Dying in Benares

I worked with a photographer named Jane Becker from Canada. She wanted to photograph widows and hospices in Varanasi. Since I had already worked with a researcher from the University of Venice who did research about widows in Varanasi, I already knew where to take them. About two years ago I worked with a researcher from the University of Berlin who was interested in people who come Benares to die so I had some idea about this subject also. We decided to start working with hospices and ashrams first. I took her to an ashram near Assi ghat and we interviewed a few people and she did some photography also.

Next day I took her to another ashram where more than 2,000 people stay to live their last part of life. This ashram has a section for Sanyasis and a separate section for family people. The ashram was huge with so many people in there and there was a school also for Sanskrit studies. We visited this ashram but did not photograph. The next day we went to a place called Kashi Mukti Bhawan which really different than other places in Benares. Benares has so many places and ashrams where people stay to die but this place was entirely different.

Kashi Mukti Bhawan is owned by the Dalmia family. The idea behind founding of this hospice is that once Mr. Dalmia was visiting Varanasi and he visited so many ashrams where people stay to die. His grandmother also wanted to live her last part of the life in Varanasi so he decided to built a free temporary stay for the people who want to die in Varanasi. Kashi Mukti Bhawan has a rule which could sound strange but they offer only 14 days of stay. So most of the people come to stay at Kashi Mukti Bhawan are the people who are just going to die at any moment.

They do not allow anyone who is below 60 years old or looks like they are not dying. The building has ten rooms and when I went there only one room had people and the rest of the rooms were vacant. They have a temple also inside the building where they have puja going on most of the time. The manager said that until four years ago they did puja 24 hours a day but they decreased by a few hours because not many people come anymore. In the past all the rooms used to be full all the time but now sometimes they have only one visitor, sometimes two or three and sometimes just no one.

And if there is a person dying there, then the priest of the temple goes to the this person and reads Ram Charit Manas for him at least for five minutes at four different times in a day. The idea behind it is that if a dying person hears the chantings of Ram Charit Manas, then he gets salvation. We interviewed a woman staying at Kashi Mukti Bhawan who had brought her father all the way from Sasaram, Bihar to Kashi Mukti Bhawan so that her father could die in Varanasi and get salvation. We asked her why she chose only Kashi Mukti Bhawan in Varanasi, why not some other ashram and she said that all of her family members come to Kashi Mukti Bhawan to die, very interesting.

She also talked about the importance of dying in Varanasi but at the same time she gave some importance to Kashi Mukti Bhawan also. She said that Kashi Mukti Bhawan has an ideal atmosphere for dying. She said that Kashi Mukti Bhawan has chanting all day long and the priests read Ram Charit Manas for the dying person which makes it a special place for dying. We asked the manager why they allow only 14 days of stay and he said that 14 days are enough to die. In case the person is still sick and feels like they are going to die even after 14 days, they allow them to stay for a week or two more but usually people die within a week.

The manager said that in some cases people came and returned home by recovering from their sickness. So they came to Kashi Mukti Bhawan with serious sickness and felt like dying but they recovered and did not die. Well, in any case Kashi Mukti Bhawan seemed different than most of the other ashrams in Varanasi and I would like to learn more about it.

Holika 2010

Holika 2010

Holika wood pyre

Holika is a festival which is celebrated on Holi eve. It was on the 28th of Feb. this year but I could not attend it. This festival has a very interesting story behind it. It is said that there were two brothers named Hiranyakashyapu and Hirnakchya. Both of them were evil souls and were always just fighting and were killing religious people. Finally Lord Vishnu killed Hirnakchya and since then he became the biggest enemy of Hiranyakashyaup. After sometimes Hiranyakashup did meditation and made Lord Vishnu happy. Lord Vishnu appeared in front of Hirnyakashyapu and asked him to make a wish.

Fire start

Fire start

Hirnyakashyapu asked for immortality but Lord Vishnu said that whoever has born, has to die for sure and then Lord Vishnu asked to make some other wish and and then Hirnyakashyapu did something really smart. He asked for a condition where neither a human or an animal could kill him, neither in the day nor in the night, neither on the earth nor in the sky… and finally he was granted this boon by Lord Vishnu. After being granted this boon, he started taking advantage of it. He started harassing innocent people, prohibited religious practices, declared himself as a God…

Didn't like this at all

Didn't like this at all

Hirnyakashyapu had a son named Prahalad who was a very religious kid. But his father was always against him. He asked Prahalad several times to not pray to Lord Vishnu but Prahalad continued his devotion to Lord Vishnu. Hirnyakashyapu tried everything he could to stop Prahalad from practicing religion but Prahalad never stopped. Finally Hirnyakashyapu decided to kill his son Prahalad. He through Prahad in the ocean but Prahalad survived and returned back to home, then Hirnyakashyapu left him in the jungle but again Prahalad survived and returned home.

Prahlad’s aunt whose name was Holika had a boon that she would never be affected by fire so she offered her brother, Hirnyakashyapu, to help him killing Pralahad. Hirnyakashyapu agreed for it and they setup a wood pyre to burn Prahlad alive. Holika sat on the wood pyre with Prahlad hoping that Prahlad would die and she would not be affected by fire at all but some miracle happened Holika burnt alive and died and nothing happened to Prahlad. Now people celebrate this festival on the Holi eve. People setup wood pyre and put a statue of Holika and Prahalad and burn it.

On the festival day, people make mustard paste and rub it over their body. After rubbing the mustard paste whatever the waste comes, is put into the wood pyre. The idea behind it is that people get rid of their sin and get a fresh body and soul. But this festival has become an environmental issue now because people cut green trees and burn it. It was the first time this year when I saw a group of student educating people about not cutting green trees for the festival. I also believe that this should not happen but I am sure it is not going to stop soon.

Benares is already in lack of greenery and not only Benares but the whole world is talking about this issue. I have heard that Chinese cut over 25 million trees every year just to make chopsticks. India has also cut over 75% of its jungles. I do not understand what will happen in future if such practices continue. I hope someday people will understand the issue and change such practices. I know that education and awareness about the issue is the only key to stop such practices but don’t know who will bring this change. I know that we can not stop this festival but we can replace green trees by other wastes so please stop cutting trees and plant new ones.