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In India's town of widows, a home for the forgotten

A haven for Indian women lets them escape the stigma of widowhood.

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Krishna Das is an attractive 25-year-old with a special talent for creating fragrant curries and supple roti breads, and for coaxing smiles from her baby boy, Gopal.

But to her family and friends in India's West Bengal region, she might as well not even exist.

After her husband died a year ago, Ms. Das's status suddenly plummeted. Now, she is a bad omen at social gatherings. She must never remarry, wear colored saris, or eat anything but the blandest food donated to her just once a day after hours spent strictly in prayer. Some old friends even shun her as a witch, believing she caused her husband's demise.

In a country infamous for caste discrimination, few fates are worse than losing a husband. Hindu widows in many parts of the country, like the so-called "untouchable" Dalits, are relegated to the lowest rungs of society. Although there is no religious scripture to justify this treatment, it has become part of the patriarchal culture. In traditional Hindu families, women have only two key roles – to bear sons and to partner a husband in rituals necessary for his salvation. Only widows with wealth of their own or a more enlightened family may escape this persecution; a fortunate few may even remarry.

But for many of the country's estimated 33 million widows, half of whom are older than 50, a husband's death means their own living death. Widows at all levels of society face some degree of persecution. While not all are forced to leave their home, they are still stigmatized.

Das could easily have ended up like an estimated 10,000 widows who, thrown out by their families, now swarm the pilgrimage cities of Mathura and neighboring Vrindavan, praying at the temples, or begging on the streets.

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