VRINDAVAN, India – After her husband died eight years ago, Manju Rai’s family started mistreating her and eventually cast her out of her home. “I was thought to be a burden on the family,” she says. “My daughter and son-in-law didn’t want to take responsibility for me. At my age, I could not fight them.”
In 2015, with nowhere else to go, she made the journey thousands of widows had made before her: She went to Vrindavan in search of salvation. The holy city is 890 miles (1,400km) from her home in West Bengal, and Rai had never traveled that far on her own before. But she was driven by the belief that “love for Lord Krishna would guide me and liberate me from all sufferings.”
Located on the banks of the river Yamuna in the state of Uttar Pradesh, Vrindavan is considered sacred to India’s majority Hindu population. It’s believed to be the birthplace of Lord Krishna, one of the most revered gods in Hinduism. With more than 5,000 temples, ashrams of various religious gurus and sects, the dusty town is one the most visited pilgrimage sites in India.
It is also home to more than 10,000 widows, most of them living lives of destitution and neglect and surviving by begging on the streets.
A global report on widows by the charity Loomba Foundation found there are 46 million widows in India, which makes up more than 9 percent of the population. Those who make it to Vrindavan come from a broad cross section of society, but they are also one of the most neglected and marginalized groups in the country. One study by the National Commission for Women found the majority of widows living in Vrindavan are illiterate and have no access to government pension schemes or subsidized meal schemes.
Rai has been lucky so far. Soon after arriving in Vrindavan, she managed to find a place in a government-run shelter where she has been sharing a room with three other widows. She receives a monthly pension of 300 rupees ($4.50) from the government and an additional 2,000 rupees ($30) plus medical care from the New Delhi-based charity Sulabh International. Many don’t get anything.
Prem Dashi, 62, who has been living in Vrindavan for more than two decades and now shares a room with Rai says, “I used to earn 3 rupees (4 cents) by singing religious songs for four hours in various ashrams. Then I had to fight my way through the crowds to get the one free meal given out by charities. I wasn’t always lucky. On other days, I begged. I lived in a dingy room, which had no toilet. I could never afford to see a doctor.”
The government-run shelters can only accommodate 515 widows, a fraction of what is needed. Some of the women not in the government homes live in private shelters run by charities or religious organizations. But a vast number of them live on the streets and depend solely on the charity of others.
O.P. Singh, the district officer responsible for overseeing the government program for widows, says the residents of Vrindavan are being properly looked after.
“The inflow of widows varies every year, but the government is doing all it can to help the widows who are living permanently in Vrindavan,” he says. “They face few problems as they receive a pension, rations and healthcare from the government.” The government also says it is building a new facility that will offer refuge to 1,000 widows.
Once considered worthless without their husbands, widows in India have benefited from a strong history of activism in support of their rights. Progressive movements in the mid-19th century saw the abolition of Sati, the tradition of a woman burning herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, and the Hindu Succession Act of 1956 granted women inheritance rights. But in parts of rural India where patriarchy is deeply rooted, widows are still often driven out of their homes by their husband’s relatives who want control of their property and land.
In 2012, the Supreme Court of India said the government and its agencies were not doing enough to reduce the suffering of the widows of Vrindavan, after the National Legal Services Authority charity filed a public interest litigation petition to improve living conditions for the widows. The charity told the court conditions in the government shelters of Vrindavan were so bad that when a widow died, her body was chopped into pieces and disposed of, as there was no money to pay for the funeral rites. The court then gave Sulabh International the task of providing better services and care for the women.
“When I first moved to Vrindavan [in 2012] to get firsthand experience of the condition of the widows, I was a horrified to learn about their heart-wrenching plight,” says Bindeshwar Pathak, a renowned sociologist and the founder of Sulabh International. “It was inhumane and was a blot on our culture and civilization.”
Pathak started by giving a monthly stipend of 2,000 rupees ($30) to each of the Vrindavan widows. “Money offers the widows much-needed security and by paying it to them directly rather than giving it to the officials who run the shelters, we guarantee they have control over the money and they can spend it in the manner they want,” he says. The charity also provides ambulances, free weekly health checkups and training to teach the women new skills including reading and writing, embroidery and candle making.
Durga Dutta, who has been living in Vrindavan for the past 21 years, says Pathak and his charity have transformed the lives of many of the holy site’s widowed residents. Dutta, 72, used to make her living begging on the streets and singing religious songs. “At this age, it has become very difficult for me to walk all the way to the ashrams to sing and then wait in the queue to get government rations. We feel that Pathak is a godsend.”
Since 2013, Pathak has also been leading the widows in an annual celebration of the Indian festival of color, Holi, in defiance of old customs that even today bar most widows in India from remarrying, celebrating festivals or wearing colored attire. His act of rebellion sparked a nationwide debate about doing away with rigid traditions that deprive widows of the opportunities that other women in India enjoy.
“The neglect of widows living in Vrindavan is a problem specific to some families and some communities,” says Pathak, who is campaigning for a government law for the protection, welfare and maintenance of widows. “It is the question of moral deprivation and greed of some families. But times are changing. We must teach the new generation to look after its elders.”