On a sunny November afternoon in Varanasi last year, I was standing under the shade of a huge neem tree in the courtyard of Mumukshu Bhawan guest house (‘'House of Those Seeking Salvation’). As I listened to the sound of prayer coming from a nearby room, I was accosted by a short woman holding a large packet of namak para, a crunchy ribbon-like snack made of flour or semolina, common in North India.
“I won’t let you in unless you eat some of it,” declared the octogenarian, almost admonishingly, after I told her that I wasn’t hungry. Her wrinkled face broke into a tender smile as I pulled out a piece of the fried snack and savoured its salty flavour. “One should keep eating at regular intervals,” she said, looking at me affectionately. I wanted to ask her about the prayer I was listening to, but she hurried out of the courtyard.
The lodge’s manager, Manish Kumar Pandey, later told me that Saraswati Aggarwal was a widow with no children, and had come here from somewhere near Varanasi around four years ago after her husband died.
Fellow resident Gayatri Devi from Rajasthan, who had been at the lodge for more than five years, has a son and two daughters living in other parts of India, but they rarely visit her, she told me, as we later sat on a wooden bench in the courtyard talking about everything from her family to my family to her life philosophy and women’s rights. She had a warm smile and looked happy to talk. “Things change when your kids get married,” she said.
Sati Devi, who sat beside us on the bench with a blue woollen shawl wrapped around her shoulders, nodded silently in agreement. She, too, had been living at the guest house for five years. “I have no complaints though,” Gayatri Devi continued. “When I die, I hope they will come to take me to the pyre.”
These three women are among the hundreds of people who have been living in Varanasi for years, waiting for death to come.
Sati Devi (left) and Gayatri Devi have spent five years at Varanasi waiting to die (Credit: Romita Saluja)
For Hindus, Varanasi is one of the holiest cities in the world. When the Pandava princes, the five protagonists of the ancient Indian epic Mahabharata, won a deadly war of succession against their cousins, they journeyed to Kashi, also known as Benares or Varanasi, to atone for their wartime sins. People in search of moksha (liberation) have been travelling to this northern Indian city for centuries.
Hindu scriptures say that dying here and getting cremated along the banks of the holy Ganges river allows you to break the cycle of rebirth and attain salvation. Funeral pyres burn incessantly at Manikarnika and Harishchandra ghats, the steps leading down to the river, whose water, now grey from industrial and human waste, is believed to wash away the sins of even the worst transgressors. As tourists and pilgrims row past the ghats in boats, priests and the families of the deceased can be seen murmuring and chanting for the release of the dead person’s soul amid the thick cloud of smoke emanating from the melting flesh.
Designated lodges, known as salvation homes, have been set up in the city, funded by charity organisations and business groups to specifically cater to kashivasis, men and women who come to live – and die – in Kashi. Mumukshu Bhawan is one of the oldest of these establishments, with 40 of its 116 rooms allotted to kashivasis. “We get tons of applications every year, but given the limited number of rooms [that can be] occupied by people for years, we can’t welcome them all,” explained VK Aggarwal, operations manager at the lodge. “We give preference to those who appear more needy, are capable of bearing their own expenses, and have relatives to take care of their health and cremation rituals when they are gone. We do not admit anyone under the age of 60,” he added.
Varanasi in northern India is considered one of the world’s holiest cities (Credit: Richard Bradley/Alamy)
Kashivasis pay a donation of about 100,000 rupees (around £1,135) depending on their personal capacity, and are allotted a room in the lodge where they can stay until their death. “They are required to make their own food arrangements; we don’t provide it. However, if someone feels unable to bear the cost, the management usually steps up for help, as for cremation,” Aggarwal said.
Some rooms are bigger than others and come equipped with air conditioners and spaces for cooking. Bathrooms are shared, and there are homeopathic and ayurvedic medicine centres in case someone falls ill. The residents are free to hire help for chores like cooking and cleaning. Days are spent chanting prayers and chatting with fellow residents, Gayatri Devi told me, sitting with an old transistor radio by her side.
