It Happens

An Unusual Undertaking

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In Udupi, a 60-year-old does something pretty unique for an elderly widow: she performs the last rites for the dead.

Almost 20 years ago, Vanaja Poojarthi earned an unusual legacy from her late husband: his job. Residents of Chitpady, a temple town in Karnataka’s Udupi district, Vanaja and her husband spent 33 years as man and wife living near Beedinagudde Rudrabhoomi, the crematorium/graveyard where her husband performed last rites for the dead. When he passed away, she took over. “It was written on my forehead,” says the now 60-year-old woman, who believes she was fated to be an undertaker.

Vanajakka, as she is known, cremates some 400 bodies a year, and supervises the burial of at least 100. Experience has made her a thorough professional in the execution of what is mostly unpleasant work. Initially, Vanaja was worried that doing a man’s job would alienate her, but over the years this simple grandmother-of-four has earned the respect of Chitpady residents. Prakash Poojari, an ambulance driver who’s made innumerable trips here, says he’s amazed at the way she copes. “Men who do such work have a swig before they start. She doesn’t drink at all. I don’t know where she gets her strength.”

On a late winter day, there are two women to be cremated—a 92-year-old, another in her sixties. Dressed in a blue sari, accessorised with a pair of ear studs, necklace, and a bindi, Vanaja, her hands black with soot, walks around barefoot, giving detailed instructions to the male pallbearers. She has seen the human body in every state of disrepair—mutilated, hastily stitched, crushed, without limbs, even in semi-rot. “I do not discriminate between them. Their atma will not rest in peace if we don’t do the last rites properly,” she explains in Tulu, her mother tongue. The stench of burning flesh hangs thick as dusk approaches, forcing many to cover their noses. “I’ve gotten used to it,” Vanaja says, as she checks the logs of a pyre.

Vanaja earns a token salary but mostly subsists on the goodwill of families of the dead. It costs Rs 600 to cremate a body at Beedinagudde; Vanaja’s services are extra. “People pay me anything between Rs 50 and Rs 200 baksheesh for helping prepare the pyre and cremate. I also have to scrape out the ashes and bones into a pot so that it is immersed in rivers.” It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Vanaja is the last person to accompany the human forms of many, many people. Relatives and friends don’t usually stay till a body completely turns to ash. Vanaja is always around to ensure the pyres at this conventional wood-fired crematorium do the job properly.

Over the years, she has amassed quite a large collection of appreciatory awards and certificates for her work. Ask Vanaja if she plans to retire, and she points to a pyre: “We all have to retire one day.”