Untouchability/ Impurity

The idea of unaccountability has always been part of Hindu culture but it also changed the way everything changed over time. If we look at real idea of unaccountability then it is completely karma based and anyone can become untouchable or impure by doing certain karma at anytime in their lives but at present certain communities are considered 24 hours untouchable. The best examples in my city are the people who work at cremation sites.There is so huge discrimination against them that the community doesn’t seem to have any hope. Even they don’t consider themselves as someone who can even dream of changing their lives.

I still remember when I worked with CBC a few years ago on a documentary project which was about filming a young Doam (the caste of people who work at the cremation grounds) whose father was still involved in the cremation ground but the son was either studying computers or working at a multinational company and at one moment we thought that it was impossible to find someone in such condition because no family had ever sent their kids to the school. Anyways, something magic happened and we found an amazing person for our episode, in fact it was the best story of the series.

Something really in interesting happened with me last night which made me write this story and really made me think if there is any impact of education on Indian society or not? Are we still stuck with that crazy system of unaccountability/ impurity / discrimination of the basis of somebody’s caste? And the worse thing is that nobody wants to think about the real idea and just want to go with the present system. One of my friend’s father died yesterday and I went to the cremation ground with my two friends who are my age graduate living in so called educated Indian city.

Both of my friends were really concerned about getting touched by anyone at the cremation ground because it would have made them impure or untouchable. The idea of impurity associated with cremation says that whoever participates in the funeral becomes impure until they have taken a bath again. They were planning to keep a distance from all of the family members, even my friend. They warned me also to not get touched by anyone but I did not know how to make it happen. I was going to my friend father’s funeral and I knew that at least I was going to hug him or touch him to show my sorrow and support in this difficult time.

Anyways, I arrived at the cremation ground and saw my friend standing alone and looking at his father’s funeral. That feeling of seeing my friend was so strong to me that I could not stop myself by going close to him. My other friend’s, who were concerned about getting touched, also came with me. I was talking with my friend and suddenly I noticed that two other friends who had come with me were gone now. They were standing kind of 20 meters away from me. Suddenly the friend who father had died started crying and now I could not stop myself by putting my hand over his shoulder. We were standing like this for a while and then I went to my other friends and we returned back home.

But the most interesting experience for me when I started my motorbike to drive back home. It was the same motorbike I had used to reach at the cremation ground with two other friends but now they did not want to ride it. We were three on one motorbike with me being the driver and my other friends were asking each other to sit on the bike first so that they don’t touch me. Anyways, they also came on my bike and we all drove back together. The next day one of those friends came to me and said that he had to change his clothes and take a bath before entering in home only because I touched someone at the cremation ground and they got touched by me.

I thought about it a lot and was wondering if this idea of impurity is more important than showing your support to a friend who is facing a death of a family member? Anyways, I think I just did not do anything wrong, in fact I did not do anything, it was just my human feeling which made me touch that friend. I also want to respect traditions but definitely can’t compromise with my social duties.

Research on secular philosophers and cremationists

Adam, PhD candidate, University of Chicago, came back to Benaers and stayed at my place again. This year he wanted to do some basic research about his upcoming research in India next year. He wanted to study Hindi as well but for that he had decided to go to Masoorie. Adam was interested in two subjects- labors at construction sites or Doams (the people who work at cremation place). Adam has come this year with his fiance, Megan, who is doing a research for her school, Smith college, Boston, about secular Indian philosophers. She just wants to collect some data about them.

She wants to visit BHU and see if they have any books available written by any secular Indian philosophers who existed in between 1850-1940. Megan said that she went to University of Maisoore also but could not get anything because there was no one to help her at the university. She went there several times but could not get any help and then she decided to leave Maisoore and came to Benares. She wanted to visit the BHU library and wanted to talk with some professors at philosophy department. I took help of my one friend who studies at BHU and he took us the university.

We went to the International Students Center first where we met with the officer who asked us to meet the head of the central library. We went to the central library and met with the head. Adam and Megan both were shocked to see the library of BHU. They said that BHU’s library was a way better than the library of University of Masoorie. They said that people were also very nice and helping at BHU. The asked Megan to write them a letter asking for permission to visit the library and after doing it, we were allowed to look at the books. Megan, Adam, my friend Ravi and I visited the library with few staffs of the library who were showing us around.

