Women of Vrindavan

In India's patriarchal society, being a woman doesn't provide for an easy life. All kinds of vexations weigh hard on women, even as little girls. The most nourishing food, medical care, fun, and rest are reserved for the men. A little boy is like insurance on the parents' future: Once he gets married, he will stay with them in the family house, bringing in the help of his bride who will take care of them in their elder years.

An even harder agony is to become a widow. According to Hindu sacred texts, a woman has no value without a man at her side, including her father or brother when she is just a little girl, and her husband later. Among some Hindus, a widow is not only often believed to cast bad luck over the whole family, but even to be the true cause of the husband's departure. She is therefore stripped of all her properties and human dignity. She has to live in poverty, treasuring her husband's memory for the rest of her time, as she won't be allowed to marry anymore.

An estimated 40 million widows can be found in today's India, and the highest concentration of them, currently around 20,000, is in the holy city of Vrindavan. Most of them came a long way from Western Bengala and Bangladesh, to show their love to Krishna in the town where the God is believed to be born. In the crowded city's Ashrams they raise their perpetual psalms, the bhajam, in exchange for rice, bread, and a few rupees. Their meager daily earnings are not enough to buy them better food, and barely covers the rent for their small and damp rooms.

Neglected, malnourished and exposed to sexually transmitted diseases, diarrhea and tuberculosis, they sleep in over crowded ashrams, the biggest of them  hosting 2,000 widows. The unluckiest of them find no place and are left begging in the streets in front of the 4,000 temples of Vrindavan. Some have small children to take care of; others look after the sick and older ones. Many regret not having died along with their husbands, instead of having to endure such a daily humiliation.

— Massimiliano Clausi


Editor's note: I discovered the work of Massimiliano Clausi while judging the entries for the 2010 Anthropographia Awards for Human Rights and Photography. Massimiliano's project was one of several that made quite an impact on me, so I am very happy to be able to present it here in Lens Culture.

— Jim Casper