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India's expanding city of widows

New report reveals that poverty, not devotion, is turning more Indian women into social pariahs.

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Surina Devi, a matronly 70–year-old in a brown crepe sari, had a so-so life, she says, until her shopkeeper husband died four years ago. For reasons she is unable or loath to explain, the former housewife from a rural village near Patna, in Bihar, was left with "nothing, nothing."

So Ms. Devi did what poor Indian widows have been doing for centuries: She packed a bag and made her way to Vrindavan, a holy town in northern India that is also known as the City of Widows. After a night sleeping on the pavement, she found a bed in an crowded ashram – a house of prayer – for widows, where she says she will spend the rest of her life.

But it's not much of a life. And this town where 16,000 women dress in white – the color of death – is growing, according to a new report.

The survey, published last month by the United Nations Development Fund for Women and the Delhi-based Guild of Service, an Indian charity for widows, illuminates the harsh realities for Vrindavan's widows. It reveals that 40 percent of women here were married before the age of 12. A third were so impoverished that they traveled to Vrindavan without a train ticket.

But perhaps the more startling fact is that despite India's economic ascension and its increasing exposure to global cultural forces, the report offers anecdotal evidence that the number of widows flocking to the town is on the rise.

Nearly a millennium after the Skanda Purana, a Hindu text, described widows as "more inauspicious than all other inauspicious things," many husbandless women in India still live as impoverished pariahs, shunned by their families and society when their husbands die.

According to the report's author, it is poverty and a lack of independence, not spiritual devotion, that has turned the City of Widows into a kind of boomtown.

In many cases, the pressures of modern Indian life have exacerbated the brutality of tradition, as an increasing number of Indian children refuse to care for their parents, male or female, says Mittal Patel, manager of a government-funded ashram in Vrindavan.

"Children are less supportive than they used to be," says Ms. Patel.

If this is so, few of the mothers now living in Vrindavan will admit it.

"Only yesterday, my son telephoned and said he is coming to fetch me," says Chavi Das, a tiny, elderly woman in a canary-yellow sari, as she squats on the courtyard veranda of the Aamir Bari ashram with a dozen other elderly women.

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