Siddhi Shaligram Briddhashram: Home for the Elderly at Pashupatinath

Features Issue 84 Jul, 2010
Text by Ashesh Maharjan / Photo: ECS Media

The world is in a big hurry and shows no sign of slowing down. Kathmandu is no ex-
ception; in fact it is in one of the high points in this big rush. But no matter how hard the world outside is swinging, it doesn’t seem to get inside the walls that bound the Social Welfare Center’s Home for the Elderly at Pashupatinath (known in Nepali as the Samajhkalyan Kendra, at Briddhasram, Pashupati). This old home for the elderly was built as the Panchdeval (five shrines) Pakshala during the reign of King Surendra Bir Bikram Shah during the mid- to late 19th century.

Situated amidst the temples of the famous Hindu temple complex, this place seems to manipulate time, at least on a personal level, if not on a universal level. Once you enter the premises of the Briddhasram at Pashupathinath you can’t help but feel like you are transcended time back at least half a century or more, to a place where the world moves very slowly.

You see as many as a fifty grey haired, frail elderly citizens doing nothing but spending blissful moments basking in the sun for hours in the courtyard and on the shrine platform. Some curious eyes follow you as you walk pass the welfare gate. One of them is busy reading a large religious book resting on his lap and the other is trying hard to bend and dust off his trousers.

All you hear is the steady sound of the wheeled metallic support of an elderly with crippled feet and a faint sound of TV somewhere in the background playing a Nepali song. The residents of the home don’t talk much to each other, which gives you an aura of wilderness where no word is spoken; but they really live for each other. For some it is a depressing scene to see people at the end of life, away from family, living (or rather dying) in the Briddhasram. But for many, this is a place where they seek refuge from an ever speeding life and feel satisfied enough simply helping and sharing talk with the older citizens.

Also known as Siddhi Shaligram Briddhashram (Home for the Elderly), the only government sponsored home for seniors lies 4.8 kilometers northeast of the heart of Kathmandu city, surrounded by the Pashupatinath Hindu temple grounds. The temple to Pashupati, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a famous pilgrimage for Hindus from around the world, and also an abode for frolicking monkeys and of sadhu santas (meditating yogis) with tangled hair who come from all across the Indian subcontinent.

The holy Bagmati river flows quietly through the temple complex past the ghats where the dead are cremated daily. The ashes are dumped into the river here, to flow downstream, eventually into the sacred Ganges. For the Hindu faithful, to die and be cremated means release from the cycle of repeated birth and death. In a country like Nepal, where people lean towards religion and take on spiritual quests as they grow old, living in this religious courtyard is no bad deal for the elderly, for all they wish for is a peaceful place to live, worship and wait for salvation.

One elder said, “I don’t feel sad that my sons don’t care for me anymore. In fact I am happier here than I used to be with my sons. I feel like I am on the lap of Lord Shiva.” Pointing towards a raised platform: “I spend my days singing bhajans (hymns) there on our bhajan mandal.”

With the advancement in medicine people are living longer. This means more old people. In addition, modernization and urbanization are inducing people to adopt luxurious lifestyles. Young people are encouraged to switch from traditional and conventional extended family life, to living in nuclear families. So, the elderly are having hard time, as they are dependent on the breadwinners of the family. Under the nuclear family system, more elderly are on the verge of homelessness. This implies that the shelter for seniors could face a ‘more people/less money’ crisis; but with donations and support from many organizations and well wishers, this barely seems to be a point of concern.

Briddhashram residents consider themselves some of the most fortunate elders in all of Nepal. The center is currently managed by The Woman, Children and Social Welfare (WCSW) ministry and sustained mostly by donations. Enough is received to cover each elder’s annual expenses at just over $200 per person (the average annual income for a Nepalese citizen). In truth, they are fortunate. Persons admitted here receive good food and shelter, and are given clothing twice annually. At present, 22 government employees run the home and take care of residents. Doctors visit every other day, and there are two health workers on staff. All medical expenditures are borne by the government, as are all funeral costs at death.

This home for the elderly fills one with hope. What gives hope is that although they have lost families and possessions the residents still care—they care for each other and they retain a deep sense of humanity.