The widows of Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh are celebrating Christmas this year, for the first time in their lives.
At the 100-year-old Meerasahabhagini Ashram in Vrindavan, hundreds of widows revelled in Christmas celebrations in the city known as the place where Lord Krishna frolicked in his childhood.
On Sunday, the widows of the city's ashrams joined in carol singing and danced around beautifully decorated Christmas trees.
Many of the widows, aged between 70 and 80 years, now live a dignified life thanks to the efforts of non-governmental organisation Sulabh International.
Like little children, the widows Sunday gleefully wore the red Santa Claus caps, and lit candles they had made themselves. The Christmas tree was decked up with flags and festoons.
Some of the widows were dressed to look like Santa Claus, and many of them wore costumes they had stitched themselves, over the last few days. The widows have been getting vocational training, and among the skills they have picked up are candle-making and stitching.
"This is true empowerment," Sulabh International chairman Bindeshwari Pathak told IANS.
Manu Ghosh, 80, wore a Santa cap as she decorated the Christmas tree and grabbed chocolates like a child. She danced with many others like her, celebrating this festival for the first time in her life.
"I have been seeing children celebrating this festival, but have never before celebrated it myself. This was a great experience, celebrating Christmas with widows," said 72-year-old Anjana Gwaswami.
Sulabh International founder and chairman Pathak has been bringing cheer to the lives of widows, breaking traditional taboo. Widows are traditionally considered inauspicious, kept away from such occasions as wedding celebrations, and prescribed a quiet life, dressed in plain, often white, clothes.
Ever since the Supreme Court entrusted Sulabh International, previously known for its low-cost sanitation initiatives, the task of bettering the plight of widows, Pathak has been personally supervising and monitoring the living conditions in ashrams and taking care of the women's health and medical needs.
The widows are taking tuitions in learning languages. Arrangements have been made to impart education to the widows in three languages — Hindi, Bengali and English. Teachers have been appointed for the purpose.
Sulabh International also gives every widow a pension of Rs.2,000 per month, and also organises entertainment for them, in the form of sessions for singing devotional songs. They have also been provided television sets with satellite connection, so they can watch serials of their choice.
The NGO has also provided the government-run widow shelters in Vrindavan five well-equipped ambulances, along with medical equipment for providing timely and adequate medical attention.
Regular medical check-ups are conducted, and dentists and ophthalmologists routinely examine the widows. Sulabh has also arranged for dignified cremation with proper rituals, when a widow dies.
The Supreme Court, in August last year, hearing a plea seeking improvement in the living conditions of widows, expressed shock that the bodies of the old women were disposed of after being cut to pieces and packed in gunny bags.