Hindu tradition has long resisted the presence of women at funerals. But in a village near Allahabad, female professionals conduct the last rites.
It is 11 am in Manaiya village. Eight pairs of eyes track the length of the oncoming road. This is a daily ritual in this hamlet, located in Karchana tehsil, some 35 km from Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh (UP). “Aa gayi mitti (the mud has arrived)!” exclaims Anarkali Devi, as the trundle of a tractor is heard from afar. By ‘mitti’, she refers to the bodies that arrive daily by the dozen for cremation at the village ghat. “Hamara ghat special hai (our riverbank is special),” she boasts.
From a vantage point in Manaiya, one can see the confluence of Hinduism’s three holy rivers. Or at least two of them—the Ganga and Yamuna, with the legendary Saraswati said to join the waters quietly below the surface. It attracts people from all over UP to Manaiya village. “Yahaan ka paani Sangam se juda hua hai (the waters here are part of the Great Confluence),” adds Anarkali’s husband Zalim Singh Verma. However, that’s not the only thing that’s special about the place. This is the only ghat where women help conduct an age-old Hindu rite that for millennia has been a strictly male undertaking—cremation of the deceased.
This profession has been in their families for generations now. The menfolk have done it for longer than anyone remembers, but now even the women are accustomed to cleaning the cremation spot, helping set up the pyre and light the wooden frame, and once all is done, taking the ashes in a boat for immersion in the Ganga. “Hamaari saas yeh kaam kiya karti thhin (our ma-in-law used to do this),” says 50-year-old Badami Devi.
IT HAPPENED ONE DAY
It was nearly a decade ago that the mother-in-law, Shanti Devi, came across a body lying on the ghat. The family of the deceased was extremely poor and could not afford the cremation, so she helped them along with the entire process. It was a spontaneous act of rebellion against the orthodoxy, the ancient belief that a woman’s presence at a cremation ghat was inauspicious, and though it raised eyebrows in the village, she dutifully carried on. Other families brought her their dead, and she didn’t hesitate in helping them. Thus did she set the path for other women in her family to follow. Today, Shanti Devi may be a frail bundle of bones (“Budhapa aapko hara deta hai—old age is a debility,” she sighs), but her firebrand courage is spoken of with awe within the family and beyond.
In regular circumstances, these women would have faced stiff social opposition , but they had the support of the men in the family. In fact, their menfolk encouraged them—not for women’s empowerment, but simply to get more money into the house. More helping hands mean more earnings.
According to Badami Devi, if there was any objection, it was from the temple priests of the village. At first, they tried to bar them from conducting funerals, but relented once they saw how badly off they were. “They are among the poorest families in the village. If the women assist with the last rites, men can at least find some other part-time work,” says Lal Chandra Pandey, a temple priest, “Though some people are still not happy about it, we have decided to let things be.”
Over the years, the womenfolk of other families that do cremations have also joined in, families that have more women than men. By involving wives and daughters in cremations, families like Zalim Singh’s ensure that the profession doesn’t trail off down the generations. “Jab baba kahin jaate hain toh mummy ya main hi karte hain kriya-karam. Paisa toh aana zaroori hai ghar mein (When father goes somewhere, mother does the final rites. Money must come into the house),” says Anarkali’s daughter Aarti. With no farms or fields to their name, this is their only means of survival. On an average, each of these families earns between Rs 50 and 100 per cremation. In addition, they also get some clothes and foodgrain that families of the deceased often give away at the ghat.
SLOWLY GAINING ACCEPTANCE
Funerals are solemn occasions, with sombre thoughts not far from the minds of the bereaved. The women of Manaiya are thankful that not many protest when they go about the task of, say, handing a flaming piece of wood to the closest male relative to light the pyre, or accompanying the boat carrying the ashes in an urn for immersion in the river.
As one walks around, it is clear that funerals are mostly all-male events here. Anarkali and her daughter are conspicuous in a retinue of men. But they go about without the slightest sense of being out of place. “Those who come here are only interested in getting the cremation done properly. They don’t care if the work is done by a man or woman,” says Bijay, who has come for his uncle’s last rites.
