The holy city of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh has been long known as the gateway to salvation.

Thousands of Hindu devotees over the last few centuries have travelled to live out their final days there. What they are hoping for is the opportunity to break the unending cycle of death and rebirth and achieve salvation. Varanasi promises that, at least that is what the pilgrims firmly believe.

Hotels and lodging have been set up to accommodate the elderly settlers, such as, Mukti Bhavan, which was set up by industrialist Vishnu Hari Dalmia.

Bhairav Nath Shukla, Mukti Bhavan's manager for the last 40 years shared some of his experiences in dealing with his lodgers' journey to moksha.

He allocates one of the 10 rooms in the Bhavan to them and supervises their transition from life to death which he has done more than 12,000 times.

"A son got his father here thinking that he would fulfill his father's wish. The son died here and the father lived on. Matters of life and death are beyond our control," he said.

"The nayee peedhi (the younger generation), people of your age, have got too busy to get their parents here. It is okay. They will reap what they are sowing".

He spoke of another son who was upset when his father did not die within 15 days and they both had to go back home in Gaya.

"I could see that the father was going to live for at least another five years," he said, clearly bewildered by the son's attitude.

The stay at Mukti Bhavan is free. The visitor must have an attendant, and can take a room for a maximum of 15 days, after which Shukla decides whether to extend the stay or not depending on the person's health and the availability of rooms.

This is not the standard terms and conditions for all such facilities.

At Mumukshu Bhavan, Gulab Bai describes her experience in her wait for salvation. She describes her room as her world. She has large laminated posters of Shiva, Saraswati and Krishna on a wall. There is also a small altar to perform her prayers.

Her clothes hang on a plastic string above the headrest. Fruits and vegetables, kept in polythene bags, hang on a thick string fastened at two ends on walls. The paint on the walls is peeling.

After her husband died more than 20 years ago, she told her sons to arrange for her stay in Kashi because she wanted to get rid of the "cycle of birth and rebirth." She has no friends, keeps to herself, and waits for her death impatiently.

At the same lodge, 76-year-old Gayatri Devi also had a desire many years ago to attain moksha and her daughter, Veena, helped her to get a room. She visits her mother at least twice a week. "She has not visited Delhi even once since she shifted here. Her biggest fear is to die outside Kashi," said Veena.

However, Gayathri, did not find the place as holy and peaceful as she thought it would be, "I came here expecting that there would be pooja path (prayers) all through the day, and it would be a conducive atmosphere to die in peace. Nothing of that nature happens here. Everybody is busy back biting," she complained.

This is something that veteran journalist Amitabh Bhattacharya comes from a family of musicians and philosophers that has been living in Varanasi for 23 generations also wonders about.

When Bhattacharya was a young man, he remembers that neighbourhood families would host salvation seekers – including beggars and widows – in their last days. It was a common occurrence. Back then, he says, there were no separate facilities for them. "He or she could be anyone; your co-passenger in a cycle-rickshaw or the person eating next to you in a restaurant. Now they have shrunk to a few lodges on the banks of the Ganga," he explained.

Bhattacharya wonders if any of the inmates in these lodges will get moksha. "You have to detach yourself from worldly affairs to get attached to Kashi. People in these facilities spend their days on their iPhones. You think they will get salvation?"

"Salvation has become a business now. It suits both the moksharthi (salvation seeker) and the person offering the accommodation. What's more, the same courtyard can be booked for marriage functions. What can you and I do?"

Source: Hindustani Times
Photo source: Lonely planet