Why widows go to Vrindavan

The poverty and neglect faced by widows in West Bengal is driving them to seek refuge in Vrindavan’s charity. Usha Rai looks at the studies that show why, despite welfare measures initiated by the West Bengal Government, widows from the state and other regions, too, are flocking this temple town

Widows coming out of a bhajan ashram in Vrindavan
Widows coming out of a bhajan ashram in Vrindavan

Vrindavan is known for its exquisite temples. In and around Vrindavan or the Brajbhoomi is where the Krishna Leela or the birth and romance of Lord Krishna and his consort Radha was enacted. Round the year there is an unending stream of tourists, Indian and foreign, who wish to savour the enchantment of the holy city and seek the blessings of the resident deities in the temples. Vrindavan is also famous for its lathmaar holi celebrations, where women pick up sticks and hit men. It is also famous for its piping hot kachori and exquisite, creamy milk served in earthern pots.

The other reason why Vrindavan is known is for its widows. In fact, it is known as the City of Widows. It is not just their numbers but their presence and their pathetic dependence on charity that makes them such a dominant feature of this city of spirituality and charity. Wearing white saris, many of them bent with age and using a stick for support, they can be seen shuffling around the city, especially around the bhajan ashrams where they chant prayers in huge halls and receive in charity Rs 2.50 to Rs 3, (if they come twice in a day they may receive Rs 6) and some uncooked rice and lentils. Most of them are from Bengal though now one sees a lot of widows from Madhya Pradesh,UP, the Northern-Eastern states and Orissa. There are even some tribal widows!

There are no proper estimates of the number of widows in Brajdham that includes Vrindavan and the adjoining areas of Radha Kund, Goverdhan, Barsana, Nandgaon and Mathura. But their numbers seem to be on the increase. The Vrindavan Municipal Corporation survey of 2006 put the number of Bengali widows in Vrindavan at 3105. If the adjoining areas are included it could be double that number.

The recent study titled Spirituality, Poverty, Charity Brings Widows to Vrindavan done by the Guild of Service with support from UNIFEM, however, does not look at numbers. It seeks to find out why they continue to come to Vrindavan, particularly from West Bengal, despite over a decade of concerted work by the Central government, the UP government and NGOs. In 2000, the West Bengal government also did a study and tried to make interventions.

Detailed study

For the Guild’s study, detailed questionnaires were administered to 255 widows in Vrindavan, Radha Kund, Goverdhan and Barsana. The study also looked at the situation in West Bengal, particularly in Burdwan and Nadia, from where a large number of widows come, to understand the situation in their homes and villages. There was also a visit to Nawadweep, the birthplace of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu who is supposed to have been a reincarnation of Lord Krishna and started the Vaishnavite movement. This explains the emotional link between Bengal and Vrindavan and the stream of Vaishnavite widows from Bengal.

At Nawadweep too, known as Gupt Vrindavan, there is a bhajan ashram similar to the ones in Vrindavan. It was started in 1919 by Hanuman Prasad Poddar and Jai Dayal Goenka, industrialists from Kolkata. But the bhajan ashrams in Vrindavan are a greater attraction than the one in Nawadweep.

The study found that the picture was not as dismal as it was 15 years ago. There are many more shelters run by the UP government where widows can stay though they still have to earn their money by singing/ chanting or begging. They also cook their own meals. The Guild and the All India Women’s Conference run homes for 124 and 24 widows respectively where everything is provided. Another home, Ma Dham, to house 500 widows will be opened by the Guild later this year.

The UP government as well as the Brij Seva Trust have been giving pension of Rs 150 a month to the widows. The Brij Seva Trust pension comes from a corpus of Rs 1 crore given by Kalyan Singh when he was Chief Minister of UP. Some 460 widows get pension from this fund. Just how many receive the pension from UP government is not known.

Pension woes

According to the study, just a little over 25 per cent of the widows are getting pension. Only those staying in a home have somebody who will run around to procure pension forms and push them through the UP administration. The money goes directly into bank accounts so all those getting pension have bank accounts and most of them operate their accounts. Several widows with bank accounts have died, so their accounts need to be opened and the money used for the welfare of the living, struggling for existence.

