SRINAGAR : In the land reserved for the dead, old feudal ways are still alive. The Malakha, the largest graveyard in Srinagar on the southern slope of Hari Parbat, was once the site of an Islamic seminary and several fruit orchards. The owner of the land was Sheikh Baba Ismail Kubrawee, the teacher of Makhdoom Sahib whose tomb on the slope of the Hari Parbat hill is visited by hundreds of devotees every day.
At the time of Sheikh Kubrawee’s death, he made a will that the land be given away as a graveyard for the Muslims of Srinagar. Before this, Muslims in Srinagar used to bury their dead on the slopes of the Zabarwan hill that is locally known as Sulaiman Tang. When Sheikh Kubrawee decreed his will, many people volunteered to do the job of undertakers. They divided the Malakha land among themselves and began living on it. An unwritten code was followed, which is still in force today – an undertaker family can only dig graves on its own patch of land.
As time went by, several families left the undertaker’s profession but still held on to the land. These families began to hire persons to perform the task of the undertaker. It created what is still called by the undertakers as the Jagirdari system: those who work on the land are separate from, and inferior to, those who own the land.
The landowning families received, and still receive, the major share of money that is spent on a burial. The person who actually performs the burial gets a pittance.
The feudal system of Jagirdari was abolished by law in 1953 by the Sheikh Abdullah government. But that has made no difference to Siraj-ud-din, a grim-looking man in his late fifties who lives in a ramshackle one-storey house in the centre of the Malakha. Many other dwellings exist in the large graveyard, which is not an uninterrupted piece of land: it is sliced by roads in three areas – Rainawari, Nowhatta and Sangeen Darwaza.
Siraj-ud-Din is a Mallekhosh, the Kashmiri word for an undertaker or gravedigger. Performing the last rites of the dead is not only his profession, it’s his identity. Most people are repulsed by this identity; it is the identity of the untouchable. Siraj-ud-Din wanted to marry his children outside this detested community. He searched far and wide for a match for them, but in the end it was only a Mallekhosh family that agreed.
Sitting in a corner of his house, the room lit by a yellowish bulb, Siraj-ud-din puffs away on his hookah. The sense of silence in the room is undisturbed by the loud blaring of a small television.
A beep on his phone makes Siraj leave the hookah for a moment to answer the call. The caller is his former colleague, who left the profession after getting married to a woman of a well-off family. He informs that a man has died and Siraj-ud-Din needs to perform his last rites. The rites include digging a grave and giving a ritual last bath to the body. Siraj quickly stands on his feet and calls his son Showkat.
Showkat, short, in his mid-twenties, and still callow in the profession, had been sitting outside the house, among the graves.
“You will have to dig another grave,” Siraj tells him in gruff voice. Showkat had already dug two graves in the day; this was going to be his third.
Siraj leaves the room to perform his mandatory ablution before going out to wash the dead person. Few minutes later, his phone buzzes again. A male voice asks him to dig another grave. He hesitates. “I cannot come, I have to perform last rites at another place,” Siraj says, anxiously.
Siraj was caught in a fix, unable to decide where he should go. He paced about his house back and forth. Then he made his decision. He informed one family to wait.
Showkat had gone to dig a grave, so Siraj took his other son, Manzoor, a young man afflicted with cancer, along with him.
It was not for the first time that Siraj had to face such a situation. Over the years, most of the Mallekhosh families have left the profession. Siraj’s is one of the few families left scattered on the Malakha who still continue to work as undertakers. The bodies are many; the undertakers are few.
Siraj inherited the profession, like other undertakers. His forefathers took to the work in the 15th century, when the mass conversion of Kashmiri Hindus into Islam took place. Until then, cremation was the popular custom. But as the Muslims increased of a sudden, the need for graves and for gravediggers also increased. Siraj’s forefathers along with a dozen other families volunteered and adopted the work as a source of their livelihood.
When a Muslim man or woman dies, a ritual bath has to be given to the body. Before the final Salat-al-Jinazah (prayers for the dead), the body is washed with camphor-scented water and is wrapped in a white shroud. The body is placed in a wooden coffin and carried to the burial ground, with a procession of men accompanying it.
The burial process involves two methods of grave digging. One is Lahad and the other is Musayee or Sartab. Lahad is the grave where a space for placing the body is dug in the direction towards Kaaba, the Qiblah, and the body placed there while the prayers are offered. Lahad is the most common method of digging a grave.
Musayee or Sartab is the grave which is dug with a shallow trench made at the centre of the grave. The body is placed in this trench while the prayers are offered.
