The Wait for Death at Varanasi’s Mukti Bhavan


The Wait for Death at Varanasi’s Mukti Bhavan

Illustration: Akshita Monga

In a narrow lane in the oldest city on the planet, the Kashi Labh Mukti Bhavan and Kashi Mumukshu Bhavan stand next to each other. Barring their huge gates, there is nothing remarkable about the yellow structures located at a walking distance from Assi Ghat and Ramu’s famous tea stall – except, this is where people come to die.

Last year, the movie Mukti Bhawan, by debutant director Shubhashish Bhutiani opened to widespread acclaim. The film follows Daya, the patriarch of a middle-class Kanpur family, who decides to breathe his last at Varanasi’s famed death hostel. Because Mukti Bhawan isn’t merely a place to die: It is a sure-shot path to attaining salvation.

This hope of achieving nirvana keeps alive people who have been staring death in the face. People like Gulab Bai, who has spent 33 years – the most anyone ever has – at the facility. In the game of “who will blink first” between her and Yamraj, the latter seems to be losing. The 83-year-old, with a mala round her neck, is the last word on the ashram to nosy reporters. She walks around Mukti Bhawan with a streak of chandan paste smeared on her forehead, wearing gold kadas around her wrists, and a tattoo of her and her husband’s name on her right arm.

Gulab Bai was 59 and her husband 62 when they first arrived here from Itarsi in Madhya Pradesh, at his insistence. Shivnath Ram Jaiswal, a clerk in Northern Railways was very keen on Kashivaas and attained “moksh” within 13 months. “And I have not been able to do so for over 30 years,” she laughs. “Maybe my husband’s soul wants me to spend more time here.”

In the initial days, Gulab Bai was not particularly inclined toward living in an ashram, but she has changed her opinion dramatically over the last three decades. Life goes on, full of colour, as she waits for death to come to her.

Gulab Bai’s family has also accepted this as her home. Her three children call on her during their holidays, and want her to return with them.

The “Rainbow Woman of Kashi” is a keen follower of routine. She wears a green sari to mark Wednesdays; on Saturdays, it’s black, while Sundays are for white. A strict regimen at the ashram governs her existence in the sparse but airy room painted a dull yellow. She wakes up at 4 am to the sound of temple bells and cleans her room before heading to the ashram temple to pray. By 8 am, she returns to her room for a tea and paratha breakfast; the rest of her day passes in prayer, chanting, and in trying to catch a glimpse of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Doordarshan News.

This routine remains unbroken except when Gulab Bai steps out to eat tamatar chaat to curb her boredom. “I know each and every lane of this city and the aarti timings for every God in the different temples,” she says. “This is my city and I love it the way it has accepted me. I never feel like I am away from home.”

Gulab Bai’s family has also accepted this as her home. Her three children call on her during their holidays, and want her to return with them. But she no longer wishes to live with her family, engaged as she is, in the single-minded pursuit of death and salvation. “Kashi meh to suar bhi moksh prapt karta hai, aur ham toh insaan hai.” (In Kashi, even a pig can attain moksh; I am still human.)

In this city that celebrates death as release from the cycle of life and suffering, Gulab Bai’s desire to cease to exist, is neither morbid, nor an anomaly. Funeral processions in Varanasi could be mistaken for wedding celebrations, as people sing and dance for the departed. Thousands flock to Kashi’s ashrams like Mumukshu Bhawan to spend their last days here – choosing autonomy in life as well as death – whenever the event might occur.

Gulab Bai has witnessed 13 deaths as the oldest living resident of Mumukshu. According to her, the people living in the ashram have accepted that they may die any day – so there is no crying, no grieving, no mourning. “No one knows when Yamraj will come with the invitation,” she tells me, “but everyone is prepared for the final journey.”

She recalls an elderly man known only as “Babuji”, who would sit in the lawn and tell everyone the exact time of his death. For Babuji, death came at the appointed hour. It is difficult to determine whether he chose death or whether death chose him. In Kashi, the land of people awaiting their end, the lines can often be blurred.

Edited by Karanjeet Kaur