A TOWN known as ‘the city of widows’ attracts thousands of women who have been cast away by their families and left alone in the world, following their husbands’ deaths.
FOR centuries the mysterious ‘city of widows’ has attracted thousands of women who have been banished by their families and considered cursed following the death of their husbands.
No one has reliably counted the number of widows in Vrindavan, about 135km south of the Indian capital New Delhi. But it’s estimated there are up to 15,000 widows living there, after being cast off by relatives who consider them a financial drain and bad luck, or want to prevent them inheriting money or property.
Many of them are abruptly dropped off on a city street — where the Hindu god Krishna is said to have grown up — by a family member who then abandons them and drives away.
Others come on their own volition, via buses or trains from hundreds of kilometres away, in search of companionship and purpose or for worship. Most have travelled from West Bengal, a journey of more than 1600km, leaving behind friends and grandchildren.
It’s a pilgrimage that has been made by generations of Indian widows. But it’s still a struggle for survival everyday.
Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of human rights organisation Sulabh International, which works with the widows, said the “shame” of widowhood was still very strong in some traditional quarters where they are expected to relinquish all joy and pleasure.
Mr Pathak said they aren’t allowed to celebrate or attend marriages and they’re supposed to live in seclusion, shave their heads and dress in white.
“It is essentially a form of life imprisonment for these widows,” he said.
Sulabh, which has done pioneering social work in India in sanitation and other fields, was tasked by the Supreme Court in 2012 to work with the women after reports of widows’ bodies being put in sacks and thrown in the river.
The organisation has been providing a monthly allowance of 2000 rupees ($35) a month to 700 widows and teaching skills since that time. But it reaches only a small fraction of the widows said to be living in Vrindavan.
Most of the women are forced to live in shelters, shared rooms and under roadside tarps because it is difficult to find accommodation that will admit them.
The city and its neighbouring towns are a spiritual centre, crowded with temples to the Hindu god Krishna. Because the widows are not accepted into society, they congregate around the spiritual centres, where they are able to scrape together a meagre living and develop a sisterhood with the other women.
The authorities run four ashrams in which bhajans — devotional songs — are chanted all day long by impoverished widows who crowd side-by-side on the floor, National Geographic reports.
The widows — usually elderly women — pray together and sing chants repeatedly for hours at a time in exchange for hot meals, sleeping mats.
They are commonly seen coming in and out of the temples, dressed in white and often begging for food and money to pay for rented accommodation.
Delhi psychologist Vasantha Patri, who has written about the plight of Vrindavan’s widows, described them as “physically alive but socially dead”. The women’s plight was depicted in the 2005 Oscar-nominated film Water.
The woman are generally banned from participating in the colourful revelry of festivals with the exception of one event that takes place each year — the annual Holi ‘Festival of Colours’ which celebrates the arrival of spring.
During the two day festival, revellers throw coloured powders and liquids on others, creating a vibrant atmosphere. Each colour used at the festival signifies something different. Red means love and fertility; blue is the colour of Krishna, the Hindu deity; yellow is the colour of turmeric, and green symbolises spring and new beginnings.
About 1000 widows sponsored by non-government organisations turn out to the event each year. This year’s is expected to start in less than two weeks.
It’s a part of Indian society that the government has made recent strides to help. But there’s still a long way to go.
In 2012, the Supreme Court ordered that a special committee be constituted to identify the widows in Vrindavan — “those having shelter and those wandering in the streets without shelter”.
The court also ordered that complete data be collected on the families of these women, including their reasons for leaving home and their source of income. This tedious process, however, is still not complete, according to The Hindu. In a status report submitted by the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development in September 2015, the government had said the process was ongoing.
A detailed Agreed Action Plan formulated by the Ministry and the National Commission for Women was submitted before the court as a follow-up last year.
This plan detailed the need to improve infrastructure, create a database of widows by linking them with their Aadhaar identity cards that are issued to all Indian residents, and counselling the families to take the women back home.
According to the order, the women should be entitled to free legal and medical aid along with basic living conditions.