Manikarnika Ghat is the largest and busiest cremation ground in India – more than 100 corpses are brought here every day and the funeral pyre burns all day long. Hindus believe that the souls of those cremated here, achieve nirvana.
Yet, it forms a macabre hunting ground for a group of children who eke out a living by selling shrouds stolen from dead bodies. Documentary filmmaker Rajesh Jala explores this irony in his award-winning film, Children of the Pyre.
Starting in 2006, Jala followed seven kids belonging to the untouchable Dom community, over a period of 18 months. “Initially, they were very conscious of the camera,” says Jala. “But eventually, they shunned their inhibitions.”
The film’s portrayal of the circumstances in which they make a living, has won it several awards at film festivals in Canada, Brazil and Italy, among other places.But for Jala, the most gratifying part is the social initiative that the film has spawned.
“In September 2009, NGO Plan International launched Project Bhagirathi to improve the lives of 300 children, working in the various ghats of Varanasi,” he says. An American couple has also sponsored the education of four of the children featured in the film.
They have been enrolled in boarding school in the nearby town of Sarnath. Of the remaining three, two have started taking dance lessons while one is studying English and hopes to master computers. “For me, the biggest reward is the social initiative that has got off to a good beginning,” Jala says.