Where the heart is: Early morning bhajans at the home.
Homeless Elderly in Nepal Find New Life
A peek inside an oasis on the sacred grounds by Pashupatinath Temple
It is ironic that this story, filed just before the devastating earthquake of April 25, begins with a single man’s disaster. Yet the Briddhashram has proven to be a haven even now, as the entire country struggles with unimaginable tragedy impacting millions. Here is what we know at press time: The elderly residents are safe and have been fed, housed and cared for as usual. But the village of volunteer Yogesh Gurung has been leveled. Durga Prasain, who was too poor to provide a home to her aunt, has now lost what little she had. Some of those Nepalis who volunteered are now being fed themselves at the Briddhashram, thankful to be alive but struggling, as all are in Nepal, to recover from the 7.8-magnitude earthquake.
BY SALLY ACHARYA, KATHMANDU
WHEN THE HILLSIDE COLLAPSED IN the middle of the night and buried Ganesh Bahadur Karki’s home under tons of mud and rock, he should have been asleep inside. But, in a rare stroke of luck for the impoverished widower, he had stepped out into the night air only moments before the rumbling began. The landslide took everything but his life—his home, his farm, all his possessions. For a while he slept in the government office where he worked as a peon, but he was getting old. With no family able to take him in, where could he go?
Then he heard about the Pashupati Briddhashram, or “elders’ ashram,” on the grounds surrounding Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu. Now, instead of being homeless, he lives in one of the most sacred spots on Earth.
Every morning he relaxes in the cobbled courtyard, listening to bhajans sung by fellow residents. Women pass the time by twisting cotton into wicks for oil lamps to be offered in prayer. Even those who can’t walk the hundred paces to the entrance of Pashupatinath Temple are on holy ground; in their central courtyard are the five massive cupolas of the Panch Dewal, or five shrines, around which Briddhashram is built.
It’s an austere life. Needs are met in simple ways: a cot to sleep on, two plain meals a day, a government health worker on staff, and young volunteers to bathe and feed the frailest of residents, wash their clothes and listen to their stories. To elderly Nepalis whose hard lives might otherwise end in poverty and loneliness, the Briddhashram can be a lifesaver. “I have a new life here,” says 83-year-old Laxmi Devi Thapa. “It’s all through the blessing of God.”
Caring for elders is a cherished ideal in Hindu families. Our aging grandmothers and grandfathers consider a child’s home as their own home. As they grow older, even if they haven’t been living in a joint family, they often take up residence with a son or daughter. Aging in the same home as children and grandchildren is still a cultural norm and fortunate reality for many Nepalis.
But not for everyone. Urbanization has led to social dislocation, notes Manoj Kumar Basnet, the chief administrator of Briddhashram. The poor, as always, are the most vulnerable. Urbanization and migration have meant that families are moving out of remote villages, often ending up crowded into rented rooms in cities with no extra space or resources. A poor, childless elder who in the past would have been surrounded by relatives willing to take her in or lend a helping hand may be left with no one capable of offering her a home.
Western-style retirement homes are beginning to rise around Kathmandu for well-to-do senior citizens who can’t or don’t want to move in with family. Such homes are not an option for the residents of Briddhashram. “These are all people who have had trouble in life,” says Durga Prasain as she sits on a veranda with her elderly aunt. “There isn’t a single person here who has had an easy life.”
Her aunt, Chandamaya Upreti, is 84 but childless. Durga would care for her if she could, but she lives in a single cramped room with all her children; her husband is a laborer overseas. Chandamaya had floated uncomfortably among various equally poor relatives before a space opened at Briddhashram. Most residents are referred by their Village Development Committees, who vouch that they are indigent with no family to support them. Some have been found sleeping on the road, suffering from dementia or abandoned.
Where the heart is: Teenage volunteer Merina Shrestha, who hopes to become a nurse, changes linen in the ward for disabled elderly women.
Where the heart is: Unlike these buildings and shrines in central Kathmandu, the Briddhashram was unaffected by the earthquake.
