Shunned from society, 15,000 to 20,000 of India's 40 million widows are believed to live in the streets and ashrams of the holy city of Vrindavan, also called “city of widows”.
In Indian culture, the loss of a husband is often a one-way ticket to isolation, poverty and despair. Widows are found begging on the streets or chanting up to eight hours for a bowl of rice.
For centuries, traditional Hinduism forbid widows to remarry, wear jewellery, eat meat, eggs, garlic, onion and spicy food. In some higher castes, widows had to shave their heads and were only allowed to wear white saris.
While most of those traditions belong to history now, widowhood is still considered a curse and the missing social status of a widow makes remarriage difficult. Furthermore, a widow is believed to bring bad luck, and is therefore not permitted to attend celebrations such as marriages or birth ceremonies.
A women becomes finacially dependant on her in laws or parents if she can't look after herself and her children after her husband's death. Often being an unwanted mouth to feed, many are abandoned by their children and families. Some flee their marital homes due to sexual abuse, physical and mental torture or malnutrition.
Many Hindus believe that dying in Vrindavan will free them from the cycle of life and death – for widows the hope of not being condemned to such a life again.
In November 2011 and June 2013, I spent a couple of weeks in the Ma Dham ashram in Vrindavan, living amongst 85 Indian widows, sharing and observing their daily life.