Bodies arrive at the ghat from villages and towns located 20-25 km away. Some come with the ashes from as far as Madhya Pradesh, drawn by the storied holiness of Manaiya’s ghat. “This place is on the road to Allahabad. If one gets to see the Triveni—Ganga, Yamuna, Saras- wati—right here and have the cremation at a fourth of the cost one would incur at the Sangam, then why not?” asks Rohit, who has come from a neighbouring village to attend the funeral of his aunt. Maybe the novelty of the ceremony at Manaiya is an added draw: which other ghat would you have women attending to the cremation?
Manaiya’s eight lady cremators also draw inspiration from the legendary Maharajin Bua of Allahabad, who was the only woman in the country to take up the profession nearly 50 years ago. Defying all taboos, Gulab Tiwari made the Rasoolabad Ghat in Allahabad her second home. Her father, a priest, died when she was only ten. She could have resorted to begging for survival, but she adopted the family profession instead. “She was so normal, so disappointingly normal when she was at home. But at the ghats, she assumed a powerful personality,” says K Bikram Singh, writer and filmmaker, one of the many to have documented the life of Maharajin Bua.
HEARTHS NEED FLAMES TOO
To maintain order and ensure that everyone gets the opportunity, the cremator families of the village have allotted themselves turns by the day of the week. “Aaj hamaara number hai (Today is our turn),” declares Anarkali, whose husband will begin proceedings for her to take over later—and then their children. She is 45 now, and has two sons and five daughters as apprentices under her charge.
The turns are taken very seriously by these families. For instance, if it is someone else’s turn, Badami refuses to even be present at the ghat, lest the body claimants of the day suspect her of trying to cut into their earnings.
As the day progresses, one notices that cremations are done mostly either by middle-aged women or adolescents. Pubescent young girls are generally kept out of this ritual—for their own safety, it turns out. “Kuchh log jo body ke saath aate hain, woh hamaari sayaani ladkiyon ke saath chhed-chhaad karte hain (Some people who come with bodies act fresh with our young girls),” explains Ram Babu Verma, whose turn it was yesterday at the ghat. It was his ten-year-old daughter Guddan who helped with the cremations, while his other two daughters, aged 16 and 18, were safely ensconced at home. Badami too has prohibited her 16-year-old daughter Kaushalya from going to the ghat.
There is something else that makes life additionally tough for these eight lady cremators. Seen to be at the lower echelons of the caste hierarchy, they are cut off from the rest of the village. Manaiya is a Brahmin bastion, and the cremators are not always welcome everywhere. Their houses are all set close together, almost in a ghetto away from the main village. “We are of the lowest caste,” explains Zalim Singh. “Humse sab chhua-chhooth maante hain. School mein hamaare bacchon ka mazaak udta hai unki chhoti jaati ki wajah se (They consider us untouchable. In school, our children are made fun of because of their low caste),” he reports.
As we sit outside their house, a village leader makes it a point to pass by on his bike some four or five times, his curiosity struck by our visit. Men from neighbouring Brahmin families surround us to find out what the fuss is all about. “They have no other source of income, toh agar auratein take part in the cremation process, what is the big deal? Yeh koi punya ke liye thode hi kar rahi hain, yeh toh paisa kamaane ka zariya hai (They’re not doing it for divine blessings, but as a means of earning money),” sneers Bunty Pandey, a 20-year-old from a well-off Brahmin family. “If they had done this only to earn divine blessings, then it would have been worth writing about,” he advises us in a last-ditch attempt to influence Open’s editorial policy.
Zalim Singh Verma and Anarkali stand mute, listening to Pandey’s tirade. Once the chortling villagers disperse, they slowly shake their heads in despair. “These people don’t loan us money to buy farms,” they say. And if their goats stray into their fields, they have hell to pay—they are shouted at and beaten up. “Abhi agar log aa rahe hain humein thodi izzat dene, toh yeh jalte hain (If people come to give us a little respect, they get jealous),” observes Anarkali.
These cremator families are each other’s support system. As the day begins, women of the household gather at Badami’s house with their children. CDs are exchanged, tea is had, and kids are attended to. While some young lads make soupas (huge, dry grass sieves that separate husk and dust from rice and wheat), the women giggle over gossip. They lead highly unusual lives, but stranger things happen in their village.