This Start-Up Is Using Technology To Give Traditional Hindu Last Rites To The Departed

16/05/2016 8:24 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
Amit Ghosh


One day, Harendra Koya listened in grim silence as his friend's mother expressed her pain over her son not wanting to carry back the ashes (asthi) of his departed father from the funeral home. In the eyes of the elderly lady, this amounted to sacrilege. But from the young man's point of view, the idea was impractical because where would they immerse the ashes?

Death, in many families is thus the beginning of chaos.

For Harendra Koya, however, a senior accountant residing in the New York City, the subject of last rites proved to be the beginning of a powerful inner journey. He noticed with increasing disquiet the helplessness of grieving families when they were unable to immerse the ashes of their loved ones immediately after the cremation. Planning a trip to India for the Asthi Visarjan (the practice of immersing mortal remains in holy waters) involved coordinating many variables; at times, the waiting period involved was more than one year. This delay placed an enormous amount of guilt on NRIs who were still fresh from grief, because the delay meant that, the jeevatma (soul) was tied to the ashes (after burning the body).


Bridging the Physical Gap

Harendra Koya, through his website addresses this delay and aims to help grieving families perform the last rites of their departed ones through rituals such as Asthi Visarjan and Pind Daan services. The business, which is funded entirely out of savings offers other services such as Brahman Bhojan, Gau Daan, Shraddh Pooja, Narayan Bali Pooja. The families can opt for any of these services in any of the 12 places listed on the website.

Forming Partnerships

For this idea to take shape, Koya found willing technology partners in Ritesh Sarvaiya who is also the CEO of Defencely Inc, and Tejal Sarvaiya. Ritesh is responsible for all end-to-end management and coordination activities here in India. Despite his full-time business, he dove into this venture just for the noble

thought behind Harendra's plans. Tejal Sarvaiya takes care of the content and editing. Amit Ghosh is a consultant from Bangalore who provides support to the content team.

We offer transparency through live streaming of our services (currently in testing phase). Apart from that, we also videograph and photograph the rituals...

The logistics

The main office of Asthi Visarjan is located in New York. This office is responsible for collecting, verifying and sending of the documents along with asthi to India. The Indian branch is located in Mumbai and is responsible for coordination of all activities such as shipping the asthi to Kashi ( this service is now starting from Varanasi and will gradually increase to all 12 places) and subsequently conducting activities such as donations, giving food to Brahmins (Brahman-Bhoj), feeding grass to cows and other rituals in accordance to the family tradition of the departed soul.

However, all said and done, what sets Asthi Visarjan apart? How are the families made to participate in the rituals, sitting hundreds of miles across? To this Harendra Koya replies, "We offer transparency through live streaming of our services (currently in testing phase, we will be launching this soon). Apart from that, we also videograph and photograph the rituals and upload it into our systems." This is then viewed using our apps available on all operating systems and desktops too.


The power of faith

On 14 October, 2015, Hollywood star Sylvester Stallone, who lost his 36-year-old son in 2013 to a heart attack, had his Shraddh performed in a quiet ceremony in Varanasi. According to a report published in the Times of India, Sylvester Stallone told a Vedic scholar from Rishikesh, that he still saw his dead son. By performing the Shraddh, Mr Stallone was able to draw comfort and finally experience closure to his grief. This incident put to rest the doubts that Harendra Koya had been harbouring in his mind all along. He realized how faith plays an important role in rituals such as these.

We are determined to provide our customers with a traditional service. At the same time, we are a technologically driven company...

When asked whether these services cater to a particular ethnic group, Harendra Koya replied, This site is also open to serve anyone who wants to seek our services, regardless of their ethnicity."

Paying homage to the departed is an elaborate affair in Hindu culture and involves activities such as worshiping the sacred ashes at the Ganga ghat, immersion of the asthi, feeding Brahmins, donating clothes to the poor and needy and so on. All these rituals, in their essence, not only provide spiritual succour to the families concerned, but also feed the needy and generate employment opportunities for many. This, according to Koya, is his moment of pride.

What the future holds

When asked about the future plans for the company, Koya says, "At this time we have used our own savings and have not sought help from anyone else. In the future, we may seek help from venture capitalists or from family and friends."

Does he plan to expand his operations to other countries? "I have been in this country for the past 30 years as an NRI. I observed the need of this service over the years and decided to start in the US and then gradually venture out to the rest of the world," he says

While mourning is a more public affair with rituals et al, grief is not. It is more private and personal. How does Koya navigate this highly sensitive terrain? He replies, "By being coherent, transparent, and appreciating the responsibility that comes with handling such an emotional issue." He adds, "We are determined to provide our customers with a traditional service. At the same time, we are a technologically driven company and want to make sure we continuously update our site to maintain high technological standards. We also believe we are the first company of its kind in the United States, and in the world to provide the service in such an organized and systematic manner."

Thus, at Asthi Visarjan, tradition is wedded to technology in such a way, that life-altering events such as death are handled with utmost reverence and care.

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