Sharda Tiwari (90 years) has been bedridden for the last 15 days when I met her on one cold January Sunday morning this year.
The terminally ill old lady is no longer able to recognize her two daughters and a son. Most of the time she lies on a bed in a semi-conscious or sleeping state. She is unable to get up on her own. The mother of three is living on a staple diet of biscuit dipped in milk or tea, as she is unable to digest anything.
But even in this state Tiwari was firm on her last wish to breath her last in Varanasi, like her husband, and proclaim Moksha (salvation from the cycle of birth and death as per Hindu Mythology) the fourth and final virtue of Hindu life. The other three are Dharma (deed) , Arth (money) and Kaam (having offsprings).
In keeping with her last wish the Tiwari family has brought the old lady to Kashi Labh Mukati Bhavan (KLMB) in Varanasi. Believed to be a creation of Lord Vishwakarma, Varanasi is the only city on earth where death means Moksha.
Located around one km from river Ganges, the building painted once red is located in the bylanes of busy Goduliya area. It offers free stay for fifteen days for all terminally ill people wanting liberation from the cycle of life and death. Requests extend beyond the fifteen days time are subject to availability of rooms and health of the individual.
“We live In Varanasi, but my home is not in Kashikhand (kashi area) so we have to shift our grandmother here following her last wish to achieve Moksha,” says Jitendra Tiwari (40), grandson of Tiwari and Principal of a government primary school in the city.
The white paint on the walls looks old. The room is badly lit with no direct access to sunlight and fresh air.
The name Varanasi is derived from two rivers Varuna and Assi. Both the rivers together form a triangle with holy Ganges. The civilization in between was called Varanasi also Kashi (city of light or knowledge).
However, as the city evolved and population increased the city spread outside the holy triangle as well. But as per mythology Moksha would be achieved only if someone dies in the holy triangle only. Jitendra’s house is just a kilometre outside the holy triangle.
“My grandfather also breath his last in this Dharmashala. It is also the last wish of my grandmother,” he said.
Most of the time in the day the family spends time in taking care of the old lady and in praying.
Established in 1958, Kashi Labh Mukati Bhawan is run by Dalmiya Charitable Trust. The Bhawan has two full time employees who explains that all necessary expenses are met by the trust. However, people often donate as the place helps their near and dear to attain Moksha.
“As per the Hindu religious texts 84 lakh species exists on this earth and only once a life is given an opportunity to live as a human being. Those who attain Mokhsa are liberated from this cycle of life and death,” says Bhirav Nath Shukla (59 years) manager of the Bhawan. Shukla is managing the Bahwan since 1972.
Shukla, father of five, looks younger than his years and his dressing style Kurta Pajayam and knitted woollens suggests that he is financially well off. He claims that his two sons are senior government official.
KLMB is not an exception to the city. Old timers recall that the city had at least a dozen such Dharmshalas where terminally ill can wait for liberation. However, there number is rapidly falling down.
Shukla says that the number of such Darmshalas is decreasing because of lack of funds.
“The number of people coming to the city for liberation has increased over the period of time. It is an opportunity which comes in thousands of year for a life it has to complete a full cycle of 84 lakh lives before taking birth as a human being,” he said.
Increasing population is of course one of the key reasons for a rise in the number of people coming to Varanasi to die and to attain Moksha.
Around three kilometres from KLMB is Mumukshu Bhawan (MB). It is another Dharmashala for Kashi Labh (benefit of staying in Kashi which means liberation from the cycle of life and death). However, people here can stay for longer duration.
Unlike KLMB, MB is professionally run and managed by 25 employees. Some of them are given a desktop computer connected with Internet to work. The first and the front part of the 50-acre property is newly painted, neat and clean and well taken care off.
This is the part where paid guests stay for a few days after shelling around Rs 500 (around 5 pounds) a day. Some of the rooms are fitted with air conditioners as well.
The second half of the property is occupied by male Sadhus** (holy man, sage or ascetic). Some 65 stay in the rooms. They live free of cost and food is offered by the trust to the old Sadhus. The situation is worse than the paid hostel rooms. Rooms are badly lit here though fresh air and sunlight are in ample amount. The surroundings are lush and green.
The last and the third part is for old and retired people and is the worst among the three. Rooms are permanently allocated to couples and individuals who have crossed the age barrier of 60.
There are some 60 rooms, which include single room set with common toilet, to one and two bedrooms apartment. The occupants have paid one-time fee to stay in these hostels till the time of death. The hostel management, however, says that rooms are allocated on first-come-first basis, but some of the residents say that money exchange hands and they have to pay one-time fee from Rs 50,000 to Rs 200,000 (500 pounds to 2000 pounds) to get these rooms allocated. They have to shell out maintenance fee at regular intervals.
However, not everyone has intention of the attaining Moksha while staying in these Dharmashalas.
Smriti Tripathi (65 years) (name changed) is one such case. The 10x 10 feet room is in bad shape. A small kitchen and running water tap occupies a good area of the room while the two beds occupy the rest. Paint is barely visible on the walls. Some of the pictures of a younger Tripathi are hanging on the walls. In one of them she was holding her graduation degree in the robe. She comes across as a confident young woman in the picture, which is completely different from her fragile looking face now.
She is wearing a woollen nightgown when I met her in January afternoon.
Married and divorced at early age, the former schoolteacher has nowhere to go when she had to leave the government allocated apartment after she retired from the job. She did not want to go to her brother’s place whose still lives in their family village in Baliya, some 500 km from Varanasi. However, the 10 digit mobile digit number of her brother is written in big fonts of the wall in case of emergency.
Left with no other option the Hindi post graduate preferred to stay in the Mumokshu Bhawan.
“Life here is not great, but not bad either,” says the former schoolteacher.
“No matter where you stay the end result is death. And it is always better to die in Varanasi than any other place,” she summarised.