Our Story: Finding Purpose in India’s City of Widows

Two Pepperdine graduates use their gap year to help restore worth to a community of dispossessed women.

Abbie Case and Katie Gilliam find purpose in India's city of widows

Abbie and Katie among friends in Vrindavan’s community of widows. (Photo Courtesy the White Rainbow Project)

Travel the whole world, and you will never find a town quite like Vrindavan, India, but not for reasons that immediately meet the eye. This relatively small city in Uttar Pradesh, Northern India is bursting with people paying homage to their god, Krishna. Vrindavan is sacred ground in the Hindu religion because it is the birthplace of Krishna. The town is made up of thousands of temples devoted to him.

People greet each other on the street by saying “Hare Krishna” (Praise Krishna) or “Radhe Radhe” (the name of Krishna’s favorite wife). Devotees come from all corners of the Earth to walk the streets that Krishna walked and chant his name with other believers for hours on end. It is assumed that if you are in Vrindavan, you are attending to business with Lord Krishna.

However, the story that brings us (two 22-year-old recent college grads) to Vrindavan is one concerning social injustices against women, specifically the large number of widowed women inhabiting Vrindavan. Once we learned to spot the telltale signs of an ostracized widow (no makeup, no colorful saris, no spicy foods), we verified that Vrindavan’s “City of Widows” nickname is true and accurate.

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Varying stigmas come along with being a widow across the spectrum of social classes and cultures in India. In some traditional beliefs, widows are blamed for the death of their husbands and are perceived as “bad karma.” Once a woman loses her association to a man, she loses her worth.

In Sati, a practice now banned in India, widows would offer themselves on a burning pyre to pay homage to their late husbands.

Our friend Mangoi felt forced to leave her son’s house after her daughter-in-law bit a chunk out of her thigh.

Today, many of the country’s widows, seen as a curse and a financial burden to their families, are cast out and abandoned. Even if a widow has family left—grown children, young children, in-laws, brothers, sisters, the mindset often remains the same: She is unwanted.

In cases such as these, many of family members will bring the widow to Vrindavan to alleviate her presumed burden on the family.

To be clear, this issue is complicated, and we don’t want to oversimplify: Many other widows and Krishna devotees come on their own accord to seek refuge and salvation in this holy town. However, we’ve encountered stories that are nothing short of heart wrenching among the estimated 15,000-plus widows living in Vrindavan.

Our friend Mangoi felt forced to leave her son’s house after her daughter-in-law bit a chunk out of her thigh. Anita was just widowed at barely 30 years of age and has suffered the humiliating stigma and loss of family and employment.

These women come to Vrindavan with their own baggage only to be met with an added set of obstacles. Most of them live in serious to extreme poverty and are exploited sexually, financially and emotionally by the complicated system of temples (where they can chant for up to eight hours a day to earn a small sum of rupees and perhaps a handful of rice), government-run shelters and aid programs that are often riddled with corruption, and the apathy of the rest of the world.

A group of Vrindavan’s widows focuses on assembling a better future. (Photo Courtesy the White Rainbow Project)

Looked at broadly, this issue seems intractable, impossible to tackle. Honestly, the situation cannot easily be remedied.

Yet, here we are.

After learning of Vrindavan’s widows through an amazing organization called the White Rainbow Project and its president, Linda Mandrayar, we decided that coming here would be the best way to spend our first year out of college. Thanks to the special community at Pepperdine University, we were able to act on our desires to serve in the realm of social justice.

Our Christian faith has also brought us to the conclusion that to love the “unlovable” is among the highest service anyone can do, and we were given this opportunity to go on a great adventure to India to work directly for the betterment of the lives of Vrindavan widows. We couldn’t pass it up.

Right now, our initiative is to introduce income-producing crafts to the widows, with all products made from recycled materials—paper, saris and other Indian found objects. In turn, White Rainbow Project “sells and tells” back in America.

Each day, when we greet our new friends to begin making scarves, necklaces, and bags, we try to offer them much more than a job. We hope to restore worth, respect and friendship into their interactions with fellow human beings. We also enjoy making a creative space for cultures to come together to re-think how things that are “useless” can actually have value beyond what meets the eye.

In our first three months, we’ve experienced first-hand the fruits of this effort.  Mongoi bought medicine for the wound in her thigh with her first payment. Anita transformed from a shy, insecure young woman to a confident, funny, and inventive seamstress.

We’ve made friends with the most unlikely crew of characters, and they’ve befriended each other as well. We realize this is a small step toward creating a better life for these women, and we know another culture’s mindset may not be up to us to change, but we find our purpose in attempting to better the lives of these women many others have chosen to forget.

When have you left your comfort zone to comfort someone else? Try not to brag in COMMENTS.

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