Dom Raja : Keeper of the Flame

Sanjit the Yamraj of Varanasi. He is the undertaker at the cremation ghats and keeper of the sacred fires. He is called the Dom Raja but he calls himself a Yamraj of this world. Varanasi (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Sanjit the Yamraj of Varanasi.


(Published first in the Bangkok Post. April 2015)

Rising from the shores of the Ganga, a long narrow, almost vertical pan-stained stone steps   take you up  to the residence of  the most famous undertaker  this side of the Atlantic.  He is the lord of the Varanasi’s famed cremation ghats. His name is Sanjit but he is known by his   honorific Dom Raja.

You are prepared to meet a billionaire because legends, (perpetuated mostly by journalists)  have it  that Dom Rajas make it big burning the dead and have luxury villas and cars across India. But  at the head of the steps you stare only at a large hovel.

Deep in its bowels sits a short swarthy man presiding over half a dozen children, all idling shirtless in the morning sun.

The man is almost half burnt. His bare chest is charred white and his left hand burnt  so badly that it’s twisted upon itself at the wrist.

“I am looking for Dom Raja”, I falter.

“I am he”, he says blankly, wiping the sweat from his forehead with his crippled hand.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Dom Raja in his ‘Palace’, Varanasi

What a sad paradox you  think, for a man in charge of burning the dead to roast himself alive like that at the job.

“Oh this”,  he says, reading your thoughts and pointing to his chest and hand. “ This is because of a cylinder blast at a wedding  six years ago”,

There in the sun with his scars and with no vestiges of his rumored riches, he looks  decrepit and pitiful.

It’s a big climb-down from the days of Kallu ;his ancestor and the first Dom Raja  who according to Indian mythology had kept  the vow-abiding King Harishchandra as an apprentice .

Sanjit, may not have inherited Kallu’s pelf but he has inherited his indelible cast mark. The undertakers are lowest in India’s  pecking order.  They are untouchables to be kept at a safe distance.

“In the bazaar if I have to drink water I cannot touch the glass. They pour it down to me. The locals don’t allow me in their homes nor come to my place”, he says. To top it all, he is not allowed into the holy  temples in Varanasi including the most sacred , Vishwanath temple.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

The Doms pray to Kallu Dom before starting work every day, Varanasi.

Ironically, however,  the Dom Rajas are keepers of the sacred flame revered by all Hindus. No matchstick is used at the ghats. Everyone must use the sacred fire that has been burning for centuries in Dom Raja’s  hearth. The fire and the burning at the Varanasi’s ghats, as the Hindu belief goes, liberates one  from the everlasting cycle of life and death.

Dom Raja is the leader of a two-tier hierarchy of Doms- all of whom are given duties as per the  roster.  The Dom Raja not only presides over any disputes at the ghats but he gets the maximum number of duties.

Its not an easy job, Sanjit reminds you.  The stench of bodies , some of whom having been  kept in mortuaries for days and opened up for postmortems,  is unbearable.  To drown out the putrid odor,  Sanjit drinks copious amounts of local whisky.  He claims to drink over eight bottles ( each 250mls) every day.

“I’ve already had two since morning. All  Doms need to drink. The job is such. There is so much smell. What to do?”, he says.

The two burning ghats at Varanasi,  the Raja Harishchandra  Ghat and the holier Manikarnika Ghat swarm with Doms. They begin their funeral duties by offering a prayer to  Kallu Dom. The Doms build up the funeral pyre methodically.  To make sure the body keeps burning, they poke it with long poles from time to time.

The poor cannot afford to buy enough wood and their dead often remain half burnt. But nothing goes to waste at the ghats. The feral dogs exhume up the leftovers.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Cremations at Manakarnika Ghats, Varanasi

The ashes are  cast   unceremoniously into the Ganges where another set of Doms neck -deep in the charcoal black water sift for any  valuables that can’t be taken off the dead- like good teeth or firmly embossed rings.

Sanjit is a  far cry from the days when Doms held complete sway of the ghats. Some years ago, there were protests  against the Doms who were accused of extortion. As a result the Doms today can only charge for the sacred fire and cannot pester the pilgrims for  extra donations.

Sanjit reminisces about the days when his brother the then Dom Raja- Rajit held complete authority in the cremation grounds. He leads you inside to a room where arranged against the walls are crude body building equipments. The Doms were known for their physical prowess and every Naag Panchami (snake worship festival) they make a public show of it, lifting impossibly heavy stone wheels and doing various acrobatics.

“We get strength from Hanuman  (the Hindu monkey God)”,  he says. But suddenly conscious of his fragile half-burnt frame he says,” I could lift up these weights before this happened”.

Sanjit has no children so  he is training his  five year old nephew to become the next Dom. Lifting and swinging heavy weights is  where the training begins. For now the tiny Dom-in-waiting goes to school like every other child in Varanasi.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

The ashes being sifted for any valuables in the Ganga, Varanasi


 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Five year old Dom-in-waiting, Varanasi

One Response to “Dom Raja : Keeper of the Flame”

  1. Anitha says:

    Wow very interesting. Thanks Sanjay – Anitha

Leave a Reply