NEW DELHI: Remembered only during death and relegated to the margins of mainstream society in everyday life, the Dom community has long fought stigma, but it all began to change for 'Dom Raja' Jagdish Chowdhary on Friday when he proposed Prime Minister Narendra Modi's name as Lok Sabha candidate from this town.
Their children don't find friends, they are not invited to weddings and not allowed into Varanasi's temples, including the famed Vishwanath temple, said the 'chief cremator' from the family which lights every funeral pyre in town.
Friday, the first time that recognition has come their way, should hopefully mark a turning point towards a better tomorrow, said Chowdhary, one of the four people who proposed Modi's name.
"It is the first time that any political leadership has recognised us, and that too the prime minister himself. We have been facing neglect and inequality for decades. Society doesn't recognise us but I believe that Modiji will do something for us," Chowdhary told PTI over the phone after Modi filed his nomination at the Collectorate here.
"Politicians come to ask for votes but they never look us back after elections," he added.
The two burning ghats at Varanasi, the Raja Harishchandra Ghat and the Manikarnika Ghat, are manned by Doms.
Dom Rajas are keepers of the sacred flame revered by all Hindus.
No matchstick is used at the ghats.
Everyone must use the sacred fire that has been burning for centuries in Dom Raja's hearth.
Devout Hindus believe the fire and the burning at Varanasi's ghats liberate one from the everlasting cycle of life and death.
Legend has it that Raja Harishchandra worked as a helper to Kalu Dom, who tended the cremation grounds centuries ago.
The king sold himself to the Dom.
Since then, the heads of the Doms, the chief cremators, have taken the title Dom Raja.
According to Chowdhary, there are around 500-600 Doms performing at both the ghats while there are more than 5,000 members in the 'biradari' (community), including women and children.
"We take turns to do duty. Sometimes we get one duty in 10 days and sometimes thrice in 22 days. Some get half day duty also. After that we are left with no work. We don't have permanent jobs and cannot provide a good life to our kids," he said.
Chowdhary's younger brother Vishwanath said Friday was a proud moment for all Doms but they need permanent recognition and status in the society.
"It is a moment of pride for all of us. We have suffered a lot due to untouchability and social discrimination. We hope Modiji will understand our pain and will do something for our betterment," he said.
"We want our kids to study and do some other work but they face ridicule in school. No one likes to sit with us and talk to us. They don't touch us. We can't go to the temples and don't get invites to any occasion. We are needed only after death. What kind of life is this?" he asked.
The four people who proposed Modi's name were carefully chosen, each from a different caste -- Banaras Hindu University's women college former principal Annapurna Shukla is a Brahmin, Chowdhary a Dalit, agriculture scientist Ram Shanker Patel is an OBC (other backward classes) and longtime BJP worker Subhash Chander Gupta a Baniya.