by Judith Cramer
Are ancient Indian cultural practices being challenged by modern values?
An increasing number of the elderly are finding themselves on the streets, abandoned
by their families.
Once a nation that boasted of its traditional joint family system of caring for its seniors within the family home, India is experiencing a shift in cultural ethos. The number of aged people is growing and with it the burden of care. Many families are unable or unwilling to cope with the financial and emotional responsibility and search for other alternatives usually choosing between care homes or abandoning their loved ones on the roadside.
This phenomenon is on the increase and can be witnessed first-hand in one of India’s many charity-run old people’s homes, the ‘Mohanji Home for Seniors’ in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, nestled at the foot of the
holy Arunachala Mountain. This sacred location, once referred to by Ramana Maharshi, as the spiritual heart of the world, as Lord Shiva himself, is having to cope with a sharp increase in the number of homeless and helpless seniors appearing on its pavements.
So why this place and how is it coping?
Indian tradition has always regarded it as a blessing for children to have the opportunity to care for their elders. It is looked upon as a ‘Punya’ or accumulation of good karma, and an integral practice of Sanatana Dharma. Care for seniors is of such importance that the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act was passed in 2007. This bill aims to protect the possessions of the elderly from other family members and casts obligations on children to maintain and provide care for their parents or grandparents. The necessity for this bill, however, reflects the reality of modern-day family life in India. For many families, caregiving is a huge emotional and financial burden that they are often unable or unwilling to embrace.
Various reports, including one from HelpAge India, reveal some shocking statistics.
One in three senior citizens is a victim of verbal or physical abuse. There are horrific stories of neglect, exploitation, and maltreatment. Aged parents are often coerced into signing over properties to their children and are then abandoned. Those families who endeavor to live with and care for their aged parents are often pushed to emotional and financial breaking points with increased living costs and the after-effects on the economy from the Covid Pandemic. Consequently, old-age homes are sprouting up all over the country. Charities run many but the majority of these are overfilled. Privately run homes are becoming big business and are unaffordable for the majority of families with monthly costs far exceeding their incomes.
The most worrying fact is that this situation has prompted an increase in elderly people being abandoned. Often the sacred hotspots are chosen as dumping grounds as families are aware that the given infrastructure of ashrams and charities means that the hungry will be fed and the saddhus and homeless will be cared for.
One of these sacred hotspots is Tiruvannamalai where lies an 800m high extinct volcano known as the holy Arunachala hill. Legend has it that Lord Shiva once manifested here as a column of light. This light was too bright and dazzling to be looked at so Shiva transformed himself into the Arunachala hill. Every year in the month of Kartika 7 there is a peace-giving beacon known as Deepam that is lit consecutively for 10 days on the top of the mountain. Thousands of devotees brave the difficult climb up the mountain, many of whom carry heavy ghee 8 canisters on their backs. At 6 pm the huge cauldron that fires the beacon is lit to a cacophony of nagaswaram, 9 conches, pipes, and shouts of ‘Aro Hara’ 10 from the crowd squashed together on the blackened, ghee-the saturated summit of the hill.
During festival time, the Arunachaleshwar temple in the city is awash with golden flames and the scent of burning ghee lamps. Enormous crowds gather and millions of pilgrims circumambulate the mountain in procession behind the main temple deities as they are taken on a huge wooden chariot around the 14km long Girivalam 11 road. When the festival and the clean-up are over, only relatively quiet returns. No matter what day of the year Tiruvannamalai is visited, scores of pilgrims can be seen, day and night, walking the
Girivalam barefoot amidst the traffic, monkeys, vendors, beggars, and saddhus that line the road. On returning to Tiruvannalamai after the recent pandemic, Thea 12 and I admired the newly built wide pavements and sheltered areas along the mountain road but were shocked to see the huge increase in the number of saddhus and homeless. To find out where these people go when they are hungry and sick, we visited the Mohanji Home for Seniors, located at the backside of the mountain, close to the ancient Adi Annamalai Temple is known to be even older than the main temple in the city. The view of the mountain from this place isparticularly stunning and considered a special blessing from Shiva.
The Mohanji Home for Seniors project, supported by Ammucare, was visualized in late 2018 to provide a long-term secure space for the destitute elderly. Efforts began to procure land, which was secured by late 2019, but due to Covid lockdowns, construction work could start only in late 2020. Progress has been rapid against all odds, and the home has been caring for seniors since September 2021.
On entering the home one is greeted by a wall of eye-catching photos which serves as a shrine and focal point where the residents gather three times daily for Aarthi (fire ceremony). Going further, we see the spacious room with residents relaxing on their beds, some watching TV, some sitting together chatting. The room is clean and has a nice feel to it. At one end are a few tables used as a dining area and then the back door opens onto a washing area and kitchen.
Here, the cooks diligently prepare the three warm daily meals plus extra tea and snacks and enjoy stunning unimpeded views of the Arunachala mountain. We are welcomed by Kishore who, originally from Chennai, has now taken the position of manager of the home. Kishore has a smile larger and more heart-warming than a Cheshire cat and his eyes sparkle with joy as we ask him to share with us his story.
He had been connected to Mohanji and Ammucare for some years and a discussion with Mohanji had inspired him to want to offer support for caring for the elderly in Tiruvannamalai. He started to visit Tiruvannamalai regularly to oversee the construction work in 2019 but had always believed that he would withdraw his involvement after the construction was completed as he had a job and family elsewhere. Realizing that it had become essential to be permanently on-site, he took up residency in Tiruvannamalai. His company offered him a work-from-home deal enabling him to keep his job while at same time managing the Home. With a boyish smile, he says: ‘It seemed that the mountain did not want to let me go and now I have a very special bond with the mountain. Before 2018, I didn’t even know about it. It was only when I came because of the old people’s home that I realized I was connecting with the mountain.’
