The Dom Raja, also known as the Lord of the Dead, rowed me across the sacred Ganges River one morning while I was in town for a week and a half to do a feature for AFAR (see the June 2014 issue or the link below). He, along with his brothers, control the divine fire with which all bodies are cremated in Varanasi, thus helping the soul escape the cycle of re-birth, sending them straight to moksha or nirvana.
According to local historian, Professor Rana P.B. Singh, director of the Benares Hindu University’s geography department, and with whom I visited one day at his office in Varanasi, the title of Dom Raja emerged around 1805. Since that time the Choudhary family (the name which all doms share) has had the rights to the title “Dom Raja.” And like royalty, it went to the eldest son when the patriarch died. But when the Dom Raja, Kailash Choudhary, passed away in 1985, something interesting happened: there was a power struggle in the family and, eventually, the five sons decided to split up the duties. Now there are Dom Rajas, all from the same family, who have exclusive control over Manikarnika ghat and Harischandra ghat, the two cremation centers along the river, about a half mile apart.
And because of their inherent control over the cremation ghats and the sacred fire, the Dom Rajas are—despite also being of the untouchable caste—among the richest people in town.