure/o7hUZxUv2SIvTTf2hQY8ZP/The-unseen-Dom-women.html
Kazmi, M. (producer), & Oshidar, C. (Director). (2016). Dom Raja: The Untouchable Gatekeepers of Heaven. Unique Stories from India. 101India. (Video). Retrieved from https://youtu.be/F5a4iq2T4xw
Kazmi, M. (producer), & Oshidar, C. (Director). (2016). Eating for The Dead: The Jaga Brahmins. Unique Stories from India, 101 India. (Video). Retrieved from https://youtu.be/ V6NSTkZOLdw
Mahindra, A. (Producer). (2015). Banaras. The Epic Channel. (Video). Retrieved from https://youtu.be/F471WcBtOv4
Mukherjee, S. (2017). India’s Guardians of the Dead. The Diplomats. Retrieved from https://thediplomat.com/2017/ 12/indias-guardians-of-the-dead/
Parry. J.P, (1994). Death in Banaras. New York, USA: Cambridge University Press.
Ramnath, N. (2015). From the Cremation grounds in Varanasi: a rare tale of hope. Scroll.in. Retrieved from https://scroll.in/article/742947/from-the-cremation-grounds-in-varanasi-a-rare-tale-of-hope
Rawat, V. B. (Producer & Director). (2014). Doms engaged in Manual Scavenging in Varanasi. (Video). Retrieved from https://youtu.be/ZN62tkVTpzw
Rawat, V. B. (Producer) & Sathiyanarayanan. M. K. (2018). Doms of Varanasi want a life of Dignity and Honour: A Day in the life of Doms. (Video). Retrieved from https://youtu.be/FIxFclqssCw
Shankar, P. (2017). Doms of Varanasi make a Living among the dead. Reuters News. Retrieved from https://www.reuters. com/article/india-doms-varanasi-cremation-idUSKBN1CV1K8
Sharma, A. (2019). Recognition at last, says ‘Dom Raja After he proposes Modi’s name as Lok Sabha candidate. The Tribune. Retrieved from https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/archive/nation/recognition-at-last-dom-raja-propos es-modis-name-764328
SouthernStar. (2019). Agni Kund Dom Raja temple Harish Chandra Ghat Varanashi. Telegu Temple Vlogs. (Blog Post). Retrieved from https://youtu.be/urgi X7kTOPU
Tyagi, R. (2018). The Doms of Banaras Are Dalits Who Burn Around 200 Bodies Everyday As Their Profession. ED Times. Retrieved from https://edtimes.in/the-doms-of-benaras-are-dalits -who-burn-around-200-bodies-every day-as-their-profession/
Venugopal, V. (2017). UP election 2017: Dom Raja praises both PM Modi and Akhilesh Yadav. Economic Times. Retrieved from https://economictimes. indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/up-elections-2017-dom-raja-praises-both-pm-modi-and-akhilesh-yadav/articleshow/57525692.cms
Susmita Chanda. (2020). Everyday Life of Doms of Banaras. Sparkling International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research Studies, 3(4), 44-50.