National Geographic : 1971 Oct
THE ROOM ABOVE THE GANGES was light and airy with tall windows, and pigeons and sparrows fluttered in to perch or walk about. Twenty women sat in two rows facing each other, clashing finger cym bals and chanting over and over, "Hare [Lord] Krishna, Hare Krishna, Hare Rama, Hare Rama.... " The beat slowed; three women lit the sacred fire on an altar. One stepped to the balcony and sounded a conch shell, softly, for she was very old. Another brought Ganges water, sweetmeats, bits of mint. The chanting resumed, then stopped. The women pulled the hems of their saris and prayer shawls over their heads and bent for ward in meditation (preceding pages). The saris were white, for these were widows, and this room in the Bhajan Ashram was their last refuge. The manager, a young college student, told 464 me the ashram was built by a Calcutta busi nessman whose cargo was feared lost at sea. "The businessman prayed to the goddess Devi for its safe return. She then appeared to him in a dream and told him to build a house for widows on the Ganges. He began con struction immediately, and the ship with his cargo came in. Now gifts from other business men keep the ashram going." Bittersweet memories softened the faces of some of the younger widows, but the hard task of surviving consumed the thoughts of most. One told me, "We want food and we want God, and if you pray to God you get what you want." They believe, as written in the Hindu scrip tures, that repeating the names of revered deities leads to sanctification and ultimately to mukti-comrnunin with God and escape from the cycle of rebirth.