A millennia old tradition
The ancient writings state that a king (King Harishchandra) was purchased as a slave. The head of the family took the name of Dom Raja (Dom King). There is a strong hierarchy within the Dom family, the immediate relatives of the Dom Raja give the holy fire and have a higher status under the Dom. The younger generation are burning the bodies and looking for leftover jewels that are removed from the ashes of the bodies.
For millennia, from generation to generation, have the Dom family been taking care of the holy fire at the cremation ghat in Varanasi. Nobody knows exactly how long this has been going on, it is older than history itself is said and will have started somewhere between 3000 and 5000 years ago. The myth goes that the Doms were cursed by the gods in the beginning times for killing a cow. The gods have declared them untouchable and they take the lowest position in the caste. Because of their low status, they were unable to make friends, were not allowed in the temples and were not allowed into schools.
In one of the legends of Manikarnika Ghat (steps to the Ganges), Parvati (Shiva's wife) wanted to prevent Shiva paying too much attention to his worshipers. She made up a trick and told Shiva that she had lost her earrings (manikarnika) so that Shiva would search endlessly and be distracted from his worshipers. Every time a body was burned, Shiva would ask the soul if it saw the earrings.
The Manikarnika cremation ghat in Varanasi is of great importance for the devout Hindu. It is convinced that when the body is burned here and the ashes are scattered over the river Ganges, the reincarnation cycle comes to an end and liberation (Moksha) is achieved.
The former Dom Raja was a multi-millionaire, he charged exorbitant amounts to rich families. Based on an estimate of the person's wealth, he charged an amount for his services. Although untouchable and maligned in society, he had sole control over such an important post. This has now ended and a 'fixed' price of 300 rupees (approx. € 3.80) per body has been agreed, but this is not often taken into account.
A family member of the deceased is waiting for the holy fire. The stake is lit with this fire.
The Dom Raja, Natheh Chaudry poses on the terrace of his house in Varanasi. Raja means king and is a inherited title.
Saranga Devi sits by the sacred fire, the former 'queen' of Dom Raja. This fire has been burning for longer than history itself. Estimates vary from 3000 to 5000 years.
This tradition continues for thousands of years, once a Dom always a Dom and your destiny lies on cremation grounds. There are around thirty main Dom family members and five hundred relatives. They rotate in turns to run a service on the Ghat cremation grounds. The younger generation lives on tips and the jewels they find. Their work consists of burning the bodies.With a bamboo stick the chest and the head are smashed in because of the accumulation of moisture and therefore danger of explosion through the high pressure. After a few hours the body is burned and they collect the ashes from which the try to find the jewels. Many members of the Dom family have burns and respiratory disorders.
"It often happens that the dead body is already two months old and in an advanced state of dissolution and full of maggots. Whiskey is then eagerly asked to do the work." Because of the stench of dead bodies, the heat of the fire and the continuous working in the smoke, all Dom's drink alcohol to make life bearable.
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