So why the concern? The study states "it seems a shame that despite our emancipation and all our trumpeting of gender equality, widows continue to come to Vrindavan to beg and eke out their last years without dignity, a proper shelter and medical facilities." While spirituality, ill-treatment and poverty in their homes in West Bengal may have compelled many of the older widows to come to Vrindavan, today many come because of the charity available in the holy city. "We cannot beg in our villages but we have no shame in seeking alms in the holy city," a widow stated.

The term used for the distributions that take place in Vrindavan is "batta batti." The religious tourists to the city distribute blankets, shawls, saris, buckets and even cash through the bhajan ashrams. Around festival time, the charity increases. A widow revealed that one winter she received five blankets and three shawls. She did not need so many, so she sold them to shops that buy back goods from the widows. Bengali women are used to parboiled rice, so the finer quality rice, distributed by bhajan ashrams, is also collected and sold and in its place they buy the cheaper rice that they are used to.

Married women too

The other interesting feature highlighted by the study is the growing number of married women that can be seen at the bhajan ashrams. In Barsana and Goverdhan there were more married women than widows at the Ashrams. They are called sudwas as against vidhwas and flaunt the sindoor in their hair and ivory bangles on their wrists, symbols of their married status.

"I am poor, my husband is disabled and I have left my two daughters with my mother in Bengal so that I can earn and save for their marriage," Hemlata retorted. Just because I have a husband, I should not be denied the charity available to the poor and underprivileged in this city." Hemlata works as a domestic help in two homes before coming to the bhajan ashrams for chanting. Once in a year or once in two years she goes back home with the goodies collected through the ashrams.

No check

At the West Bengal end, the study found that despite widow’s pension being increased from Rs 500 to Rs 750 a month from April this year, the government has not been able to check the widows and destitute women leaving for Vrindavan. Most widows have not heard of the fairly generous pension scheme in Bengal nor do they know how to access it. Every district has a widow’s pension quota. Some 500 to 700 widows may be entitled to the pension in a district but it is not large enough to accommodate all who are widowed.

The district magistrate and officials were not even aware of widows leaving West Bengal for Vrindavan. The study established a steady stream of widows to Vrindavan. Most of them come with their spiritual gurus from Nawadweep etc. Forty per cent of those interviewed had come in the last four years, 18 per cent had been in the city for five to 9 years. Earlier older widows may have come to Vrindavan but now even young widows are coming because the city provides opportunities for survival and livelihood. The youngest widow interviewed is 25 years old Maya and has been in the city for a year and six months. Married at 14 to a man 11 years older, she became a widow at 23 and has to support a son and two daughters of 10, 8 and 4. She works in two homes and chants at the bhajan ashram. None of her children go to school. The son works in a tea shop and the two girls stay at home and neighbours keep an eye on them.

Forced to leave her home in Murshidabad by her in-laws, she admits it was poverty and lack of support at home, and not religion, that compelled her to come to Vrindavan.

Of the widows interviewed, two were below 12 when their husbands died and 31 per cent (68) between 12 and 24 years. Another nine per cent (21) were between 25 and 29 years.

Majali, 35 years, of Gopalpur village, Nadia district, was just 28 years when her husband died. She has a son and daughter of 10 and 8 years. She lives in a rented accommodation and earns Rs 1200 a month working in different homes. Like Maya, she chants at the bhajan ashram and gets additional rice, dal and money and the batta batti that is good at the ashram. Like Maya she has no ration card and gets no pension.

Child marriages

A government official interviewed in West Bengal admitted that the State has not been able to check child marriages. The chances of widows going back to West Bengal are dim. Seventy five per cent of the widows interviewed said they were better off in Vrindavan than in their own villages.

Asked if Vrindavan was better, 68 per cent said it was a religious place and they found it peaceful; 28 per cent said they were independent and free in the holy city; 14 per cent said there were more opportunities/facilities for widows and seven per cent said there was camaraderie/fellow feeling among the widows.

A haven

A majority of the widows, whatever their caste or class, find Vrindavan peaceful
A majority of the widows, whatever their caste or class, find Vrindavan peaceful

Though the commercialisation of Vrindavan – the availability of money more easily than in the villages of West Bengal— is undoubtedly a major attraction, in the course of the interviews 41 per cent said they came to the city because it was a place of God, there were a large number of ashrams and many of them had gurus there or family to support them initially. Twenty per cent said they were alone in the village and had no one to help them. Fourteen per cent said they had problems with people at home and 7.6 per cent said they were in Vrindavan because of their low economic status and poverty. Just one woman said she had come to Vrindavan to escape poverty as well as sexual abuse.

