Malakhah Graveyard: Where dead fetch the living Rs 15k a day, and more
Srinagar, Jan 03: Laying people to rest at Malakhah, the city’s oldest and the largest Muslim graveyard, may have turned into a lucrative business for the gravediggers. Located at the foothills of Hari Prabat, almost in the centre of old Srinagar, the cemetery has become a money-yielding field for the gravediggers, who have acquired the skill of burials from their forefathers. On an average, as per the elderly gravediggers, Rs 15,000 is the cost of a single burial at Malakhah. “And Malakhah sees one to two deaths daily on an average,” a 60-year-old gravedigger, who has been in the business for the past 30 years, shares, wishing not to be quoted by name. “The numbers fluctuate. I have even seen five deaths on a single day.” The minimum cost, he says, is Rs 5,000, asked of the families that are extremely poor. “However, there’s no fixed rate card,” he adds. “The maximum price depends on the financial condition of the family.” He believes that all their actions, from charging hefty sums to fraudulently selling people’s ancestral graveyards, are “justified”. The 16th-century saint, Hazrat Mir Syed Ali Hamadani (RA) may not have imagined this fate of the land he dedicated to the people of Srinagar for burials. Mohammad Shafi Dar, a resident of Khayam whose father passed away recently, had to pay Rs 13,500 to the gravedigger. “They charged Rs 3,500 for burial and another Rs 10,000 for putting the gravestone, and that too after much bargain. A middle-class family like ours had to pay such a huge amount. How could we even argue during the time of mourning?” says Dar. “I don’t understand why even burying the dead has become so costly in Kashmir, especially in Srinagar.” Zahid Rashid, a resident of Barbarshah, lost his father in January 2017, and paid Rs 12,000 to the diggers. “My father was a shopkeeper. I was a student when he passed away due to a brief illness. Luckily, he had savings from me to pay from for the digging,” Rashid says. Simultaneously, Malakhah is shrinking, having reduced from 1300 kanal to 700 kanal over the decades. Allowed by the gravediggers who are the virtual custodians of the land, encroachment is the major reason. Muzammil Siddiqui, a resident of Nishat, says his ancestral graveyard was sold by the gravediggers to some other family. “They did because no one died in our family in the past decade. Should I have killed someone to preserve my land?” he asks. “They just sold it to some other family, and we were not even aware of it. Although it was settled latter, how could they even do this?” Siddiqui, who also comes from a middle-class family, lost his cousin a few months back. “They charged approximately Rs 4,000 for digging the grave. They didn’t allow me to dig his grave myself. What option did I have other than paying the demanded amount?” he says. Malakhah comes under the Jammu & Kashmir Board for Muslim Specified Waqfs, but the gravediggers say they do not tolerate any “interference” from the board. “They are thieves. Neither do we interfere, nor do we let them interfere. They look after us just for the sake of it,” the elderly gravedigger says. In 2012, a scam exposed how the Muslim Waqf Board, in gross violation of norms, secretly sold patches of the Malakhah graveyard for constructions. The board has remained surrounded by controversies in the past, and has received endless criticism for failing to perform its duties. Newly-appointed Vice-Chairman of the boars, Nizamuddin Bhat, didn’t want to comment on the Malakhah. “I don’t even know who the gravediggers there are. I’ll have to keenly look into the matter,” he says.