Amita* can barely walk. It’s past 6pm and with her dirty, crumpled white sari fluttering around her, the 70-year-old leans heavily on her walking stick, trying to hobble faster down the dusty lane towards home. She has been to visit a neighbouring shrine to participate in the evening prayer, but she can’t be late because that would mean missing her evening meal – one of two she gets a day.
Amita, a widow, lives in a shelter that is run by a charity along with around 100 other widows. Ill treated and abandoned by her family who blamed the death of her husband on her ‘bad luck’, she fled her village more than 50 years ago. Unable to bear the taunts and humiliations, she came to Vrindavan – also known as the City of Widows – in Mathura, in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
Arriving just in time for dinner – a cup of rice, a couple of chappatis and a vegetable curry – Amita limps to the dining area where she sits with a few other widows, eating in silence before going to the dormitory she shares with around 30 other women like her.
Cast out with no place to go
“I’ve been here for, I don’t know, more than 50 years. I used to live and beg on the streets. But some years ago, this charity took me into this house,’’ she says, looking out the window of the dormitory wistfully.
In superstitious families in India, the widow is often blamed for the death of her husband. Considered a bad omen, they are often abandoned by their families and ostracised by society. They end up destitute and quite literally on the street.
India has an estimated 40 million widows – around 10 per cent of India’s female population. But in Vrindavan, a small town that boasts a population of around 60,000, an estimated 20,000 are widows.
This city in India acts as a magnet for Hindu widows because of the large number of shrines – around 5,000. Traditionally, in rural areas of India, once a woman becomes a widow, she is expected to give up all pleasures in life and turn to a life of piety, so they are drawn to shrines.
With few places to turn to, widows, who are often not well educated and lack skills that could help them earn a living, often travel to this temple town to spend the rest of their lives here or are dumped by their family who are unwilling to look after them. Many are forced to turn to begging to survive.
There are several charities operating in the city and a large number of widows are taken into their care where they spend their time singing devotional songs or doing small jobs like threading flowers to make garlands or making incense sticks, which are sold to pilgrims visiting the shrines.
Amita’s story is a sad example of how a widow ends up here. She was barely 12 when her marriage was arranged with Babulal*. Dressed in bridal finery, she was too young to realise the importance of the event and blithely enjoyed the attention showered on her by family, friends and relatives on her wedding day. More than anything else, she was happy because marriage meant not going to school – a place she detested as she hated studying.
Living in Santhal village in West Bengal, the young girl had lost her mother early in life and after her two elder sisters married and moved out of the family home, she was responsible for looking after the house and her father.
Through marriage she gained a caring husband and loving in-laws who often told her she should look up to them as her own parents and they cared for her and loved her like their own daughter. She became even closer to them when her father died from a heart attack soon after she was married.
One morning two years into her marriage, Amita’s 18-year-old husband died in road accident leaving the teenage girl a widow. The then 14-year-old was even more shocked and devastated when her in-laws suddenly turned against her and began cursing her for bringing bad luck into their home.
“You are the reason we lost our son so early in life,’’ they shouted.
An orphan as well as a widow, Amita was disowned by her two sisters who did not want to shoulder the burden of looking after her. With nowhere else to go she lived with her in-laws for another year. “During that time I was subjected to much humiliation and mental and physical harassment,’’ she says.
They forced her to shave her head and she was only allowed to wear a white sari – the colour of mourning in some communities in India. Her jewellery was taken away from her and she was banned from wearing any kind of ornaments. Food was reduced to two simple vegetarian meals a day.
Seeing Amita’s plight, a distant relative suggested she go to Vrindavan. “There are a lot of people like you there,’’ she told Amita. So she left for the temple town by train. That was in 1958 and since then, Amita has made the city her home. She has never remarried or had children. Instead she has grown old in the City of Widows.
Sadly Amita is not alone. Living in little shacks by the sides of the roads or in charity homes that pockmark the busy city, thousands of women tell similar stories of having to flee the appalling social stigma they’ve had to endure following the death of their husband. From newly-weds to middle-aged mothers to elderly women who can barely walk, almost all are dressed in white.
Jostling for space and making their way through the dusty roads filled with cars, ox-drawn carts, cycle rickshaws, cows and crowds, widows can be seen on every street corner. They spend their time in prayer while some of them beg for food or money to survive.
“Many widows don’t have a lot of social rights within the family,” Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, a group that works to empower women, says. The situation is much more extreme in some of India’s rural communities.
“There, it is much more tradition-bound. In urban areas there are more chances and possibilities to live a normal life,” she says. This is something that Dr Mohini Giri, who is the daughter-in-law of the former President of India, VV Giri and the former chairperson of the National Commission for Women, knows about.
She lost her husband when she was 50 and had to endure social humiliation on many occasions. There were times when she was asked not to attend weddings because her presence was considered bad luck.
“Generally all widows are ostracised,” she says. “An educated woman may have money and independence, but even that is often snatched away when she becomes a widow.’’
Recognising the need to lend a helping hand to such women, she set up an organisation called Guild for Service in 2000. Today it operates several initiatives including running homes for widows in Vrindavan. “Mine is but a drop in the bucket,” she says of the assistance her organisation provides.
