Varanasi, India's holiest city, attracts millions of pilgrims seeking purification in the waters of the river Ganges.

For many, a journey here is the highlight of religious life - the most important pilgrimage a person can make.

While most pilgrims to Varanasi take their blessings and move on, others come to stay.

Widows, often shunned and stigmatised by their families and communities, go to Varanasi in the hope of eventually dying there.

Punigali Devi, a 93 year old widow originally from Nepal, married at the age of of 12 and became a widow one year later.

"All my family died," she said.

"I came to Varanasi 40 years ago, looking for shelter and hoping to gain salvation."

Another widow, 37 year old Anapurna Sharma, married when she was 21 and was widowed five years later.

"As soon as my husband was cremated and the death rituals performed, my in-laws threw me out," she said.

"I had nowhere to go. My life was over."

She led a hand-to-mouth existence as a widow for thirteen years.

Recently, along with 25 other widows in Varanasi, she started getting help from the NGO 'Sulabh International' which works to help Varanasi's widows.

Anapurna Sharma now receives a small monthly stipend and the widows' refuge for the first time boasts clean water and a steady electricity supply.

"I have more confidence," she said.

"I want to return to studies and become a teacher."

Anapurna Sharma's hopeful life is an exception among Varanasi's widows.

Most of the city's widows continue living on the edge of society and in the desperate hope of a better life in a future reincarnation.

Vinita Sharma, Program Coordinator at the NGO 'Sulabh International', says widows in India are often stigmatised and are forced into poverty.

"In India, a husband is considered to be the head of the family," she said.

"Once a lady becomes a widow, people consider her as a burden.

"They are in need of food, in need of clothes, many basic requirements."


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