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One Woman’s Extraordinary Mission to Give Vrindavan’s Abandoned Widows Dignity in Death

Dr Laxmi Gautam's NGO Kanak Dhara is flooded with emergency calls throughout the day asking her to give Vrindavan's abandoned widows a dignified death.

One Woman’s Extraordinary Mission to Give Vrindavan’s Abandoned Widows Dignity in Death

On the designated day of the interview, when I call Dr Laxmi Gautam, she doesn’t answer. Later, she explains, she was occupied taking a 10-year-old orphan to the hospital for medicines for his tuberculosis. Hours later, once certain that he is in good hands, she settles down for a conversation with me outlining her philanthropic work over the years.

But not before she warns me, “I might have to dash off somewhere in the middle. My day is always like this.”

The 60-year-old Nari Shakti Puraskar winner’s number is the first one dialled in cases of emergencies in Vrindavan, the holy town in Uttar Pradesh flocked to by thousands of devotees looking to cleanse themselves in the river Yamuna. Over the years, Dr Laxmi has been staying true to the title bestowed on her by the people — ‘Angel of Vrindavan’.

Widows, holy men, orphans and the destitute find solace in knowing that they are not alone; they have an angel looking over them. The cycle of good started 13 years ago when Dr Laxmi decided to live a life synonymous with the goodness of the holy town. Through her NGO ‘Kanak Dhara’ started in 2013, she is extending a helping hand to those who don’t have a voice.

The tale of two women

As a young girl of 10, Laxmi was observant. It has always been one of her best qualities, she explains. So, when she noticed a drastic distinction in the appearance of women who visited her home to seek spiritual guidance from her father, a renowned pundit in the village, she was quick to point it out to him.

“These women came from West Bengal — some were dressed in the typical white Bengali sari with a red border with sindhur on their head and bangles on their hands; others were bald, unkempt and without any bangles. I wondered why the latter was this way. Was it by choice or force?”

Dr Laxmi Gautam has seen to the last rites of more than a thousand widows in Vrindavan,
Dr Laxmi Gautam has seen to the last rites of more than a thousand widows in Vrindavan, Picture source: Dr Laxmi

Her father’s reply when asked this question only fuelled Laxmi’s curiosity, “You are too young to understand how things work.” Unsatisfied with this response, Laxmi decided to probe the reason herself.

She recalls one of their distant family friends visiting their home every year. Laxmi had noticed how this bua, as she fondly called her, was also bald and always wore white.

Mustering the courage, one day, she asked her bua why she dressed this way. It turned out she was a widow, but that wasn’t just it. Married at the age of nine to a man much older than her, her life had come to an end with a phone call one day informing her of her husband’s demise.

“Since that day, my family shaved me bald and never let my hair grow. I was given stale rice to eat and wasn’t allowed to play outside. I was even deprived of fish that I love so much and is an important part of Bengali food,” she told Laxmi. She added that widows were not given dignity in death either.

Once over her initial shock of someone being married at the age of nine — Laxmi was 10 at the time — she asked her father why women were forced into a life of sorrow once their husbands died. But, as he explained, this was how life worked.

And as Laxmi grew up, she made it her life’s mission to defy this norm.

Dr Laxmi is an 'angel' for all those in Vrindavan whose families do not come forward when their loved ones die
Dr Laxmi is an ‘angel’ for all those in Vrindavan whose families do not come forward when their loved ones, mostly widows, die, Picture source: Dr Laxmi

Why are widows suffering in Vrindavan?

A simple Google search will reveal to you that years ago, the holy town was not conducive for widows. But yet, thousands flock to its shores. In fact, one of the most searched questions on Google is ‘Why is Vrindavan known as the ‘city of widows’?

Dr Laxmi unearthed the story for this irony.

“Young girls in West Bengal and remote India are married to men much older than themselves. The men pass away leaving behind child widows. Vrindavan’s numerous ashrams become safe places for these widows looking to escape their life of shame back home,” she says.

But do the widows truly have a better life to look forward to here? History tells otherwise.

“In 2011, one of the Supreme Court judges had come to Vrindavan for darshan. On seeing the plight of widows in Vrindavan, he brought it to light. Soon, the media was writing about it. They were doing full-page stories on the problem — widows left to die on the banks of holy rivers.”

The SC wanted these widows to get justice. To this end, it appointed a seven-member panel that would survey the holy town and get an understanding of the plight of widows. Dr Laxmi was part of the committee.

