VARANASI, India—Many widows in India venture to the city of Varanasi with the belief that death there will liberate their souls. But life here is far from liberating. With both cultural and practical restrictions, many of these destitute women live and die in oblivion.
But starting in 2010, a series of reports in the Indian newspaper The Hindu brought to light the plight of these suffering women. And that prompted change.
“The Supreme Court of India took cognizance of this report, and asked our organization to take care of these widows,” said Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, founder and director of Sulabh International.
Sulabh International now works with destitute widows in five home care centers in three religious cities in Uttar Pradesh state: Varanasi, Vrindavan, and Sarnath.
Eighteen widows live in one of the homes run by the government and supported by Sulabh International in Varanasi. Some were abandoned by their families; others arrived on their own, seeking liberation.
“Each of them is like my mother and they all treat me as if I’m their son. They laugh, complain, fight, and look for me as all mothers do,” said Shiv Sharath, the warden of the home.
Widows in Vrindavan, India on July 29, 2014. Widows were once shunned. (Courtesy of Sulabh International)
An Extremely Good Deed
Sharath arrived here three years ago. He is also responsible for performing the cremation rites of the widows who die in the home.
“It’s a good fate that I’m able to perform the rites of the mothers who die here. In our culture it’s considered an extremely good deed,” Sharath said.
Sharath has performed the funeral rites for 14 widows. The staff hold a 13-day mourning period and perform the elaborate death rituals. According to tradition, these are important for the peace of the departed soul.
According to Sharath, the lives of the widows are much better now than they used to be. Custom calls for widows to live a life of austerity, shave their heads, wear only white clothing, cook their own food, and never participate in family events or celebrations; they should spend all their time praying.
With families often refusing to stay with the widowed mothers, many died amidst disease and loneliness, with only their faith to help them reconcile with their fate.
Happy for Them
Shanti Devi Sharma, 72, has been living in the Varanasi home for 11 years. After losing her husband and young son, she arrived in the city disillusioned and emaciated. She has seen almost 50 elderly widows die in the home, some even on the day they arrived.
Just a mile away from the home, along the bank of the Ganges River, thousands of pilgrims in white and various shades of ochre clothes were bathing and performing death rituals and prayers.
In the narrow lanes, dead bodies covered in red and white clothes and flowers were being carried away to the famous Manikarnika Ghat—a wide set of steps leading down to the Ganges, used for cremation ceremonies. Thousands of families from across India transport their dead here for last rites. They believe cremation on this bank of the Ganges gives Moksha (spiritual liberation) to the dead.
But Sharath has not had to perform the death ritual of any widows recently. “Fortunately there’s been no death this year,” he said with a smile.