India is a land of superstitions and folklores. This diverse nation holds together several religions and one of them is Hinduism. According to Hindu caste hierarchy, a Brahmin is a member of the highest caste and it is a caste where Hindu priests are mostly drawn from. They are responsible for teaching and maintaining the sacred knowledge of Hinduism. But do you know that a part of this caste is untouchable? Amusing as it sounds the Mahapatra Brahmins of India are the virtual untouchables on their own land. People see them as the ones inviting bad luck and often this caste is discarded from regular work ethics. So what made Mahapatras the untouchable Brahmins has a history to know about.
Mahapatras – the priest of death:
“We used to knock at the door of a house only when there was a death in the house to perform the cremation rituals, so our appearance is regarded as a bad sign,” said Ramanand Pandey.
When death comes knocking, so do the Priests of Death. As said by Ramanand Pandey, a Mahapatra Brahmin tells a story that Mahapatras are the one people look up to after the death of their loved ones. They perform the last cremation rituals and decide the do’s and dont’s of the death. The person who gives flames to the deceased known as “Yajman” are often the son of the family, and as a part of the customs is so dictated with several instructions which he needs to follow for the upcoming few days by the Mahapatras. These customs may include shaving heads, sleeping on floors, spice less food, not entering temples and many other crazy things. The “Yajman” has to follow these in order to bring salvation to the soul of the deceased.
Usually the priests of death are found all over the nation but as the technology glitch in, the Mahapatras today can be majorly located in the regions of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. The city in India, one call the hub of old traditions is Varanasi, and this city is where most of the Mahapatras found home to.
The business of death:
According to many scriptures, feeding these priest with puris, vegetables, pickles, curd, sugar, sweets and savouries is a crucial part of the ritual as the more satisfied the Mahapatras are the more the deceased receive salvation. And just to be included they are also given all of the belongings of the deceased expect the wife of course. This may include utensil, clothes, money, jewelry, shoes and food. The simple theory is the more they are fed, the more they are offered the more the dead soul receives from them. And thus their appearance in itself is considered a bad omen.
The tragic part of this story comes in the form of occupation. Unfortunately, most Mahapatra’s never encourage their children to pursue modern education. According to them many educated youth are jobless, so if their child is indulge in the same business they never have to worry about unemployment. This work gives them guarantee of a job without any education. And thus, death is the only way that the Mahapatras are assured of a meal. But this life isn’t easy for the priests of death. Their whole life is based on charity and thus people see them as a bad omen. Whenever they crosses a doorstep, they are chased out stones are pelted on them. People see them as a sign of death and they are often compared to grim reapers. Superstitions and folklores keeps creeping on their existence. But there don’t seem to be any major regrets. Mahapatras can be seen as someone who brings death but the beauty of death itself is the release of the soul.
Some people refers this circle of life as a “business of death”. But is it really? Do they really live for death? Partially yes, partially no. As the death is the only way for the Mahapatras to make money. But on the contrary, death is also the only way for them to gain recognition, to gain importance. No one knocks their door unless someone has died. The cycle of life and death is what keeps the priests of death going. It is often said that the art of cremation is a business, but what art isn’t a business in this materialistic world? People live for money, and money defines their living conditions. The cremation is a practice that not many people seeks as their dream jobs and thus if India doesn’t have Mahapatras who else will cremate your soul? A tricky question with a simple answer, how you perceive it is up to you.