They were one section who went unheard during a loud election in Varanasi. For the widows of Varanasi, even Women’s Day, coinciding with polling, passed uneventfully. Rejected by family or society, they come from India, Nepal and Bangladesh to live in vidhva ashrams, their home for the rest of their lives. Estimates put their number at 35,000 to 40,000. They follow a common faith, seeking salvation at the feet of Lord Vishwanath, another name for Shiva.
At Varanasi’s many ghats in the morning, they can be identified as widows from their white saris. Some came here after being driven out by in-laws, some after they lost a son supporting them, and some, like Rajkumari, because their parents shunned for having married outside their caste. At 29, Rajkumari, of Karnataka, is the youngest at Sarnath Ashram. And at Birla Ashram at Dashshwamedh ghat is Annapurna Sharma, 38, whose in-laws threw her out holding her responsible for her husband’s death.
Far from taking up any issues concerning the widows, no party even visited them, says Annapurna. She recalls that she had gone with other widows to New Delhi with a raakhi for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Varanasi MP. She cannot recall any MLA or MP ever visiting them. NGOs Sulabh International and Birla Sanstha provide the widows with a roof and electricity.
In the bylanes of Vranasi, the widows are mostly at an advanced age, while those in Mahila Vridha Ashram Sarnath, 25 km from the city, are younger.
“Most widows near age 60 seek Kashi Pravas and want to live in Varanasi for salvation as they feel they are close to death,” says Chanchal Rawat, coordinator of Sulabh International Varanasi. “In Sarnath, most want a roof over their head and some help to live.” Sulabh International looks after five ashrams, which house 141 widows, over 100 of them elderly.
Pashupati Nah Nepali Ashram in Lalitaghaat houses widows mostly from Nepal while Rajkiya Vridha Ashram near Durgakund’s residents are mostly from states outside UP, and many from Bangladesh. Birla Ashram is at Neelkanth Gali near Maithili Mandir at Dashashwamegh ghat, Ramkuti Ashram is near Manglagouri Mandir, and Mother Teresa Ashram run by the Missionares of Charity is at Shivala Ghat.
Geeta Mehra, caretaker of Birla Ashram, describes a change in the life of widows after a pension and medical welfare scheme launched by Sulabh International. Some of the younger women are engaged in sewing and making diyas, while the elder ones are engaged mainly in morning rituals at the ghat and reciting from the Bhagwad Gita.
Many of them are aware about the need for social security, with applications filed regularly for Aadhar and voter cards, especially from among the younger widows. Last year, a dozen widows defied a centuries-old ban to celebrate Holi, part of an event organised by an NGO at Assi ghat.
Also last year, 5,000-odd widows under 40 were identified by the district administration for training in various skills under the UK-based Loomba Foundation; Modi launched the programme. The Loomba Foundation’s World Widows Report, unveiled at the United Nations last year, gives comprehensive data about discrimination and injustice faced by widows. Filmmaker Deepa Mehta’s Canadian production Water highlights the plight of widows at a pre-Independence ashram, although it was shot in Sri Lanka following protests in Varanasi.