Widows look for salvation here

Sixty-year-old Haripriya Dasi, a widow, does not remember exactly when she arrived in Vrindavan in the Mathura district of Uttar Pradesh.

But she knows that she will breathe her last here and she is also sure that she will attain “moksha” (salvation) in the land of Lord Krishna.

Haripriya is not the only widow with such a wish. There are hundreds like her in Vrindavan. The grand epics of Sanskrit literature describe Vrindavan as a place where Lord Krishna had spent his childhood. But that was a different age. Today, Vrindavan is also known now as “abode of widows”, who have been spending their last days here awaiting moksha.  

Home to hundreds of temples, dedicated mainly to Lord Krishna and his companion Radha Rani, the narrow lanes of Vrindavan reverberate with the chants of “Radhey… Radhey” (Radha Rani) by hundreds of widows, a majority of whom hail from West Bengal. 

The pilgrims, who throng the holy town, also chant the same name. While they do it to be blessed by Lord Krishna, the widows do it to “blessed” by visiting pilgrims, who give them a few rupees.

The exact number of the widows is not known though the NGOs put it at around 2,000 and the figures are about those living in the ashrams in Vrindavan. While it is not clear how Vrindavan became the preferred choice of widows for their last days, many came here in search of “mental peace” and salvation after finding that they were “un-welcome” in society.  

Swami Vrindavan Acharya, the “peethadheeshwar” (head) of the famous “Goda Vihar” temple in Mathura, says that 15th century Vaishnav saint from Bengal Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was closely associated with Vrindavan. “Chaitanya Mahaprabhu had visited the place with his seven disciples. His seven disciples constructed seven temples in Mathura. They are still here and known as Sapt Devalaya,” the Swami told Deccan Herald. “The widows find some kind of affinity here and, therefore, they have made it as their abode,” he said.  

He said that widows have to undergo a lot of sufferings and face social isolation in West Bengal. Haripriya Dasi, a resident of Thesara in West Bengal, tried her best to come to terms with life after her husband died at the age of 42. She was “forced” by her relatives to leave the village. “I did everything I could to lead a normal life after the death of my husband but no one wanted me there. The custo­ms and traditions in West Bengal are such that a widow has to lead a miserable life,” Haripriya laments.

The Bengali woman said, after being virtually thrown out of her home, she went on a pilgrimage and came to Vrindavan. “I found so many widows like me here and so I decided to spend the rest of my life here,”  she added.

Nihar Mondal, another widow from West Bengal, whose husband had passed away at the age of 35, also echoes similar sentiment. “Widows are considered a burden on society,” she said. She had also “died” with her husband. “Widows are as good as dead. We are not allowed to take part in family ceremonies.We are considered inauspicious and unlucky,” she said, and asked “is it my fault that I am a widow”.

Nihar Mondal also came to Vrindavan looking for “mental peace” and “salvation”. “I will prefer begging to going back to my native village and live that kind of life,” she said.

In its petition before the Supreme Court, the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) had said that a large number of widows are “forced to be in Vrindavan on account of poverty and lack of support from their own families. Some have been abandoned in Vrindavan by their close relatives. Many of them live in government-run homes under pathetic conditions without any proper food, medical and hygiene facilities,” it stated further in the petition.

Though Acharya said that the locals in Vrindavan never objected to the presence of the widows and they found what they had wanted, the reality seemed to be the opposite. Unfortunately, the widows found themselves being reduced to beggars once they arrived in Vrindavan. Till a few years ago, they were seen begging near famous temples in the town. They also doubled up as “bhajan singers” (sin­ging religious and devotional songs at temples) and earn a few rupees.

A majority of the widows in Vrindavan have taken shelter in various “ashrams”. Some of the ashrams are run by government agencies. Clad in rags, the widows are quite often seen squatting in dirty lanes seeking alms. There were reports that the bodies of widows, after their death, were chopped in pieces and thrown in the river after putting the parts in the gunny bags as there was no fund for cremating them.

Their plight was taken note of by the apex court after the NALSA petition and Sulabh International, an NGO active in the field of low-cost sanitation, was approached to render relief and sustenance to the widows. “We readily agreed to do all we could,” said Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, founder, Sulabh International.

Pathak and volunteers working for the organisation, visited Vrindavan and promptly made arrangements for regular supply of food to the widows. “When we started distributing Rs 500 to each of the widows, there was virtually a stampede,” Pathak said.

The NGO now gives widows monthly pension besides making arrangements for medical services and setting up centres for making them self-sufficient. “They have had traumatic lives, but we can always try and make things a little better for them,” he told Deccan Herald.

The NGO also regularly celebrates festivals like Durga Puja, Diwali and Holi in which the widows take part enthusiastically. “As many as 50 widows are currently in Kolkata to celebrate the Durga Puja,” Pathak said.

Already in the evening of their lives, all the widows desire a decent life and respect from society.

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