At Mukti Bhawan (‘Liberation Home’), another such establishment tucked in a narrow lane in Varanasi, the set-up is radically different. “People come here for penance. It’s not a hotel. What’s the need for luxuries like an air conditioner?” said caretaker Narhari Shukla as we sat in his office one afternoon.
Mukti Bhawan allows a maximum stay of just 15 days. If the ailing person doesn’t die during that time, they are politely asked to leave. “We make a few exceptions though. The manager may sometimes allow for an overstay depending on the person’s health,” Shukla said.
Guests pay 20 rupees (23p) per day to cover electricity costs, and are expected to spend their time worshipping god; there is a small temple on the premises where bhajan and kirtan, the chanting of hymns, take place every day. Playing cards, indulging in sexual activity, and eating meat, egg, onion and garlic, the foods deemed impure by certain sects of Hinduism, are prohibited.
Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi and getting cremated along the banks of the holy Ganges river allows you to attain salvation (Credit: SPFH/Alamy)
When I visited there were no guests staying, but I asked Shukla if he could show me around the eight-room lodge anyway. Two priests sitting by the temple looked up as we passed by. They, too, live on the premises. A green wooden door creaked open as the young man led me into a small room with stained white walls. A small window allowed shafts of sunlight to illuminate the suspended dust particles. A wooden cot lay in a corner. I immediately pictured an old woman dying on it. Shukla told me that the guest’s family members stay in the same room and bring their own bedding and other necessary items.
He also explained that the home sees an influx of guests in the cold months of December to February and the period between May and August, when the heat makes it difficult for the infirm and ailing. “We have hosted people who then went on to live for another two years after leaving. And we have had people who died the moment they reached home after waiting here for death for two weeks. It’s all in his hands, really,” he said, pointing above. “If he doesn’t wish so, you may spend years in Kashi and yet you won’t die.”
I was reminded of Sati Devi at Mumukshu Bhawan, who said that she had lost track of time living in Varanasi. Another woman named Vimla Devi from Hyderabad waited for 40 years in Varanasi before she died last year at Mumukshu Bhawan, Pandey told me.
Mumukshu Bhawan is a guest house that specifically caters to men and women who come to live – and die – in Varanasi (Credit: Romita Saluja)
I wondered if Gayatri Devi and Saraswati Agarwal would have chosen to spend the last few years of their life alone at a lodge in Varanasi, had their children provided for them. But Pandey had also told me about couples who gave their successful businesses to their children in order to come to Varanasi.
“People want to leave the world with some good deeds in their name,” Shukla said as we made our way back to his office, telling me that a former manager here once hosted a Naxalite, a member of a Mao-inspired insurgent group, who was often involved in conflict with the Indian government. “We have had many criminals come here,” he continued. “You see, even the worst criminals have a religion to follow and want to atone for their sins before they leave.”
Back in his office, I looked around at the modest room with basic wooden furniture and peeling walls. Hindu scriptures and thick dusty folders containing guest records occupied the shelves. I was cautious while asking questions about the dead, but Shukla’s nonchalance about it seemed almost unsettling, as much as it put me at ease. Can death be so commonplace?
I asked him how it felt being surrounded by death. He replied, “We do not fear death. We celebrate it. People come here with hope, not fear... It’s the city of Lord Shiva.” My mind conjured up an image of Shiva sitting in a meditative pose with a trident by his side. According to Hindus, Shiva is the god of destruction, and he destroys in order to recreate. As an old local saying goes: ‘To reach the heaven, you have to die first.’
Narhari Shukla: “People come here with hope, not fear... It’s the city of Lord Shiva” (Credit: Ian Jacobs/Alamy)
A few weeks after I returned home, Gayatri Devi passed away. Pandey casually told me over the phone when I called him about something else and asked after the women. I was shocked. He was silent, indifferent, much like Shukla. I asked him if her daughter had come to take her to the pyre. He said she had.