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Ashish Pande, Pandit at Ghazipur Crematorium. Photo: Naomi Barton/The Wire

Sacred Bones: Caste and COVID-19 in Delhi’s crematoriums

Originally published: The Wire by Naomi Barton (May 9, 2021)   | 

It’s 6:30 am at the Seemapuri crematorium and Sunny* is crouching in front of a pile of ash. The crematorium worker is helping two mourning relatives gently pick out the still-hot bones of a loved one–euphemistically called phool, or flowers. The morning quiet still lingers over the crematorium at dawn–there are no queues, no bodies.

Abbe, oye!” a man shouts, marching towards them.

Shambu*, a pandit, has caught sight of Sunny. He swiftly leaves the family, and makes his way towards the pandit. The pandit picks up a thick piece of wood lying on the ground–stray kindling, meant for a funeral pyre.

As Sunny reaches him, Shambu raises the wood and smashes it across the back of his knees. Once, twice.

Sunny cries out, his body twisting to protect his legs and pull away. Shambu stops, panting. The family does not turn to look.

Sunny says he is a ‘Kumar’, and from an OBC caste. Hindu death rituals are traditionally conducted by Brahmin priests. By helping with the phool ritual, Sunny has not only profaned the very premise of Brahminical supremacy but invaded a profitable space.

The sheer scale of death brought by the second-wave of COVID-19 in Delhi means that the crematorium needs all hands on deck.

And yet, Sunny says,

When we do the ritual of collecting the ashes, we ask for Rs 300-500. When the pandits do it, they get Rs 1,000-1,500. Shambu wanted me gone so he could get the money.

This reporter visited five crematoriums across Delhi–Seemapuri, Ghazipur, Geeta Colony, Nigambodh Ghat and Malviya Nagar.

Barring one, at every crematorium, both Brahmin pandits and workers of other castes had no vaccinations and worked without protective gear. In three crematoriums (Seemapuri, Ghazipur, Nigambodh Ghat) they work late into the night after starting at dawn. The sheer scale of work means that in many places, workers and pandits work alongside each other–with the latter doing physical labour that they would otherwise have been able to forego, and workers of non-Brahmin castes assisting in religious rituals traditionally exclusive to the pandits.

But despite this ostensible equality foisted by circumstance, an insidious casteism defines every moment in the crematory space.

An ambulance has run over a pile of ashes at Nigambodh crematorium, caused by lack of space. Photo: Naomi Barton/The Wire

An ambulance has run over a pile of ashes at Nigambodh crematorium, caused by lack of space. Photo: Naomi Barton/The Wire

At Nigambodh Ghat, ambulances bringing new bodies run over ashes left by pyres that have been set up on the pathways for lack of space.

Sanjay Chauhan is currently in the process of cremating his father right beside these disturbed remains, and the sight pushes his already tattered patience to the brink. Gaurav, his son, is also incensed that he has not been able to adequately conduct his grandfather’s last rites.

Our family hasn’t got a chance to take a last look at his face. We have not been able to bathe him, dress him. We just have to get this done, so we did it.

Sanjay Chauhan says,

There aren’t any pandits here. You just call for whoever you can find to come.

At the pyres, the only people visible are healthcare workers alighting from ambulances (incidentally, the only people wearing PPE kits) and two workers leaping nimbly between the flames to carry wood.

There are priests at the Nigambodh Ghat, and they do conduct the funeral rites at the pyres–it’s just that there isn’t a single one visible at this time in the pyre hall’s COVID-19 section.

Casteism runs at a constant simmer with the mourning relatives who have come to cremate their loved ones, and expect a Brahmin pandit to officiate.

At the Seemapuri crematorium, an angry relative is furious about the lack of ‘real’ Brahmins. Ironically, the person who is attending to them is a ‘real’ Brahmin pandit–Karan Sharma–except that he is young, tattooed and dressed in jeans and a T-shirt.

The relative marches back from an acrimonious consultation at the pyre, and says,

He’s asking for so much money. We’ve made the pyre ourselves, done everything. One bad baaman (brahmin) destroys the reputation for the rest of us. We don’t even know if he is a baaman.

His son agrees, equally scornful,

Abh sabh pandit hain (Everyone has become a pandit).