While the questions were drafted to understand the widows’ socio-economic condition, instinct told Dr Laxmi to find out how their last rites were conducted. And what she heard broke her heart.

Dr Laxmi Gautam also sees to the needs of abandoned senior citizens in Vrindavan
Dr Laxmi Gautam also sees to the needs of abandoned senior citizens in Vrindavan, Picture source: Dr Laxmi

“When no one came forward to claim the bodies, they would be chopped into pieces, put into a gunny bag and be thrown away.” These findings were added to the eight-page report presented to the SC.

An NDTV report published in 2012 noted, “The Court said ‘It is shocking’ and directed the Chief Medical Officer of Civil Hospital, Mathura, to ensure last rites of any deceased women in the shelter homes be performed per their religion.”

It continued, “It [SC] also pulled up the National Commission for Women and its Uttar Pradesh counterpart for their apathy to the pitiable condition of Vrindavan widows and asked the State Government to provide adequate food and hygienic living environment for them.”

But even in light of the SC’s promises to better the plight of these widows, Dr Laxmi made a silent promise to herself that day. “No widow in Vrindavan would ever die an undignified death.”

Dr Laxmi has been staying true to that promise through the work done by her NGO ‘Kanak Dhara’ which borrows from her mother-in-law’s name — a woman she credits for transforming her from a soft-spoken girl to a woman with a voice.

Balancing her duties as a college professor along with the work of her NGO Kanak Dhara is not easy but Dr Laxmi does it seamlessly
Balancing her duties as a college professor along with the work of her NGO Kanak Dhara is not easy but Dr Laxmi does it seamlessly, Picture source: Dr Laxmi

A life of service

Under Kanak Dhara’s umbrella, a myriad of activities take place. Laxmi’s husband Vijay Gautam is an integral part of the venture too — a man Dr Laxmi credits along with her mother-in-law for turning her into the woman she is today. Married at the age of 20, Dr Laxmi was told in no simple terms by her mother-in-law (a school teacher) that she mustn’t hide behind her husband’s identity and name.

Apni pehchaan khud banao (Have your own identity).”

With her mother-in-law’s encouragement, Dr Laxmi completed her PhD and went on to become a lecturer. Balancing her full-time job with the activities of her NGO while attending to emergency cases that flood her phone is not easy. But, as she notes, it is worth it.

To date, Dr Laxmi has conducted the last rites of more than 1,000 widows. Right from their ambulance needs to the final dressing, she takes care of everything. She even reaches out to sadhus and the destitute whose families refuse to come forward. When the pandemic was at its peak, she cooked and served hundreds of orphans lodging in Mathura for 72 days.

Kanak Dhara also assists in cases that involve young girls running away or being kidnapped from their homes. “We try and locate their address, convey this to the police and then counsel the girls once they are found to go back to their families. We have helped hundreds of girls in this way,” she says.

Dr Laxmi Gautam receiving the Nari Shakti Puraskar from President Pranab Mukherjee
Dr Laxmi Gautam receiving the Nari Shakti Puraskar from President Pranab Mukherjee, Picture source: Dr Laxmi

Doesn’t this interfere with her duties as a college professor?

“You have no idea,” she smiles. “I have used all my leaves for these purposes and not taken a single one for myself.” Dr Laxmi recalls an incident last year where she had to ask the headmaster for a replacement for her invigilation duty as she received an emergency call about a widow who had died and the body lying unclaimed.

“There was no way I could leave the body as is for another three hours until I finished. I took a lift from a biker to reach the spot and then organised the ambulance. We conducted the last rites,” she shares.

Recalling her most challenging case, Dr Laxmi says it was in the pandemic phase. “I was called at 1 am about a body that was unclaimed on the ghats. I went there and got the last rites conducted.” When someone asked her at the time “Aren’t you afraid?”, she was quick to respond.

“The dead don’t scare me. The acts of the living do.”

Dr Laxmi Gautam was part of a survey by the SC investigating the plight of widows in Vrindavan
Dr Laxmi Gautam was part of a survey by the SC investigating the plight of widows in Vrindavan, Picture source: Dr Laxmi
Through food drives, medicine camps and more, Dr Laxmi is ensuring the destitute of Vrindavan have a better life
Through food drives, medicine camps and more, Dr Laxmi is ensuring the destitute of Vrindavan have a better life, Picture source: Dr Laxmi
Dr Laxmi helped thousands of people get dignity in death during the Covid pandemic
Dr Laxmi helped thousands of people get dignity in death in the COVID pandemic phase, Picture source: Dr Laxmi

Edited by Pranita Bhat

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