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India’s City of Widows: An Online Photo Exhibiton by Claude Renault

May 19, 2010

Click on the photo to see the online slide exhibition. Copyright Claude Renault© .

When  American talk show hostess Oprah Winfrey visited India, she paid a special visit to the town of Vrindavan, and what she saw there horrified her such, that she said, “I couldn’t understand this paradox that a country where families who have so much love for their elders could discard their women just because they did not have husbands.”

Thousands of widows, of all ages,  from all over India have made the holy cities of Varanasi and Vrindavan their home.  Every year they are joined by hundreds more.

Many of these widows are here because they have been driven out from their homes and they have no place else to go.  They live in terrible poverty, generally begging for alms on the streets or singing at temples for a measly meal. 

Many of the younger widows are forced into prostitution. They wear white, the only color widows are permitted to wear, and their clothing becomes a source of discrimination for them, much like the yellow star for the Jews.  Even today, middle-class educated Indians shun the presence of widows at certain ceremonies like weddings, because they are thought to bring “bad luck.”

For centuries widows have been socially ostracized in India.   Sati was a practice where widows would be burnt alive on their husband’s pyres.  Even after sati has been legally banned, there continue to be isolated incidents. In western India, there are temples that glorify sati, that the government of India does not dare take down.

Here we present an online photo exhibition on India’s City of Widows by French photographer Claude Renault  With much sensitivity Claude shows through his pictures what everyday life is like for these women.  Claude is a professional photographer from Brittany (France), and is also one of the 2300 supporting member photographers of The 50 Million Missing’s Photographers’ Group on Flickr . His website is


© The 50 Million Missing Campaign. All Rights Reserved. Please see our copyright notice.



14 Comments leave one →
  1. Cecilia permalink
    August 1, 2010 10:52 pm

    Hinduism allows for abuse of widows? Or is it just a cultural thing and not necessarily a religious thing? Either way, they need to [understand] that God wants widows and orphans to be cared for and loved, not driven out, shunned and forced into destitution.

      August 6, 2010 11:21 am

      @ Cecilia — Yes there in Hindu practice there has been a long tradition of ill treatment of widows. There was sati — where widows would be burnt alive on their husbands’ pyres. And till the British rule in India widows also did not have the right to inherit their husband’s property after his demise. When a man died — it was believed that his wife had somehow brought bad luck upon him and that’s why this reviling of widows. Though not surprisingly, the reverse was not true. So if a woman died, her husband is not blamed or burnt alive with her body. These are classic instances of patriarchies where religion and culture is twisted to serve men’s needs for totalitarian control.

    • swati permalink
      October 7, 2012 5:28 pm

      Yes ,Celia.The ill-treatment of widows have been sanctioned by one of the ‘shastras’,Manusmriti which once used to be revered as a religious scripture.Dr. B.R. Ambedkar ,the man who wrote Constitution of India burnt that scripture publicly.Great deed,indeed.

  2. Anu permalink
    August 30, 2011 11:01 am

    Hinduism does allow abuse to widowed women. These false traditions was started by human. All these started from a story of a women named sati in which she burned herself alive because her husband died at very early age.

    • September 1, 2011 9:23 am

      @Anu — Unfortunately, the earliest mention of the custom of sati is in the Vedas. So it is a sanctified tradition in Hindu religion. However, as with any institution it is the prerogative of members of the religious institutions too to be introspective about their history, and take the responsibility to change what they don’t like in their past.

  3. jackie permalink
    December 3, 2012 4:29 am

    First and foremost with all my heart I want to thank Oprah Winfrey for not only visiting this place but sharing it with all of us. I didn’t know about this and it changed my life since I saw her show about this, I saw it over and over again, I just couldn’t get enough. Since then I added white widows to my prays everyday asking gods help on how we can all get together and change this, I know it is possible with all women coming together leaving that old unreal cultural, human belief behind for once and for all. After watching the movie” Water” it will take all these women help to change this because they are so brain washed with these human cultural ways that only they can help us change this. I am going to India on early 2013 for the first time and widow town is the number one on my list to visit, I pray to god to open doors and show some ways we can accomplish this change. This would be my dream come true.

    • December 3, 2012 4:05 pm

      @Jackie — yes we are very glad Oprah brought this up too. However, the issue is really logistical. These women are thrown out of their own homes after their husbands die. As a woman and widow they are entitled by the law to continue living there. Earlier, and occasionally even now widows are burnt alive on their dead husband’s pyre, because the idea is only men can own property. So really the government has to crack down on these with all the force of the law and police. This is almost the same as in S.Africa where black people were thrown out of their homes and lands because they were black. It is a fundamental issue of legal and social injustice and human rights violation and we have to start demanding government accountability. Please come back to our page and sign our petition.

  4. January 5, 2013 10:56 pm

    Truly heartbreaking to read. I was widowed at 40. I can’t image this life. I am now remarried, and can’t imagine being labeled back luck. I am wondering about Widowers. Are they treated the same as the widows?

  5. March 15, 2013 12:02 am

    When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox
    and now each time a comment is added I get three e-mails with
    the same comment. Is there any way you can remove people from that service?
    Bless you!


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