For most of the widows of West Bengal living in the holy city of Vrindavan, life is a one-way ticket to humiliation, seclusion, despair and squalor Image Credit: Karuna Madan/Gulf News

Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh: For any woman, the loss of a husband can cause grief and upheaval beyond belief and relief. But for most of the widows of West Bengal living in the holy city of Vrindavan, it is a one-way ticket to humiliation, seclusion, poverty, despair and squalor.

India has a history of neglect of widows, but for the young and old widows hailing from West Bengal, it is perhaps worse. They are completely cut off from the mainstream society, made to live apart and away from their family, and undergo a daily ritual of cruelty, suffering and neglect.

Known as the ‘City of Widows’, Vrindavan, in the North-Eastern state of Uttar Pradesh in India, is where thousands of such widows from West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa have been flocking to over the last 300 hundred years after being abandoned by their families on the death of their husbands.

Living in clusters adjoining temples, widows in whites are a common sight in Vrindavan. Victims of indifference, they have to wear coarse clothes, invariably saris, spend their time in prayers and beg for food to survive. Vrindavan has become home to many upper caste Hindu widows, in particular, who are considered a non-productive family member, rather a burden on the resources of their families.

Interestingly, it is a practice in conservative families of West Bengal to shun widows and to persuade or even force them to live a “sacred widowed life dedicated to the service of God”.

The widows are denied remarriage even after the death of their husband in young age. Most widows are forced to leave their marital homes by the family members so that the maintenance issues can be avoided. A widow is expected to remain in mourning during the remaining part of her life. She is disfigured to the extent of shaving off her hair at times and wearing white sari so that she is unable to induce carnal pleasures in another man.

India estimates around 40 million widows, the highest in the world. It is a paradox that in this nation which has a glorious history with incidents glorifying women, widows are shunned from society. A widow regardless of her age has to confine herself to a corner of the house and lead a life of isolation. She has to give up all adornments and her presence in religious ceremonies and marriages is considered as a bad omen. Her life becomes a punishment and it continues until she dies.

“Widowhood stigmatises most women in India. Widows from West Bengal are traditionally not allowed to re-marry. Strict moral code is imposed on a woman after the death of her husband. Needless to mention, no one is bothered about her physical and emotional needs. Disowned by their families, the widows seek shelter away from their home in Vrindavan. For hundreds of years, Vrindavan has housed abandoned widows. At present, almost 3,500 widows are living in Vrindavan. Many a time, these women flee hostile family situations or sexual abuse by other male members of their husband’s families,” Vibhesh Sharma, social activist based in Vrindavan, states.

Vishakha, 65-year-old widow from Sealdah, West Bengal, has two sons and a daugther, and none is willing to take care of her. So much so that they themselves brought and left her here to beg on the streets and fend for herself.

“In this material world, all relationships are actually mercenary but are covered by an illusory curtain of so-called love and affection. The so-called wives and husbands, parents and children, and masters and servants are all concerned with reciprocal material profit. As soon as the shroud of illusion is removed, the dead body of material so-called love and affection is at once manifest to the naked eye. But no matter what the reality pinches all the time,” Vishakha says.

Another widow Vimla, 70, says she came to Vrindavan 20 years ago from Purulia district of West Bengal of her own volition as her both sons were living a life of misery and were unable to support her.

“What use is it to live with them. They cannot support themselves, how can I expect them to take care of me. In fact, once a year I go to their house and give them whatever I save after months of begging. I know for sure they don’t miss me as they are married and have their own families but I cannot stop loving them for that reason,” Vimla narrates.

Walking along the ghats (banks) of river Yamuna in Vrindavan, one can find hundreds of such widows, some in small groups and some alone begging for their existence. Stronger women among them are taken as domestic maids, while others are seen living in ashrams (religious havens) or at the roadside or under shelters meant for bus or railway stations.

Seventy-one-year-old Sushma from Purulia, West Bengal, was shunned by her grown up children when she lost her husband and now begs on the streets of Vrindavan. Likewise, widowed in her twenties, 62-year-old Lakhi from Kolkata immediately chose to move to Vrindavan.

“Conditions are critical for us here. I was abandoned on the death of my husband with no resources of my own. When your own family deserts and disowns you, where can you go in the world? I have had no education, and here there is no chance for a better life,” Lakhi says.

