Documentary Photographer, Writer, Visual Narrator Anna Maria Antoinette D’Addario is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this social documentary photography. From her project ‘Women Of Kashi‘. To see Anna’s body of work click on any image.
Varanasi, Kashi, City of Light. Home to many elderly Hindu migrants that come to the city with the hope that when they die their bodies will be cremated on the banks of the river Ganga and when their ashes merge with the muddied water they will be closer to receiving ‘moksha’, liberation from the cycle of reincarnation.
In the past in India, the loss of a husband stigmatized a bereaved wife. Widowed women were not welcome to participate in religious ceremonies, considered a bad omen; they were treated as untouchables and often cast away from their communities. This adopted belief common to Hindus in India is also predominant in Nepal and Bangladesh, with many widows from the neighboring countries travelling far from their homelands closer to the Hindu holy cities.
Ostracised from their families, their culture and society, many women were left to fend for themselves living in extreme poverty. Child marriage, a common tradition meant child brides were isolated at a young age, unable to remarry and left without resources and family. Many women that I met in Varanasi had been widowed at a young age, as young as 10, abandoned from all they had known, alienated and alone they made their way to Varanasi to live an ascetic life. Some eventually found shelter in the ashrams strewn throughout the city whilst others were forced to live on the streets and around the Ghats.
There has been a shift in Indian culture in the past years as diverse organisations push to raise the status of widowed women in modern Indian society, however much is still to be done. Women remain marginalized, without proper health care, neglected by their families, in fear of their safety at times and with only their beliefs and friends to give them comfort in elderly years. Old taboos linger. Public displays of inclusion in religious ceremonies, while attempting to eradicate belief nationally, often unintentionally mask hardships that the women continue to face.
I met very strong women, women who had been through the unimaginable, women suffering from physical ailments and emotional trauma. A woman I met living in a handmade shack on the street was in such incredible pain she continued to plead for death and death came to her a week later, despite local attempts to assist her. The organisation supporting my enquires, Sulabh International, which has done much to raise the status of widowed women on a national level, paid for her cremation; a scheme they have set into motion to take care of women hosted in various ashrams. Within these ashrams, in Varanasi and in Vrindavan, another holy city known for its population of widows, I met women that could have been my grandmother, anyone’s grandmother, mother or sister, devoted to their rituals and beliefs. Some greatly missed their families, others appeared relieved to be separated from abusive and neglectful domestic relationships; mostly the women were resigned to their solitude but much less to their fate.
I wanted to create a project that portrayed these women in the light that I saw them, surrounded by their daily rituals, specifically moments of prayer where I sensed they found some peace. An instant lifted from the reality of the present, to show a little of the strength that I witnessed helped them to go forward from day to day. This story, which I began in 2013, is a small glimpse of a larger long-term project following the daily realities of women in India.
By Anna Maria Antoinette D’Addario