India – Been There

The Living Death of India

With little more than a white sheet blocking her from view, the body of a recently deceased widow lies semi-forgotten in the streets of Vrindavan. According to Hindu tradition, a dead body is considered a sign of impurity, and handling one is avoided as much as possible.

Photo by Jochem Wijnands

India – Been There

The Living Death of India

With little more than a white sheet blocking her from view, the body of a recently deceased widow lies semi-forgotten in the streets of Vrindavan.

Jochem Wijnands
Jochem Wijnands Founder / photographer

Life for Hindu widows is tragic. While married women enjoy a special status, when their husbands die that status is destroyed. The widow is forced to shave her head, dress only in white saris and remove all jewelry and adornments, including the bindi on her forehead. She must devote her life to the austere pursuit of religion.

Remarrying is out of the question. In extreme cases widows were even burned alive on their husband’s funeral pyre. This supreme sacrifice, they were told, would guarantee their place in the heavens as a Sati.

Under British rule, widows were given succession rights to their husband’s property. This further enhanced the Sati ritual, or the removal of widows by the land-owning classes. Today, Sati is banned by law as is child marriage, which had widowed young girls at a very early age. The Widows Remarriage Act was implemented to help widows start a new life.

“I’m against a dress code for widows because it fuels the stigma,” says Dr. Mohini Giri, the authority on widow affairs and chairperson of the Guild of Service, an organization dedicated to the empowerment and protection of widows.

“In our ashram we encourage women to wear colorful saris. I am a widow myself, but I wear the dot on my forehead which is usually reserved for married women only. This is the only way we can liberate ourselves from the barbaric and tragic rules.”