Kishore tells us that some of the elderly people in the home have come because they had no family and no one to care for them and needed food and shelter. Many, however, have been brought to Tiruvannalalai to be abandoned by their families. ‘One man’s son will get married tomorrow but he has not been invited to the wedding. It is very painful. He feels that he cared for his family for so many years and now they
have no need for him anymore. This is the way people have been left on the road or even asked to go out of their families. These kinds of people are here Kishore continues: ‘The families don’t want to take care of them. They feel the parents are a burden. Sometimes it is not only a financial situation but they just don’t want to take care. They feel the parents are obstructing their daily life, and are a burden.’
When asked what he feels is the reason for this, he says: The children do not feel the pain that the father or mother is going through and they just want to break away.’ He shares an experience with us when the floods hit Chennai in 2015 and his house was filled with water and they had no electricity, or water for a period. During that time, someone brought them food and clean water. This prompted the internal question ‘What are we doing in life?’ He describes how Mohanji often talks about giving back to society and it was at this point when the desire to help all those people, especially the elderly, suffering on the roadside, was awakened. He feels the elderly have done their best in life in their way and it is wrong that society leaves them abandoned.
‘When some of them are all sick and we do the treatment and then we see them smile because they are recovering from the situation, it fulfills you completely. You do not need anything else. It makes you feel so great about what you are doing. That smile counts a lot.’
The government has granted the home a permit for 65 places (35 men on the ground floor and 30 women upstairs) and numbers fluctuate a lot. People find out about the home through posters in the town or through government referrals or other old age homes. In some cases, the family will bring and leave them although this is not allowed and certainly not encouraged. Kishore explains that one of the most challenging aspects of running the home is providing the appropriate medical care for the residents. This includes doctors’ appointments, helping them with physiotherapy, and regular check-ups for diabetics, blood pressure, or other health issues. Last year there were 2 people with hip fractures who needed 24/7 care and were bedridden. Recently there was a senior with serious gangrene, but there have also been those who have died because the treatment was just too little too late. The closest hospitals are 100km away. Occasionally the local Siddha doctors 16 are consulted and depending on the condition, this can be extremely effective, but the need for allopathic medical care is very real. When asked about the role or need for volunteers he tells us that everyone is welcome to contribute whatever and however they can. If a volunteer has some medical experience then
this means the residents can receive better medical care. Volunteers would normally receive
board and lodging subject to availability. We spoke to some of the residents, the first being Devajay Rangan who enjoyed playing a few rounds of Carrom against Tea. After an accident he became disabled and his family was no longer prepared to take care of him: ‘I have 3 sisters and 1 brother but they never talk with me and never care about me. Here these people are taking care of me like a brother but even more than that. I’m so very happy.’
He boasts proudly that he now not only receives three meals a day but also tea, coffee and fruits. One man tells us that he was a saddhu who used to do Girivalam over three times per day for many years. Now he is elderly, has health issues, and was searching for a peaceful place where he can meditate and will not have to search for food. Mohanji’s Home for Seniors fulfills all of his requirements.
Sekhar, aged 65, describes how he had provided for his wife and children by working his way up from being a laborer to a manager over many years. Over time, his family started to make demands and disagree with him until they requested him to leave. Although he sometimes reflects on his past life he feels much more peaceful now than earlier.
Ganeshwaran, aged 73, lost his wife soon after they married so he came to Tiruvannamalai and spent his time performing poojas 18 and meditating. After a fall, he needed medical care, and Kishore and the team helped him. He speaks with deep gratitude that he can walk again.
The last of the men we interviewed was a voluntary worker at the home. K Dhanraj, tells us that he has lived in Tiruvannamalai for the last 6 years and has been serving the people in the Mohanji Home for Seniors now for one year. He works there full-time and completely voluntarily. His jobs range from making tea and coffee to cleaning the toilets or dressing wounds. He tells us he has a sense of satisfaction and feels happy doing his work here.
The eyes of everyone we spoke to told a unique story, but every single one expressed deep gratitude for the care and comfort they are now able to enjoy during the twilight years of their lives. It was a moving experience to talk to them and a shocking thought of how many more elderly people there must be who are not so lucky. It seems futile to ask if modern Western values of materialism and the practice of shunting the elderly in care homes have taken the place of integral Indian values or if these spiritual hubs providing food and shelter are encouraging families to abandon their seniors. After our experience, it seems much more important to ask ‘What can we do as individuals to help deal with this problem and to make the world a better place?’ The age-old Indian philosophy of Sanathana Dharma, of performing one’s duty appropriately and selfless service, seems more important than ever in tackling these modern-day issues. The only way that these charity-run homes can rise to the challenge of caring for the increasing number of those in need is if we all accept that this is a symptom of modern life and as a global family, take responsibility for tackling the problem. Every one of us can help according to our capacity, large or small, be it through donating time, money, or general support.
Tiruvannamalai, like many of the spiritual power centers in India, has a magnetic power, not only due to the hypnotic presence of the holy Arunachala mountain, but also because of the the atmosphere created through the humility and devotion shown by Kishore and the team, plus the legions of other selfless people working silently and relentlessly to do their part in contributing something positive to society.