Grzegorz Wełnicki

2016 - Ongoing

Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India; Warsaw, Masovian Voivodeship, Poland

Chaudharys (the untouchables) are the lowest social caste in India, whose job, for the last thousands of years is to burn dead bodies in the holy city of Varanasi. This extremely tough profession has been assigned to them as one of many unprivileged works they perform in the Hindu society. It is Them, who protect the symbolic Eternal Flame of the heath of Manikarnika Ghat, keeping the hundreds of bodies constantly burning in stacks, every night and day. Cremations, done there by Chaudharys, provide the full closure of sansara and allow to reach the state of nirvana. Water of the river Ganges, flowing at the base of Ghat, is inseparably connected with the mentioned ritual of passage – moksha . Hand to hand, they work to burn the bodies – fathers with sons, cousins with uncles, young and elderly ones.

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  • Lingam

    A countless number of temples proves the highest scale of Hindu divinity of the city of Varanasi. Sculptures hidden in the alleys, with their egg-shaped form placed on a flat pedestal are called Lingams – embodiments that praise the holy couple: God Shiva and his wife, Shakti.

    Varanasi 2017

  • Siv Shiv Kumar

    I’m 13 years old and I work at Manikarnika for three, maybe four. Families bring bodies wrapped in silk sashes. Before the cremation, they take them off and dump wherever they fall. My job is about running between stacks of burning bodies to collect as much silk as possible. You have to react fast, as others pick it up too and cows wandering around the Ghat can also eat your treasure. I work with my brother, they call him Kallu, which means black, due to his skin color.

    Varanasi 2017

  • Manikarnika Ghat

    Varanasi 2017

  • Kanahiya - Kallu

    I’m not exactly sure how old I am. – 17, maybe 18. My mom claims, I’m about fifteen. I know, however, that six
    years ago I got ill and I lost vision in my right eye. A year later, I had to take the job at Manikarnika. The reason was the same as among all the poor – our family lacked money for living.
    I collect silk sashes along with my brother. One piece is worth one, sometimes up to five rupees, depending on how badly the cloth is shattered. They’re being bought by Muslims, who take them back to their sewing shops and fix, so they can go back to the shelves.

    Varanasi 2017

  • Gavinda

    I am 60 and I work at Manikarnika for a long time. Before that, I was selling saris, but the income was so low, I had to quit. By then it was around 15 rupees per month, whereas for burning bodies you could earn even 20 per day. I am already old and working at Manikarnika is hard, but I’m lucky to have help from my son, Rohan.

    Varanasi 2017

  • A decomposing buffalo’s body in the waters of Ganges.

    Varanasi 2016

  • An object from a water sample taken from Ganges next to Manikarnika. A photo taken with a laboratory microscope.

    Warsaw 2017

  • Hundreds of flies and a dog drowned by a man – Ganges.

    Varanasi 2017

  • Rohan

    I’m 21, and I work at Manikarnika for eight years. I passed one, maybe two classes of primary school. Then I had to start working and earning money for my family. In the first day, I wanted to run away, I couldn’t look at those bodies. I don’t have a mother, my father is old. Sometimes we take the same shift, so I can help him – burning bodies at Manikarnika is a hard, physical work. Summers are the worst, when it’s boiling hot and we have to keep an eye on gigantic columns of fire. It is when our blood changes its color to black.

    Varanasi 2017

  • At the Ghat, on the shore opposite to Manikarnika, the river dumps remnants intact by the cremation. Those, who are going to be killed by cobra’s venom, lepers, pregnant women, children and Sadhu are not a subject of the holy ritual of burning. They don’t have to be purified with fire. They are being carried with the currents of Ganges and disposed at empty wharfs, beyond the city’s sight.

    Varanasi 2016

  • Tilakdhari

    I started working at Manikarnika when I was 17, now I’m 35. I burn bodies also at Harishchandra Ghat. It’s a second place of cremation, less popular among Hindi. It was there, when I went to sleep, a bug bit me in the eye. A doctor performed a surgery, but as you can see, it didn’t help.

    Varanasi 2017

  • Rohit

    I’m 18 years old and I work for two years at Manikarnika. I’m poor and I’m Chaudhary – that’s what I had thought and I went burning bodies. In the beginning I liked that job – with the first earned rupees, I went to the cinema to watch a Bollywood movie called Dabang – it was awesome!
    Now, I speak and think about myself in a bad way. I don’t like my job, sometimes I dream that I could have become a lawyer. If I ever have children, I’d like them to study.

    Varanasi 2017

  • Meer Ghat

    Black roots of a big tree, sprinkled with red powder mark the entry to a district mostly inhabited by the caste of Untouchables. Its borders are drawn from one side by the coast of Ganges, called Meer Ghat, whereas the entry from the city’s side is located next to the temple of the king of monkeys – Hanuman.

    Varanasi 2017

  • Kapil

    I’m 26, and I started working at Manikarnika when I was 12. During those last fourteen years, I burnt many bodies, but nothing’s changed here since then. It’s hot, dirty, when we enter Ganges, we hurt our feet with sharp bamboo sticks. I’m not afraid of death, there is nothing to be afraid of – I see death every day. I’m telling you – one, who works Manikarnika, stays at Manikarnika.
    On 11th March 2017, Kapil has an argument with his superior and quits his job. After five days he starts
    lacking the money for food, so he comes back to the hearth. Few weeks later we bump on each other in the narrow streets of Varanasi. He tells me, he’s got a job as an electrician.

    Varanasi 2017

  • Devprayag

    A city at the foothills of the Himalaya. In this extraordinary place, two rivers meet – Alaknanda and Bhagirathi – both combined, they form Ganges – the Mother River of India.

    Devprayag 2017