Another pandit working at the Seemapuri crematorium for the past two weeks, who also gave his name as Karan Sharma, says that he does this work because “ye hamara khandaani kaam hai (this is my ancestral occupation)”. His caste is that of the Acharya Pandit, whose tasks include specifically crematory rituals.

Karan is 16.

He insists that there are only pandits doing the work at the Seemapuri crematorium–a statement contradicted by other workers.

This is not the only place where this is happening.

Outside the Seemapuri crematorium, a PPE kit blows out onto the street. Photo: Naomi Barton/The Wire

Outside the Seemapuri crematorium, a PPE kit blows out onto the street. Photo: Naomi Barton/The Wire

At Nigambodh Ghat, Neeraj, a safai karamchari, or sanitation worker, sweeps away shards of pottery and spilled water.

Neeraj belongs to the Valmiki community, one of the most oppressed Dalit castes who have been historically forced into ‘impure’ jobs by the Brahmanical caste order which considers them ‘impure’. The jobs can be defined as those involving the ritualised avoidance of human excrement and waste–cleaning toilets, cleaning sewers, working in tanneries and critically, working with the bodies, but not the souls, of the dead.

Neeraj says that the two major groups in the shamshan ghats are Valmikis and Brahmins–as safai karamcharis and pandits.

Along with his cleaning duties, Neeraj has also pitched in at the pyres, and says most of the employees at the ghat have done so at some point or another during the second wave. “We’re not going to decline our karm (duty),” he says. The concept of karma is frequently used to justify casteist oppression, but with Neeraj it is being subverted into transgressing caste lines to perform an act of service for grieving families.

He has also conducted religious rites, he says, along with many other of his fellow safai karamchari colleagues. “We are all pandits now,” he says, the irony reflecting in hi laugh and echoing an earlier refrain.

But the shared ground goes only one way. When asked if the pandits ever provide them with assistance in the mammoth task of cleaning up after the hundreds of cremations, he laughs. “No,” he says,

They say their mantras and go.

Even at the Geeta Colony Cremation Ground, the pandit, Rahul Sharma, who said that everyone has been working together in the pandemic, expresses surprise when asked if the pandits also do the cleaning. “The pandits are separate,” he explains.

The ‘other ones’ do the cleaning.

So while in some ways, the gatekeeping aspect of Brahminism has a small crack in the door, the hierarchy continues to be firmly entrenched. Everyone is not a pandit now–even though they may also be doing the work of pandits. And the underlying material structure of privilege remains.

Karan Sharma, the T-shirt-clad young pandit at the Seemapuri crematorium, puts things in perspective.

Karan was the one who got an earful from a mourning relative earlier–and according to him, he didn’t ask for any money. And yet, the relative complained to one of the crematorium managers who then publicly upbraided him for it. Some time later, Karan followed the angry relative outside to where his car was parked, moving close enough to speak softly and importune him for some ‘dakshina’. The relative, yet again, shouted at him, got into his car and drove off.

Karan insists that not only had he not taken or asked for any money, it was the ‘sevadaars’ who had been accusing him of doing so along with the crematorium management.

He says, “These sevadaars are doing work without the tokens.” The rush is such that every family arriving at a crematorium is given a numbered token, typically a chit, and the cremations are supposed to happen by turn. “The sevadaars take extra money to skip the line,” Sharma alleges.

There are only three members here who are allowed to read these mantras, but all these children are doing it. They do the rituals badly, then of course the relatives will make a scene.

The ‘children’ here are a group of three to six teenage boys, all non-Brahmin, who unequivocally insist they are 18 despite looking much younger. They work on a daily-wage basis, earning Rs 300 or so a day.

“They don’t do the mantras, or the puja, and they’re getting the work. Without our traditions, how will a man’s body gain freedom? Can a body just give itself freedom?” he says, vexed.

Karan points out two people from the Valmiki group, and adds,

There’s even a Muslim.

The parking lot at Ghazipur crematorium is being used to burn bodies during the second wave of COVID-19. Photo: Naomi Barton/The Wire

The parking lot at Ghazipur crematorium is being used to burn bodies during the second wave of COVID-19. Photo: Naomi Barton/The Wire

This was also not an isolated occurrence–at the Ghazipur crematorium, Hussain, asevadaar cleaning up the ashes, said he was a Muslim, saying that the horrific scale of death had compelled him to come and offer his assistance for no money. A pandit associated with the crematorium interrupted this conversation and gave Hussain orders to go work elsewhere.