Megan found few books that were good for her research and wanted to get it xeroxed but actually it was impossible to xerox those books because those books were too old and pages were in terrible condition. So finally Megan had to write another letter asking them to provide digital format of the book. They asked us to come after 5 days and collect the book in digital format. After the library we went to the philosophy department and met a professor. He was crazy. He was more interested in showing his own research to Megan. He did not want to hear what Megan was doing.

He started showing the books he had written and started talking about himself and just did not want to stop or let Megan ask something about her research. Finally after hearing him for an hour, he asked what Megan needed. Megan told him about her research and he asked Megan to come next day so that he could research the philosophy department library but he had said that the library had a few books that would be good for her research. �After meeting him we came back to home and Megan said that it was a successful day for her research.

The work at BHU today motivated her to keep her research going on otherwise she had given-up after visiting University of Maisoore. I am happy for Megan’s research. Adam wanted to talk with a doam so I took him to Harishchandra Ghat and introduced him to a guy whom I had met while working with CBC’s documentary Myths and Might. We met at the Harishchandra Ghat and he took us to the electric burner where he works. I had never been to a electric burner but this time the electric burner was the place to interview.

We talked for few hours and Adam and Megan asked him several different kinds of questions about his personal life, social status, discrimination… Adam wanted to gift something to him so I asked the Doam where was the nearest sweet shop and the Doam asked us why we wanted to go to a sweet shop and I told him that Adam wanted to gift him some sweets. After hearing this the Doam said that Doams are not the kind of people who love sweets, they love alcohol. So we bought him a bottle of whiskey.

Research on death in Varanasi

A German girl named Sophia wrote me on couchsurfing for meeting. She asked me about Hindi classes in Varanasi. At the same time I had a tenant named Dave from Fresno who was learning Hindi with Professor Virendra Singh so I introduced Sophia to Dave. She was doing anthropology research from University of Berlin and was interested in the people who come Varanasi to die. I took Sophia to one of the places where Sadhus stay to die and translated the interview.

Sophia was so happy to understand people because I was translating the interview. She asked me if would work for her as translator for next few days. I was happy to get a new job but was worried about work with Amanda, other student from Yale University, who was to visit Benares after few days for her research regarding Coke issue and I had already promised to work with her. I told Sophia about this problem and we decided that I would work with Sophia first and if Amanda comes, then I would go with her.

We went to 3 monasteries and talked people. We went to Machali Bandar Math, Mumukshu Bhavan and Kashi Mukti Bhavan. All these monasteries are for people who come Benares to die. There was a little difference between all those. Machali Bandar Math only permits Sadhus and Sanysis to stay there, Mumukshu Bhavan had non Sadhus also like families, and Kashi Mukti Bhavan is a place for sick people for short stay. The people who are seriously sick and seem like going to die soon come to Kashi Mukti Bhavan becasue Kashi Mukti Bhavan doesn’t allow long term stay.

We talked to a lot of Sadhus and non Sahdus living in Mumukshu bhavan. I was shocked to meet a woman who was in Mumukshu Bhavan since past 30 years and waiting for her death. She came Varanasi with her husband and her husband died after 2 years but she was still alive and waiting for her death. We asked her if she was not worried about her death. But she seemed so happy replying that she wanted to die in Varanasi. She said that she prays to God everyday to give her death. She said that there could be nothing better than if she dies in Varanasi.

We visited two Aghor monasteries also, Kina Ram and Bhagwan Avdhoot Ram Ashram. Both of monasteries belong to Aghor society. Sophia was very much curious about the ash that Aghor people use. We asked about it to a lot of people and everybody said that they use it to save themselves from diseases and other problems. They said that ash only works if you have belief in it. They carry the ash when they travel so that they could use it everyday even when they are far away from the monastery.

There is a place in Kina Ram monastery where they have fire going on since hundreds of years, they say that it never got peace. They bring the wood from cremation place, I didn’t understand why they bring the wood from cremation place but there was some religious importance of it. Cremation place is very important for Aghoris. They perform a lot of rituals on cremation place. On the night of Diwali, a lot of Aghoris go to cremation place and do some puja for the whole night.

