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Fifty Bengali widows of Vrindavan were flown to Kolkata in West Bengal this Durga Puja by a charity. TWF correspondent Vincent Van Ross was witness to the emotional sojourn of the women who originally hailed from Bengal but had to take refuge in Vrindavan because they were unwanted in their families

As idols of Ma Durga were being immersed in the holy waters of River Ganga (Hooghly) in Kolkata marking the culmination of Durga Puja, the fifty Bengali widows from Vrindavan, who were on a weeklong sojourn to their hometown in West Bengal for Puja festivities, returned to their adopted homes at Vrindavan.

Sulabh International Social Service Organisation decided to take 50 Bengali widows, out of about 900 widows adopted by them in Vrindavan, to Kolkata for Durga Puja. This follows a request from some widows as also from some Kolkata-based organisations which promised to arrange hassle-free pandal-hopping for them during their stay in Kolkata. 

Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, the founder of Sulabh International, says: “This is just the beginning. There will be more such trips for other widows in future.”

Vrindavan is a temple town in Mathura district of Uttar Pradesh. It is an important pilgrimage site for Hindus and is dotted with temples and ashrams dedicated to Lord Krishna and his divine consort Radha as also other Hindu deities. 

Vrindavan was rediscovered by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in the sixteenth century while on a mission to locate places of importance associated with the events of the childhood and adolescence of Lord Krisha. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was mainly responsible for popularising Krishna worship in Bengal.

That is the reason why most Vaishnavite widows from Bengal rush to Vrindavan after they lose their husbands or when they are made to feel that they are a burden on their families. 

For a city that witnessed the divine love of Lord Krishna and his conquests over evil-doers, Vrindavan hides a darker side in its underbelly. Like Varanasi which is known for Shaivite Bengali widows, Vrindavan is known for Vaishnavite Bengali widows. On a rough estimate, Vrindavan is home to some 7,000 to 8,000 widows who have decided to spend the rest of their lives in devotion of Lord Krishna. That makes up about ten per cent of the total population of Vrindavan.

Most of the Vrindavan widows are found in white sarees and blouses sporting a mark on their foreheads made of sandalwood paste or holy ash indicating their devotion to Lord Krishna. 

The widows of Vrindavan spend their time by singing and dancing to the accompaniment of Bhajans or devotional songs dedicated to Lord Krishna. As a mark of reverence and love for Lord Krishna, the widows raise both their hands in the air or clap while dancing for their Lord.

Till the time Sulabh International stepped in, many widows were in dire straits. Disbursement of the food money and pension sanctioned by the government were few and far between. Many of them had to sing at Bhajan Ashrams which paid them a nominal amount of rupees eight for eight hours of singing or beg in the streets to eke out a living. The bodies of dead widows were being disposed of disrespectfully in the most inhuman ways. There were also reports of some young widows being pushed into the world’s oldest profession.

Since mid-2012, when the Supreme Court of India enlisted the services of Sulabh International in response to a petition filed by National Legal Services Authority for amelioration of the condition of Vrindavan widows, things have changed a lot. Now, each of these widows gets a stipend of Rs.2.,000/- per month from Sulabh International on the 5th of every month. 

Sulabh International takes care of about 900 widows. Most of whom are registered with some widow ashram or the other. But, there are almost ten times that number who live in the streets and sleep outside temples and shops and lead a life of strife and misery. 
Pathak is, however, intrigued by the influx of widows to Vrindaban from Bengal.

“Bengal is one state which gives utmost prominence to worship of mother goddesses as Shakti in the form of Ma Kali, Ma Durga and other divinities. Yet, when it comes to caring for their own widowed mothers, they display a callous attitude. What is the reason behind this?” asks Pathak .

For the widows, the Kolkata trip was both an eye-opener and a dream-come-true. For many, this was the first flight of their lives. The trip was laden with new experiences and unexpected thrills. 

As the bus rolled out of Vrindavan, the widows slipped into a holiday mode. The very thought of celebrating Durga Puja in Kolkata took them on a journey down their memory lanes. And, the festive mood of the greatest festival of Bengal, Durga Puja, multiplied their joy during their brief holiday in the City of Joy. For the first time, the widows belonging to one widow home got the opportunity to intermingle with widows from other ashrams and exchange notes during this trip.

