Forced by orthodox tradition to live a life of austerity, life is not easy for widows in any part of India. But the widows of Vrindavan and Varanasi have an even sad tale to tell- most have been abandoned by their own near and dear ones – Here’s a photo – document of their lives during Diwali and Holi Festivals.
The complete article is also pasted below for your reading:
I always used to feel bad about the plight of the hundreds of old ladies clad in torn white or saffron saris begging outside the Banke Bihari Temple whenever I visit Vrindavan. The scene at another sacred city Varanasi used to be the same. Seeing their plight I always used to give them some money, prasad, and also some food to them. Vrindavan, for me, is a place where Lord Krishna spent his childhood days and Varanasi is another holy city where a lifetime’s sin can be washed with just one dip in the holy river Ganges.
But why are these old ladies begging and living in these holy cities? At this age, they needed a family umbrella and care of their near and dear ones. I used to be quite inquisitive in my childhood times and then once my mother told me everything about them.
These unfortunate ladies are what we call Widows, who have lost their husbands at some stage of their lives. And these ladies are left there by their families, even by their own sons and daughters. Some have run away from their family because of the ill-treatment given to them.
And the holy cities of Vrindavan and Varanasi are home to thousands of such ladies passing their time and waiting for a painful death, whereby to attain Nirvana in the holy towns. But do they really deserve this horrible life at a stage where they have lost their life partners?
It’s a real pity that the colour “White” in the rainbow, on which you can add and splash other colours, changes into a curse as soon as it is on a sari. The white sari, the traditional attire of a widow in India, distances her from all other colours. A widow has to undergo every occasion of happiness and face hardships because she is considered inauspicious, and is forced to live a horribly austere life.
First, the grief of losing one`s husband and then the trauma of facing a horribly austere life- no vermillion, no bangles, no hair for her; a widow has to undergo all this because she is considered inauspicious. She is even kept away from all ceremonies, festivities, and wedding at her own home. And ultimately she is left with no choice but to leave her home and take shelter in some Ashram (special home) meant for such widows. This is the cruel and ugly face of our patriarchal society.
Tale of two cities
For over 200 years Vrindavan near Mathura and Varanasi has played host to a large number of widows from Bengal and other states, abandoned by their own families. These young and old women are forced to live in extreme misery facing starvation, passing their days singing bhajans in temples for which they earn a paltry Rs 8 a day, which is not enough for even one meal. Many restore to begging in the streets or squatting or lying on the steps outside the temples. Often clad in rags, when they breathe their last, there’s nobody even to take care of their cremation.
Even young widows, some of them as young as 20-25 years old, suffer a lonely and dreary life and also face the cruel slings of societal indifference and callousness.
Even after death, a proper cremation as per the Hindu religion is not available for these ladies. The dead body – is often cut into pieces, packed in a bag, and disposed of in the river.
Why is a lady subjected to such cruel treatment? What social or religious malpractices are responsible for the huge difference in the fate of a widow or a widower? Why a widower does get easily remarried, while a widow is compelled to remain single and away from happiness and colours of life?
After his wife`s death, nobody objects when a man gets married even in his very old age. He can even marry a teenage girl and easily make her a widow. All individuals, whether men or women have a right to marry or remain single. Then why are widows not given this natural right? All countries, except India, have a legal and social sanctions for widows’ remarriage but India is unable to get out of its deep morass of orthodoxy. Here, there is a community that is considered untouchable. Here the hopes and aspirations of widows are given a quiet burial.
I was deeply pained to learn all this. I can’t even pluck and throw a flower from the plants at my home. I get mad when someone plucks a fresh flower from my plants. How can I ever think of throwing a human being out of my house? That’s just unimaginable for me.
Today thanks to the recent efforts of the Supreme Court of India who asked the National Legal Service Authority (NALSA) to connect with Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak of Sulabh International Social Service Organisation and also the National Commission for Women (NCW) panel, we do have hope now. As a result of these efforts, we now see some upliftment in the lives of the widows of Vrindavan.
There is an increased consciousness among people now. We have also seen social campaigns of earlier times too. Campaigns by social reformers such as Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, and others have compelled the British Government to bring the Widow`s Remarriage Act of 1856.
Many people felt that widowed life was an unmitigated social evil that must be abolished. It was none other than Raja Ram Mohan Roy who made the first move toward the betterment of the widow`s life. The sacrifices of his sister-in-law had compelled Raja ram Mohan Roy to launch a campaign against Sati and for the cause of widows` remarriage.
But there are still people in our society who oppose the remarriage of widows, arguing that this is against the established code of belief of religion and society.
But with the efforts of quite a few NGOs and social outfits, we have now started seeing improvement in the lives and living of these widows.
Somehow, all this used forced me to do something, and bring this story to the knowledge of the world by doing either a photo feature or a feature. For this, the last few months have made me travel to Vrindavan and Varanasi a number of times to spend time with these ladies and be with them during festivals to celebrate.
Diwali and Holi are the two biggest of our festivals, and on both occasions, these ladies joyously celebrated. Diwali was a moment of rejoicing and hope for me as well as hundreds of old mothers facing the curses of being a widow. Their faces were lit up just like the Diyas lighted everywhere in the courtyard of the ages-old Gopinath temple. I also forgot all my miseries when I saw the brightly lit eyes and happy faces of so many old mothers.
Removing the age-old curse through a remarriage of a widow and also by lighting hundreds of Diyas by the widows themselves was a perfect way of celebrating the biggest festival “Diwali”. For the widows present in the marriage, this was their Diwali celebration. “Her marriage is a message for the society that believes a woman’s life ends if she becomes a widow,” said Manu Ghosh, a 90-year-old widow in Vrindavan.
Holi, the festival of colours was another festival where we saw the active participation of widows and for people like me, it was the happiest occasion of our lives. Playing Holi with over 1200kgs of Gulal and over 1200kgs of flower petals brought out the best in these ladies. They sang, danced, and embraced each other happily. The sorrows of their lives vanished at least for the time they were celebrating and this gave me immense pleasure – as if I had conquered the world. I got blessed by tens of ladies when I applied gulal on their faces and touched their feet.