Waiting to die
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.
“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.
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.
Just after my first visit to Mukti Bhavan, guest number 14,578 arrived. Munna Kuvar, a 105-year-old widow, had travelled from her village with her relatives to get here, lying for five hours in the back seat of a jeep.
Kuvar’s husband had died in this same hostel about 18 years ago. “It was her wish to die at the same place where her husband had died,” Kuvar’s 45-year-old nephew Surender Upadhyay told me.
“We all have left our work and come here with her so that she can attain a peaceful death.”
In another room you could hear the crying of 97-year-old Bhogla Devi as she was comforted by her 30-year-old grandson Divyesh Tiwari. He had left his job as an engineer to accompany her to the hostel.
“My grandmother is the most precious thing I ever had. I would like her to attain salvation in my arms,” he said.
Room No. 3 was occupied by the 82-year-old Kishore Pandey, who had travelled with his three daughters all the way from a small, dusty village in the eastern part of India. In Hinduism, sons normally perform all the last rites for their parents but Pandey’s daughters were there for him as the end approached.
The eldest, Usha Tiwari, explained: “We had no brother but we didn’t want our father to feel that he has no son.”
Hostel manager Bhairav Nath Shukla and his family seemed accustomed to the deaths around them. Shukla’s grandchildren played in the compound while he enjoyed watching television soaps after his evening prayers.
For me, taking pictures of the men and women who had come to Mukti Bhavan was a challenge. I didn’t want the sound of a camera shutter to disturb people who were dying or mourning their loved ones. I spent hours speaking to the families and helping them to get used to the presence of my camera before I took my first picture.
As I covered this story, I also photographed one of the holiest and biggest cremation grounds for Hindus in Varanasi. There I met Bilal, the owner of a photo studio at the site.
His grandson has now inherited his business and photographs the dead with their relatives. For the families who have their pictures taken, this is a proud moment as the deceased have come to be cremated at such a sacred site next to the Ganges. They want to preserve their memories of it.
Bilal matter-of-factly told me that business slows during the summer, but gets much busier in the winter when a lot of old people die. At that time, about 200-300 bodies come for cremation every day.
On my last day in Varanasi, in the early morning I got a call from a priest at Mukti Bhavan. He told me that someone had just died a few minutes ago, and so I hurried back to the hostel to find an old woman lying on the ground with her daughter mourning next to her.
I was told that she was guest number 14,579 and had checked in just four hours ago. The priest gently but sternly told the daughter not to cry but to feel happy that her mother had attained moksha.
Before leaving I thanked all the families of the guests for allowing me to photograph their loved ones. As I departed, 105-year-old Munna Kuvar’s nephew told me with a sigh: “ I hope the old woman dies soon and her soul finds freedom.”
As I landed in Delhi from Varanasi, I got a call from the priest checking whether I was still around. Guest number 14,578 had passed away. Munna Kuvar’s soul had attained salvation at last. She could now join her husband.