The dream trip to Kolkata began for these widows in the wee hours of October 6, 2013 when fifty widows from five widows’ ashrams assembled at the gates of their ashrams for a journey which was a surprise package for them. All of them got up much before dawn and got ready for the dream trip. 

Some widows went around their ashrams singing bhajans before they boarded the bus. Others were there to see them off. Some of the widows queued up while others just rushed to the bus. These were moments charged with emotion. Some of them kissed the earth before boarding the bus. On the highway between Vrindavan and Delhi, the widows stopped the bus and got down. They sang Bhajans (devotional songs) dedicated to their presiding deity, Lord Krishna and danced on the highway showing how elated they were. . They consider Lord Krishna to be their companion for the rest of their lives.

Bindeshwar Pathak received each widow personally at the Delhi Airport as they alighted from the bus and presented them with bouquets of orchids, gladioli, lilies and roses among other flowers and fruits and sweets in saffron coloured cloth bags known as jhola. They were also garlanded by a journalist. They enjoyed every moment because they had never tasted such respect and honour in a long time.

When they arrived at the Delhi airport, the sight of 50 windows in white with their humble possessions squeezed into soft bags was an unusual sight for other passengers who stared at them in bewilderment. Most of the widows are above 60 years of age and the oldest among them is believed to be 108 years old.

Once the widows entered the airplane, they were completely fascinated with what they saw. Many marvelled at the personal television screens for each passenger. Some of them grabbed the headphones to listen to the accompanying audio. Some of them struggled to get the seat belt in place. 

At Kolkata airport, the widows were accorded a traditional welcome by a youth group with beating of drums and traditional music. They were also showered with confetti of marigold and rose petals.

There was childlike excitement on the faces of the widows as they saw the gorgeous clay images of Durga. They relived some nostalgic moments of their lives when they saw hand rickshaws, yellow coloured taxis and trams on the streets which they missed in Vrindavan. 

The widows were also taken for a boat ride on the Hoogly (Ganges) River near the Howrah Bridge. The same boat took them to Belur Mutt temple and brought them back.

One of the things that the widows enjoyed most was pandal-hopping to watch the rituals of Durga Puja that were being performed before them. 

The widows even inaugurated Durga Puja at a couple of pandals. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee made time to meet the Vrindavan widows. She also distributed white sarees to them as Puja gifts. During this interaction with the widows, Mamata Banerjee offered to rehabilitate them in Bengal. “If anyone of you want to come back to Bengal, let me know. We would be happy to support you here. It will not be a problem for us,” assured Mamata Banerjee. 

But, as devotees of Lord Krishna, most of the widows seemed to be more comfortable returning to Vrindavan which is so closely associated with the life and times of Lord Krishna.

Some side lights of this trip include the emotional moment when the 91-year-old Manu Ma broke down at the press conference and spoke bitterly about her family. A little later, the same Manu Ma told a television crew that she felt elated with this trip, betraying her feelings of despair and hope alternating in her mind. 

The 108-year old Lalita Adhikari braved a long walk and limped all the way up to the Belur Mutt Temple.

Although relatives of the widows were informed of their trip to Kolkata, only one relative of a widow came to the airport to receive her. But, the widow refused to accompany the relative to their ancestral home.

When the widows were taken to a popular saree shop and asked to take their pick, none of them picked up a white saree. In fact, all of them selected sarees in bright and vibrant colours which goes to show that the white saree they don is not a matter of choice but something that is thrust upon them by an insensitive society. 

For Bindeshwar Pathak, it is a moment of triumph. He had his anxious moments but the success of this trip has brought a lot of satisfaction to him. “The whole idea of taking the widows on this trip to Kolkata was to impress upon them that they too are entitled to lead a normal and happy life…that they too are entitled to celebrate festivals like anyone else,” he explained with an expansive gesture of his hands.

The fact that most of the Vrindavan widows did not want to visit their relatives or meet them even after coming all the way to their hometown is quite disturbing.

Responding to a query, Aarti Rawat , whose in-laws live near Kolkata, answers: “I will not meet them. Why should I meet them? They do not mean anything to me anymore.” 

Image: Rajesh Kumar Singh

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