Widows on the River

By Andrea Bruce
Washington Post Photojournalist
Tuesday, October 11, 2005; 6:00 AM

VARANASI, INDIA -- One of the world's oldest cities, it is bigger than I expected. Pilgrims from all over India come to Varanasi, the religious capital of Hinduism, to the Ganges River and the ghats -- the stone steps that lead to the holy river from the city's many alleyways.

Even with ever-present trinket peddlers and busloads of tourists, a few smaller ghats remain solemn, where the city's residents -- the faithful -- go for their daily bath and prayers at dawn. They wash copper dishes, clothes, even their teeth in the river that also washes away their sins. Most of them are widows -- their sunken cheeks and white saris making it easy to identify them.

Most Hindus want to die in Varanasi, believing that if they die here they are saved from the cycle of life, death and rebirth. Families bring the bodies of their loved ones to the river to be cremated, their ashes carried in the river that flows directly from Heaven.

During my visit to Varanasi, the Ganges is still high from monsoon season. Raw sewage trickles into the river from the city above. Sometimes bright pink or purple dye runs into the river from the small silk businesses in town.

Every morning I wake up before dawn and walk to the Kedara Ghat. There are no lights shining in the streets -- just the glow from cow dung fires started for morning tea. Shopkeepers, vegetable sellers and rickshaw drivers have deserted the streets for the river -- everyone participates in the morning bathing and prayers.

My first morning on the ghat I was without a translator. I sat on the edge of the last step. Each widow had her favorite spot. With patience and kindness (and complete awe) I started shooting. Every 10 minutes the light melted into a different color -- creating different moods. By the third morning, Mahum welcomed me by putting her cool hand on my cheek. This is the feeling I think most of us photographers yearn for -- to be invisible and accepted at the same time.

Mahum -- she wouldn't tell me her age or her family name -- has been a widow for 17 years, living in a charity house in the city. Her children live far away.

There are several charity houses for widows around the city; some are run by the government, others by wealthy families. Many residents of Varanasi have opened their doors for one or two.

One house -- marked by a red-painted wall that surrounds the small compound -- exists for lepers and widows. It survives on donations. These are not the poorest of the poor, but close. They are from a lower caste. The courtyard borders a sewage canal. Most widows have their own shed-like room -- about four feet tall and only big enough to fit a woven cot. During the day the women pull the cots outside to sit and feel the post-monsoon breeze. They sit all day. Barely talking. Almost motionless.

In the narrow alleys in the heart of the city, a Western tourist wouldn't know that most of the women begging on the streets are widows. In fact, unless he was really looking for them, a stranger wouldn't know they were there at all in their thin and yellowed saris.

The widows have learned to live in the shadows of daily life, to go unnoticed. Widows are expected to devote the remainder of their lives to the memory of their husbands, without whom, according to their traditions, life loses meaning. By withdrawing from everyday life and luxuries, these women are living a form of suttee, the now-outlawed practice of burning widows alive, chained to the dead husband's funeral pyre. Now they're waiting in Varanasi, waiting for the Ganges to bless them with death.

Andrea Bruce has been a photojournalist for The Washington Post since 2001 and was named Photographer of the Year in 2003 and 2005 by the White House News Photographers Association.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company