Who were the wives of Sri Krishna?

The city of widows

Soona came to Vrindavan two years ago. She now lives in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh many thousands of kilometers away from her home village in Bengal. Every day she gets up at four o'clock, tidies her room, she washes herself and prays. Then she goes to the temple to sing women in honor of the god Krishna with other women. Everyday, pious normality, one would think. But Soona and many of the women from Vrindavan did not choose this everyday life voluntarily. When their husbands died, they had to start a whole new life.

Widows from India have been coming to Vrindavan for 500 years. Most of them from Bengal. Vrindavan is the birthplace of the deity Krishna. In the Bengali town of Nawadweep, it is said, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was born in 1486. He is considered the reincarnation of Krishna. That is why many people from Bengal feel so closely related to Vrindavan. The move is usually the only change of location in the widows' lives. Some borrow the money for the train journey, most travel without a ticket.

At first glance, Vrindavan is a city like any other in India: narrow streets, lots of people and a hell of a noise. But as is so often the case, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There are almost 5000 temples in the city. Sometimes, say the sadhus, Krishna still walks on the banks of the Yamuna in the evenings with his beloved Radha. And if you listen carefully, you can hear the flute playing from afar, the wise men say.

Krishna's devotees come from all over the world. Religious tourism from the west in particular is booming. On the way to the next prayer they huddle together in the back seat of an auto rickshaw, men and women. The rumors quickly boil among the locals. It is said that many white women lead double lives. During the day they serve Lord Krishna, at night they work as prostitutes, says the rickshaw driver from the neighboring town of Mathura. He does not speak of the young widows who live as mistresses in the houses of the landowners.

The religious tourists leave the city again at some point. The widows don't. It is said that Vrindavan is the best place to prepare for death. At night the corpses light up on the banks of the Yamuna. Anyone who wants to know how far the power of religion extends into Indian society has to come to Vrindavan.

A widow's new life begins on the day the husband dies. Your head will be shaved. Every drop of rain that falls on a widow's hair contaminates the deceased husband's soul. She is no longer allowed to wear jewelry. Only saris made of a coarse white cotton fabric are allowed, no colored or printed fabrics. From now on she is no longer allowed to eat meat or fried food. It is excluded from celebrations and weddings.

Above all, with the death of the husband, she loses her place in his family. The widows from Vrindavan preferred to leave their old home and start a new life in the native city of Krishna. In the Manusmriti, a kind of Hindu catechism, it is stated that a woman is not entitled to inheritance. It is no longer expected that the widow will follow her husband into death. The suicide at the Scheiterhafen, also known as widow burning, was officially forbidden by the British Governor General William Cavendish-Bentinck on December 4, 1829. In the 14 years before the ban, 8,135 women found death in the flames.

The city has been catered for by widows for centuries. And yet there is still too little help that they receive. The wages for three hours of singing in the temples are usually the only steady income. They get a bowl of rice and three rupees for it. Three rupees, that's six cents.

A road barely an arm's length wide and with potholes so deep that the rickshaw almost breaks its axis leads to a special ashram. It is run by the Guild of Service, an organization with an eloquent chair. Mohini Giri is the daughter of a former President of India, Varahagiri Venkata Giri. He was president in the 1970s, studied in Ireland and joined the Sinn Féin movement. But Mohini Giri didn't want to follow in her father's footsteps. A career in politics like the one that has continued in the Nehru Gandhi family for five generations was out of the question for her. Politics as a profession was unthinkable.

Many years ago, on a trip as chairman of the National Women's Commission, Giri discovered a dead widow on the side of the road in Vrindavan. Nobody cared about her, even though the woman seemed dead for more than 24 hours. It was a public holiday. The woman's body was already surrounded by dogs and scavengers. Giri did not give up until the body was buried by the Ramakrishna mission on the same day.

Since then, immediate help for the widows has been the top priority in her life. "I want to give women back their self-esteem. They should know what it means to sit at a table," says Giri. Many of the 16,000 widows who live in the Vrindavan region have no roof over their heads.

The Aamar Badi Ashram is a four-wing building. In the middle of the arcade courtyard, incense lies on the floor to dry. Each resident has her own room, small sheds with wooden doors painted green. A nurse takes care of the nursing care.

Although Europe is 8,000 kilometers away, the widows tell the same stories as in a nursing home in Germany: They are alone. There is no visit from the children. You moved out because of an argument at home. Quarrel over everyday matters or money. Although they do not complain, it is difficult for them in Vrindavan. They have been there for the family all their lives. Here they are alone and without responsibility.

The 71-year-old Soona does not want to accept the offered place during the conversation. Out of respect for us because she is a widow. Then she does sit down. "I got married when I was 15. My husband was 16. We had three children. Now my husband has died. Of grief over the death of our son," says Soona. In the ashram she has a room on the first floor, right next to the television. Their daughters live in Bengal. They are married. "I last saw her two years ago," she says. Some widows spend a month or two a year with their children. But Soona has a constant fever. She can't travel.

She is happy that she can be here. "There's Dhal and Roti at lunchtime. And Subji in the evening," she says. The women cook together. Dhal is a lentil curry, subji is a potato stew and roti is a flatbread. They are simple Indian dishes. Prayer and eating determine Soona's daily routine.

But for many widows there is only one life on the streets or in expensive rented quarters that three or four people share. The money for singing in the morning is not enough for the rent. Begging in the marketplace, working as a maid or prostitution are alternative sources of income.

A large age difference to the husband makes women widows earlier. When Mahatma Gandhi learned in the early 1920s that there were a constant number of 600 babies under one year old in India who had been married right after birth and then widowed, he acted. In the Sharda Act of 1929, the age of marriage for young women was set at 18 years. But this is still not a reality today. 87 percent of the widows surveyed in Vrindavan stated that they were younger than 18 when they married.

The director Deepa Mehta used the fate of the Indian widows as the subject of the film "Water". He tells the story of two young widows, the girl Chuyia and the prostitute Kalyani. At the age of seven, Chuyia was left in an ashram by her father as a widow. Her friend Kalyani, who works as a prostitute for the maintenance of the other women, falls in love and wants to remarry. The film caused a stir. On the first day of filming, there were protests by radical Hindus. They stormed the film set on the banks of the Ganges, destroyed the equipment and threw the remains in the river. The resistance to the film did not subside. Mehta eventually shot the film in Sri Lanka.