India's elderly dream of dying in holy Hindu city of death
Murali Mohan Sastry has a death wish. Nearly 11 years ago, he and his wife left behind their comfortable lives in India’s southern city of Hyderabad to come to the holy Hindu city of Varanasi - also known as the City of Death.
Now the 82-year-old former college teacher hopes that by dying in Varanasi, he can break the tenuous cycle of death and rebirth and reach salvation -- a core belief which has drawn many Hindus to the city and made Varanasi mythical.
"Death is invited here. We invite death. And he's our guest. So we are proud that we are going to die here," said Sastry, just after praying in India’s holiest river of Ganges at dawn.
Sastry is a resident of Mumukshu Bhavan, Sanskrit for "Salvation House" - a community home for the elderly wishing to live and end their twilight years in the sacred city of Varanasi. Established in the 1920s, Mumukshu Bhavan doubles as sort of a retirement home and a hospice, one of several such facilities scattered across Varanasi.
Sastry said he and his wife were inspired to spend their last years in Varanasi by his mother who had also taken up residency at the facility, although she ironically died during a short visit home to Hyderabad.
Despite the growing popularity of Western-style retirement homes, Sastry has no interest in worldly comforts and instead spends his final days immersed in study and prayer.
"Old age homes, they are for comfort, alright. But our Indian philosophy is, those who seek worldly comforts can never go to God, and can never reach God. So as far as possible 'vairagya' (Sanskrit for 'renunciation'). Renunciation. As far as possible, shun all these things. Don’t go for them. Go only for God," he said.
Mumukshu Bhavan provides a bare minimum when it comes to the care and support of its residents. Aside from housing, residents are expected to prepare their meals and organise their medical care if needed, although some residents who require assistance are provided with some basic food deliveries.
Even though residents are allowed visits by their relatives, they rarely venture beyond the realm of the millennia-old city.
According to Mumukshu Bhavan’s manager, Manish Kumar Pandey, the campus has reached full capacity with over 80 residents, although demand remains high for those who wish to settle down and die at the facility.
“More and more old people want to come and stay in Varanasi, so the demand is very high. But we can only accommodate a limited number of people because we have limited space,” said Pandey.
Varanasi is home to over a million residents and is one of India’s most popular destinations for both Hindu pilgrims and tourists. The city’s evening "Ganga Aarti" prayer, in which several Hindu priests twirl flaming lanterns and incense over the Ganges, is a huge draw for thousands who flock to the ancient city.
Back inside her small quarters in Mumukshu Bhavan, Ram Pyari pleads to God to end her life journey as she prepares a simple meal for her husband, who can barely move beyond his bed. He is certain that he is nearing his final days.
"Now I don't feel like living in this world anymore. One has to face so much suffering that one gets fed up. So you feel that if you attain salvation then you won't have to suffer anymore,” said Pyari, who said she is in her 80s but uncertain of her actual age.
Adding to Varanasi’s aura as an eternal city is the Manikarnika Ghat, an ancient crematorium lying on the shores of the Ganges. It is one of India’s busiest and most iconic crematoriums, where pyres never run out and fires never burn out.
Even for those who are unable to take their last dying breath in Varanasi, devotees believe that being cremated in the city takes them one step closer to salvation.