In fact most of them have nothing to go back to. Eighty two per cent said their husbands had left no savings and 65 per cent said they did not even have property. Only 50 per cent of those who had property, which in most cases was a hut, were able to access it. The majority of those who did have property gave it to their children or it was grabbed by their children. Fourteen per cent said the property had been taken by their in-laws. Whatever jewellery they had was either giver away, grabbed or sold. Most of them came to Vrindavan as paupers. In fact, 30 per cent travelled to Vrindavan without a ticket.

Ninety per cent of the widows (229) said they did not wish to go back to their villages in Bengal. Fifteen per cent they did not want to be a burden on their families in the village. Four cent said they go home once in a while but prefer to live in Vrindavan. Asked if widows would continue to come to Vrindavan if there were proper facilities in their villages in Bengal, 41 per cent (105) said "No." However, 33 per cent (88) said they came because it was a religious place and because such facilities could not be provided in West Bengal. "It is just not possible to create another Vrindavan in West Bengal" was the categorical statement of one widow.

The government’s effort to check child marriages is limping along. A whopping 39 per cent of the widows interviewed had married below 12 years and 47 per cent between the ages of 12 and 17. Thirty per cent of them had become widows by the age of 24.

Yet widow remarriage was opposed by 90 per cent of the widows. For many of them even thinking of remarriage was a sacrilege. Seventy per cent said there were social and religious taboos to a widow remarrying, 13 per cent said they did not believe in remarriage and five per cent said those with children could not even think of it as an option.

No caste or class

One of the most heartening features of Vrindavan is the disappearance of caste and class. Though the widows were of all castes, Brahmins, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Sudra and even tribals, widowhood and poverty had brought them to a level playing field. At the homes they eat together, at the bhajan ashrams they sit together and sing and there is a lot of bonhomie and sharing of experiences and sorrow.

The situation of widows in Radhakund, Goverdhan and Barsana is worse than that of those in Vrindavan. They have no pension, no ration card and even if they have one, get only kerosene, and no health care. Most of them have become beggars. The donations, the NGO efforts as well as the bhajan ashrams are concentrated in Vrindavan. In Radha Kund there were widows from Bangladesh who had fled during riots, partition of the country and even at the time of Bangladesh’s independence. Ten per cent of the widows interviewed (24) were from Bangladesh.

Steps to improve their lot

Though there is greater awareness about the sorry state of Vrindavan widows and much more sympathy for them, recommendations made by earlier studies have not been implemented. Many of the recommendations here are a reiteration of the earlier ones. West Bengal needs to give greater publicity to the pension available to the widows and old people. NGOs and panchayats need to intervene and help widows in Bengal to access this pension.

  • Bhajan ashrams in Vrindavan need to play a more pro-active role in restoring the dignity of widows by providing them skill training, if they are young enough, and establishing schools/providing free educational facilities for the children of young widows. This would check the alms seeking culture that is becoming a dominant feature of the Vrindavan widows.

  • More rehabilitation homes in Vrindavan and West Bengal with food, medical care and other facilities.

  • Information on availability of widow’s pension, amount of pension and how to access it in West Bengal should be better advertised, displayed through posters and hoardings in rural Bengal and at railway stations and bus stops.

  • Photo identity cards should be issued to all widows in Vrindavan and Brajdham.

  • Below poverty line ration cards, health cards and pension should be provided to all widows.

  • Government should dialogue with trustees of bhajan ashrams, who have enormous wealth and clout, to run schools/ support education of widows’ children and provide health care.

  • Rehabilitate all widows living on streets and at the ghats. Provide night shelters

  • Religious leaders should encourage and support widow remarriage.

  • Special health care facilities in Vrindavan and Brajdham for widows and destitute women. They should not be turned away from hospitals and medical centres.

  • Skill training for young widows in West Bengal to make them independent.

  • Registration of marriage should be made compulsory to check child marriages in Bengal