Drowned Out

How Varanasi’s coin divers save lives at the cost of their own

A misty view of Malviya Bridge, over the Ganges and surrounding ghats in Varanasi, India. Coin divers here plunge almost sixty feet underwater to look for coins and trinkets, and have saved thousands from drowning. As a result, many divers have lost their lives. Tjeerd Kruse / Alamy Stock Photo
28 February, 2023

“It’s been seven years since my husband died,” Poonam Sahni, a garland seller and mother of two, told me. “Whenever he used to go, we used to be scared and would argue bitterly. But he did not listen to us.” Her husband, Gubbar, a coin diver, died at the age of forty while removing a dead body from the Ganges, at Shastri Ghat. Sahni now receives a monthly widow pension of Rs 500 every three months. She worries about her children’s education. “We have a boat but it is now completely ruined. The house is falling apart. I do not know what to do, how to feed them, teach them or get a house built.”

Over the Ganges, near Raj Ghat in Varanasi, is a double-decker bridge which connects the holy city on the left bank of the river to Mughalsarai, an important railway junction in Uttar Pradesh. A marvel of colonial engineering from 1887, the Malviya Bridge carries a rail track on its lower deck and a road on the deck above. Pedestrians and passengers passing by train or car often throw coins and tokens into the sacred river below. The structure, combined with the Hindu practice of offering gods money to invite good luck and fortune, gave rise to a peculiar and informal community of divers compelled into their practice due to desperate socio-economic conditions.

Coin divers begin training since childhood in the Ganges itself—the junction of both economic and spiritual passage. They dive almost sixty feet underwater to look for coins and trinkets. But most significantly, outside of their regular line of duty, many of them have saved thousands who have jumped off the bridge and fetched out corpses in equal numbers from rivers, lakes and ponds. As a result, many divers, like Gubbar, have lost their lives in these selfless acts of rescue and retrieval. With time and age, in the past fifteen to twenty years, the number of coin divers in Varanasi have dwindled from sixty to just five. There are, however, coin divers in a few other major cities along the Ganges.

The people that make up this community of divers belong largely to the Mallah subcaste—traditionally associated with fishing and other work centred on rivers—from around Raj Ghat. Human and industrial pollutants—untreated sewage, agricultural runoff, animal carcasses, remnants of partially burned or unburned bodies from funeral pyres—coming in from the densely populated Ganges basin make the river unsafe for swimming. However, with neither boat nor farmland to make ends meet, diving remains their sole option. They scoop out a meagre sixty to seventy rupees a day on average, without any guarantee of a find. But sometimes work—the kind no one else is willing to take up—manages to find them.