Ashram Widows of India.

Young or old, widows often become outcasts, degraded by their communities...

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In the 16th century, Chaitanya Mhahaprabhu, a Bengali sage, received a vision on the banks of the river Yamuna in India. According to the revelation, this was the place where the young god Krishna danced with his handmaids and made love to his consort, Radha. As the legend grew, this place was given the name Vrindavan - “forest of basil”. Temples proliferated here and over the centuries it became an important place of pilgrimage for Krishna devotees as well as a refuge for widows from all over India.

When a Hindu woman’s husband dies, a complicated set of religious and social traditions dictates how she will spend the remaining days of this life on earth. According to tradition, widows fall into one of three categories: the child widow whose husband died before their marriage was consummated, the aesthetic widow, or the widow who commits the act of sati - throwing herself upon the pyre of her husband to die with him.

Sati has many interpretations. According to one common folk theory it is a just form of punishment for causing her husband’s death by poor performance as a wife. Underlying this is the suggestion that should a woman not be capable of living up to the elevated status of sati, then she deserves the miserable existence that follows.

Young or old, widows often become outcasts, degraded by their communities, deprived of their civil and economic rights and sometimes thrown out of their homes by their own families. It is estimated that as many as twenty thousand widows can be found in Vrindavan at any time where they exist on handouts in the streets and the charity of one of the many ashrams.

Seeing the bent-over figure of an old widow hurrying along the narrow streets of Vrindavan at a speed that defies her physical condition is not an uncommon sight. Late arrival for the beginning of the four hour chanting session at the ashram will earn her a stern reprimand or perhaps even the refusal of an entry token. This has dire consequences for the rest of the day, because, without it she cannot obtain her wage token, which is exchanged for one hundred grams of rice, one hundred grams of dhal and one hundred grams of tea in the market place. This sequence of events happens early in the morning and again in the late afternoon.

The widow ashram, funded by donations from temples or sometimes rich, caring individuals, is the last remaining source of physical and spiritual sustenance for the widows. It is run according to strict rules to ensure that the system is not abused. With their physical needs taken care of, hundreds of women of all ages and from all castes and parts of India can retain a semblance of dignity and remain focused on reaching their mutual goal – that of pleasing their Lord Krishna, losing their individual identity and ultimately being absorbed into the universal spirit or the absolute.

Observing the widows for the first time can be heartbreaking and feelings of guilt caused by the intrusion of my camera were inevitable. The “predatory nature” of the photographer in situations of destitution and misery is a well-debated issue that has produced many divergent views.

In “On Photography”, Susan Sontag wrote: “Social misery has inspired the comfortably-off with the urge to take pictures, the gentlest of predations, in order to document a hidden reality, that is, a reality hidden from them”. Nevertheless, my feelings of empathy towards the widows are genuine and, irrespective of the ultimate use of these photographs, the process of taking them, processing the images and printing them has enhanced my understanding of the plight of the widows. “Photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one – and can help build a nascent one”.

Ironically, the camera also provides a barrier between the photographer and the subjects in front of the camera. Preoccupied with the process of evaluating the difficult lighting conditions inside, considering compositions and the actual taking of the photographs, it prevented me from becoming too deeply immersed in the situation at the time.

Widowhood remains a stigma in some Indian communities. Understandably, whenever I broached the subject with Indian people during my trip, they seemed to become somewhat uneasy and less than enthusiastic to discuss the subject in any detail. It has to be said, though, that there are individuals and organizations in India and abroad that are fighting for the plight of the widows.

The act of sati was banned as long ago as 1820. Today religious leaders are urged to relax stringent restrictions on young child widows and older woman, but until social, cultural and political changes of almost revolutionary proportions take place, widows moving to and fro in the streets of Vrindavan will remain a common sight. Here, in the ashrams, they will chant away their remaining days to get close to their Lord Krishna in the belief that ultimately this will bring an end to samsara - the cycle of reincarnations that can only be broken by attaining moksha - a higher state of being, free from the world of change and illusion, which is the cause of suffering and disappointment in this life.

Moksha – by Fazal Sheikh
On Photography – by Susan Sontag