INDIA. Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh. Bumping into elderly widows, clad in torn white or saffron saris, begging outside the Temples of Banke Bihari is a common experience for pilgrims and tourists visiting Vrindavan. Out of sympathy, people often offer some money, prasad, and also some food.
With their heads shaven and pain etched by deep wrinkles on their faces, these frail old widows live in extreme misery and near starvation. They usually pass their days singing bhajans in temples for which they get paid a few coins. Many are seen begging in the streets or lying on the steps of temples. A few lucky ones live in various Ashrams, maintained by NGOs and state-run homes for widows.
Life of a widow
Vrindavan, famous for ages as a major pilgrimage center is a small town near New Delhi, where, according to Srimad Bhagwat Geeta, Lord Krishna spent his childhood days. Unfortunately, today it is known as the city of widows. Thousands of widows live in shame and poverty trying to seek spiritual solace – away from their families and the society that turned them out.
Emotionally broken and afraid, the widows lead a very hard and unimaginable life. They are considered inauspicious by their own families, and often ill-treated in their homes. Some of them are driven out of their rightful homes, some run away and the holy city, Vrindavan welcomes them.
Transcontinental Times spoke to Radha Das, a 76-year-old fragile lady at one of the temples. Radha says, “White is one colour loved by painters on which they splash other colours to make masterpieces. But then why a white saree, the traditional attire of a widow in India is considered a curse and distances her from all other colours?”
This raises a question that should shake all of us; do these women deserve this life?
Thanks to the efforts of the Supreme Court of India and NGOs like Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, we now see some hope. Many individuals and celebrities also provide a large number of food items, essential medical supplements, and arrange for vocational training.
Some programs involve the widows in all Vedic and festival ceremonies which restore confidence and dignity in the women. They also have started a re-marriage program for the young widows which was considered to be a curse a few years ago.
Outbreak of COVID-19
The year 2020 saw the outbreak of COVID-19 which forced all the temples to shutdown. The widows were not allowed to gather anywhere as they were at a high risk of developing a serious illness. It was important to keep them in isolation and provide them nutritious food. With no source of income, thousands of widows became totally dependent on the government and ashrams for food and survival.
The pandemic disheartened the elderly widows, but it didn’t shatter their spirit. Many NGOs played a leading role in adding jollity to the lives of the widows.
Self reliance – learning new skills
It was the need of the hour to keep them involved in some meaningful contribution and Sulabh International extended support by providing training.
The widows utilised the pandemic as an opportunity, to promote self-reliance, and they decided to make handmade Lord Krishna themed masks carrying messages like “Stay Safe” and “Atmanirbhar” with special design prints of peacock feathers, flutes, etc.
Making masks was a new skill that these widows acquired during the lockdown and they prepared more than 5,000 to be distributed, free of cost, among the police, government employees, sanitation workers, etc.
Arrangements are now being made to sell the designer silk, cotton, and khadi masks through various platforms like online portals, Khadi outlets, and established brands to directly benefit the widows.
Festivals during the lockdown
Widows look forward to various celebrations during religious festivals like Diwali, Holi, etc. Their faces lit up just like the Diyas lighted everywhere in the temples. The widows sing, dance, and embrace each other happily while playing with Gulal and flower petals on Holi, the festival of colours. The sorrows of their lives vanish at least for the time they are celebrating and help them slowly regain their self-esteem.
Due to COVID-19 organising important festivals was also not possible. Holi celebrations for the widows were called off even before the official lockdown. No celebrations for Rakhsha Bandhan or Janamashtami were possible.
All around help during the pandemic
Even before the lockdown began, Vrindavan streets were sanitised, and people were asked to wear masks. Saints and other religious seers of the city appealed to the public to maintain safe distancing and not to gather in groups. An ambulance was stationed at the ashrams and the widows were briefed about the symptoms of the virus. They have been told to put on masks to protect against COVID-19 and adopt and enforce social distancing norms. The widows are being given 20 kg of wheat and 15 kg rice every month, along with a pension of Rs 500-1000 per month depending on their age.
Devi, another widow met with Transcontinental Times and said, “We are following the instructions, taking all precautions, washing our hands frequently, keeping faces fully covered with masks and our sarees, have stopped attending puja ceremonies at the temples.”