With no chance of remarrying, younger widows face strong cultural disapproval within their own families. Often the young widows are supplied to rich customers by the ashram itself in lieu of a heavy sum.

“If you read the scriptures, a widow has two possibilities: either she kills herself by jumping into the pyres of her husband’s remains or she lives a life in misery. When a man loses his wife, he may grieve for some time but nobody asks him to change his lifestyle or even leave the family. He is free to find a new wife and that as quickly as possible. How come that a woman is not worth living a good life without her husband but a man without his wife is only told to look for a new one?,” Ravi Kant Yadav, a Delhi-based women rights activist, tells Gulf News.

“India has suffered from gender discrimination over centuries. This inequality exists only for one reason: men dominated in society and wrote the scriptures with those guidelines and rules. Men wrote that women should grieve forever once they are dead. For themselves, they did not think of any such rule because if their wife died, they would not like to live the same miserable life. They would not have put anything in the scriptures that would cause them a disadvantage. So there we see again how unfair it is, how many rules there are which are outdated and just wrong and how we have to change our daily lives and our society,” he adds.

Significantly, recently issued report by National Commission for Women states that 80 per cent of widows in Vrindavan are illiterate whereas 60 per cent of them are above 60 years of age. Most of these old widows have to climb stairs to reach their rooms. Some of them are too old to even cook for themselves and are forced to sleep on pieces of jute sacks. They are neither supplied with blankets nor hot water in winters. Moreover, there is no institutional support for cremation of the dead bodies.

Moreover, the ashrams they live in are scattered with diseases like sexually transmitted infections and tuberculosis. The living quarters are also unhygienic with little or no facilities for toilets and drinking water.

“According to another recent state government survey, two-fifths of widows in Vrindavan have no access to toilets and they squat in open fields and sometimes over street drains. Though most widows have access to water after going to the toilet, only 68 per cent have access to soap. A third of the widows (32 per cent), who don’t have soap, use soil and ash,” woman rights activist Mahesh Swarup informs.

In exchange for singing hymns in Bhajan Ashrams (religious place for devotional singing) for eight hours a day, a widow receives Rs eight per day and handful of rice and pulses. The majority of the widows in Vrindavan are ignorant of their basic rights because they come from rural areas where little has changed for centuries.

“Although these widows are poor, they eat well. However, shelter, sanitation, health and access to the widow’s pension are key problems. Almost 54 per cent live in rented spaces, and 16 per cent in ashrams. The majority which is 83 per cent earns Rs 200 to Rs 1,000 per month, seven per cent less than Rs 200 per month, and 10 per cent over Rs 1,000 a month. There is little or no financial support from their families. 78 per cent are afraid of sexual harassment and 63 per cent worried about not getting salvation. They also fear falling sick, of not being cremated with proper rites,” he adds.

Recommending setting up of sufficient shelter homes with proper facilities, the Delhi Legal State Authority (DLSA), in its recent report, said that the Centre and the state governments are expected to fulfil the basic needs guaranteed by the Constitution and protect the human rights of the widows. It has also suggested proper audit of the funds received by the Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and private charitable institutions.

Meanwhile, the Uttar Pradesh state government has utterly failed to take any collaborative steps to improve the situation of these widows. The widow pension of a meagre amount of Rs 1800 is granted by the state government bi-annually.

“It seems that this amount is serving its purpose, but in reality it is not. The shelter homes built by the government provide limited relief to us. The government has completely turned a blind eye towards our plight,” another widow Madhavi, 50, from Dhaka, Bangladesh, says.

Shanti Sharma, 66, who was widowed at the age of 45, has been living in Vrindavan ever since. “I was shunned by my family after the death of my husband because my children blamed me for bringing bad luck to them. Some relatives even blamed me for my husband’s death. They treated me as a liability and an unwanted mouth to feed,” Shanti says.

Social activists feel that the government instead of giving these women measly pension and ration, should invest in making them financially independent.

“We as a nation always seek to find an easy solution to our problems instead of finding sustainable solutions. The children must be made accountable to take care of their parents in old age or provide for them financially. People should be there to take care of the woman in her grief and to give her a reason to enjoy life again. They should encourage her to find another love, maybe another husband, to do something in her life and feel joy, although her husband is dead. Instead, they force her to believe her life has no meaning without her husband. They are relieved when she vanishes from their life,” Yadav asserts.