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.

music classes in varanasi

A guy from California stayed at my place for one week. He was here to learn music and Sanskrit. This trip was only to know the city and get some idea about classes. He had asked me about music classes and I suggest him to go to Pandit Shivnath Mishra, who lives next door. It was funny that he had already met Pandit Shivnath Mishra and his son in California. He met them, played some tabla with them and got an offer to play with them in foreign countries as a white tabla player.

Josh was so happy to got this opportunity. He said that he would love to be part of Mr. Mishra’s crew. He went to Bunti’s school as well where he played tabla and taught African music to the kids. Bunti said that everybody at school liked the music a lot. Josh wanted to visit Bal Ashram, an Aghor monastery. I took him to this monastery. This monastery had a British doctor giving free eye checkup to the poor people. I really liked his devotion. Monastery said that he comes Varanasi ever year for few months and work for free.

Josh wanted to see this monastery for his friends who wanted to stay there and volunteer. I suggested him to go to Bhagwan Avdhoot Ram Ashram as well which is the mother Ashram but Josh did not seem interested. This mother Ashram doesn’t like Bal Ashram because some of Bal Ashram’s employee did some fraud with money. I know that the mother Asharm is a real ashram and I believe them. Josh said that he would visit them as well when he comes to Varanasi next time. He said he will back by first week of January.

Italian guest visits Aghori society

I worked with a Italian guy named Giona Peduzzi. He contacted me first on couchsurfing asking to meet for a drink. We sent a lot of emails to each other discussing about tour of India and finally he told me arrange his tour of Banaras. He lives in Rome and works for Channel 5, the biggest private TV channel of Italy. He is a show designer and writer. He said that he writes two shows and both of them are Saturday night shows.

He arrived Benares on 6th of August and stayed until 9th of August. I had arranged his accommodation at my guest house. We went to Mother Teresa Home, Aghor monastery, Maths (where people live to wait for their death), Sarnath, Tulsi Manas temple, Sankat Mochan Temple (monkey temple), BHU, Durga temple (Ram nagar) and we visited Lali Baba also.

He was most impressed by meeting and talking to people. We went to Machali Bandar Math and talked to

I and Giona at Assi ghat

I and Giona at Assi ghat

one Sadhu who had been living there since more than 30 years and just waiting for his death. He accepted Sanyasa when he was only 50 years old and now he was over 80. Giona was shocked to see a person waiting for his death since more than 30 years. It was not shocking for me because I had already met this people while working with Sophia, an anthropology student from University of Berlin.

Giona liked Lali baba a lot. He said that Lali baba was the most fascinating character he had ever seen in his life. He liked the way Lali baba dresses himself for evening aarti, his garlands, skulls and lali baba using computer to chat. We went to Mother Teresa Home also. This is the place where I don’t want to go but cant stop myself by going. I don’t want to go because there are lots of mentally retired and sick people who cant even talk properly.

But I cant stop myself by going there because I want to do something for those people. I asked Nun about what do they have for entertainment of the sick people and she said that they have some music but occasionally like on festivals. I wanted to give a television to the monastery but she didn’t accept it because it was never used in past and she didn’t want to start anything new. I don’t understand what is bad about having a television to entertain sick people.

We went to Aghor monastery also where we visited their hospital, school and library. Giona was surprised to see their Guinness Book of World Records certificate which they have got for treating most number of leprosy patients in the world. I like this place a lot, I visit that hospital every time I go there. Giona wanted to go to Bodh Gaya for a day and then to Mumbai. He wanted to see a movie or TV serial shooting in Mumbai. I called Yogesh, who is a production manager in Bollywood, to show film city to Giona. He got agreed, I hope Giona will enjoy Mumbai with Yogesh.

Research on death in Varanasi

A German girl named Sophia wrote me on couchsurfing for meeting. She asked me about Hindi classes in Varanasi. At the same time I had a tenant named Dave from Fresno who was learning Hindi with Professor Virendra Singh so I introduced Sophia to Dave. She was doing anthropology research from University of Berlin and was interested in the people who come Varanasi to die. I took Sophia to one of the places where Sadhus stay to die and translated the interview.

Sophia was so happy to understand people because I was translating the interview. She asked me if would work for her as translator for next few days. I was happy to get a new job but was worried about work with Amanda, other student from Yale University, who was to visit Benares after few days for her research regarding Coke issue and I had already promised to work with her. I told Sophia about this problem and we decided that I would work with Sophia first and if Amanda comes, then I would go with her.

