Widows seeking salvation in Indian holy city | Connect Asia

Widows seeking salvation in Indian holy city

Widows seeking salvation in Indian holy city

Updated 24 June 2013, 15:46 AEST

India's holiest city Varanasi attracts millions of pilgrims seeking purification in the waters of the river Ganges.

Among those seeking salvation are widows.

Widows are often shunned and stigmatised by their families and communities. They come to Varanasi in the hope of improving their lot in their next life.

But, as Janak Rogers reports, some of the city's widows are beginning to break the mould.

Presenter: Janak Rogers

Speaker: Vinita Sharma, program coordinator for Sulabh International; Punigali Devi, Indian widow; Anapurna Sharma, Indian widow

JANAK ROGERS: It's evening here in the north-east Indian city of Varanasi, and thousands of Hindu pilgrims and priests have gathered to pray to the holy river Ganges.

The prayer ceremony is repeated every evening without fail, and is a spectacular sight.

Huge of crowds of pilgrims watch from boats and seated along the river bank as priests lead an intricate series of chants and rituals.

Hindu's worship the river as a godess - Maa Ganga - and believe the waters bring purification.

For many a journey here is highlight of religous life - the most important pilgrimage a person can take.

While most pilgrims to Varanasi take their blessings and move on, others come to stay.

And they stay not simply to live here but - most importantly - to die here.

Punigali Devi is 93 years old - she is a widow, and lives today with 18 other widows in a crowded three-story building overlooking the river.

Orignally from Nepal, Pungali Devi was married at the age of of 12 and became a widow just one year later.

She never even met the man she was married to, and has lived almost all her life as a widow.

PUNGALI DEVI: All my family died, she says, and I came to Varanasi 40 years ago, looking for shelter and hoping to gain salvation.

JANAK ROGERS: Often shunned and stigmatized by their families and communities, widows come to Varanasi in the hope eventually of dying here.

According to Hindus, death in Varnasi brings the promise of 'moksha' - liberation from suffering and the cycles of death and rebirth.

VINITA VARMA: They have got lots of suffering - they have become widows and some of them are thrown away from their family. They think that if they come to Varanasi, Varanasi is the home of Maa Ganga. They come here to wash their sin and get moksha.

JANAK ROGERS: Vinita Sharma is a Program Coordinator at NGO called Sulabh International, which works to help Varanasi's widows.

She says widows in India are often stigmatized, and are forced into lives of poverty.

VINITA VARMA: In India, a husband is considered to be the head of the family. Once a lady becomes widow people consider that now she is a burden to us. They are in need of food, in need of clothes, they are many basic requirements they need.

JANAK ROGERS: Widows are traditionally forbidden from remarrying, and here in Varanasi most live in destitution in refuges hidden the backstreets.

Walking up a dimly-lit staircase into an old but well-maintained building, we meet 37-year-old Anapurna Sharma.

ANAPURNA SHARMA: I was married at 21 and widowed five years later, she says. As soon as my husband was cremated and the death rituals performed, my in-laws threw me out. I had nowhere to go. My life was over.

JANAK ROGERS: Anapurna Sharma led a hand-to-mouth existence a widow for thirteen years.

Recently, along with 25 other widows here, she started getting help from the NGO Sulabh International.

She now recieves a small monthly stipend, and the widows refuge for the first time boasts clean water and a steady electricity supply.

ANAPURNA SHARMA: Life is getting much better now, she says. I have more confidence, and I want to return to studies and become a teacher.

JANAK ROGERS: Anapurna Sharma's story shows some rays of hope, but among Varanasi's widows she remains an exception.

Most of the city's widows are still living on the edge of society, and in the desperate hope of a better life in a future reincarnation.

The prayers continue - but for some, at least, this life is at last holding some promise.

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