I worked with a student named Irine from University of Venice who wanted to study widows in Varanasi. She was more interested in prostitution of widows at widow ashrams in Varanasi. I asked her how she decided to chose this subject and she said that she watched the movie Water and got interested in this subject. I also liked the subject very much but I was not sure if I would find some widow to ask them questions about prostitution. But this subject was very interesting to me so I agreed to work with her. I did some research and found that there was a government widow ashram near my home.
We went there and found that there were about 18 widows living at that ashram. The ashram did not look in a good condition. There was a garden and free space but the building was not maintained well. It looked like a building built in early 1900. Somebody at the office told me that there was a rich pilgrim from Kolkata visiting Varanasi who met a widow somewhere at some Ghat and heard her stories which made him think about building a widow ashram in Varanasi. He built this building and gave it to the government and now the building is looked after by the department of women welfare for the government of Uttar Pradesh.
This is the only government widow ashram in whole Uttar Pradesh. There was a woman in-charge of the office. I explained her about Irine’s project and she allowed us to interview widows there. The Ashram was divided into two parts- one for the women who could take care of themselves and one part of the ashram was for the women who were not physically fit. The widows have to cook food for themselves. They get only Rs. 550 (US$ 12) per month by the government.
All the widows and the office in-charge told us that government did not send any money for the past three months so widows did not have any money at all. The office in-charge told me that there are few local people who are regular donors to the ashram and their donation and government money together keeps the widows alive otherwise only government money is not enough and I also believe it. Rs. 550 for one month, how can someone survive with that much money for a month?
The widows who are fit enough to take care of themselves live on the ground floor of the building and other woman who are too old and not physically fit live on the first floor. Government has provided a small gas stove to all the widows and each widow cook food for herself on her own. Ashram has a kitchen also where food is cooked for the women who can not cook food and cooking is done by a office staff. There is a washing machine to clean the laundry but I am not sure who does the laundry.
The rooms are big and there are four beds in each room. Irine wanted to talk about prostitution of widows at widow ashrams but I did not know how to ask widows about prostitution. All of the widows at that ashram are over 65, few are over 80. We decided to visit the ashram again and again, become friends with widows and office staffs and then see if something comes out. We asked about other widows ashram in Varanasi to the office staffs and they gave address of two other ashrams in Varanasi. One was very close to my place which is called Mata Anandmayi Ashram.
We went there and found that Mata Anandmayi Ashram is basically a school for girls to study religion. The peon at the office told me that there were over 20 widows also at the ashram but the manager of the ashram was so rude to us. He did not want to talk about anything. He just said that they do not keep widows at their ashram. I don’t know why he did not want to talk about their work but it was strange. We could meet or talk with anyone at the ashram but the rude manager and peon.
We went to one other ashram called Birla ashram at Chowk, Varanasi which was built by Birla family. There were about 20 widows living there but we could not talk with any widow the very first day. We met a crazy woman who was wife of some IAS officer. I don’t know how she had a room there, although she was not a widow. She told me that her husband had arranged a room at this ashram for her as she wanted to stay in Varanasi for religious reasons. She also did not want us to talk with widows at the ashram.
She asked me to come after few days because she wanted to talk with someone at the office back in Kolkata first. We talked with her for a while and then decided to leave for now and come back again. We went there after a few days and fortunately this crazy lady was not there this time. We met a widow but she was busy that day. She told me that most of the widows who live at Birla ashram work as cook at different houses. She told us that the Ashram doesn’t provide anything but a room to the widows.
I am not sure if the Benares office eats everything and doesn’t provide anything but rooms or this is how they work but it sounded strange to me because there were a few women who just could not do anything. When widows die, they inform the family and if nobody comes, they just cremate the body sometimes in traditional way and sometimes at electric burner. All of the women whom we met were over 60 which was a clear indication of change in the society.
The life stories of widows was really sad and interesting. Different widows had different stories behind leaving their homes and staying at the ashrams.Some of them were kicked out of their home by their own children, somebody was kicked out by their daughter in laws, somebody just did not want to stay with the family as they felt like they were an extra burden to the family. But there was something common in most of the women that they were married at a very young age. It was crazy to hear that some of them were married only when they were 6 or 7 years old.
