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Mahapatras: The Priests Of Death | 101 Heartland

Death is the only way that the Mahapatras are assured a meal.

In Varanasi, when death comes knocking, so do the Mahapatras, the Priests of Death. Acording to the scriptures, feeding these priests and giving them items that belonged to the deceased, is a way for the deceased to receive salvation. It is believed that the more the Mahapatras are fed, and the more offerings they are given, the more the deceased soul receives through them. During the ritual, they are traditionally offered a meal consisting of puris made with ghee, vegetables, pickles, curd, sugar, sweets and savouries.

But life isn't easy for the Mahapatras. The scriptures also dictate that the only way they may receive or own things, is through charity. So it is only the items given to them at the funeral rituals that make up their household. Beds, mattresses, blankets, shoes, slippers, utensils for cooking; the only way the Mahapatras can receive any of these is through the charity of others at the time of a death.

The scriptures go on to say that the 'yajman' - the priest who performs the cremation may not sleep in a bed or with his wife for 13 days after the ritual. He may not step inside a temple, must sleep only on the ground, eat only fruits through the day and one meal in the evening, which is either cooked himself, or by his wife or mother. Most importantly, the Mahapatras are forbidden from doing any other work to make a living.

With their lives dependant on the deaths of others, superstition and folklore abound regarding the Mahapatras. They are often seen as a sign of death, with many believing that shunning them can shun death itself. The cycle of life and death is what keeps the Mahapatras going. They may be seen as the spirits that bring death, but what they really live for is the release of the soul.

Outside the metros and beyond the urban jungle live the sons and daughters of India’s heartland. This series tells their stories. 101 Heartland celebrates both unique communities and individual tales of hope, struggle, and reform. From the village of bouncers just outside Delhi to the fascinating story of Ram Kumar Tyagi, once a wanted man but now a coach for aspiring female wrestlers, 101 Heartland tells stories for the heart, from the heartland.