Vrindavan – The City of Widows

I was walking down the street in Vrindavan when I saw her.  I followed this old woman down the street, and after a few minutes, she noticed that I was behind her.

Vrindavan, India, is the city of widows.  After  their husbands die, they are often shunned by family and members of the community who see them as a drain on limited resources.  They cannot remarry, and walking in their shadows is considered bad luck.  Ostracized by society, thousands of India’s widows go to the holy city waiting to die.
My translator explained that I was fascinated with her and wondered where she was going.  She told us that she had been a widow since she was only fourteen years old, and made a few rupees by praying for others. Even though she had nothing,  she invited us for tea.
She had a wonderful sense of humor and made us feel at home.  I was touched by her joy and the way she dealt with her infirmity.  She had a wonderful spirit and not an ounce of self pity.  I can’t look at her picture without deep admiration.  The magic of this image is its ambiguity.  The woman is anonymous, yet she embodies everyone who meets challenges with a deep-seated will to overcome them.


34 Responses to “Vrindavan – The City of Widows”

  1. The cow who is also burdened looks as though it has compassion for the woman.

  2. Hi steve,

    I was just finding some articles on Vrindavan Temple, you really inspire me,,,

  3. Hello Steve!
    Firstly I really loved your article! It is indeed very touching…..but it makes me sad to see the plight of these widows and it pains me..

    I am an architecture student and for my Thesis project for my final year,I have chosen the topic of ‘Widows in Vrindavan’, wherein, i want to architecturally do something that would help improve their condition..
    I would love to receive your inputs..
    What do you think I could do as an architect to better their condition…I was thinking I could educate the younger widows and provide them training in various skills so that they could have a livelihood of their own….and for the older widows I could provide them with the care that they need and make secure and comfortable spaces for them…
    Do get back to me..:)

    – Rama, Mumbai

    • awesome
      i am an architecture student too and i have been also going to vrindavan
      i would love to see your work

  4. Aparna Deshmukh Says:

    Hi Steve,
    I found this photograph on the internet last year & it has haunted me since then. I am fascinated and inspired by the indomitable spirit of women. I am an art student. In my paintings, I like to weave stories with women as the central subject. A woman’s dignity and resilience in the face of despair is a theme that I am working on. Having been raised in India, I am drawn to your photograph. It brings out deep-seated emotions of outrage at the injustice of it all.
    If you would be so kind, would you give me permission to use this photograph in my next series of paintings about this subject matter? I will be most obliged.
    Thank you.
    Aparna Deshmukh

  5. Dear Steve,
    Thank you for posting this amazing and powerful photo. I made a film on the widows of Vrindavan called “White Rainbow” . After people view the film the usually want to do something to help these women. I am starting a non-profit organization called the White Rainbow Project to start service trips to Vrindavan. The first trip will be this May. Please visit my blog and share it with others. http://www.whiterainbowproject.blogspot.com
    Will you give me permission to use this photo? I will give you credit. It is so compelling.

  6. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. This one is worth a million.
    And when you weave in your story, it is as if, the picture became ever so real and moving.

    Thank you.



  8. Dear Steve,

    Thank you for your images of inspiration- the human condition and the will to overcome all to live a life of joy- I cant explain the impact your photographs have had in my work since I started painting – You were the inspiration why I started painting people and faces (your book of portraits had a huge impact)
    your photographs leave me speechless in awe- they tell the stories of struggle , faith, love or war , human compassion and perseverence – even better with your explanations but alone or without words they speak in silence. I admire your courage in involving yourself in any situation to capture the way of the world… a picture is worth a thousand words , in your case they open up a thousand worlds to all of us. Thank you for awakening us to the wonders of the world!
    Best, Seda

  9. marieinheels Says:

    what a refreshing story! thank you for showing us the things and the maginificent people that you see, and sharing their stories with us. this photograph has a lot of stories to tell. you are one amazing storyteller.

