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.
Widowed women and young Brahmin priests perform evening Aarti in the ashram temple overlooking the Ganga River in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh India.
In the past in India, the loss of a husband stigmatised 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 neighbouring 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 marginalised, 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 enquiries, 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 sensed 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.
A woman rings a temple bell during evening Aarti. Bell ringing has an important significance during Aarti to welcome the gods into the idol so that devotees may be able to see his or her holy image in the ritualistic light.
During evening Aarti after a period of prayer ceremonial fire is passed around to allow devotees to raise downturned hands to the flames to receive the flame’s power, which they then press to their eyes and head, a purification and a blessing.
Women and children attend evening Aarti performed by young Brahmin priests. The Aarti ceremony, it has been said, descends from ancient Vedic fire rituals, often referred to as a ceremony of light, flames of fire used in the ritual are reportedly infused with the deities’ energy love and blessings.
Lord Shiva and consort Goddess Parvati with their son Lord Ganesh. According to ancient Hindu beliefs, Lord Shiva founded the city of Varanasi, also known as Kashi, Benares or the City of Light; one of the oldest living cities in the world.
Women gather for evening prayer on a popular Varanasi Ghat by the river Ganga, in Uttar Pradesh India.
A woman silently prays while she waits for evening Aarti to begin.
An antique print from a book about the River Ganga, the Goddess Ganga is the female personification of the sacred river. The river is often depicted streaming from the hair of Lord Shiva, legend states he broke her fall to Earth by letting her flow down in small streams from his hair.
A devotee meditates in front of a small temple near Assi Ghat a cremation site overlooking the Ganga River. Thousands of devotees and pilgrims flock continuously to the holy city of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, India.
A silent moment of prayer after evening Aarti.
A woman leaves the temple to return to the ashram after evening Aarti.
An antique print of a Sanskrit blessing.
Morning bathers washing in the sacred Ganga River in Varanasi Uttar Pradesh, India.
Pre-wedding celebrations weave through the streets of Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh India. Belief in taboos meant that widowed women were not permitted to attend wedding ceremonies as their presence was thought to be unlucky for the new couple.
Shadows of cows, two of many that populate the Varanasi streets and Ghats, on the way to the women’s ashram.
Women relax together and watch television in the ashram after evening Aarti.
A woman walks upstairs to a communal area from her sleeping quarter in the ashram.
Widows from the Meera Sahabhhagini Ashram celebrate the Holi Festival in Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh, India. Over the past years they have been encouraged to engage in celebrations by social organisations that are attempting to raise their status in contemporary Indian society.
Manikarnika Ghat is one of the oldest and most sacred cremation sites in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh India
A textile piece from an Indian wedding sari.
Anna Maria Antoinette D’Addario is an Italian-Australian photographic artist and writer dedicated to visual narrative using documentary and art-based practice. She is devoted to the expression of social, environmental and humanitarian issues worldwide.
Please note that images and text published remain copyright of the artist and are not to be reproduced or published without authorisation nor altered in any way.