Sukanta Nayak once worked at a bank in the city. But after a year and half there, he returned to his family’s occupation of cremating the dead. “It is expected of the men in our families to work at Swargadwar. It’s an occupation bound by tradition and religion,” he said, explaining the shift. That was 13 years ago and he is still working at the cremation ground – Swargadwar in Puri, Odisha ever since.
When he was a teenager, he would help his father with small tasks in the cremation ground. “He [father] would ask me to check if anything needed to be added to the pyre halfway through the cremation or to fix the wood in case any of it fell off. After 4-6 months, I could cremate bodies independently,” he said.
Sukanta’s family belong to the community called sanskar sewaks, referred to as doms in Odisha.
When he began working at Swargadwar over 13 years ago, he recalls that there were no electric bulbs and lanterns lighting the ghat at night. Cremations then took place next to the shore. It would cost Rs. 2 to cremate a body: the money was divided equally between the person who managed the documents and the one who burnt the body. Around 10-15 men worked at Swargadwar. “We would individually cremate over 20 bodies a day,” he recalls.
Today, Sukanta Nayak is one of 45 men who work here in eight-hour shifts; they each cremate 2 to 5 bodies a day. Nayak works the second shift, starting at 2 p.m. and ending at 10 p.m. “This is the only lifestyle that I know. I feel proud of what I do because you cannot cheat in this kind of work. The only way is to complete it efficiently,” he said.
When the death toll during Covid rose, he says there was a sudden increase in his work. The doms had to work two shifts and maintain precautions. “Three of us would process the cremation of one body. The government had provided sanitisers, masks, and PPE kits. We would wear new sets every time we were to cremate a new body as we would burn the old ones with the bodies we had worn while cremating them,” he says.
Traditionally only male members of the family work at the cremation grounds, says Nayak. His wife Jamuna manages the home front. Their elder daughter Sukuti dropped out of school during the pandemic and the younger daughters, Liza and Puja are still studying – in Class 8 and 9. His sons, Shaily and Sonu have joined him in the last few years.
“Making my sons work here is the only solution to our monetary issues,” he says. Like other young workers at Swargadwar, Sonu picks up the remains of the cremation after it has gone out completely. “In the next few years, we plan to open a fast food shop on the beach, aside from a coconut shop that we open for business every summer. My brother and I also work on the side as tour guides. But as sanskar sewaks, we can support our family,” says Sonu.
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Prakriti Panda is a student of Mass Communication at XIM University, Bhubaneshwar. They wrote this story during their internship with PARI Education. They say, “The process of writing this article helped me in understanding how the occupation of doms functions at the most fundamental level, as well as understanding the situation firsthand.”