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India’s Untouchable Queen of the Dead

Legions of the sick and elderly go to great lengths to die in India’s holiest city. One mysterious woman guards this fiery entrance to eternal bliss.


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Photos by Andrea de Franciscis

She sits down under the arches of the ancient temple blackened by soot, guarding the sacred fire — an eternal flame used to cremate the dead. In a male-dominated realm, her presence instils a sense of maternal safety. Two golden bracelets tie her burly wrists. Her snow-white sari clashes with the dark and spooky world she belongs to — the world of Doms, the “undertakers” of Hinduism, who tend to sacred cremation grounds in India.

Saranga Devi is a tough and mysterious old lady, with dark blue eyes sparkling like precious stones between the wrinkles of her plump face. She says little or nothing, though her authority is palpable. She scrutinizes everything with a stern gaze from above, from her privileged position on the ghats, the majestic stone stairs leading down to the Ganges.

Saranga Devi sits by the sacred fire on the ghat. It is unusual, perhaps unprecedented, for a woman to be the chief of the burning ghat. She inherited the role from her deceased husband, Dom Raja.

When she married Kailash Chowdhury, the Dom Raja (king of Doms), she was only fifteen. Back then, she did not go to Manikarnika, the cremation ghat her husband ran. They had seven children and she stayed home, in an imposing house right beside the ghats, where she watched after their big family. Everyone in Varanasi knows the colorful three-story house with a tiny Rama-Sita temple on the terrace and two kitschy tiger statues staring at the Ganges — it’s the Dom King house.

When her husband died in the mid-90's, Saranga Devi decided to take on his job herself — instead of her sons, as tradition would dictate. She began taking care of the eternal flame, becoming de facto Dom Rani, the Queen of Doms. Her story is shrouded in mystery, built on legends and rumors that have spread about the Doms, a lower-caste community usually employed as farm workers and weavers, or else relegated to the nefarious task of cremating dead. It is said that they used to rank among the high-cast Brahmins, but fell from grace.

As the legend goes, the goddess Mata Sati set herself on fire after a family dispute over her husband’s honor. While her body was on fire, her earring fell to the ground and a family member of this cast picked up the jewel to steal it. Enraged, her husband, the god Shiva, cursed the whole family by making them the lowest of the untouchables, the Doms. When begged for mercy, Shiva bestowed them with the task of overseeing the eternal flame used to cremate the dead.

The main burning ground in Varanasi, the Manikarnika ghat, seen from above. There are different levels of terraces and gated grounds where the dead are burned according to their caste: the lower the caste, the lower the ground.

Today, rumor has it that the Doms are millionaires, thanks to the flourishing cremation business. Varanasi is the place where every Hindu wishes to die, in order to break free from the cycle of reincarnation, samsara, and to obtain moksha, liberation. Dying here means ending one’s cycle of death and rebirth and finally attaining nirvana. That’s why the sick and elderly come from far away, hoping to pass out in the holiest city in India, while legions of others bring their dead to be cremated here.

Located on the west bank of the Ganges, Varanasi’s old town overlooks the river in a squiggle of ancient maharaja palaces, temples, domes, flagpoles and mosques bundled up in the alleys, while massive stone stairs lead towards the great sacred river. At sunrise and sunset, the bathing ritual attracts thousands of faithful in search of purification. A few steps away at Manikarnika, the cremation ritual, one of the seven samskara Hindu rites of passage, takes place unabated. Inhabited for more than 3,500 years, Varanasi is one of the oldest urban centers in the world; for centuries it has attracted pilgrims from all over India to bathe on the banks of the Ganges. “The eternal city is like a Mecca of Hinduism,” explains Dhananjay Tripathi, an Ayurveda researcher at Benares University. He continues with a proud grin while watching the placid river flowing. “You can count its houses but you can never count its temples!”

Rickshaws and jeeps arrive from every corner of the state, with dead bodies wrapped in gaudy fabrics and tied to car roofs. The coming and going on the ghats is continuous, but in Manikarnika and Harishchandra, the two cremation grounds along the river, it is somehow different. The bustle that reigns here seems to have its own order, respectful of the place’s sacredness. “Ram naam satya hai! Ram naam satya hai” echoes from the alleys leading to Manikarnika. The ancient litany increases in intensity as the party approaches the stairs leading to the river. A group of men are carrying a bamboo stretcher, on which lies a body wrapped in a white sheet, sprinkled with flowers and colored powder. Relatives, usually only men, take part in the funeral ceremony; women are not supposed to dwell on cremation ghats. “They have a weak heart and their tears would retain the soul of the deceased,” explains Kashi Baba, an ever-present figure at Manikarnika, his eyes bleary and his face furrowed by heroin addiction. He is one of several men who hang out all day around Manikarnika, begging from unaware tourists, with the improbable explanation of collecting money for cremating the poor. In fact the male-only practice is dictated by the fear that a woman could jump on the funeral pyre of her husband, as happened regularly in the past. The ancient tradition of sati, now outlawed, is named after Mata Sati, the goddess who set herself on fire. It is therefore the duty of a husband, brother or son to lead the funeral rites before cremation.

