Kumartuli Widow

Kumartuli Widow (Kolkata, India)

There are more than 40 million widows in India – 10 percent of the country’s female population. And for the majority of these women, life is what some have described as a “living sati”, a reference to the now outlawed practice of widow burning. A widow is sometimes called “pram” or creature, because it was only her husband’s presence that gave her human status. In some Indian languages, a widow is referred to as “it” rather than “she”.

Hindu widows especially are faced with a battery of societal taboos; the general rule of thumb is that the higher their caste, the more restrictions widows face. Traditionally when a man dies, his widow is expected to renounce all earthly pleasures. Widows should no longer look attractive, and are expected to wear only simple white saris for the rest of their lives. On news of their husband’s death, they break their bangles and can no longer wear jewellery or use sindhoor – the red powder women wear in their parting and on their foreheads to denote their married status.An orthodox widow may be expected to cut her hair or even shave her head. A widow from the south of the country may not even be able to wear a blouse under her sari.

Her diet is also strictly restricted – she is forbidden from eating meat, fish and eggs, as well as anything touched by Muslim hands. And as traditionally, bakeries were run by Muslims, bread, biscuits or cakes are banned. She’s expected to fast several times a month, sometimes eating nothing but fruit for days on end.

Traditionally, Bengal has been particularly harsh in its treatment of widows, especially when coupled with the centuries-long tradition of child marriage in the region. Copying the myth that the god Siva took Parvati as his wife when she was only eight, girls were married off as young as eight or nine years old. Often the girls were married off to much older men, and there was even a tradition of giving daughters in marriage to travelling Brahmin priests who would come to visit a family for a night, marry the daughter, before moving on and leaving her behind. Such child “widows” usually were unwanted in their in-laws’ house, so they either stayed in their parents’ house as unpaid labour or were sent off to the “widow cities” such as Varanasi or Vrindavan.

These cities are still magnets for widows and today they are full of dingy guest houses and ashrams where impoverished and abandoned widows come to try to eke out an existence till the death they long for comes to claim them. It is common knowledge that younger widows are often sexually exploited in these places, though the subject is taboo enough to earn an instant brush off if brought up with the authorities. The older women are often left to beg near temples or on busy streets. Some go to bhajanashrams where they sit in shifts to chant prayers – for a four hour shift they can earn a cup of rice and 7 rupees – about 12 cents.

excepted from The State We’re In Oct 2009


Rabdense Woman

Rabdense Woman (Sikkim, India)

I met this woman on the trail near the Rabdese ruins. She became curious and sparked a quick smile when she saw that I wanted to take a photo of her. Her nose rings are very similar to those worn by the bengali women at the festivals in Kolkata. That, plus the ash marks on her forehead suggest that she is bengali hindu rather than tibetan or bhutanese – all cultures which have come together in this area.


Enough Already

Enough Already (Kolkata, India)

After I snuck a shot of this woman washing dishes in the morning dawn, I moved slightly to my right to get around a big cement block that was in the way….oops, she spotted me just as i snapped this shot and waived me off. So I guess it’s time to move along…

Sangachoeling Monk

Sangachoeling Monk (Sikkim, India)

Sangachoeling Gompa is a small, very old monastery that sits on a ridge near the town of Pelling. It’s home to probably a dozen or so monks. I came across it during an early morning stroll through the mountains. There weren’t any other visitors and their supporters seemed modest in both numbers and means. This fellow blew the conch shell as they circumambulated a stupa before their mid-morning meal.

Kathok Lake Yuksom

Kathok Lake (Yuksom, India)

This quiet little lake near Yuksom village is chock full of prayer flags. I was supposed to head east and then north east to Bumthang valley a few days ago but there was a bad earthquake in late September which has made the roads impassable (as it was, the roads getting here were, at times, very rugged b/c of landslides from the monsoons). So I’ve been hanging out in west Sikkim in a few villages that are really jumping off points for treks into the higher elevation mountains.

Street Sleepers

Street Sleeping (Kolkata, India)

An unfortunate part of the reality that is Kolkata. Some days, it seems I couldn’t take more than a few steps without having to walk by or around men, women, children or entire families sleeping on the sidewalks and along the streets of the city.


Smokin Bidis

Smokin Bidis

This guy lives at the Mulik Ghat near the flower market. When I saw him hangin out smoking a hand rolled bidi, i couldn’t help but think he could have just as well been sitting along the walkway at Venice Beach posing for pics with the locals.

Brother’s Love

Brother’s Love (Kolkata, India)

A young boy endures soapy water and a solid scrub from his older brother. Although this shot seems like it’s a private little corner of the city, there’s actually cars and buses and taxis and carts rushing by and people all around. It’s just another day in this crowded, chaotic, intensely hot city.

When You Gotta Go

When You Gotta Go

I spied a bare skinned little boy walk around the corner and quickly reached for my camera. Moments earlier I had been trying to record some music coming from the speakers on the walls of this building. My companion later told me that I had just recorded music from a ‘pay for toilet’ place. And that’s apparently where the little fellow is heading and where the bigger one is coming from.