India’s Untouchable Queen of the Dead
Legions of the sick and elderly go to great lengths to die in India’s holiest city. One mysterious woman guards this fiery entrance to eternal bliss.
Photos by Andrea de Franciscis
She sits down under the arches of the ancient temple blackened by soot, guarding the sacred fire — an eternal flame used to cremate the dead. In a male-dominated realm, her presence instils a sense of maternal safety. Two golden bracelets tie her burly wrists. Her snow-white sari clashes with the dark and spooky world she belongs to — the world of Doms, the “undertakers” of Hinduism, who tend to sacred cremation grounds in India.
Saranga Devi is a tough and mysterious old lady, with dark blue eyes sparkling like precious stones between the wrinkles of her plump face. She says little or nothing, though her authority is palpable. She scrutinizes everything with a stern gaze from above, from her privileged position on the ghats, the majestic stone stairs leading down to the Ganges.