Siraj is trained to dig both types of graves. Among the people for whom he has performed the last rites is Moulvi Mohammad Farooq, the grand cleric of Kashmir who was assassinated on May 21, 1990, by unknown gunmen during the peak of armed insurgency against Indian rule in Kashmir.
During the research, this reporter met a number of gravedigger families who accepted that they had left the profession. Among the people he met was a man who had called Siraj on the phone and asked him to perform the last rites of a body, which came “under his share”. The man belonged to the Dagoo community. He had four sons, all of whom were construction contractors. When asked about the Jagairdari system in the graveyard, he answered with stony silence.
It was for this man that Showkat tirelessly dug a 5-foot-deep, 4-foot-wide grave for four hours and was paid 800 rupees for the effort. The man from the Dagoo community who said that he had left the undertaker’s profession, and whose four sons never took to it, simply sat back and earned 4,000 rupees from the bereaved family.
“It’s unfair,” Siraj said. “It’s we who dig the grave, perform the last bath of the dead, but it’s the Jagirdar family who takes Rs 4,000 for nothing.”
Sirag said he had gone to the local MLA, Ali Mohammad Sagar of National Conference, a number of times to complain against this illegal Jagirdari practice, but nothing came out of it. “Politicians only visit when they need votes. They do nothing to fulfill the promises they make,” Siraj said.
In contrast to other areas of the Valley where the burial process is undertaken by locals for little or no money, in Malakha the profession has become a source of bitterness between the Jagirdar families. The usual rate (a rate set by the gravediggers themselves) for a burial is between Rs 3,000 and Rs 5,000, and to perform the last bath they charge Rs 1,500-Rs 2,000. But Siraj, and the gravediggers like him who do not own the land that they dig, receive only Rs 1,000 for every burial.
Only six families of gravediggers are left in the Malakha. The Jagirdar landowners hire members from these six families to perform the last rites in their patch of land.
Siraj remembers an incident. One day, after burying a body, he received Rs 3,000 from the family of the deceased. He immediately went to pay the landowner his share. “But the landowner refused to take the money in presence of the bereaved family. He told me he will come to my home to collect it,” Siraj said. “The reason was that he did not want to give an impression that he any longer belonged to a gravedigger family.”
In the late 1970s, the then chief minister Sheikh Abdullah had promised undertakers that he would end the Jagirdari system of landholding. He planned to bring graveyards under the government’s control, set a separate office for it, and to delineate Malakah from other lands so that encroachment could be prevented. But governments changed from time to time, and the plan was never put into practice.
“Had it been so, this problem would not have existed at all,” Siraj said.
Some years ago, the state government devised a plan for preventing the Malakha land from being encroached. The plan had five parts: the relocation of 188 illegal structures that had come up there; open spaces to be developed into flower gardens; controlled flood lights to be installed; water supply to be provided; and some buildings to be retained for keeping bodies, as garages for the vans that bring the dead, and as storage space for grave-digging equipment. That plan may still be in a file somewhere.
At present, the Malakha is under the custody of the Waqf board, a government trust which looks after Muslim properties.
Siraj has five sons and four daughters, all of whom are part of the profession. In Islamic tradition, the last bath of a female can only be performed by a female. Siraj’s daughters do this work.
Siraj’s father had found for him a wife from the same community, so that the profession could be carried on by the next generation, and also because of the social stigma attached to this profession.
“It is unfortunate that Kashmiri society scorns people for the jobs they do. If doctors are respected because they bring new life into the world, why can’t the same respect be shown to the people who lead a person’s final passage from this world to the other,” said Zareef Ahmad Zareef, Kashmiri scholar and social activist who himself lives near the Malakha.
Six years ago, when Siraj began to look for a match for his son Showkat, he found no family willing to marry their daughter to a Mallekhosh. Siraj approached his childhood friend, a cobbler who had an unmarried daughter, but he, too, refused.
“I tried to convince him, but in vain. After a few weeks, he rejected the proposal, citing as reason the fact that I was a Mallekhosh,” Siraj said.
For all his children, Siraj could not find a single household in Srinagar for a matrimonial alliance. He went to remote areas of Kashmir to find a match for them, but even there he found no one. Siraj finally decided to marry his children in his own community of undertakers. It did not turn out well. The marriages of two of his daughters ended in divorce. They now live with him in their decrepit house in the graveyard.
Showkat has resigned to his fate. “We cannot stop doing this work. I want my children also to adopt this profession,” Showkat said in sincere voice. “But we want two immediate favours from the government: one, end this monopoly over the graveyard land, and two, do something to remove the social stigma attached to us.”