After checking in at the Mukti Bhawan hostel, guests have two weeks to die or else they are gently asked to leave. Between 30 and 70 pe ople die here every month.
The hostel—a short walk from the Ganges river in the northern city of Varanasi—is a final stop for elderly Hindus hoping they end up on one of the hundreds of funeral pyres lit on the riverbank each day.
“While the rest of the world celebrates a new life when a child is born, similarly we celebrate death,” said Bhairav Nath Shukla, the manager of Mukti Bhawan, one of several places offering shelter to people wanting to die in the city.
Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi and having their remains scattered in the Ganges allows their soul to escape a cycle of death and rebirth, attaining “moksha” or salvation.
Mukti Bhawan—or Salvation House—offers 12 bare rooms around a courtyard in a 100-year-old red-brick building with green shutters.
The atmosphere is far from sombre. “We witness deaths, wailing shrieks and chaos on a daily basis, so where is the fear?” said Shukla.
In a room, Narayan crouches on the floor, frying chillies on a stove, his infant daughter wailing from the fumes. Nearby, his 80-year-old mother, Manorma Devi, lies supine on a wooden plinth, unconscious and panting.
“It’s old age. She’s had a long life, so how can I feel sad?” said Narayan. “Kashi (Varanasi) is very important. A place of temples. I’m happy she can die here.” Devi’s family will pay only their electricity and food bills. The poorest families pay nothing.
There are no doctors, nurses or medicine cabinets. Instead, there are four priests to offer prayers for the dying.
During busy times, Shukla will let people die in his office. If it’s quiet, he sometimes waives the two-week rule.
Predicting someone’s death is an inexact science, which makes choosing when to travel to Mukti Bhawan a gamble.
Ram Bhog Pandey’s family is beginning to feel anxious. The 85-year-old former teacher from the eastern state of Bihar has been lying on the hard floor of his room at Mukti Bhawan for 10 days.
“We brought him here after the doctors said there is no hope for him,” said Daya Shankar, Pandey’s eldest son.
But if his father doesn’t die in the next few days, they will have to return to their village. The family can’t stay away from their farm for too long. It would be a great shame if his father missed the chance to draw his last breath in Varanasi, Daya Shankar said.