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More than 20,000 widows, whose families have abandoned them, find their way to the holy cities of Vrindavan and Varanasi where they live under conditions of absolute filth and poverty. They seek their sustenance in the cities’ many ashrams - prayer homes while others are homeless, or live in cramped shared accommodation.

Cast out by their husbands’ families after their husband’s deaths, these shunned women chant, almost as if possessed, for 12 hours a day in one of the town’s many ashrams. Drawn here in the hope of attaining moksha — and charity, in the form of a cup of rice, a scoop of lentils, perhaps some ‘prasad’ and a little money — these white clad mothers are an inseparable part of Vrindavan’s fabric. 

Standing in the Bhajan Ashrams, hundreds of widows fill hall after hall, tirelessly chanting “Hare Rama Hare Krishna”. Some beat a drum, some ring bells, some even muster the strength to dance; but most just sit, staring into oblivion.

Widows, shunned by society, are traditionally expected not to re-marry, not to use cosmetics, eat only bland food, tonsure their head and wear a plain white cotton sari. They are not allowed to attend any social functions, not even their children’s marriage. Some are child-brides, widowed and stigmatized before they even reached puberty. However most of the widows prefer the treatment given to them here in the name of tradition and culture to the restrictions and discrimination back home.

Since the past few decades, there has been large-scale migration of widows from West Bengal & Bangladesh. Bengal which worships mother goddess has turned such a blind eye to glaring inequalities; on one hand, they worship the mother goddess and on the other hand the callous manner in which Bengal has treated unfortunate mothers who become widows is horrifying.

Many of these widows are not from the poorest strata of Indian society. They have frail bodies and tattered clothes but come from well to do families, which could have supported them. Shelter, sanitation, health and access to the widow’s pension are key problems. Approximately a third of them live in the open — on streets, ghats, railway stations and bus stops — and they have to fend for themselves. It is very important to give them vocational training and organize skill-development courses for making them economically independent. They must be made aware of their legal and constitutional rights. The pensions must be increased and should duly reach the beneficiaries. Medical facilities and hygienic conditions must be ensured in these ashrams. The number of government shelter homes must be increased. Above all citizens must be made aware of the injustices done to this vulnerable section.

Often the widows are escorted here by their relatives, who leave them with no intention of returning. They are expected to await death, while spending their time worshipping at the temples. Some have arrived at the age of twenty and have spent decades in here. The circumstances surrounding their decision to come may differ, and for some grief weighs heavily on their minds. Yet, all have accepted their fate in this life and hold onto the hope and comfort they find in their belief in Krishna, the Hindu god — and in waiting to reach Moksha.

This photo essay highlights the pathetic plight of widows in these holy cities, most from the eastern state of West Bengal, which reflects the overall callous attitude toward widows in traditional Indian society.