The holy Indian city of Vrindavan has become a magnet for widows. After being abandoned by their families, the women flock to the town in their thousands. But most end up living a life of poverty and seclusion.
70-year-old Parvati Devi struggles to walk with her wooden stick. Still, she manages to make it in the nick of time to the shelter for her evening meal, one of the two she gets in a day. For the last eight years this frail-looking widow, who often has to beg for a living, has made city of Vrindavan, located in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, her home after being abandoned by her family.
"I was thrown out of the house after my husband died. The family members thought I would bring bad luck. It was destiny that brought me here and I will die here in this holy town," she rues.
Like Parvati, Rani Sominder, a 65-year-old widow, has also made Vrindavan her home. She was abandoned by her family as she was considered a burden.
"I used to live and beg on the streets when I came here almost ten years ago. However, I was lucky to find room in a shelter for widows. At least I can get one square meal a day," says Sominder.
'A pitiable life'
This central pilgrimage town, believed to be birthplace of the Hindu deity Krishna, has more than 4,000 temples. With a population of nearly 60,000 thousand people, there are an estimated 20,000 widows living in the town.
Over the years, Vrindavan has become a magnet for these women. The city is full of dingy guest houses, shelters, and cramped quarters where impoverished and neglected widows come to try to eke out an existence till their death. Despite their advanced age, many widows cook their own meals and clean their own clothes and utensils.
"My family knows that I lead a pitiable life here, but that doesn't seem to bother them. I have to come to terms with the fact that I will die here," says Janaki Jha. She too was forced to turn to begging to survive. At times she spends much of the day singing devotional songs in exchange for a hot meal and a few rupees.
Life in the service of God
Superstitious relatives claim the widows bring misfortune and blame them for their husbands' death. Many of the women end up destitute.
In the last three years several charities have begun operating in the town and a large number of widows are gradually being taken into their care.
In many conservative Indian Hindu families, widows are shunned as they are believed to bring bad luck
Prabhal Kumar who oversees the functioning of some charities says the influx of widows has been increasing with every passing year. "They have nowhere to go and want to spend the last years of their lives in the service of God. They have a hard life and we try our best to minimize their sufferings," Kumar told DW.
India's Supreme Court has ordered government and civic agencies to improve the lives of women in Vrindavan after media reports of their deplorable living conditions. The Uttar Pradesh government has now appointed a panel to collect data on the socio-economic conditions.
India has an estimated 40 million widows which is approximately 10 per cent of the country's female population.