PHOTO STORY: The City of Widows

PHOTO STORY: The City of Widows
Photo Credit: Sascha Richter

What you need to know

Mothers – Widows Of Vrindavan: Many of India's widows come to the holy city of Vrindavan in order to devote themselves to Lord Krishna and find salvation (moksha) and peace.

There are approximately 40 million widows in India at this time. In the classical, Brahmanism view, widows are physically alive but socially dead. They were expected to die before their husbands or along with them, otherwise they would remain in the in-law's houses, often barred from chances to remarry.

Sascha_Richter_-_Mothers_Widows_of_Vrind
Photo Credit: Sascha Richter
Being victims of rejection and discrimination most of the widows depend mainly on begging, singing devotional songs and charity.
Sascha_Richter_-_Mothers_Widows_of_Vrind
Photo Credit: Sascha Richter
Sascha_Richter_-_Mothers_Widows_of_Vrind
Photo Credit: Sascha Richter
Kali Kund (75) married at the age of 18. Her three sons and one daughter abandoned her after the demise of her husband, 14 years ago.
Sascha_Richter_-_Mothers_Widows_of_Vrind
Photo Credit: Sascha Richter
In local ashrams they find shelter, community and are provided with at least one warm meal a day.
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Photo Credit: Sascha Richter
Sascha_Richter_-_Mothers_Widows_of_Vrind
Photo Credit: Sascha Richter
Besaki Dasi (75) on the way from her Ashram to beg in the streets. She came to Vrindavan 35 years ago.
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Photo Credit: Sascha Richter
Sascha_Richter_-_Mothers_Widows_of_Vrind
Photo Credit: Sascha Richter
Bani Mukharji has three children, that abandoned her. Now she is living in an ashram in Vrindavan. Even though widows are expected to wear mainly white clothes, the color that symbolizes death and their asexuality, she still has an affection for clothes and possesses many dresses.
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Photo Credit: Sascha Richter
Two widows comforting each other after an emotional breakdown. Sachirani Dasi (left) (70) became a widow at the age of 45. She has no children. Chapla Nath (right) has one son and two daughters. She married at the age of 15. After eight years of marriage her husband passed away.
Sascha_Richter_-_Mothers_Widows_of_Vrind
Photo Credit: Sascha Richter
Sushila Pal (76) became a widow at the age of 26. She came from West Bengal to Vrindavan 20 years ago. She has no children and no one to look after her.
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Photo Credit: Sascha Richter
Danwanti married her husband (then 25) at the age of 15. After three years of marriage, her husband died from malaria. Fifteen years ago she left behind everything and came to Vrindavan. She has one son and one daughter. She loves to sing devotional songs to Krishna.
Sascha_Richter_-_Mothers_Widows_of_Vrind
Photo Credit: Sascha Richter
Sascha_Richter_-_Mothers_Widows_of_Vrind
Photo Credit: Sascha Richter

In the classical Brahmanism view, widows are physically alive but socially dead. They were expected to die before their husbands or along with them, otherwise they would remain in the in-law's houses, often barred from chances to remarry.

The death of the husband marks the transition from a wife to a widow and thereby the loss of the widow's social and religious identity. Their status puts them on the fringe of society. Most of them experience deprivations and discriminations on a daily basis, not least of which include suffering from severe depression because of isolation and the absence of emotional and social support.

Widows are socially stigmatized, expected to always wear white clothes, which is the color symbolizing death and their asexuality. They further must forego all forms of make-up and symbols of marriage, like bangles, ornamental chains, flowers, and the sindhoor (vermillion mark on their foreheads).

As a form of symbolic castration they also have to shave their hair and remove all symbols of femininity, thereby becoming subjugated to the society, and men especially.

Traditional superstitions mark them as inauspicious. Some people even think that walking in their shadows brings bad luck. That is why widows are banned from some religious ceremonies and weddings (sometimes even of their own children's wedding ceremonies).

Widows access to resources typically ends with the demise of the husband. A lot of them are not able to support themselves and become economically and socially dependent on their children, who often face problems in sharing their resources with their mothers. In many cases, the mother becomes a burden because of the financial insecurity of the family and is consequently abandoned.

Although the Constitution now guarantees widows the right to remarry and the right to property and inheritance, this is often obscured by lack of information. For example, in the past girls were often married at a very young age (14 or younger), before they were able to complete their education. Therefore they were often not aware of their legal rights, nor could they afford a lawyer to assist them.

Sometimes widows even subordinate themselves under customs, for the sake of the family harmony, and forfeit their inheritance for their children or in-laws.

Living in oppressive and sometimes hostile environments, they come to the holy city of Vrindavan in order to devote themselves to Lord Krishna and find salvation (moksha) and peace.

Still, even in Vrindavan, reality sometimes paints a different picture. Being victims of rejection and discrimination, some widows depend mainly on begging, singing devotional songs (bhajans), and charity.

Though the cultural stigmatization of widows continues in some regions of India and among certain castes and communities, fortunately there is a change happening, both on the ground and in the attitudes of people regarding widows, particularly in urban India.

The exodus of widows to the holy cities of Vrindavan and Varanasi has trickled down with more and more widows opting to stay with their children, who are running double income homes.

Childcare under the supervision of the grandmother is more preferred than the sparse private facilities. Many widows, if they opt to come to the holy cities, are also doing it out of choice for an austere life dedicated to spirituality.

Civil society, in the form of non-governmental organizations, like Maitri India (headed by Winnie Singh) and The Guild for Service (run by Dr. Mohini Giri, Chairperson and Meera Khanna, Executive Vice President), are taking proactive measures for the empowerment of widows.

These organizations run shelter homes and capacity-building centers, where young widows are taught skills and older ones are given the comfort of food and medicines.

Centre staff works hard to provide them a life with dignity, offering at least one warm meal a day, tap water, and shelter, so they do not fall victim to exploitation on the streets.

Some of the widows there regain the courage to wear colorful dresses and even bangles, albeit inside the property.

Furthermore, it is hoped that changes in the inheritance laws will give the widows a legal right to hold property and land titles someday.

The government now also provides a destitute widows' pension.

But still the need for improvement is huge and interventions are few. Change is taking place, but slowly.

Editor: Edward White


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