Krishna, according to Mahabharata, was born in the nearby forest and it was around here that the young flute-playing trickster flirted with the cow herders — the gopis — and enjoyed his famous love affair with Radha.
But Vrindavan has its darker, less-loving side too. It is also known as ‘the city of widows’. Widows here are easy to spot and even easier to identify. Elderly and clad mostly in whites with a sandal paste tikka applied on their foreheads they are everywhere in Vrindavan.
Widows in India long ceased to throw themselves on the funeral pyres of their husbands, however, their plight continues to be pathetic. A cursory look at their worn-out clothes and tattered footwears tell silently but effectively their stories of apathy and neglect. With no one to call their own and with almost no means to live their lives Krishna’s bhakti has become the automatic refuge for them. Though lots of them come from West Bengal, widows include Punjabis, Odiya, Bengalis and Bihari. Surprisingly, many of them are not Vaishnavites to begin with.
Cast out by their families, or simply alone in the world, some travel hundreds of miles to get here, and nobody quite knows why.
The refuge in Krishna
The hunt for moksha more often than not seems to be a refuge from the world that has turned hostile and indifferent towards these widows. They have been turned away by families that were supposed to stand by them. Helpless and clueless about how to spend the rest of their lives they have decided to dedicate themselves to the worship of god.
Eighty-year-old Jamuna Bai Pandey says that after the death of her husband she wanted to stay with her son. ‘I had one son and after my husband passed away I had thought that I will stay with him. When he had a child I was happy and tried to keep myself engaged taking care of the baby. But the taunts kept growing till they became unbearable. I then headed to Vrindavan. I don’t think looking back has a point now,’ Bai says.
Does she ever feel like patching up with her son? ‘I have resigned myself to my fate. What’s the point thinking about that which cannot be,’ she adds.
Being a widow in the country’s cultural set-up can easily be said to be one of the most unenviable spots to be in. The refuge of Krishna bhakti that this town provides for most if not all of those thronging the city does not ensure a cosy life and yet people donating in the name of religion make life a tad bit easier for widows of Vrindavan when compared with those living elsewhere in the country in the absence of a social security net.
There is a lot of donation that lands in this town from all across the country and also from several NRIs abroad. Blankets, saris, sweaters are distributed by the believers in Vrindavan pretty generously along with food from time to time. These donations are made in the name of the same Krishna in whose devotion the widows have dedicated their lives.
Seventy-two-year-old Harsh Kapur, a Delhi resident, has been living in Ma Dham Ashram of Vrindavan since almost a month. ‘I have three sons and two daughters. When my husband died I realised my sons didn’t want to keep me. I was frustrated with the daily taunts and humiliation. One day I just picked up my bag and left the house. I had no money with me. I borrowed money from a man at the bus station and landed here in the night. My old shoulders were tired of moving with a bag from one son to the other,’ says Kapur.
But why Vrindavan, why not an old-age home in Delhi or some other part of the country? ‘I was told by people I enquired from that Vrindavan is the place for widows. I now keep myself occupied with prayers and the usual chores of the ashram. I am happy and at peace here,’ she explains. The widows in Vrindavan find an instant connect with each another in their shared devotion for Krishna. And it is this connect that probably draws them from far off places such as West Bengal, Jharkhand and Odisha to a small town like Vrindavan.
Social worker and activist Mohini Giri, who has been running Ma Dham Ashram since 1997, says that whenever a woman from other states approaches the ashram seeking help, the first question that is posed to them is why Vrindavan and why not an old age home in their respective states. ‘We ask every single woman who comes to us from outside the state or this city. Everyone tells me they are seeking for moksha (salvation) and believe that the holy city is the place where they will end up finding it,’ Giri says.
‘About 30 years back I met then West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu to discuss the flocking of widows from the state to Vrindavan. I asked Jyoti Da why don’t you do something for them here. Basu told me that even if I do they will not stay here. They will either go to Vrindavan or Nabadwip (a holy Vaishnavite town just over a hundred kilometres from Kolkata),’ Giri adds.
Seventy-five year old Geeta Ma from Kolkata has spent two years in Vrindavan. She says after her husband died she had to vacate the rented house she had been staying at. Her landlord suggested that she should move to Vrindavan. ‘Foreigners, Hindi (those speaking Hindi), Marwaris can all come and stay here in Vrindavan, then why should questions be raised over us. If you want us to leave, tell them to leave as well. We will stay where we find dignity, facilities and convenience,’ Geeta Ma says, adding that her message must be conveyed to Bharatiya Janata Party MP Hema Malini who recently stirred a controversy by asking widows from other states to stop crowding Vrindavan.
‘We do not go out to vote. Perhaps that is the reason we are not needed here,’ she adds.
Life in an ashram
Those being accused of crowding Vrindavan aren’t really enjoying a dream life. Rather they live in a pathetic state socially and economically. Less than 500 metres from what the locals refer to as Angrezo ka Mandir (Iskcon Temple) in Vrindavan is the Mahila Ashray Sadan, one of the very few government funded ashrams. The building constructed in 2008 is already in a grave need of repair.
The staff of Jai Hind Navyuvak Vikas Samiti, responsible for the functioning of the ashram, says the DM visited the ashram only after the media attention turned to the widows following Hema Malini’s remarks.
The widows here get a government pension of Rs 300 per month on an average and a BPL card for ration. They cannot leave the ashram without seeking permission which is granted only for medical emergencies or if a charity event is being organized for the widows. ‘They can also go home once in a while, but mostly their relatives don’t entertain even phone calls from them,’ says an ashram helper on condition of anonymity.
They sing bhajans for Krishna in the mornings and evenings. In between the bhajans they cook, perform the other daily chores and then share their stories. Most of them have cut themselves off from the outside world.
‘I didn’t tell my daughter I was moving to Vrindavan. I don’t belong to anyone. Why should anyone know? I am happy here,’ Geeta Ma says.
Jamuna Bai Pandey, who moved to Vrindavan about 20 years back says, ‘I stay in the ashram and step out only if I need to see a doctor. There is nothing else I need the world for. When I die the ashram authorities will perform my last rites.’
The plight of widows
The recently released Census 2011 data shows that seven out of 10 elderly who live alone are women which means 36.2 lakh old women live on their own as opposed to 13.5 lakh old men. The study corroborates the fact that at old age women live longer than men and most of them are widows. So they have no option but to live alone since a large number of children are unwilling to care of them.
Women mostly have no property directly in their names. Hindu Succession Act 1969 made women eligible to inherit equally with men and some individual states have legislated equality provisions into inheritance law, otherwise widows are mostly deprived of their legal rights.
‘Women have formal property rights but that is not enough because most women do not claim their rights. They either lack the capacity to claim property that belongs to them or simply lack the desire to claim it,’ says feminist theorist Nivedita Menon. ‘The ideology of the family is still stronger than the law and that is why widows are in the current state,’ she adds.
Gayatri Raghav, who lives in Mahila Ashray Sadan and is 80 years old says she was married in a joint family in Haryana.
‘After my husband died I was fed up with the treatment the in-laws gave me. I was scared to ask them for my husband’s share of the property they would beat me. I decided to dedicate myself to Thakurji (a way of referring to Krishna). So I came here,’ she says.
‘The state must intervene. People must force the state to step in. You can’t let women be trapped inside families. There has to be a system outside of it as well,’ Menon says.