Waiting To Die In Kashi

Amidst the bustle and crowds of the holy city of Banaras, the Mumukshu Bhawan and the Mukti Bhawan offer comfort, solace and dignity to people who come there to die.

Dewesh PandeyDewesh Pandey   25 July 2023 6:53 AM GMT

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Waiting To Die In Kashi

At Mumukshu Bhavan, located at Assi Ghat, there is a space for people where they can spend their last days with dignity, and peace. All Photos by Dewesh Pandey.

Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh

What does one do as one waits to die?

One could walk around in a 116-room building by the Ganga, share a snack, or sing songs or pray or chat with others who were once strangers and are now like family.

One could also walk to the Assi Ghat for a dip in the sacred river, join groups singing kirtans in the evening breeze and watch as the hand-held lamps whirl in the evening aarti.

In Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, one of the oldest living cities in the world, millions come to pray and bathe in the Ganga and sometimes, to die. At Mumukshu Bhavan, located at Assi Ghat, there is a space for people where they can spend their last days with dignity, and peace.

From time immemorial there is a belief that dying in this holy city means assured mukti, moksh or salvation.

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At the Manikarnika Ghat and Harishchandra Ghat, there are last rites being conducted in their hundreds every single day. To have their ashes immersed in the Ganga river is considered the ultimate salvation.

So many people, like 94-year-old Gulab Bai and 67-year-old Draupadi Devi come here and wait so that they have the privilege of dying in the holy city.

The wait could be long.

Gulab Bai came here 32 years ago. She is 94 years old now. She lives in room number 67. “I came here from Jhansi with my husband. He passed away, now I am waiting for my salvation,” Gulab Bai told Gaon Connection, with a smile lighting up her wrinkled face.

Gulab Bai is waiting to die at Mumukshu Bhawan in Varanasi.

Most of her days are spent reading from holy scriptures, and on that day she was sitting on a chair turning the pages of the Sundarakand from the Ramayana.

‘Dead or alive — Benaras is all that matters now’

Gulab Bai is waiting to die at Mumukshu Bhawan in Varanasi. “Every single day that I live is a bonus for me. If I die, I attain salvation,” she said. Gulab Bai quoted the holy texts where it says Varanasi is the land of sages and saints. “Any soul that leaves the body here in Benaras, is destined to meet the Creator,” she said.

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Her son serves in the Indian Army as a sepoy and visits her regularly and provides her with the edibles to eat.

“He ensures that I don’t face any hardships and takes stock of my health and well being. He visits me every month. I will not not leave Kashi before I die,” Gulab Bai said.

Every day, the 94-year-old wakes up at 4 AM and goes to the local Shiv Temple to pray.

“It is only after I am done with worshipping Shiva for an hour that I have my breakfast,” she added.

The constant group recitations of bhajans and kirtans keep Gulab Devi in good humour.

Ankur Arora, the vice president of the Bhawan told Gaon Connection that these musical recitations are especially organised to help the occupants feel positive about their stay here.

“It motivates them to stay focused on their spiritual journey and is also a vital source of entertainment. It also helps them feel a sense of collective belonging with this place because this Bhawan and their fellow occupants are all they have to interact with,” Arora said.

‘Husband died here, I am waiting for my turn’

A few rooms away is where 68-year-old Draupadi Devi lives in room number 113. “I have lived here for 17 years. Four years ago, on Shivratri, my husband died. I am now awaiting my turn,” she told Gaon Connection.

Draupadi Devi is from Prayagraj.

Draupadi Devi is living her life at the Bhawan and says that it is not at all about death and gloom here.

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“My father wanted to attain moksha in Varanasi but he couldn’t do so. His dying wish was that his daughter should attain moksha and fulfil his dream. It’s my devotion to father which has made me stay here,” she said.

She said living life at the Bhawan was not at all about death and gloom. “We celebrate festivals together, light the lamps in Diwali, play with colours when it's Holi, perform pujas together, eat well and share our thoughts and feelings. It’s far better to die here than in a house where people barely talk to elders like me,” the 67-year-old said.

When asked about the happiest moment she can recall from her life, she shyly smiled and stated her wedding to be the happiest day of her life.

She has cardiac issues and needs daily medicines to stay healthy but the Bhawan doesn’t provide financial assistance to the occupants who need medical supplies. So, the 67-year-old has to earn money to buy her medicines by asking people to pay Rs 10 for checking their weight at a weighing machine — a humble enterprise which helps her sustain her expenses on medicines.

Although being a mother of four sons, Devi complains that following the demise of her husband, her sons are under the influence of their wives and are not interested in visiting her in her last days.

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“It makes me sad that my children do not visit me in my last days but I am a devotee of Lord Krishna and feel content with my devotion,” she said.

When asked about the inspiration behind taking up this spiritual journey, she revealed that it was during one of the Kumbh Melas at Prayagraj that she came across some saints and sages who told her about moksha.

“It was after learning about attaining moksha from the saints and sages that I decided to spend the last few years of my life in this way,” she added.

Mumukshu Bhawan — an abode of salvation seekers

Mumukshu Bhawan, where Gulab Bai and Draupadi Devi wait, was established in 1920 at the Assi Ghat with the help of the Birla Group. It has 116 rooms, and anyone who is over the age of 60 can get a room here to live out his or her last days. They are not charged anything to stay here but are free to donate money if they so desire.

From the Manikarnika Ghat right up to Harishchandra Ghat, there are last rites being conducted in their hundreds every single day.

The five acres on which Mumukshu Bhawan stands is filled with trees and flowering shrubs. There are temples within the campus and also a Sanskrit school where those living here can learn the language as well as a learning centre for the Vedas.

“I have lived here for five years now and I couldn’t be more comfortable or happier,” Dandi Swami Rajdev, the 65-year-old inmate of Room Number 22, told Gaon Connection. He came here from Tiuri village near Aligarh and he spends his days singing bhajans.

“I get good food and spend my time in the company of realised souls who live here. I had left my home when I was 16 and ever since, I have been on a path of spirituality,” Rajdev, who was once an inhabitant of Aligarh’s Teori village, added.

About three to four kilometres away from Mumukshu Bhawan is Mukti Bhawan. It has 40 rooms. And, only those people who have been given just a few days to live stay here. This is run by the Dalmia Bharat Foundation Trust.

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They are allowed to stay here for not more than 15 days. Usually, only people who have been medically declared to be terminally ill and who can lose their life any moment are allowed to stay at the Mukti Bhawan.

At Mukti Bhawan, we are building two more such sanctuaries with about 100 rooms.

“We extend all possible support to those who want to live the last years of their lives here,” KK Khemka, general secretary of Mumukshu Bhawan which is financed by a Mumbai-based charitable trust called Tara Sansthan, told Gaon Connection.

“The occupants are provided with breakfast, lunch, dinner, a midmorning and a mid afternoon cup of tea, and a glass of milk at bedtime,” Khemka said.

“We are building two more such sanctuaries with about 100 rooms. They should be ready in six months,” the general secretary said.

#varanasi #AssiGhat #MumukshuBhawan #holycity #banaras 

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