New Internationalist

PHOTO ESSAY: India’s city of widows

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David Shaw captures the haunted existence of the country’s unwanted women.

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.

David Shaw
David Shaw

Above: A widow in the Radha Kunjashram, Vrindavan, known as ‘the city of widows’.

David Shaw
David Shaw

Left: A widow enters an ashram in Radhakund where Maitri, an Indian NGO, is providing a day of free health service to widows.

David Shaw
David Shaw

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.

David Shaw
David Shaw

Above: Women cook inside their quarters at the Swadher Matila Ashram.

David Shaw
David Shaw

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.

David Shaw
David Shaw

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.

David Shaw
David Shaw

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.

David Shaw
David Shaw

Above: A widow in Meera Sahabhagini Ashram, Vrindavan.

David Shaw
David Shaw

Left: A woman holds a picture, taken many years ago, of her and her now-deceased husband.

David Shaw
David Shaw

Above: Basanti Dasi, aged 70, sits in her quarters at the Radha Kunj Ashram.

David Shaw is a photojournalist, currently living in Beirut, Lebanon.

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  1. #1 Amna Yaqoob 23 Jun 15


    My name is Amna Yaqoob and I am studying Human Rights in the university of Malmo (Sweden). I am currently working on a paper (due in August) that describes the current situation of widows in India and violation of their human rights. In this regard, I would like to know if you can share any information about the good work your organisation is performing to help widows in need, particularly in Virndavan, which is the focus of my research.

    Furthermore, I can speak hindi and interested to know if it is also possible to contact any widows to hear their thoughts in their own words.

    I look forward to hear from you soon


    Amna Yaqoob

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