Death can never be a cause for jubilation, but for a community living in Kashmir, death is not depressing either. In fact, death keeps them alive. They are the Malkhaish or Kabr-e-Mali’e, the professional gravediggers who earn their bread by digging graves for the dead.
Showkat Ahmad Hafiz, is busy in sharpening a set of digging tools at his Srinagar home. For last one week, he hasn’t dug any grave which is his only source of sustenance. “Digging graves keeps us going,” the pale looking Showkat, who is in his thirties, says, “our ancestors too were gravediggers. We learned it from them.”
The incessant talk of death, the eerie feeling of being in graveyard everyday and a paltry earning has determined Hafiz not to let his children take up the ‘burden’ of grave-digging. He sends his two sons — Danish, 8, and Athar, 6 — to school, hoping that they would get into other professions and earn decent wages.
“When they see me sharpening my equipment, they end up asking me, ‘Baba, who died?’” Showkat, who lives in Malkha locality of Srinagar, says, “The deaths and the number of graves dug is all that my children ask me. That’s why I don’t want them to learn this craft when they grow up. They should do something less monotonous, something less eerie.”
Malkha locality is nestled in the lap of Hari Parbat Fort or Koh-e-Maran hillock overlooking the Srinagar city. The fort was recently thrown open for public after a gap of 24 years. Built by Afghan governor Atta Muhammad Khan in 1810, the Hari Parbat Fort is a silent spectator to the vicissitudes of Kashmir.
Spanning over 800 to 950 kanals (100-118 acres) of land, the graveyard has now shrunk due to encroachments by locals. Drug peddlers, gamblers and other anti-social elements often move around in the cemetery without restriction. Some elders in the locality allege that pro-India parties have turned it into a ‘den of menaces’. Their allegation finds substance in the fact that full-fledged construction is going on round the year and concrete houses are coming up, even on the graves.
Over the years, as a deceptive calm prevailed in Kashmir, the number of people falling to the bullets of Jammu Kashmir Police, India Army or other paramilitary troopers, also came down. While the common man on the street felt relieved, it was a beginning of hard times for the gravediggers.
“There was a time when we used to dig five to seven graves a day. We would get frenzied calls to keep the graves ready as more and more people were killed every day,” recalls Hayat Hafiz, Showkat’s elder brother, “but now the story is not the same.”
Hayat laments the ‘peace’ that has come to settle in Kashmir as people have stopped looking towards gravediggers with ‘respect’, “Digging a grave was considered a sacred act, but people see us as untouchables now. We aren’t getting our due respect in society. It’s a sorry state of affairs,” he says.
Consequently, the number of gravediggers has shrunk too and the families associated with it have either changed their occupation or outsource the work to ordinary labourers. The Hafiz family claims they are the only family in grave-digging “business” now. Other well-known gravediggers such as the Buche, Ghager, Panjra, Nikkah, Wugra, and Yetch families have turned into ‘brokers’. Showkat says they outsource customers to him.
“These families no longer dig graves for fear of social ostracism, but customers keep coming to them and they outsource them to us,” says Tasleema Hafiz, who bathes the dead for the last time, an important ritual before Muslims bury their dead.
“Our men go, dig the graves and get meagre amount of money for the outsourced work too,” says Tasleema, who has been living in her parents’ house after being divorced recently.
In Kashmir, digging graves is considered a sacred work. In fact, Madrassas (Islamic seminaries) teach people how to dig graves and give the last bath to the dead.
Noted Kashmiri satirist and poet, Zareef Ahmed Zareef, says digging graves is considered as a noble work in Muslim communities across the world. “In Kashmir, people who dug graves were treated with respect, but now the situation has changed.”
However, Zareef says the scene at villages and far off places is quite different. “In villages, you won’t find any particular family digging the graves, but they treat it as a religious and social obligation to help their neighbour or relative in burying their dead and take part in the last rites,” he said.
“I got a call recently from my friend as he was looking for gravediggers. I managed some men from my locality and when they returned, they charged me INR 15,000 for digging one grave. I was shocked to know this,” he said and added “this means if someone is nearing to death, he has to sell first sell his property to bury his dead. This trend is really disturbing and alarming in our society.”
“This is absolutely unbecoming on part of the society if an important section of our society is maltreated socially. With the passage of time, we will lose our cultural moorings and social fibre and this is the syndrome of it,” a scholar of Sociology at University of Kashmir said.
“But being an honest observer of this community, I have also seen how they (gravediggers) have turned into merchants of death. On every ritual of the dead, they have to be paid. And yes, if they find dead wearing gold, silver or some other ornaments, they claim it there and then.”
The scene at the Malkha graveyard too has changed. Sociologists and historians say successive governments used the area for rehabilitation of all sorts of people to boost their electoral prospects. Since downtown areas in Srinagar usually register a complete poll boycott, the government allowed illegal dwellings of people between Nowhatta and Rainawari who would vote in elections.
“It (Malkha) used to be a massive area without construction and encroachments. But lately, political intervention and deliberate rehabilitation turned this area into a complete mess,” a noted historian and former Dean Academic Affairs, University of Kashmir, Prof Muhammad Ashraf says. “That is the reason why the original inhabitants of this area, the gravediggers, lost their social acceptance.”