We went to 3 monasteries and talked people. We went to Machali Bandar Math, Mumukshu Bhavan and Kashi Mukti Bhavan. All these monasteries are for people who come Benares to die. There was a little difference between all those. Machali Bandar Math only permits Sadhus and Sanysis to stay there, Mumukshu Bhavan had non Sadhus also like families, and Kashi Mukti Bhavan is a place for sick people for short stay. The people who are seriously sick and seem like going to die soon come to Kashi Mukti Bhavan becasue Kashi Mukti Bhavan doesn’t allow long term stay.

We talked to a lot of Sadhus and non Sahdus living in Mumukshu bhavan. I was shocked to meet a woman who was in Mumukshu Bhavan since past 30 years and waiting for her death. She came Varanasi with her husband and her husband died after 2 years but she was still alive and waiting for her death. We asked her if she was not worried about her death. But she seemed so happy replying that she wanted to die in Varanasi. She said that she prays to God everyday to give her death. She said that there could be nothing better than if she dies in Varanasi.

We visited two Aghor monasteries also, Kina Ram and Bhagwan Avdhoot Ram Ashram. Both of monasteries belong to Aghor society. Sophia was very much curious about the ash that Aghor people use. We asked about it to a lot of people and everybody said that they use it to save themselves from diseases and other problems. They said that ash only works if you have belief in it. They carry the ash when they travel so that they could use it everyday even when they are far away from the monastery.

There is a place in Kina Ram monastery where they have fire going on since hundreds of years, they say that it never got peace. They bring the wood from cremation place, I didn’t understand why they bring the wood from cremation place but there was some religious importance of it. Cremation place is very important for Aghoris. They perform a lot of rituals on cremation place. On the night of Diwali, a lot of Aghoris go to cremation place and do some puja for the whole night.

The second monastery we visited has its name in The Guinness Book of World Records for treating most number of leprosy patients. They have a hospital that uses only Ayurvedic medicines and treat leprosy. They have a school also for street children, a library, a research center and a press where they print Aghora books. They are involved in lots of other social work. This monastery was founded by a Aghor guru called Bhagwan Avdhoot Ram in the year 1962.

They organize group weddings also because they don’t believe in the idea of wasting money like a lot of other people do in weddings. They had organized a group wedding and we were also invited there. I really wanted to see a wedding of Aghor followers because their philosophy is different than general Hindus. The major difference is that they don’t believe in casteism. I was surprised to see that the priest was a Kshtriya, not Bramhan. I asked them about it and they said that anyone who learns religion or Sanskrit could be a Bramhan. I loved it, I really like Aghor society.

We went to Mother Teresa home also to interview people. They were really nice. I always want go there. They help poor and sick people. I saw a lot of mentally retired, sick and injured people. Even though the institution is run by Catholics but they don’t bother people to practice Christianity. People living there are free to practice their own religion. They get veg meal six times a week and a non veg meal once in a week on Thursday. I liked the devotion of the Nuns there.

We went to talk to few Doams also who work at funeral place. Sophia asked them about their job and feeling of people who bring the body there. They told us that babies, pregnant women, leprosy patients, Sadhus and snake bitten people are not cremated, they are drowned in the river. Usually Doams drink and smoke a lot. They asked Sophia also to buy them a bottle of whiskey. We asked them why do they drink all the time and they replied that it is hard to cremate a body when you are normal therefore they drink every time they work.

They told us the idea behind why people come Varanasi to die. They said that when Shiva left Varanasi, he made Vishnu promise him that he will come and tell the name of Ram in everyone’s ear, in the last moments of life, who die in Varanasi. Since people hear the name of Ram when they dieing, they get liberated and this is why people want to die in Varanasi. He said that Shiva has left the city and now resides on Kailash but the city is still situated on his trident. It was interesting.

We went to meet Lali baba also who is an Aghori baba. He is the most fascinating character of Varanasi. Sophia wanted to spend sometime alone at Lali baba’s monastery because she was very much interested to see Lali baba doing his daily routine. She was so happy to meet Lali Baba. Sophia said that even though Lali Baba is very commerical but it is still worth meeting him. I also like Lali Baba a lot.

Finally Amanda came and I had to go back work with her.