Ghosts in the city of widows

When their husbands die, devout Indian women make the pilgrimage to Vrindavan, where they will pray

Vrindavan is a city of widows, of ashrams, temples and lodging-houses for the wasted women of India, whose husbands have died and whose children have rejected them. They have made the pilgrimage to one of the holiest sites in India to await death. No one quite knows how many widows live here; certainly there are thousands, in dusty white saris (the weeds of Indian widowhood), and they lead lives of extreme penury and hardship, but sometimes, also, of high religious exaltation.

The town is close to Mathura, the birthplace of Krishna, and is part of the holy ground where he spent his boyhood and youth. His dalliance with the gopis, young herdswomen of the countryside, is commemorated in carvings and pictures all over India. The elderly women who have come here are themselves a caricature of the gopis, evicted from society by the ancient stigma of widowhood. Theirs is a kind of psychological suttee: instead of immolating themselves on their husband's funeral pyre, they migrate into this city of ghosts.

The testimony of the women is strikingly similar; it is a story of the privilege of dying in a state of extreme purification; but at the same time, tears smear their faces, tears of grief at their exclu- sion from family and homestead. They spend the day chanting bhajans, devotional songs, in the temples, two sessions of four hours daily. Each receives two and a half rupees per session (less than five US cents). Some have the option of taking payment in the form of food - 100 grams of rice or dhal.

HelpAge India brings its mobile clinic here once a week. Its medical personnel have found malnutrition, eyes veiled by cataracts, breathing difficulties, infections, intermittent fevers, stomach disorders that weaken and dehydrate bodies already desiccated by age.

Tulsi Chatterjee, like many, is from West Bengal. Here, traditionally, widows were forced to shave their heads in order not to provoke desire in men other than their dead husbands - a kind of posthumous policing of chastity. She came here six years ago, "for the sake of religion". She said: "I had married my children, and now I have to find my way into the other world. I thought while I can still move independently, I should go. If I stay at home and cannot move, I will become a burden and they will wish for my death sooner. I fled without telling them where I was going. Children do not want to look after their parents."

Suhila Mandal's husband, a landless labourer, died 12 years ago. She had two sons and two daughters; her younger son is dead. "I was not getting food at home. My older son would not let me stay with him. Nobody took care of me.

"I am happy here - whoever is not happy to be in Vrindavan will not be happy anywhere in the world. I recite bhajans in the Mirabai temple, and pay 50 rupees a month to the ashram where I stay. That leaves me 100 rupees ($2) a month for food. I do not beg in the streets, but I accept what people give."

Lalbhai is 70, from a village about 70 kilometres from Vrindavan. She came eight years ago, when her children turned her out of her home. "Sometimes I eat once a day, sometimes twice, often not at all. I have no place to stay, so I sleep in the temple. Even if I have money, I have no place to cook, no utensils. I have two saris, that is all. I recite bhajans in the Radheshyan temple. I get frightened sometimes, when the fever comes. There is no one to look after me. Sometimes" - and she indicates the surrounding circle of old women, eyes glittering in their ghost-robes - "my sisters help. When we are sick, we must depend on the charity of sisters."

Some women have stories of extreme hardship: married in early childhood, their husbands died within months or weeks of marriage. They were regarded as ill-omened infant brides, guilty of having lost their husbands even before the marriage was consummated, and condemned to a destiny of permanent widowhood.

Vidyadevi is in her sixties. Her son has two wives, the older of whom used to beat her. The younger one was kinder, but could not maintain her, because the older one forbade it. She has been here six years. She says: "It is fate that brought me here. If the Lord wants me to be hungry, I'll be hungry; if he wants me to eat, I'll eat."

Rajamati was one of the few women to express the horror of a life spent chanting bhajans. "I am not happy. Who can be happy? I do not want to sing bhajans, but this is my luck. I suppress these feelings and place them elsewhere in my mind. Only in the night they sometimes come back in dreams and I wake up crying."