The second monastery we visited has its name in The Guinness Book of World Records for treating most number of leprosy patients. They have a hospital that uses only Ayurvedic medicines and treat leprosy. They have a school also for street children, a library, a research center and a press where they print Aghora books. They are involved in lots of other social work. This monastery was founded by a Aghor guru called Bhagwan Avdhoot Ram in the year 1962.

They organize group weddings also because they don’t believe in the idea of wasting money like a lot of other people do in weddings. They had organized a group wedding and we were also invited there. I really wanted to see a wedding of Aghor followers because their philosophy is different than general Hindus. The major difference is that they don’t believe in casteism. I was surprised to see that the priest was a Kshtriya, not Bramhan. I asked them about it and they said that anyone who learns religion or Sanskrit could be a Bramhan. I loved it, I really like Aghor society.

We went to Mother Teresa home also to interview people. They were really nice. I always want go there. They help poor and sick people. I saw a lot of mentally retired, sick and injured people. Even though the institution is run by Catholics but they don’t bother people to practice Christianity. People living there are free to practice their own religion. They get veg meal six times a week and a non veg meal once in a week on Thursday. I liked the devotion of the Nuns there.

We went to talk to few Doams also who work at funeral place. Sophia asked them about their job and feeling of people who bring the body there. They told us that babies, pregnant women, leprosy patients, Sadhus and snake bitten people are not cremated, they are drowned in the river. Usually Doams drink and smoke a lot. They asked Sophia also to buy them a bottle of whiskey. We asked them why do they drink all the time and they replied that it is hard to cremate a body when you are normal therefore they drink every time they work.

They told us the idea behind why people come Varanasi to die. They said that when Shiva left Varanasi, he made Vishnu promise him that he will come and tell the name of Ram in everyone’s ear, in the last moments of life, who die in Varanasi. Since people hear the name of Ram when they dieing, they get liberated and this is why people want to die in Varanasi. He said that Shiva has left the city and now resides on Kailash but the city is still situated on his trident. It was interesting.

We went to meet Lali baba also who is an Aghori baba. He is the most fascinating character of Varanasi. Sophia wanted to spend sometime alone at Lali baba’s monastery because she was very much interested to see Lali baba doing his daily routine. She was so happy to meet Lali Baba. Sophia said that even though Lali Baba is very commerical but it is still worth meeting him. I also like Lali Baba a lot.

Finally Amanda came and I had to go back work with her.

Work with MTV Italy

My brother was working with MTV Italy as Italian interpreter asked me if I would assist them in Benares and Allahabad. They were making a documentary called Camminando which was joint production of MTV Italy and LA 7 (Channel 7). They were in Lucknow when they contacted me and their next stop was Allahabad where they wanted to shoot Patalpuri temple and Ghats of Allahabad but they did not anyone there. Even they did not know whom they will shoot.

Then they contacted me to choose their characters and schedule appointment with them for interview. I had only 4 days to complete everything for Benares and Allahabad part. I contacted Mr. Shubhranshu Chowdary who was my boss during CBC documentary to ask about if he knew someone in Allahabad. He gave me contact of a journalist in Benares. I contacted him and he gave me contact of another journalist in Allahabad.

I went to Allahabad next day and met him. We visited all the places MTV wanted to shoot, met the people and scheduled appointment for interviews. They wanted to shoot in Patalpuri temple also which was inside the Akbar’s fort and now it was army base camp. We tried to contact army officers but it seemed long process to me and I did not have much time. Finally I left everything on that journalist and returned to Benares because I had to do the same work in Benares also.

They wanted to shoot Sadhus, Babas and Aghoris in Benares. I went to the Kina Ram monastery first, which is head office of Aghor society, but could not get permission because few TV channels had already done shooting there and edited the video with asking them. They added the shots that were not shot inside the monastery. I was told that Aghoris use alcohol during their rituals, eat dead body flesh and do sex with it which I asked them but they said that it is all rumor, there is nothing like it.