Where the heart is: Elders apply tika for one another and to the volunteers and guests as bhajans conclude.
The ashram wasn’t always for the elderly. The traditional brick building with its carved wooden windows was built around the Panch Dewal in 1881 as a resthouse for pilgrims who came from far away to worship God at Pashupatinath. The rustic dormitories that once housed traveling pilgrims are now the final stop in life’s journey for 230 senior citizens.
The care they receive isn’t only from Nepal’s cash-strapped government. Worshipers who come for darshan at Pashupatinath stop by to make donations, often sponsoring a day’s worth of meals for everyone at the home. In addition, young Nepalis come to volunteer through nursing programs, school service projects and independently.
The frailest residents live in wards nearest the kitchen and dining terrace. There, on a recent day, Sita Karki, who had just finished Class 10, was bathing a woman who was barely the size of a five-year-old, hunched, immobile and unable to speak. Sita picked her up like a child. “I just do it because it’s enjoyable to me,” Sita said, her long black braid swinging behind her. “It’s not hard. It makes me happy.”
As Sita scrubbed, 17-year-old Merina Shrestha dusted food crumbs off the lady’s bed and stripped the linen. Merina hopes to become a nurse and is learning what it’s like by volunteering daily at Briddhashram, where she not only takes care of the physical needs of elderly women but provides a listening ear as they share their stories. “Someday,” she says, “we’ll all be old. Wouldn’t we all want someone to help us?”
Then there is Yogesh Gurung, who is coming through the courtyard swinging a pail of potatoes and teasingly calling out “alu le lo” (“come get your potatoes”) like a street hawker. The 26-year-old Nepali has hair died a punkish blond covered by a traditional Dhaka topi cap and a string of sacred rudraksha beads peeking out from under his t-shirt. He had been going in the wrong direction in life, he says, partying and hanging out with a bad crowd, when a personal tragedy caused him to rethink his choices.
“I began to meditate and read some biographies, like Mahatma Gandhi. He said we should work for humanity. We’re human beings, not animals, so what can we do to show that we’re human? We can share the joys and sorrows of others,” he says. “Coming here and helping is a discipline for me. It’s my bhakti to Siva-ji.”
Working alongside the young Nepali volunteers are a government health worker, volunteer Nepali doctors and international volunteers who often come through the Indian organization International Development Exchange (IDEX) while on a gap year or traveling the world. “I’d rather volunteer than just be a tourist,” says Melloney Maurits of the Netherlands, 22, as she carried a pail of laundry to be scrubbed by hand. “It’s different,” laughs Hae-youn Sin of Switzerland, 19, who was hanging laundry in the sun by the five shrines with 25-year-old Sylvia Uribe of Mexico. “But we enjoy it. It’s very physical, but we have a feeling we’re helping.”
The residents of Briddhashram may be bent and frail, but they use their skills to benefit others. Worshipers at Pashupatinath often purchase a bundle of wicks to light in prayer, and these may be the work of ladies at Briddhashram, who make a little pocket change by practicing their traditional crafts.
Laxmi Devi Thapa is one of the residents who keeps herself busy making wicks and weaving baskets, both for temple devotees and her own use. To her, life at the Briddhashram is a miracle. Orphaned in childhood and never married, she had no one to turn to as she grew older and faced a future on the streets.
But then, she relates, God Siva came to her in a dream. She tells her tale in a storyteller’s voice, animated and cheerful, as if speaking to the grandchildren she never had. “Three times He came and said, ‘Come to Pashupatinath,’ and three times I refused,” she says. “Who would take me? Why should I go? I didn’t know about this place. I didn’t know what He was telling me. Finally, Parvati Mata came to me.”
The Goddess, too, told her to come. When she awoke, a person had arrived to tell her about the Pashupati Briddhashram. The elderly lady raises her hands in a gesture of prayer to the shrines to Siva that now form the centerpiece of her world. “It is the wish of God. I’m a very fortunate woman. Now I’m at peace.”