The Living Dead

BY: PURNIMA S. TRIPATHI

A widow huddled in a street in Vrindavan. [Photo by Rajeev Bhatt]


Aug 15, MATHURA, INDIA (FRONTLINE) — Thousands of Hindu widows lead miserable lives in the dharmashalas of Vrindavan on doles earned from bhajan singing.

Tourists and pilgrims returning from Mathura in Uttar Pradesh never fail to visit Vrindavan further up on the banks of the Yamuna, for this is the place to reconnect mentally with the mythological tale of Krishna's rasa leela with gopikas or milkmaids. The narrow lanes of this pilgrim centre are crammed with cows, vendors of lassi (sweetened curd whisked to smooth consistency), mendicants, alms-seekers and, more starkly, Hindu widows clad in white. "Raadhey... ", the typical form of address in Vrindavan, may mislead a wayfarer to think that women get the pride of place in this land of piety, which abounds in temples dedicated to Krishna and his favourite gopika, Radha. This is only one layer of a fašade the ever-vibrant town wears.

Thousands of widowed women lead miserable lives in the dharmashalas and choultries of Vrindavan, completely at the mercy of the owners of these places. The street widows, who cannot afford board and lodging, often spend their last days on the roadsides or in shelters provided by the State government.

The majority of these women, discarded as social outcasts, migrated from West Bengal and have been living here for several decades.

So much so that Vrindavan has come to acquire a horrific nickname, "city of widows". The women congregate every morning and evening at the innumerable bhajan ashrams to sing devotional songs. Bhajan singing is compulsory if they are to receive a dole of Rs.2.50 to Rs.3 a day and some meagre ration. Alternately, they throng the streets near the temples to beg for sustenance. Perhaps even as they chant the name of God, these nameless women constantly worry about food and shelter.

Addressed respectfully as Mai, meaning mother, these women are the worst victims of social inequity and neglected social responsibility.

None of the widows this correspondent spoke to remembers when she came to Vrindavan. They only know it is as far back as memory goes.

On a lucky day, that is, when some generous donor descends, they would get curd, sweets and puris to eat. Occasionally, they would receive saris, blankets and other utility items. For shelter they depend on rented accommodation, if they can afford it, or they just curl up on the verandahs of the dharmashalas or on temple premises. Those too old to sing or the ones suffering from serious illnesses have to depend totally on charity or assistance from the bhajan ashrams. Donations collected on the temple premises and elsewhere in the name of the widows seldom reach them.

Despite the enormity of the problem, the governments of Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal have not woken up to the plight of the widows. The U.P. government has offered help by way of providing a highly inadequate shelter. The West Bengal government is still to implement an action plan to prevent the migration of destitute women or rehabilitate them in homes when their family members turn them out.

A delegation from the State's Women's Commission visited Vrindavan in 2004 and submitted a report to the State Social Welfare Department highlighting the need for assistance to these women. Yet, as Social Welfare Minister Bishwanath Chaudhary says "the condition of these women remains as it was two years ago".


A Sevadasi from Nepal with another widow at a singing session in a bhajan ashram. [Photo by Rajeev Bhatt]


West Bengal's Self-Employment Minister, Rekha Goswami, however, was more forthcoming. She said the government was trying to identify areas from where they migrated, in order to stop the trend of widows seeking permanent residence at pilgrim centres.

Talking to Frontline over telephone, she said: "Those who are in Vrindavan must have gone there 40 or 50 years ago. The situation has changed now. We are trying to ensure that women are not forced to leave their homes after their husbands' death." She observed that those leaving their native places for the sake of spirituality were doing so of their own free will, and that too only for short periods.

Yet, the number of widows living in Vrindavan, especially those from West Bengal, has been increasing over the years. A Vrindavan Nagar Palika survey in 2004 enumerated 3,105 widows and the figure is estimated to be anywhere between 5,000 and 6,000 now. The U.P. government has provision only for giving shelter to 450 widows in two homes. One more shelter, with a capacity to house 250 widows, is under construction. The State government claims to be giving widow pensions to 500 women and old-age pensions to 2,000-odd widows. The pension is a paltry Rs.1,800 a year, or Rs.150 a month, and has not been increased. Nor has it been ensured that the widows are actually paid.

According to the 1991 Census, India had the largest number of widows, 33 million or 8 per cent of the country's female population. In a patriarchal society like India, once a woman's husband dies she loses her social and economic status is under immense social and psychological pressures, and is forced to live in her in-laws' household or is dumped in religious places. Widow remarriage is still not an accepted concept in large parts of the country, and even more unheard of is giving a widow the right to a share of her husband's property.

Getting rid of widowed women in the guise of sending them away on a spiritual journey is an age-old Indian practice. Women of eastern India, brought up in the Vaishnavite tradition, have often been forced to proceed on a pilgrimage to Mathura-Vrindavan on attaining widowhood, on the promise of regular financial support.

Several studies have been done to find out the reasons for the marginalisation and large-scale migration of widows from West Bengal to the Vrindavan-Mathura-Varanasi circuit.

One such, done in recent years by the Guild of Service with support from the National Commission for Women (NCW), found: "Patrilocal residence and patrilineal inheritance is a fundamental source of the poverty and marginalisation of Indian widows. Patrilineal inheritance effectively denies widows inheritance rights over their father's property, and their customary and legal rights over their husband's share of family property are often violated. An Indian wife becomes the property of her in-laws' family, and when her husband dies they can decide what to give her and how to treat her. Having broken all intimate ties with her birth family, when her husband dies a widow has no freedom to `return' to the parental home."

Eighty-year-old Kokila from West Bengal does not even remember how many years ago she landed in Vrindavan. She has had no contact whatsoever with her family. She survives on bhajan singing and alms.

Parbati, a native of Nepal, was abandoned by her husband soon after marriage at the age of 11. She still wears the signs of marriage such as sindoor and red bangles, but sings bhajans to earn a living and beg for charity.

Kashi, another elderly widow at one of the bhajan ashrams, was turned out by her only son. Though she was lucky to have a roof in one corner of her house, she was left to fend for herself.

Living alone and having no one to protect them has made these women vulnerable. They reportedly suffer the worst form of exploitation. Also called sevadasis, the widows, especially the comparatively young and presentable among them, perform services in whatever form for the owners of dharmashalas and bhajan ashrams, priests and generous donors. The service includes offering sex as well, though a direct question did not elicit any reply from any of them.

"If they disclose the truth of sexual exploitation they will become outcasts in their groups and be deprived of whatever meagre help they get," says an ashram functionary.

What adds to their misery is the fact that government intervention is inadequate.

"What is required is an attitudinal change, which ensures that a woman is allowed to lead a normal dignified life in her own household even after her husband dies and is not forced to lead a sub-human life in places such as Vrindavan and Kashi," says social scientist Dr. Ranjana Kumari, Director of the Centre for Social Research in New Delhi. It is a measure of the indignity they suffered back home that hardly any of the women spoken to wanted to be rehabilitated in their native surroundings and instead preferred the incognito status in Vrindavan.



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