I went to the Aamar Bari ashram ("Our Home" in Bengali), opened four years ago as a charity by a woman who had been chair of the National Commission for Women. This is one of the better ashrams, where necessities are provided, including food and medicine. Each woman has her own tiny room, and all are devotees of Krishna. Whatever sins they have committed, here they will find moksha (nirvana or peace), because the earth is purified and their wrongs will be washed away. Few of the 100 residents are visited by their children.

The regime relieves them of having to chant for their food. They rise at 5am to prepare for the day. Breakfast is at 7am, simple but varied. At 8.30, a yoga class is compulsory except for those who are bed-bound. It is followed by readings from the Bhagavadgita. HelpAge India sends a mobile medical unit here twice a month. Lunch is at 1.30pm. Today is a fast day, so the menu is modest - a bucket of rice and another of thin dhal stand outside the kitchen. On other days, there are vegetables, rice, cottage cheese, milk, and khir (a sweet milk pudding) twice a month.

At 2pm they clean the vessels and wash their clothes. The more active assist the helpless, bathe and feed them. From 2-4pm they rest. Then fruits are distributed, followed by tea. From 5-7.30pm there is meditation or bhajans. Dinner at 7.30 and milk at 8.30. By 10pm the whole ashram is sleeping. Occasionally, there are video films - mainly devotional, but sometimes a Hindi movie.

The ashram is constructed around a series of courtyards, which boast pots of tulsi, or holy basil. The rooms are tiny cubes - no more than a couple of metres, small windowless cells with green-painted doors. Above the central yard, wire mesh prevents the ubiquitous monkeys from stealing the food.

In spite of this, it was at this ashram that I saw one of the most distressing scenes in Vrindavan. An old woman, almost 90 years old, lies spreadeagled on a mat on the floor. She is very ill, and has a saline drip in her arm. To prevent her from tearing it out, her hands have been tied on either side to two bricks. The door is closed, and she lies silently in the dark, alone, waiting for death.

But I also met Shapla Sundheri here, a small cheerful woman, the embodiment of religious joy. She is 72, and was born into the royal family in what is now Bangladesh. She came to the ashram at 14 when her husband died. Her brother comes from Delhi to see her, and she sometimes visits her relatives. In her little room, the narrow bed is covered with a bright cloth. There is a mat on the stone floor, and a change of sari on a string. Shapla has built a shrine to Krishna: a box covered with gold and silver tinsel. Inside, a small lamp, and above, a picture of Krishna, and below him, a frieze of dancing gopis. In front of the shrine, she has placed a bowl of milk, slices of coconut, a banana and water in a metal tumbler.

Outside the ashram, Lokti Das was struggling up the steps leading to the entrance. A tiny, frail woman in her late eighties, with big spectacles that magnify her eyes, she has been here 60 years, and walks with the help of a rough stick. Her husband left her, and someone in the village gave her the money to travel from her native Agartala. She says: "Give me your blessing, so that I can go in peace to the other world. We are waiting to die, that is all. I am weak with pain and loneliness, but here you live so long you cannot count the years."

I went to a restaurant in Vrindavan. The owner, Banshi Chatterjee, a jolly rotund man in his fifties, sat behind the till, next to a glass counter of pyramids of sweets in gold and silver foil. "I don't ever want to leave Vrindavan, not even for one second of my life. I want my body to be burnt here only. It is a blessing for the widows that they can come here instead of facing the consequences of widowhood. To sing bhajans is good for them.

"Our business is best during [the festival of] Holi and the rainy months, especially at Janmashthami, the birthday of Krishna. There is one day, Akshay Tritiya, when the lord sits in a golden swinging chair, which goes in procession around the town. That day is like heaven. I stopped wearing shoes 15 years ago, so I can feel the holy earth beneath my feet."

Vrindavan is full of stories of material dereliction and abandonment. The expanse of tiny old faces beneath the neem trees, with their gestures of entreaty and supplication, are like the ghosts of all the women in the world, whose sacrificial love and generosity have been as measureless as they have been unrequited.