A man in his thirties, with a gloomy gaze and humble clothes, heads towards the bright blue arcade. After negotiating with the barber, a potbellied man with a long curled moustache, Prateek sits down on a wooden stool to undergo the ritual tonsure — shaving of the head. With his head smooth and polished, only one black tuft of hairs remaining on his nape, he strips to an immaculate white lungi. White is the color of mourning. After having completed the rituals, he enters the kingdom of Doms to bargain over the cost of the wood and the holy fire with Saranga Devi. She barely looks at her interlocutors while charging fees, in money or in kind. She sits near the eternal flame with a haughty and detached manner. With just a quick look Dom Rani is able to judge the financial background of the deceased’s family; then, based on her assessment, she will set the price for the sacred fire. Her will is unquestionable. Her role on the burning ghat, although unusual for an elderly lady, is indisputable.

An Aghori Baba meditating inside a soot-blackened and abandoned building behind Manikarnika ghat. Aghoris are one of the most extreme and controversial sect of Hindu holy men, called sadhus, who often dwell near cremation grounds.

Surrounded by her faithful army of Doms, she gives a mute sign with her head to a young Dom who is holding a handful of straws. Her authority is expressed with such slight movements of the head or the hands. Then he lights the straws’ ends and hands them over to the chief mourner. Prateek walks towards the pyre where the other male relatives are waiting for the ceremony to start. After he has completed five clockwise rounds of the pyre to honor the five elements, the corpse is ready for cremation and set on fire. An acrid smell permeates the air and blows with the wind over the huge cremation ground where pyres are burning restlessly; high flames stoked upwards by Doms with the help of long bamboo sticks, until the corpse is completely burnt. At the end of this ritual, “only a small portion remains: the trunk for men and the hips for women,” says Ashok Kumar, a Dom whose family has worked here for generations. “The last piece is then thrown by the chief mourner in the Ganges.”

Even Brahmins, rich families from the highest caste who traditionally avoid contact with lower castes, must negotiate with the Doms to burn their dead here. The Doms are the only ones entitled to oversee the pot where the eternal flame burns, touch the corpses, or poke them while being cremated; hence, they are treated with respect when the moment comes to benefit from their services. Other than that, they are outcasts, a community of “untouchables” who very seldom manage to find any alternative livelihoods. Tending to the dead is their duty, their dharma.

“Many of us drink, it’s easier then to stand the smell and the idea of dealing with dead all day,” confesses Ashok Kumar, staring at his toes. “We joke around to forget what we are doing.” He turns his back and walk towards the pyres and the ancient buildings, the world of Doms, where he belongs. “It’s the cycle of life and death,” he adds from afar, with a sly stare. “We can’t avoid it.”

Chotu Chowdhury, 65, has been a Dom for 40 years. He used to have a sweets shop, too, but the business wasn’t good enough. “Nobody will buy from a Dom’s shop,” he says with a resigned look. So he turned back to the burning ghat.

Male relatives of the deceased carry a stretcher towards the Ganges River as part of the ritual before cremation. These waters are believed to be holy, purifying and miraculous.

Pots used to collect water from the Ganges to purify the body. The dead are considered impure in Hinduism, hence the need of someone to take care of the dead during the cremation rituals, including being cleansed.

A corpse is wrapped in colorful cloth before being dipped in the river. On the river, boats loaded with wood cruise towards Manikarnika to unload their wood in the early morning. Manikarnika is the place where every Hindu wishes to be cremated.

Bachhan Chowdhury, 55, after his shift at the burning ghat. He calls his job “dead bodies management” with an ironic connotation. He has five children and already knows the males will work here one day.

A man walks on the piles of wood stocked in the back streets behind the Manikarnika ghat. The wood trade is very lucrative and the price spans from 3,000 to 50,000 rupees ($45 to $750) per kilo (2.2 pounds). Sandalwood is the most coveted.

An iron scale on the banks of the Ganges, used by Doms to weigh the wood. The quantity of wood is calculated by the weight of the deceased. The cost will be bargained by the relatives according to quality and quantity needed.

A body needs approximately three hours to burn entirely, depending on the weight and quality of wood. Some families are too poor to buy sufficient wood so the corpse stays half-burned. It is the Dom’s duty to take care of the fire by poking it continuously.

Shiva Chowdhury, 37, started this job when he was 17, as his father did before him. He can count up to seven generations in his family who all worked on the burning grounds. “Many drink or smoke drugs,” Chowdhury says. “It’s so horrible to be in touch with death all day; I can’t stand my job.

A male relative of the deceased throws water on the nearly extinguished funeral pyre, as the ritual dictates. This marks the end of the cremation ceremony.

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This post originally appeared on Narratively and was published December 9, 2015. This article is republished here with permission.

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