So finally when I realized that they would not let me shoot there I talked them for long time asking about their society so that I could get some idea about their society because the things that we know about Aghoris are completely different than reality. They were so helpful, they answered my each and every question but did not permit me to shoot there. I visited few other Aghor monasteries also and everybody had same opinion about Aghor society – nobody eat dead body flesh and do sex with it anymore.

I went to Bhagwan Avdhoot Ram Ashram which is at other side of Ganga and found it very interesting. They have a hospital that has its name in Guinness Book of World Records for treating most number of leprosy patients in the world, a school for street children, a library and a press. They were so nice but they were also considered about letting MTV Italy came and shoot inside monastery. They also knew about what had happened with Kina Ram monastery. I had to talk to lots of people and finally some how I was able to make them agree to let us shoot there.

I went to few other monasteries as well who were willing to be shooted. I went to one monastery that had a lot of Italian Aghoris but they did not know anything. I showed them question sheet but they were not able to answer any of those questions about Aghora even they were living in the same monastery since last 5 years, 7-8 months every year. But they wanted to be shooted anyhow, they were not interesting for me but very interesting for MTV. MTV said that they would be so happy to shoot a Italian Aghori.

MTV wanted to shoot a Aghori character that could eat dead body flesh on camera. It was very hard to find characters like this because Aghoris said that they used to eat it but not anymore. They said it was prohibited about 400 years ago by Baba Kina Ram and if anybody still eats dead body flesh it means he is not real Aghori. They said that motive of Aghor society is to help people and if the continue doing this then nobody will come to them, I believe it. But I knew where I could find these kind of characters, I contacted my few friends near the funeral place and they got me meet to one Aghori who was agree to eat dead body flesh.

That Aghori said that he does a special puja which is called Mahabhog once in a year when he eats dead body flesh and use it during special puja but would do another puja specially for MTV. It was shocking for me to see what people could do just for money. He gave me a list of all the materials that he wanted to use for puja and 2 bottles of whisky was one of them. I asked him where would he find dead body from and his answer was- dont take any tension, I would arrange it.

He said that when somebody dies in any accident, Police gets the body cremated in electric burner. Usually they give the body to Doams, people who work at funeral place, and go back so he could take some part of heirless body. It was most shocking moment of my life to meet a person who was talking about eating dead body flesh. MTV Italy was happy to hear that there was a person agree to eat dead body flesh and they informed their head office about it in Rome but they were forbidden because Rome office said that they will not get permission to show a person eating dead body flesh on air.

Finally MTV Italy reached Benares after completing Allahabad’s part and we started shooting in Benares. We did shooting with all the character including a Baba called Lali Baba. He was very interesting character, had two skulls, wears more than 350 necklaces all the time that weights over 40 KG, does all kind of things that I had never seen before in my life. MTV said that Lali Baba was the best character of the documentary. I was happy to meet him, he was a nice person. We did shooting with Mother Teresa Home also.

Finally they left Benares. They were most unorganized people I had ever worked with. They did not have any schedule, did not know what to do in Benares right before 4 days of coming here, did not know anyone, did not know anything about the characters they wanted to shoot. Later my brother informed me that the whole crew members were arrested in Khajuraho for shooting inside the temples where nobody is allowed carry even a camera. The whole group jumped inside the temple from back wall and got arrested. They were in jail for more than 8 hours. No words to say how unorganized were they.

Research for CBC Cremation Documentary

Nandlal called me to ask about Doams (people who work at cremation place) in Varanasi. He told me that his friend is in Varanasi nowadays and wants to make a documentary about Doam’s life. Since I live near the Ghats and I have lots of friends who live along the ghats, it was easy for me get information about Doams. He met me at Assi Ghat and we went to all the hotels nearby because he didn’t know at which hotel his friend was staying. We went to over 10 hotels near Assi but couldn’t find him. Finally I took him to a hotel which was near the Assi ghat and fortunately found his friend there. I asked him about his job and he said that he was as a freelance journalist. He used to work for BBC but left the job few years ago. At present he was working for a CBC’s documentary called Myths and Might.