If I remember correctly, I met over 5 women who were married at the age of 6 or 7 and their husband died when they were only 10. They just never lived with their husbands. We interviewed a woman from Chennai who was the smartest woman amongst all we women we met at both ashrams. When Irene met her first time, her first question to Irene was- who is the prime minister of Italy nowadays. She was married at the age of seven and then lived with her parents for four years because her Gauna had not happened. Gauna is a part of Hindu weddings which is about the bride living with her parents for few days or sometimes few years, depending on the family, even after getting married.
She said that she went to live with her husband after six years of her marriage at the age of eleven but she was again separated from her husband for an year because of some family tradition of her husband’s family. She was not allowed to sleep or even talk with her husband for one year, even they were living in the same house. She used to cook the food for her husband but would sleep with her sister in laws. She lived in the same house where her husband was living but she could not even talk to him and after an year her husband died.
She said that she just knew that her husband had died but she did not know what husband mean. Her parents brought her back to their house and she led her whole life living with their parents and sister. She said that after few years when she came to know that her husband was already dead and she would not be able to marry again, it brought her vairagya and decided to study and work. She could not go school for long time but she studied at home and started giving classes to students. She used to teach maths and science to the students of up to class 10th.
After her parents died, she went to live with her sister and stayed there for several years. But few months ago she felt like she was an extra burden to the family and decided to leave Chennai. She came to Benares to commit suicide. She jumped in the Ganga but was saved by a boat rower. The boat rower informed the police about it and police sent her to widow ashram. Now she prays everyday to die. Her story was really heart-touching but she was really a brave woman. She was just awesome.
She explained us south Indian tradition for widows which sounded a bit different than north Indian tradition. She said that once the husband dies, the widow is brought somewhere near the river and her hairs are shaved. She said that widows are made sit seperately and family and neighbours bring sarees and throw at widows face from distance. They don’t even come close to the widow and give the saree. Something seemed different in south than north which was widows in south India are allowed to wear either white or red saree whereas in North India widows are allowed to wear only white and I have not heard of people throwing saress on widow’s face but when I think of widow’s condtion, I feel like this could be possible in north as well.
We asked all the woman a common question which was why somebody becomes a widow because Irine had read that Hindu widows believe that they are widow because of some sin of their past life and each and every widow were agree with this idea. We asked if they think that a widower is also a widower because of some sin they did in their past life but here answer was different. Widows said that men have different life, they can be fine even if they are a widower so definitely they must have done some sin but their sin is not as big as a widow’s sin.
There is a very strong idea amongst widows that they must follow all the rules made for widows which are like not eating tasty food, not talking with any male, not going out, not wearing colored clothes, not getting involved in any kind of celebration etc. which means anything that makes a person happy. We asked all the widows about it also and everyone but that Chennai woman said that all the widows must follow these rules because this is the way they can fix their sins and if their sins are not fixed then will have to live in hell after they die.
We asked if widows should marry again and a few, hardly 3 or 4, of them said that they should but most of them said that a lot of widows marry nowadays which is really bad. They must follow the traditional widow life. Some of them seemed angry talking about how widows marry nowadays or how they dress in colorful clothes or how they go out. It was strange. But I noticed one thing that none of the widows were educated except one Chennai and one Benares woman and all of them were married at very young age.
One of the widows at government ashram who was from Bengal told me that widow life in Benares is crazy. They are discriminated everywhere. They are not allowed to participate in any wedding. Nobody likes to see them. If somebody sees them while getting out of their home, they get back into home again and rest for a while and then come out again. Because it is considered a bad luck to see the face of a widow. She said that widows are never ever invited to any wedding as it is believed that shade of a widow can make the bride widow.
All of the widows at the ashram were living there because of religious choice but it is hard for me to believe that it is real Hindu practice. I am sure that real Hindu religion doesn’t discriminate between men and women and gives extreme importance to women so I think that the ideas that widows at ashrams are following are also given by crazy Bramhins and Khstriyas of middle age. It was hard for me to believe how the widows are punishing themselves.
I have learnt a lot while working with students but one of the most important things I have learnt is that Brmhins, Khatriyas, English, Muslims or anyone who ruled India did serious damage and condition of women in India now is terrible, only and only because of them. I think only education can solve this problem but the way Indian government is providing education, it seems like it will take ages for women to get equal rights and come out of these crazy ideas such as following strict widow life and punishing themselves.