‘A shift in consciousness’
The plight and treatment of widows has raised eyebrows internationally. TV personality Oprah Winfrey, who visited India last year in connection with the Jaipur Literature Festival, says, “When I met the widows in India, it caused a shift in my consciousness.
“I couldn’t believe that in a country that loves its family and tradition, you get cast aside for something you have no control over, just because your husband died!’’
Dr Mohini says, “Oprah, as part of her travels through India, visited the Guild for Service and interacted with all the widows. She also expressed her desire to work with me to empower the women.’’
In 2005, the UN-accredited The Loomba Foundation, a UK-based non-profit that helps widows and their children, named June 23 as International Widows Day. The organisation hoped that an anniversary to mark the occasion could trigger laws to protect widows and end prejudice against them. Over the years, The Loomba Foundation has educated 8,500 widows’ children in India through its Educate a Widow’s Child in India project.
According to a charity worker, the widows, known as matas (mothers) in Vrindavan, have been pouring into the city for the past 300 years. While some, like Amita, arrived voluntarily, there are thousands of women who have been unceremoniously dumped there by their own children who consider it a burden to look after them in their old age.
Kusum, 65, a resident of Koraput district in Orissa, first visited Vrindavan with her husband 40 years ago. After his death 16 years ago, their only son began neglecting her and on the pretext of taking her on a pilgrimage, he brought her to Vrindavan and abandoned her.
The agony of being disregarded and the pain she went through following her husband’s death is still visible in her eyes, but she doesn’t cry any more.
“If I wanted, I could have returned to my village and thrown my son and daughter-in-law out of the house because it belonged to me,’’ she says. “But I knew that wouldn’t be easy. The villagers may not have supported me because I am a widow. So on listening to the tales of widows here – some of whom had worse tales to tell than mine – I decided to spend the rest of my life in and around the temples.”
Elderly widows aren’t the only ones who suffer. Sushila, 40, has been living in Vrindavan for the past six months. Not wanting to disclose where she comes from, she says, “I lost my husband to tuberculosis. The family then tried to force me to marry his elder brother, but when I refused they threw me out of the house. Penniless, I was without any shelter.”
Initially Sushila worked as a maid in people’s homes, but she left after some bad experiences. “I was abused by people where I worked and one day six years ago when I couldn’t take it any longer, I boarded a train and came to Vrindavan. I’ve been here ever since.”
Even though the Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act, which came into effect more than 150 years ago, gives women the right to remarry and the Hindu Succession Act gives them the same inheritance rights as men, not much has changed for women in the lower strata of society, say rights activists.
Many of the widows in Vrindavan are reluctant to return to their homes, even if they are given the chance. “I’ve suffered humiliation and starvation at my in-laws’ house and I would not go back there on any count,’’ says another widow Manu Ghosh*.
Widowed 40 years ago, Manu is now 92. She has spent her life singing hymns in shrines and depending on the charity of strangers. There are a few government-run charities that offer a home to these women, but there are not enough to shelter the thousands who need it.
Breaking the shackles
Usually widows are not allowed to bathe in the river alongside pilgrims and are banned from participating in celebrations such as Holi, the festival of colour. But Vrindavan saw a revolution of sorts recently.
Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, chairman of Sulabh International Social Services Organisation, a charity that is doing a lot for the cause of widows, recently encouraged the women to break the shackles of tradition and organised a major event to celebrate the festival of Holi.
“As widows do not traditionally participate in Holi in Vrindavan, the event was marked to bring about a change in the mindset of society. It was an effort to bring the widows to the mainstream and help their social assimilation,” Dr Bindeshwar says.
“Unlike in ancient times where sati was performed, widows no longer throw themselves on the funeral pyres of their husbands. Over the years, some changes have come about, but life still remains hard. We need to work towards ending social prejudices against widows.”
Sulabh provides facilities for the widows and is spearheading schemes to raise their status and end the stigma against them.
Rajveer Singh, a social activist, who has been looking after the welfare activities of the widows for the past 15 years, says, “Until recently, widows survived on a measly monthly pension of Rs300 (Dh18) given to them by the government. Some earned a little more by singing hymns by the roadside or in shrines.’’
But life is beginning to change. A public-interest litigation filed by the National Legal Services Authority (Nalsa), has given rise to hopes of a better life for the women in white.
Constituted under the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987, to provide free legal aid to weaker segments of society, Nalsa was moved by the condition of the widows and sought help from the courts in helping them achieve protection. In response, the Supreme Court requested that charities, including Sulabh, work to improve their situation.
Dr Bindeshwar immediately opened an office in Vrindavan and has been taking care of the basic needs of a large number of widows, providing them with things like food and healthcare. He has also ensured that five fully equipped ambulances are stationed in charity homes.
Dr Bindeshwar provides Rs2,000 each to around 4,000 widows every month for their daily needs based on their health conditions. The money is raised through donations and fund-raisers. Dr Bindeshwar says, “The idea was to ensure a life of dignity for them. Now they are not forced to beg or go to bed hungry.”
Thanks to the work of various charities, widows are regaining confidence by learning vocational skills. Social activist Rajveer says, “Hundreds of widows have lived a life of penury, begging to sustain themselves. But not anymore. Instead, they are learning to read and write Hindi, English and Bengali. And a lot of them are enthusiastically learning other skills, including stitching garments and making garlands and incense sticks.” They now have the desire to live.