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A Varanasi, less holy

A new web-series captures the other lives in the city — from its corpse photographers to NGOs working against child trafficking

For Inder Kumar Jha, who runs a photography studio in the busy bylanes of Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi, there's no stipulated time to down the shutters. After all, death comes without notice. Jha has been in the business of photographing corpses for eight years. 

His career kicked off when, once while he was roaming around the ghats with his digicam strapped on, a family asked him to click a picture of their dead relative as evidence for a death certificate.

Jagdeesh Choudhhary at Manikarnika Ghat
Jagdeesh Choudhhary at Manikarnika Ghat

His clients are usually family of the deceased who want the images for a variety of reasons from commemorating the cremation, preserving the memory of loved ones to providing evidence to local government bodies.

A month's earnings could range from Rs 10,000-Rs 20,000.

His life has now been captured in a web series by 101 India, titled, The Dark Side of Benaras. "We were fascinated to see whole businesses thriving around death in this city when we visited Varanasi for a travel series," says Cyrus Oshidar, chief creative officer at 101India.com. 

Cyrus Oshidar
Cyrus Oshidar

"We realised there were enough subjects to prepare an entire series. There was, for instance, the Mukti Bhavan where people enroll to attain moksha; the rudalis who mourn during funerals; the jal thal shav vahini or boats used for transportation of corpses to the Manikarnika Ghat and Harishchandra Ghats," he says. Oshidar says the experience in Varanasi was overwhelming. "It was incredible to see body after body being passed around for cremation. Death doesn't faze anyone here," he says.

The first episode, uploaded last week, was about the Dom Raja community. The chief cremation undertakers at Manikarnika and Harishchandra Ghats in Varanasi, they consider themselves descendants of Kallu Dom, who worked as a cremation undertaker during the time of Raja Harishcha-ndra. It is believed that a person whose funeral pyre is lit by a Doms will achieve moksha.

"People might consider us unto-uchables otherwise, but when it comes to death, they need us," says Jagdeesh Choudhary, a member of the community, who has been featured in the video.

Across Varanasi, nearly 300 bodies are burned every day. But the job is far from easy, he adds. "The stench of bodies is unbearable." A daily dose of alcohol has become a coping mechanism.

An NGO that works against child trafficking and prostitution also gets featured.

"The rest of the world looks at Varanasi as a holy city.

But there are so many elements here that we either don't know about or don't want to delve into. I hope the series ensures that we don't sideline them anymore," Oshidar adds.

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