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Women are changing the holy city

The news is not all good, but many of Varanasi’s women are breaking into male bastions and a social transformation is underway.

india Updated: Aug 18, 2014 17:32 IST
Poulomi Banerjee
Poulomi Banerjee
Hindustan Times

For an outsider acquainted with Varanasi only through photographs of the town’s revered temples, winding alleys and aged but timeless ghats, to step out of the airport and drive through the town’s bustling modern quarters, lined with Pizza Hut and McDonald’s outlets, is as much of a novelty, as to have a young woman in jeans zip past on her Scooty. Call it stereotyping if you will, but the image that has filtered out of Varanasi over the years is that of a town holding on to traditions in the midst of a changing world. There is no doubt that this is a town proud of its heritage — no number of Café Coffee Days here can wean away loyalists from the favoured tea stalls on Assi Ghat.

But if you expected time to have stopped or slowed its step here, be prepared to be surprised, especially when it comes to Varanasi’s women. “The people of Varanasi are very supportive of women’s empowerment,” says professor Ravi Prakash Pandey, head of the department of sociology at the Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapith University.

The sociologist gives examples of the number of women who are in positions of authority at educational institutes, maths and ashrams. Pandey admits, however, that when it comes to the visibility of women in traditional professions that have always been male dominated — the priesthood, for example — their numbers are few. But there are signs of change everywhere. In January 2013, a group of women in Varanasi formed the Bharatiya Awam Party. It now has 40,000 members. An all women’s party, only 10 per cent of its seats are reserved for male members.

“This election, we mobilised Varanasi’s women to cast their vote for a candidate of their choice and not one supported by the male members of their families,” says Najma Parveen Bharatvanshi, the party’s 27-year-old national president. While it’s clear that the city’s widows still lead wretched lives, the contribution of weavers’ wives goes unnoticed and tawaifs are no longer the guardians of high culture, women are now very visible in every aspect of the holy town’s functioning — from the cremation grounds to the Vedic schools. If change has come to Varanasi, can the rest of India be far behind?

CASE STUDY | Challenging stereotypes

'I was the first woman here to conduct cremations’

In the predominantly male space of the Manikarnika Ghat — unless one counts the women pilgrims accompanied by male family members — it is both easy to lose and hard to miss, the small sari-clad figure of Jamuna Devi. Jamuna is a rare example of a Hindu woman earning a livelihood by cremating dead bodies on the banks of the Ganga. Seated on a mattress just a few steps away from the banks, where, it is believed, the fires of the log funeral pyres are never extinguished, she uses the folds of her sari to protect her nose and eyes from the fumes that arise as the bodies burn.

“I was the first woman on the Manikarnika Ghat to do this work. But I don’t actually cremate the bodies — women in our community don’t. The families of the deceased come to me to conduct cremations. My workers do the actual work,” explains Jamuna, who is unsure of her age, but knows she has been doing this work for over 30 years. In common parlance, she is a dom raja, a contractor who runs the cremation business. The workers who do the cremations are called doms. “After my husband, who was also a dom raja, died, my brother-in-law said I had no claims in the family business.

I had no way of supporting myself. I filed a court case to claim my right,” remembers Jamuna. Every time a strong gust of wind blowing from the river brings with it a shower of ashes from the burning pyres, she covers her face with her sari. “Initially I used to find it disturbing,” she confides. Though Jamuna has been doing this work for years, it takes persistent enquiry about any woman conducting last rites on the ghats, to get anyone to speak of Jamuna and her sister-in-law, also a dom raja. Jamuna herself doesn’t see anything wrong in keeping women away from this work. “It is not work meant for a woman,” she says.

She hopes Prime Minister Narendra Modi will improve the condition of the ghats that help her earn her livelihood. “Just look at the condition of the ghat. The roads are dirty and slippery. Those who come with the bodies often fall down. The walls are cracked. There is no place for the families to sit as they wait for the last rites to be completed. During the monsoon, the level of the river water rises and we have to move further up,” she says. Jamuna insists that they will not allow electric cremation to be introduced at Manikarnika.

“If the ghat is maintained properly, it will be easier for us to ensure that no remnants from the last rites are disposed of in the river in a way that pollutes it,” she says.

‘Spin yarn for free’
When Narendra Modi promised the weavers of Varanasi “better quality raw materials” and “marketing of their products” in the run up to the 2014 parliamentary elections, he gave the community hope which, in turn, pushed many of them to vote for him. Months after he assumed office though, they are a disillusioned lot. “The demand for saris started going down around the elections and hasn’t picked up since,” says Mohd. Anees. As the men in the karkhanas huddle together to discuss the state of the business, upstairs the women worry about how to run their households.

Most of the women spin yarn that is woven into the famed Benarasi sarees by the men. “Our community is very conservative. We can’t go down to the karkhanas to weave and expose ourselves to outsiders. So we spin yarn at home to help the men,” says 32-year-old Shabana, whose husband is a weaver. This is free labour, since the factory owner only pays for the weaving. To supplement the family income, most women of the community work on fancy saris, sticking on the border or other embellishments. “It takes me half an hour to finish one sari and I earn Rs 8 per sari,” says Rezwana Khatoon.

‘Help widows have a better life’
Varanasi, with its promise of a direct route to heaven for anyone who dies within its holy precincts, has always attracted moksh-seekers of both sexes.

That the hope of release would seem especially attractive to widows across India and some neighbouring countries is no surprise, considering the suffering that is often a part of the lives of these women. At an ashram for old women and widows established by the Nepal government in the Pashupatinath Temple compound, a steep flight of steps leads to the second floor living quarters of the widows. There are damp patches on the walls and the floor of the central courtyard around which the rooms are arranged, is so slippery that even a young person could easily fall down.

