I had heard about the widows of Vrindavan and Varanasi in India from a fellow photographer and decided to take a few days out from shooting stock in northern India to visit the town. Hindu legend says that Vrindavan is the birthplace of Lord Krishna and there are several temples and Ashrams in the area which receive thousands of pilgrims from all over India each year.
The town has also become home to more than 2000 widows. Women, mostly Bengali in origin, who have been cast out by their in-laws after the death of their husband. Even today, it can be difficult for a widow to gain access to a share of her deceased husband’s estate, especially if she has failed to produce children, and struggling families are often reluctant to offer support. With little, if any, provision from the state, widows are sometimes forced to seek refuge at charitable Ashrams.
I visited the Sri Bhagwan Bhagan ashram for several days and spent time with the women there. There’s no doubt that life is hard for these women. They must attend lengthy chanting ceremonies and then queue each day for a token, which they can exchange later for a small amount of rice and dahl. I saw some women sleeping on the hard floor and few appeared to have any belongings other than those they carried with them.
Despite the hardship, sitting with a group of four widows as they chanted “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare” over and over, I saw moments of shared humour. They were obviously expected to maintain the chanting throughout the day but were still keen to have a good gossip. They had developed a strategy whereby two of the four women would keep chanting whilst the other two chattered away enthusiastically. When one of the chanting women wanted to add to the whispered conversation they would pluck at the sleeve of their friend who would chant for them whilst they took their turn at gossiping. In this way the “Hare Krishna” chanting was never interrupted but the real business of sharing news could continue.
This woman was happy to pose outside the ashram but was at first reluctant to look into the camera. She opened the tin she was carrying and proudly showed me a selection of green herbs and two bright red chillies. I assume she was looking forward to a spicy broth later on. For me, her expression seems to sum up the fate of all the widows of Vrindavan.
A slideshow of this story can be seen here
Gavin Gough worked as a Systems Analyst until 2003 and declared himself a full-time photographer in 2004. He’s currently working hard to build a library of editorial and stock travel images whilst also discovering that actually holding a camera constitutes a very small percentage of a photographer’s time, the remainder being taken up with digital processing, marketing, accounts, etc. Gavin’s clients include travel companies, magazines, national newspapers and academic text book publishers.
Photographer since 2004, EPUK member since 2006.
See more work by Gavin Gough