The north Indian town of Vrindavan has an ancient history and is a sacred place for many prominent religions, such as Hinduism and the Hare Krishna movement. The town is also home to thousands of widows, who traditionally spend their remaining years leading a life of religious dedication.
Living communally in ashram temples, they fill their time praying and chanting to Krishna in exchange for a bed and small amounts of rice and water. They also beg on the streets to eke out a living.
In recent years, traditions have been broken: NGOs and international fashion designers are training women in textile and other craft production, for which they are paid. The widows are provided with lessons in Bengali, English and Hindi literacy, as well as financial and healthcare support.
Widows, rejected as inauspicious and seen as a burden, are often sent to Vrindavan by their families. Living together with a sense of solidarity, they lead simple and poverty-stricken lives but with dignity and, for some, purpose.
Above: A widow in the Radha Kunjashram, Vrindavan, known as ‘the city of widows’.
Left: A widow enters an ashram in Radhakund where Maitri, an Indian NGO, is providing a day of free health service to widows.
Above: A widow sits in the doorway of her government-run ashram. She is one of the ‘lucky’ ones. Many other women have to beg to pay for rented accommodation.
Above: Women cook inside their quarters at the Swadher Matila Ashram.
Above: With the help of Indian NGO Sulabh, widows work on textiles that will later be sold in local markets. The women are also being trained by Kopal, a New York-based fashion designer.
Above: Widows also make other crafts, such as incense sticks, to be sold at local markets. The women are paid a percentage for the items sold.
Above: In a move that breaks with regular tradition, women are now being taught literacy in Bengali, English and Hindi, in an attempt develop new skills.
Above: A widow in Meera Sahabhagini Ashram, Vrindavan.
Left: A woman holds a picture, taken many years ago, of her and her now-deceased husband.
Above: Basanti Dasi, aged 70, sits in her quarters at the Radha Kunj Ashram.
David Shaw is a photojournalist, currently living in Beirut, Lebanon.