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Varanasi: The last stop before nirvana

The Indian holy city is regarded as the last stop before nirvana. But these days the place seems more interested in attracting tourists than the devout. Andrew Buncombe reports

She lay on a bed, her head flat on a pillow with her eyes open but seemingly unfocused. She was obviously ill, close to death even, but she did not look in pain. A month before, Sudama Upadhyaa had suffered a brain haemorrhage and her husband, Khrisna, had put her on the bus and brought her here to the holy city of Varanasi to die.

Mr Upadhyaa, a 58-year-old farmer from Bihar, sat neatly on the end of the bed, one palm resting gently on is wife's brow, as a priest in orange robes, his forehead marked with a painted dot or tikka, chanted from a Hindu book of scripture. "She is near the end now," Mr Upadhyaa said. "She is no longer eating."

For centuries, Hindus have come to Varanasi, the holy city on the Ganges, to attain instant moksha, or "release", at the moment of death. Historically, for those of little means, such as the Upadhyaas, the process was helped by the existence of a network of small, simple guesthouses or hospices, often established by wealthy benefactors, where people could pass their final few days. But today there are only a few of such guesthouses left, due to a shift towards building places designed to attract tourists rather than the dying, along with – some critics say – a dwindling interest in religious matters.

For the best-run of such hospices in the city, Mukti Bhavan, the guesthouse where Mrs Upadhyaa was quietly fading, it has meant a constant flow of visitors."We have six residents here and another two are arriving today," said Bhairavnath Shukla, who has been manager of the hospice for 40 years. "On average, people spend about 15 days here. It could be two or three days, it could be a month. They stay until they die."

He has no doubt about the decline of the city's moksha guesthouses. "There are two issues," he said. "People who owned the buildings are turning them into commercial premises. The other reason is money problems: the people who ran them can no longer afford to do so." In the room next to Mrs Upadhyaa's, similarly sparse and bare, RamJanam Tiwari was also waiting to make his final journey. The 95-year-old lay on his bed, repeatedly shouting out the name of the Hindu god, Rama, while members of his family quietly sat and waited. He was from the same district of Bihar as the dying woman in the neighbouring room and his relatives had brought him here four days before.

One of his sons, Jai Prakash Tiwari, a sales manager for a telecommunications company, said that when his father was still well he had asked his sons to bring him to Varanasi to die and Mr Tiwari felt pleased he had been able to. But was he not sad about his father's imminent death? "It's natural, everybody goes," he said. "I will also try to come here when it is my time, but it will depend on my circumstances."

For centuries, Hindus have sought release from the cycle of life, death and reincarnation by dying in Varanasi or having their remains cremated on the ghats, or steps, alongside the Ganges. That is why Hindus from across India and beyond, often choose to live out their last days in this 5,000 year-old city.

As well as the guesthouses for those about to die, Varanashi also has a moksha retirement home, and temple communities of widows and the bereft who have nowhere else to go."Someone who dies in this city gets instant moksha," said Dr Ram Nawis Tiwari, a Vedic scholar and lecturer at the University of Benares (as the city was formerly called), who lives in a plain, airy apartment close to the river. "That is why the people come here to die. That is why there are the guesthouses, and why you find people here from all over the world." The sacred city's long association with death has created an entire industry based around dying. In the narrow alleyways of the old city, close to the cremation sites at Manikarnika Ghat, the funeral corteges make their way past at a bustling pace, the bodies wrapped in colourful cloth, placed on a bamboo frame on willing shoulders, and heading towards the river. Sometimes, the bodies are accompanied by clapping, or the beating of drums. The mood, verging on the exuberant, reflects the strength of popular faith in the spiritual power of the city, which the devout call "Kashi", "the City of Light". As Mr Upadyhaa put it: "I have a good feeling that she is in Varanasi. I want to get moksha for my wife. If she dies here, I will be happy."

Close to the ghats, the sellers of cremation timber ply their trade. Logs trucked from forests out of the state are laid up to dry, then sold by the kilo, the price depending on the type of wood and the perfume of its smoke. Mango wood sells for as little as six rupees (less than 10p) a kilo; the richly aromatic sandalwood costs 100 times as much. "You need at least 200kg for a small person and maybe as much as 500kg for a big person," said timber salesman Raj Gupta, pointing to a selection of wood. "We get a minimum of 150 bodies being burnt here a day, this being a 24-hour cremation site."

On average, the funeral pyres – among the river's casual, dirty flotsam of cattle and dogs and urinating men, where the bodies are ritually bathed – burn for three or four hours before the ashes cool and are scattered into the Ganges, India's most sacred, yet highly polluted, river. Each pyre is set alight from a living flame, tended by priests who charge a handsome fee for its use. They claim their flame has burned for thousands of years.

Shita Ram Singh, in a simple, white loin cloth and his head ritually shaven, was waiting as the body of his mother was taken by the flames. She was aged 100 and had died just the previous day. "It's our tradition that when any family member dies we bring them here," he said.

Near by, looking out over the smoking ghats, is the Ganga Labh Bhavan, another of the few remaining guesthouses for the dying. The hospice where Mr Upadhyaa's wife was dying was simple yet dignified, but this rotting, decaying building seemed a place designed only for those with no alternative.

The manager, Om Prakash Dovey, said the guesthouse was 80 years old and that he had worked there for the past 30 of them. "There are no doctors, no medicine," he said with undefeatable logic. "People come here to die. You can get a private doctor to visit but that is not the point. Some people come here feeling sick, then arrive and feel better. Sometimes they go home and die a few days later."

Mr Dovey ascribed the dwindling number of guesthouses to the changing times and people having different financial priorities. "There used to be a lot of guesthouses," he said. "But now it costs too much." Mr Dovey had only one family at his hospice. Bhairaw Jha, 74, had developed cancer and his family had brought to him Varanasi, as was his wish. He had died 10 days before and his family had been staying at the guesthouse, their drying laundry hanging from the balconies, as they prepared to return to their village. Someone where they lived had told them about the guesthouse, which required only a donation towards the cost of rent.

"He had cancer and he was dying. It was sad but he wanted to comehere," said Mr Jha's shaven-headed son-in-law, Ashok Jha. "Here, if he dies, he goes straight to nirvana."