His job was to look for the right characters, schedule appointment for interviews and get legal permission. Since he didn’t know anyone in Varanasi he wanted my help to find him the right characters. He was looking for a young doam character whose father still works at funeral place and the character goes for computer classes or have some computer related job. They wanted to show how Indian was changing. I took him to Manikarnika ghat (funeral ghat) because I knew few people there. I got him meet over 10 people. Everybody wanted to be involved with us. We met few people who had wood shop at funeral place. They told us to come next day. Then I met my few other friends who live near the Manikarnika ghat and asked them about doams. I was shocked to hear that doams still have a king. They said that we cant do anything without his permission. It was getting darker now, so, we decided to get back to home and do some more research.

Next day we left home early morning and went to Manikarnika ghat again. We met met a lot of new people who work at funeral place and asked if their son go to school. It was again a shocking thing for me when I didnt hear anyone saying that their son go to school. We talked to over 15 people but couldn’t find anyone whose son or daughter was going to school. Then we went to Harishchandra Ghat, another funeral ghat, and talked to a lot of people. We met a 55 years old person who works at Electric Burner at Harishchandra Ghat and his son was having a job in Reliance Money. We went to his home, met his family, talked them and told them about CBC’s project. They got agree to be part of this documentary.

They said that their son Raja Babu, our character, has a LLB degree from Banaras Hindu University. And now he works for Reliance Money as Area Manager. This is the kind of character we were looking for. They said that after he had completed his 5th class no school was agree to take him because Doams are still considered as untouchables in society. His father used to be a rickshaw driver and would make about Rs. 50-75 a day and it was so hard for him to take care of his family with that much money but he still wanted to send his children to schools. Since no school was agree to take Raja Babu in he stopped going to school but never stopped his studies, he continued his studies by his own.

After few months Raja Babu started working at Doctor’s clinic as a helper. This doctor helped Raja Babu a lot. He used to teach Raja Babu, train him about medicines and give some money also. Once a dead body of a very rich and respected person from Varanasi came to Harishchandra Ghat to get cremated and fortunately it was Raja Babu uncle’s turn to work there. When a body is cremated, family can not burn the body by their own source of fire, they have to ask a Doam to bring them fire from cremation place God, Shiva, temple and doams ask for money to do that. But this time Raja Babu’s uncle asked for admissions of Raja Babu in a school instead of money and that family had to promise them to get Raja Babu in a school.

So this is how Raja Babu got opportunity to go to school again. He got admission in Bengali Tola Inter College, Varanasi and passed 12th class from there.Raja Babu had hard time in school with other kids because nobody would treat him well. After completing 12th class Raja Babu applied for B.A. degree from BHU and got admission. So finally he completed B.A. , M.A. and LLB from BHU. After completing LLB he worked for a American NGO called Cash for India in Gazipur district as accountant. After two years he left the job and joined Reliance Money. This was amazing character for us, so, we decided to choose him.

Next day we went to Doam Raja (king of Doam society) home. He was so fat that he couldn’t walk properly. We went to meet him inside his home and it was not a normal home. They cook the food by burning the woods that are left after cremating a body. His house had strange smell. He had cows, goats, dogs and a huge family with more than 10 kids and two brothers and everybody was living in the same house. It was 8’o clock morning time when we reached his home and Doam Raja was completely drunk, all time all alcohol. He was sitting at his bed and told us to sit on a bed in front of him. I saw few pieces of meat and blood under his bed. It seems that he eats raw meat and drink alcohol early morning.

We described him about CBC’s project and he gave us consent to shoot at Manikarnika and Harishchandra Ghat. Then we went to his roof and saw statues of two tigers. It was funny to see those at someone’s roof. There was a story related to those tigers also. People say that Doam Raja and King of Benares were never ever friends. Doam Raja got a Tiger’s statue built at his roof. The statue was facing towards Maharaja’s palace which Maharaja didn’t like at all so sued Doam Raja in court of Benares. Finally this case was ended with the judgment of court saying Doam Raja to either knock down that statue or built another one that has its face at opposite direction of first one. So he got another statue built that a its face at opposite direction of the first one.

Now CBC guy had got everything he wanted, like he had all the characters, permission from Doam Raja, permission from city government etc…………….