“Earlier, we had to cook our own food. A few years back, they started giving us lunch and dinner. Then, last year, after Sulabh International (an NGO) started giving widows a monthly pension of Rs 2000, the ashram asked us to give them Rs 1000 every month and now gives us a little bread and milk in exchange,” says one of the widows. The NGO has also provided for a doctor to visit all the widow ashrams for a periodic check-up and launched a helpline for widows and old women at a function on August 3, attended by Sulabh founder Bindeshwar Pathak. The ashram authorities do not provide any caregivers. “The stairs are so steep that I have to crawl on all fours to go up or down,” says an 82-year-old widow.

The widows at the ashram in the Pashupatinath Temple compound. (Ajay Aggarwal/ HT photo)

Lakshmi, a widow from Andhra Pradesh, who lives and begs at the ghats, says the ashrams demand a one-time payment of Rs 25,000 for providing shelter. The Vridh Mahila Ashram in Sarnath and Durga Kund look better on the surface. But it’s the same story of depression everywhere. The widows rarely venture out, except to go to the temple. Their days are spent singing bhajans and praying. Some of the ashrams have started giving them an education. But years of being denied a life as part of mainstream society have pushed most to fatalism. “A widow needs to control her desires. She should never marry again,” says Krishna Maya. Change has been slow to come but it has not by-passed the widows. Twenty-five-year-old Rajkumari from Bangalore married when she was 18 and was widowed four years ago. “I want to study and teach others like me so that they can find a better life for themselves,” she says. The older ones only hope for financial assistance from the government to allow them to lead a decent life.

‘Scriptures don’t bar women from the vedas’
The first thing that attracts the attention of a visitor to the Panini Kanya Mahavidyalaya in Varanasi’s Tulsipur is the language that the students and teachers use to communicate with each other. Those who have grudgingly studied Sanskrit as a third language in school may be able to identify a more refined version of the language than they were ever able to master, in the conversation here. The school was established in 1971, under the tenets of the Arya Samaj. “Nowhere in our scriptures is it mentioned that women can’t study the Vedas or utter the mantras written there.

There are instances of women becoming rishis in Vedic times. This tradition of keeping women away from the study of the Vedas was a later social tradition, one that Maharshi Dayanand (Dayanand Saraswati, the founder of the Arya Samaj) raised his voice against,” says Nandita Shastri Chaturvedi, the school’s principal. Today, the school has approximately 100 students, who are taught both the Vedas and Vedangas (auxiliary disciplines for learning the Vedas) and modern academic subjects. Both, the faculty and senior students of the institute are often invited to preside at auspicious functions, mostly, though not only, by followers of the Arya Samaj. “We have also conducted a wedding in Delhi,” says Chaturvedi.

Ninteen-year-old Vidya, a second year Bachelor of Arts student, is one such person, who has been acting as a priest on various occasions for the past two years. “But I don’t want to take this up professionally. As long as we are connected to this institute people view us with a certain degree of respect. They invite us to conduct ceremonies for them. But once we are out of this school, it is very difficult for a woman to make a living as a priest,” she says. One of three siblings, Vidya is studying philosophy and psychology along with her training in the Sanskrit grammatical tradition of vyakaran, and wants to join the civil services.

Her brother is a pilot and sister a civil servant. Vidya’s reluctance to become a professional priest is shared by fellow student Divya. “I want to become a professor,” says the 17-year-old. Chaturvedi agrees that most of the students join the ranks of teachers after graduating from the institute, or take up other professions. “We need numbers to bring about a social change. As of now, we only have a handful of girls who are learning the Vedic mantras. Once there are enough women trained in this, people will also learn to accept them as part of the mainstream,” she says with conviction. Chaturvedi hopes the Prime Minister will support the cause of imparting Vedic education to girls — financially and through legislation. That, she believes, will help her school take on more students and spread this knowledge among many more interested candidates.

‘My time for mujras is over’
Away from the pilgrims and moksh-seekers who thronged Varanasi were another group of women who gave character and brought some cultural cachet to the city. The tawaifs or courtesans of Varanasi drew to their durbars nobles and commoners alike with their knowledge and rendition of classical musical and dance. “It is said in Varanasi that even temple priests would go to listen to these tawaifs sing,” says a local. Today, though, it is difficult to find a practising tawaif here.

The city’s Shivdaspur area has acquired a certain reputation over the years. Post sundown, its alleys come alive with women standing enticingly in doorways, awaiting the men who go there for a few hours of paid sex. This is where a few women from the dwindling community of tawaifs live. Sadly, Shivdaspur’s reputation has effectively killed the music for the tawaifs.

“Whenever there were police raids on the prostitutes, the tawaifs would also be harassed. Their families and children would be embarrassed. Slowly, the mujras died out,” remembers Md. Nazim Khan, who used to play tabla during mujras. One of the tawaifs he often accompanied is Naseem Bano. Now past her prime, Naseem no longer performs at mujras. “My time for mujras is over,” she says firmly, expressing reluctance to speak about those days. Neighbours say her son now works as a driver to support the family. A few, like Ruksana, have diversified into other forms of music. A popular qawwal, who performs at functions across the country, she is more open to interviews. Neighbours say her mother was a tawaif, a claim she is quick to refute. “The demand for qawwali is dropping. I don’t want my children to take up this profession. This colony is infamous, but we have built our house here, where do I go now?” she wonders.

First Published: Aug 17, 2014 14:31 IST