India Insight

from Photographers' Blog:

Waiting to die

Varanasi, India
By Danish Siddiqui

The River Ganges is sacred in Hinduism, and the city of Varanasi, which lies on its banks, is one of the oldest and holiest sites for Hindu pilgrims from all over the world.

Devotees believe that you can wash away your sins by taking a dip in the Ganges at Varanasi. What’s more, dying and having your ashes scattered here is a sacred thing for Hindus who believe that it brings “moksha,” or freedom for the soul from the constant cycle of death and rebirth. To attain this salvation, many travel to Varanasi to die.

A woman stands in a street outside the Mukti Bhawan (Salvation Home) at Varanasi, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, June 17, 2014. Picture taken June 18, 2014. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

“Mukti Bhavan,” or “Salvation House,” is a charity-run hostel for people who wish to pass away in the city. It has 12 rooms, a temple and small quarters for its priests. Lodging there comes with certain conditions: guests have two weeks to die or they are gently asked to move on.

Sometimes, Bhairav Nath Shukla, the hostel manager, extends his guests’ stays by a few days if he thinks the person is about to die. Eerily enough, Shukla can often predict roughly when it will happen.

Bhairav Nath Shukla, manager of Mukti Bhavan (Salvation Home) looks out of a window while praying inside his office at Varanasi, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, June 17, 2014. Picture taken June 17, 2014. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

The 61-year-old has been taking in the dying and performing prayers for their salvation for the last 44 years and when I started covering this story, hostel records showed that 14,577 people had checked in to date. Most of them have attained moksha. Many of those who couldn’t die left disheartened with their relatives.

Sunanda Tharoor found dead in Delhi hotel room

Sunanda Tharoor, wife of Congress party minister Shashi Tharoor, was found dead in her room at a luxury hotel in New Delhi on Friday, police said.

“Her dead body was found in her room,” Delhi Police spokesman Rajan Bhagat told Reuters by phone. He declined to give details.

Abhinav Kumar, Tharoor’s personal assistant, said the junior minister for human resource development was at a Congress party session the entire day on Friday. Sunanda was found lying in bed in her room, Kumar said.

Reactions from India to the death of Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela, who emerged from 27 years in apartheid prisons to help guide South Africa to democracy, died on Thursday.

Mandela had been inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s decades-long non-violent resistance to British rule. India’s revered independence leader had also spent some of his early political years in South Africa, where he was involved in the struggle against racial discrimination.

The Indian government, which in 1990 honoured Mandela with its highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, declared five days of official mourning on Friday. Both houses of parliament were adjourned for the day.

Remembering Reshma, Pakistan’s ‘first lady’ of folk music

Folk singer Reshma was born in 1947, the historic year when India and Pakistan gained independence from British rule. She was born in India, but her family migrated to Pakistan when she was a month old. Small wonder, then, that Reshma’s unconventionally husky voice won admirers on both sides of the international border.

Reshma, who died earlier this week after a battle with throat cancer, was best known for her distinctive rendition of Punjabi folk songs. For her fans, she was the “Nightingale of the Desert” and her death at the age of 66 was a fresh blow to the arts in Pakistan, coming a year after ghazal singer Mehdi Hassan’s death.

Despite her fame, Reshma was modest. She dressed conservatively in a salwar kameez and was rarely seen without a dupatta covering her head. And her mehfils (public performances) were devoid of histrionics.

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