Probably troubled with constant criticism that Varanasi is often associated with death and dying, India’s holiest city is turning a new leaf in its attempt to gain a new identity.
The first step will be taken by the end of next year in January 2017 when devotees attempting entry into the city’s salvation homes — mukti, mumuksha or moksha bhavans — will be doubly screened and only those with terminal illnesses will be admitted.
A little over 20,000 very sick devotees visit Varanasi every year to die because death in this holy city is supposed to break the cycle of death and rebirth. Once one dies in Varanasi, he or she is never reborn, and thus attains salvation, or moksha, the Hindu term signifying freedom from the cycle of life and death. But over the years, nearly half of them were turned away by the hostel authorities because they did not die and were found occupying their rooms — stubbornly waiting for death — for months, in some cases years.
"Time has come to stop this death tourism," says Bhairavi Nath Shukla of Kashi Laabh Mukti Bhavan in Varanasi, also the Lok Sabha constituency of top BJP leader and prime minister, Narendra Modi.
He says there are over 200 such homes ready to house those wanting to die, some set up way back in 1920 like the Mumukshu Bhawan (Home for the Ailing), Kashi Laabh Mukti Bhavan, and Moksha Bhawan (Salvation Home) near the Assi Ghat.
Interestingly, many Indian and multinational companies came forward to renovate the city, especially its decaying ghats but not showed interests in sprucing up the death homes.
“The death homes are not something many look up to,” says Shukla.
He says the hostel owners will now look for "anytime death" patients rather than those who doctors claim "should not occupy a hospital bed for obvious reasons". "The wait for death is not a very encouraging sign in a city full of life," says Shukla.
Shukla said the new move was to control hordes of people landing up at the doors of his and other salvation homes in the city. "Somewhere, it was impacting the sanctity of the city, too many coming to die is not good news for anyone, especially when you do not know about the person’s medical condition. Scores of them waiting to die is not a good sight," he says.
Now, Shukla — currently renovating his ten room Mukti Bhavan — is accommodating only those who doctors have declared terminally ill. After renovation, there will be 16 rooms for people who wish to die. There will also be a temple and a priest round-the-clock to offer special services.
Officials at the Moksha Bhavan near Assi Ghat and two big ones near the iconic Daswadamedh Ghat in the city say their homes — like other salvation homes — mostly run on charity and hence, the need to tighten annual expenses.
"Not every guest has all the time in the world. And no one can predict death. So, we are admitting patients who the doctors have strongly hinted would die soon," says Anand Pradhan, an official at Moksha Bhavan.
Although the rules may appear bizarre, earlier, it stipulated a person to stay for a fortnight and die within that period. Once checked in, guests were offered a number and asked to drop their names. Expectedly, in most cases, the period would be extended up to three months, causing a huge waiting list of people keen to die in the city.
"Relatives of those patients refused to leave when asked to make way for others," says Pradhan, happy at the new guidelines which will definitely slow down the entries. "No one can predict when someone will die, the doctors can only give an indication."
Kalawati Devi, 99, has been staying at the Moksha Bhavan for a little over four months. "We pray every day she dies but she lives for yet another day. She wanted to die in Varanasi because her husband, and her brother, also died here," says her son Sangram Singh, 75.
Routinely, sons, daughters and relatives of those ailing patients would bring them to Varanasi, unsure when the patient would die. The waiting period was invariably long. Though there are no records, it is estimated that a little over 500,000 people — for the last two decades — have made use of the services of such hostels to breathe their last, their age ranging between 95-110 years.
Anjan Chakravarty, who has been living in Varanasi for more than four decades, says the move will cut down those seeking death in the holy city. "I have always believed that Varanasi is a city of life, not death, despite the city being synonymous with pyres at the ghats and the elderly waiting to die. Hopefully, this death tourism will slow down," he adds.
Chakravarty, however, says that the hostel owners will find it tough to follow the rules. "The government did not make any rules. The hostel owners made it because it was an easy way to earn money. Now this long wait to death is causing them discomfort. It's good that they are now seeking only terminally ill patients," he says.
But Delhi-based publisher Pramod Kapoor for whom Varanasi is almost a second home, feels the new move will genuinely trigger a dilemma in the minds of many. "A death in Varanasi is never mourned, so I doubt whether waiting to die in Varanasi will ever be looked down upon by the visitors to the city. Like the temples, ghats, Ganges, this one — over decades — has come to stay.”
And finally, even doctors cannot predict the exact time of death. “The selfie generation may not like the practice and seek a change, but it will be tough to get rid of those wanting to die in Varanasi," says Kapoor.
After all, a death wish is a death wish.