  10. Hi Steve,
    Thank you for sharing the story behind this image, as it’s long been one of my favorites. A few years ago, I was in San Miguel, Mexico with Santa Fe Workshops and before coming, we were asked by the instructor to bring examples of photos we admired. Well, despite it’s weight (!) I brought your “South Southeast” book and pointed to this image. I was struck by how the curve of the woman’s back nearly matches the hump on the brahma bull – remarkable!

  11. Dear Steve, I met you in Portugal some years ago and have ever since awaiting for your return and eventually do an workshop with you, you are an inspiration to me, your photography is beyond all words, because every image has a real story attached, through the eyes of those who have the privilege of looking at your images. Your widow story is touching and tells how dramatic the indian customs can be….. however, like you I am a great lover of India!
    I do some photography, enclosed my blog, I do it with my heart, but I have so much to learn!…….
    I will be back and follow allways your work where ever you go, hoping you have a few minujtes to read my comment andthank yhou for giving me the opportunity of looking at your work,


  12. Thanks mr Steve… I love you

  13. This was a most insightful post.
    I was wondering if the lady’s social status had anything to do with her being hunched over.

  14. Hi Steve
    I’ve just discovered your blog, and am enjoying seeing more of your work and reading the stories behind your photographs.
    There was a wonderful Indian film a few years ago about these widows, called ‘Water’ which, if you haven’t seen already, you might enjoy.

  15. wow… 14! that’s crazy. People always fascinate me but of course I am always too shy to ask them about their lives. hopefully that will go away soon…

  16. Hello Sir!
    I am just your biggest biggest fan! One look at your book on the Mumbai monsoons and things never were the same. As a student, I used to just go to the bookstore and sit all day with your books (I couldn’t afford them back then!), appreciate and wonder at each photograph for the longest time! I cannot come up with words to describe how beautiful your photographs are!

    It’s sad to read about your Ganesh visarjan incident and I feel its a rare event. As you would already know, in India, if you don’t mess with people, mostly people won’t mess with you.

    I am in Bombay itself and work as a photographer for a automotive magazine. In case you need any help or assistance or just someone to lug around your equipment or whatever, I would be honoured to help you out in any way possible.

    Some of my work can be seen on :

    Thank you for inspiring millions with your passion, dedication, hard work and photographs.

    -Aneesh Shivanekar
    Mumbai, India

  17. A touching story, and a compelling image.

  18. I was very unsettled after listening to a television news story last night about Indian widows, and decided to find out more. Came across your blog, and although this perspective and photo are indeed lovely, that we should be made aware of their suffering and what we can do to change it in a global context seems more relevant. In any event, thanks for the nice story.

  19. Hi Steve! this is obviously a timeless photo. I am sad to hear about her story but also inspired by her faith and hope to go through life and overcome all the difficulties despite being old and losing posture, a widow, and disowned by the community. Thank you Steve for all the wonderful pictures you share to the world and for also being the inspiration in my photographic journey. From the moment i saw your photos, there’s no doubt that you are one of the very few who’s blessed with such great photographic eyes and your photos just show how you appreciate LIFE !. i’ve never appreciated and loved documentary photography this much before but seeing your photos made me appreciate and love this style the most. i have 5 of your books and looking forward to attend your workshop in the future. God Bless! Elmer

  20. Amazing picture, I suggest you visit Bhutan sometime, it is a photographer’s delight!


  21. Love the new look! Even more, I love listening to your stories.

    Thanks for sharing, Steve!

  22. Ah, you’ve changed the template of your blog. This one looks better. Gives more impact to stories and pictures.

  23. Enjoying and learning from the stories behind every journey and every photograph of yours. Thank you so much.

  24. amazing story to accompany that amazing image…Thank you for both

  25. The stories behind the images are powerful….love this on so much.

  26. This is another of your beautiful and yet deep photograph that I just love. So rich in story and meaning. Thanks for sharing.

  27. Steve, you are a human among humans. You love people and it shows in every one of your images. It has been a privilege to have followed your work over the years. Now to hear your words through this blog, brings a wonderful insight into your life’s work. Thank you so much.

  28. LindaO. Says:

    She inspires me. You inspire me. Thank you.

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