At the Seemapuri crematorium, Karan says the pandit can expect to make Rs 1,000 per body. This is the ‘pandit dakshina’–money a pandit ‘earns’, in addition to a salary, by the grace of the mourners.

The cremation itself costs around Rs 2,500, with mourners informing The Wire that their total costs had been Rs 3,500 on leaving–confirming Karan’s estimate. However, this is not necessarily universal across crematoriums.

At the Ghazipur cremation ground, which had more extensive amenities than Seemapuri and similar base costs, the pandit, Ashish Pande, emphasised that there is no universal fee, and it is subject to the mourner’s desires at that time. Indeed, The Wire had witnessed a woman give him just Rs 30 moments earlier, which had been accepted with grace.

“These people come here already devastated,” he says.

It is very bad to ask for money on top of everything.

Karan agrees.

“I never ask them for money,” he says.

The sevadaars are asking for money from the mourners even apart from the guru dakshina, to do work–saying that if you give us more money, we’ll get your work done quickly.

But how much money do the sevadaars take? “Not less than Rs 500,” Karan says. By his own account, it is half the amount of money a pandit expects to make for no additional work whatsoever–and yet, he holds it to be a desecration of Hindu tradition, as well as a moral failure.

Even if Karan had not asked for money this time, as he insists, there is a religiously codified expectation.

The expectation cannot even be considered technically immoral–the ‘guru dakshina’ has the historical and cultural validity that the newer points of ingress into the business of cremation necessarily will not.

This is not the difference between a thousand rupees worth of prayers versus three hundred rupees worth–it is about who is allowed to consider themselves worthy of any material recompense, no matter how much it is, and by whom. So while the pandits are forced by circumstance to accept that other castes now work in their spaces, there is a deep vein of resentment that non-Brahmins get to profit off of it, or that they are compensated for the same work–even if it is to a lesser degree than the pandits are.

And, as with the case of the pandit Shambu and Sunny, if that resentment manifests in physical violence, structurally, there is no higher power to hold the Brahmin accountable.

There is, however, a dependable larger structure when it comes to mobilising privilege for their own needs.

Tarsem Sharma is a pandit at the Shamshan Sudhar Samiti at the Malviya Nagar cremation ground. He is also the cashier of an organisation of pandits that specifically works in the 255 crematoriums of Delhi–and they share information, resources, and moral support on a WhatsApp group. (In comparison, many of the daily-wage labourers at the crematorium were too poor to afford phones–any kind of phones.)

Tarsem has heard of the state of the cemetery at Seemapuri, and he is deeply disapproving–especially of Jitender Shunty, a former BJP MLA whose ambulance service brings people from their deathbeds in their homes directly to his crematorium.

At Seemapuri crematorium, the pyres are barely a few feet apart from each other. Photo: Naomi Barton/The Wire

At Seemapuri crematorium, the pyres are barely a few feet apart from each other. Photo: Naomi Barton/The Wire

Tarsem points out the despair of one pandit, Hemant, from the Seemapuri crematorium, who has reached out for help to his WhatsApp group in a moving video.

“How much can one man work?” he asks.

Hemant is the pandit at the Seemapuri crematorium, he’s very troubled… Shunty, it should be said, should think about how much work he’s making. How much can he [Hemant] do? He’s been working 24 hours–how can a man keep going like this? Tomorrow if we die, who will do this?

It must be noted that the crematorium in Malviya Nagar, in the early evening, has no crowds, no queues and no new bodies. They have filled up their pyres for the day, and given that they do not accept COVID-19 deaths anyway, the place is empty and peaceful as none of the other crematoriums have been. Pandit Tarsem is not busy at work.

In his video message, pandit Hemant from Seemapuri had called on his ‘brahmin brothers’ for help–but has not called for more pandits to come help process the bodies at Seemapuri. This would have been an obvious ask to make of a network of fellow crematorium pandits, several of which will finish the bulk of their work by the afternoon.

