The two-storied hospice 'Kashi Labh Mukti Bhawan' hosts the elderly who wish to spend their last days in the search for spiritual liberation. (Agencies)
Shanti Devi, 85, lies wrapped in bed sheet in one of the 10 rooms of the temple-cum-building. Her corner room, lit with incense sticks, is next to a small temple inside the premises, which is most active at the time of dusk and dawn.
Devi, who travelled all the way from Newada in Bihar, mostly chants mantras near her room's window. A priest, one appointed for every patient, comes regularly in her room to check in on her.
Barely able to speak with her tooth-less mouth, Devi says, "I become restless with the passing of every hour. My family is here who are helping me gain Moksha and I do not want to disappoint them. I know Kashi will take me inside her peacefully."
Established by the Dalmiya Charitable Trust in 1958, the Bhawan does not charge anything from the people who come here for a purpose.
The trust bears all the expenses from the stay in the house, to all the rituals of the day, to the cremation after "the soul leaves the body."
"This is a holy place, and charging money means we are into a business. We do not want to be labelled that way. Our Trust bears all the expenses from food to rituals because we believe in providing spiritual satisfaction," says 60-year-old Bhairava Nath Shukla, says the Bhawan's manager.
"Not only India, but devotees from England, Japan and Mauritius have spent time in our shelter to understand the concept of Moksha, life and death," adds Shukla.
Varanasi is famously known for being the 'religious capital of India' where thousands come for various spiritual purposes. Some come for the last rites, some to conduct their new born's' birth ceremony and some, to die peacefully.
"People who are about to die or are on death bed, and believe in 'Moksha' come to this house for spiritual satisfaction. And Kashi is one such place where attaining Moksha is easy," says Sukhla.
"This spiritual house had been serving the old for the last 45 years," he says.
Before being given a room, the priests assess the health and life expectancy of patients.
If the patient fails to die within 15-20 days or so even after days of 'Yagya' and 'Tapasya', the stay is extended for few days.
"In most of our cases, the patient attains moksha. Till now there have not been a single case where the patient had to go back," says the manager.
For Shanti Devi "it will be unfortunate if at this age" she fails to attain Moksha. She still has 15 days left with her.
Her family members feel that it is not the matter of "life or death, but that she must attain what she came for."
"I want my mother to attain what she came for. I want her to end her journey peacefully no matter how much time she takes," says Devi's son.
Nearly a half kilometre from the Bhawan, on the banks of river Ganga, falls the primary and most sacred cremation ghat in Varanasi, Manikarnika Ghat.
When the soul leaves the material body, it is tightly wrapped in a white cloth on a slim bamboo cot, as per Hindu tradition says a priest at the Ghat.
About 32,000 bodies are cremated here every year, he points out.
"Earlier women were not allowed here to see or participate in the cremation. But nowadays women are seen here," he says.
Shukla feels that there is nothing "horrific" about the place. The house, instead, must be seen as "a road to heaven".
"Most of the tourist come here because of the nature of the place. Because the uniqueness attracts them," he says.
He feels that the process of 'Moksha' must be seen as "immortal soul changing bodies, similar to us changing clothes."
The two-storied hospice 'Kashi Labh Mukti Bhawan' hosts the elderly who wish to spend their last days in the search for spiritual liberation.