Instead, Hemant has called on them to block Shunty from taking on so many bodies, saying that even when he insisted on locking the gate at 10 pm, Shunty prevailed upon him to cremate another three bodies. Hemant’s complaint is not simply that he has to work unreasonable hours–it is also that there are so many bodies, and that there are more non-Brahmins than Brahmins performing these rites.

If there is a need for more caste-appropriate cremators, where have all the pandits gone?

For Karan from Seemapuri, it’s a matter of money–the pandits here won’t want to bring in their own competition. According to him, the ‘bad’ pandits here also regularly make the sevadaars do the hard work and pocket all of the money, sometimes giving the sevadaars Rs 50 if they are feeling generous. The work that the sevadaars are doing means that pandits from elsewhere cannot challenge the resident pandits as equals, and thus pose less of a threat.

And yet, Karan’s anger was reserved for the sevadaars–for their lack of theological and spiritual competence, as he saw it, in addition to their ‘greed’. If they were not Brahmins, they could not know the rituals (as by Brahmin tradition, none but a Brahmin may chant the Vedas.)

If non-Brahmins did not know the rituals, they could not give a soul freedom. If a soul was not given freedom, how could it have dignity? Karan also points out that when ‘incompetent’ people perform rituals badly, they cause the mourning family further grief.

But in the time of COVID-19, there is no dignity in death anyway–only varying degrees of indignity. Take, for instance, Karan’s own competence at the cremations he managed that afternoon.

There are two pyres–the first belongs to a woman, and the second to a man. The second is the one where the mourning relative accused Karan of asking for an unreasonable sum of money.

Karan sets up the woman’s pyre. As it starts burning, he goes over to the second pyre. The family there, impatient, set up the pyre themselves, and were arguing over the cost as they were loath to pay Karan considering they did the bulk of the physical labour.

From Karan’s perspective, the family disobeyed him and built the pyre improperly so he has to redo the work. From the perspective of the family, Karan kept them waiting an unreasonable amount of time and was now haggling over a dead body.

As they resolve the conflict and Karan begins his work, from behind, the woman’s son calls for Karan to come back. There is a problem.

Can you fix our pyre? Her arm is out.

A large branch–critical to the structural integrity of the pyre–had fallen and the woman’s arm has untethered itself as the shroud burnt off. It has reached out of the flame, as if in supplication. It looks tender–a dimpled elbow ending in a delicate wrist and soft hands. The gesture of her fingers bears a startling resemblance to the Pietà–plaintive, disbelieving.

Karan ignores her son. Perhaps he does not hear. He was managing the second fire, and simultaneously arguing with the dead man’s relatives.

The woman’s arm is wreathed in flame, but something more wretched is happening. After the shroud, the fire has reached the woman’s clothing. Without the protective branches of the pyre hiding the body from sight, the upper half of the woman’s body is vulnerable to the gaze of the dozen or so men standing in the vicinity.

Helpless without Karan’s assistance, the woman’s son watches in horror as the fire bares one side of the upper half of his mother’s torso.

Karan finally looks up, and lopes over. He veers close to the fire, and with the help of the nephew, tries to angle the branch back into place, but it’s too heavy from this far away.

They finally stop as the fire blazes too hot for them to stand by it–but it has also finally consumed enough of the body that there is no longer scope for immodesty.

Sitting on a block of wood destined for the pyres, Sunny and another sevadaar, Chandan*, muse on the way the system works.

“You know what’s happening here,” Chandan asks. “It’s dishonesty… these people [pandits] have jealousy in their hearts for the people who do the work.” By his estimation, Rs 1,000 is the lower end of how much the pandits get and not the maximum. Sunny hacks up a cough.

The air is thick with ash, coating both the workers and sweat streaks their skin.

“He is the only raakshas,” Chandan says of one of the pandits.

The only one who beats us.

Chandan acknowledges that everyone who works at a crematorium earns their living from the dead. He is frank enough to use the phrase ‘laash ko khaana’–feeding off a corpse–to describe the business.

But of the pandits, he says,

There are so many people dying, there are so many bodies. Will you feed off them all? In our poverty, we’re making as much as we need to survive. When a poor man eats, sits and stands, why is it a problem?

If you feed off all the corpses, can others feed themselves just from a beating? Some of us also have to eat, no? We are also God’s children.

*Name changed to protect identity.

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