Between prayer and penance

P Anima | Updated on June 08, 2018

Watchful eyes: The women keep close tabs on the number of agarbattis they have made and any perceived exaggeration is quickly rebutted by the others   -  P ANIMA

Under a new rehabilitation project, temple flowers — offerings today, waste tomorrow — are being used to make joss sticks and fragrances by the widows of Vrindavan

In the faintly-lit hall of the Meera Sahbhagini Mahila Ashraya Sadan in Vrindavan, elderly women sit quietly in rows of red plastic chairs, playing a part they are not versed in — of students. There is not as much as a murmur as they get up, one by one, and walk to the table nearby to watch the instructor dab perfume on new agarbattis. They ask no questions, but diligently follow instructions, and soon, instructor Arti Devi has packed a bunch of scented agarbattis (joss sticks) into a small plastic pouch and handed it to the women.

The women, most of them widows, old and alone, have lived in Vrindavan for years. Clad in crinkly white saris, the sandalwood mark prominent on the forehead, they sit back and watch as officials from the Fragrance and Flavour Development Centre (FFDC) impart a few more tips before winding up the fourth day of a 10-day training session. For a quiet bunch, the matas, as they are called, are fairly competitive. Each of them keeps close tabs on the number of agarbattis they have made over the four days. Any perceived exaggeration is quickly rebutted by the others. “Skirmishes do break out occasionally,” says Kiran Dubey, the warden, as she helps translate from Bengali, the language spoken by most older women.

Deepa Karmakar is miffed about not being asked the number of agarbattis she has made. Some women have made close to a 100 a day, others have tottered around the 50-mark, a few have managed even less. For the women of the two government-run Mahila Ashraya Sadans in Vrindavan, the training is a break from the routine of prayer and penance. The training though is a small part of a larger rehabilitation programme for the Vrindavan widows. The Uttar Pradesh Mahila Kalyan Vibhag (MKV) is guiding a pilot project that intends to help the women sustain themselves by making agarbattis, dhoop battis, gulaland fragrances. However, the initiative stands apart for its commitment to environment too. Each item will be made from the floral offerings to the scores of temples in Vrindavan. What would otherwise end up in the Yamuna or in the dingy streets of town will now be turned into a source of engagement and livelihood. Hence, the project has struck a chord with the women who spend their day chanting the lord’s name. “The flowers have been offered to Bihariji,” the women repeat.


Sitting in his spartan office at the Mahila Ashraya Sadan at Chaitanya Vihar, project coordinator Vikram Shivpuri insists the initiative did not evolve as a business proposition. Instead, it stemmed as a way to keep the women engaged, and grew to tackle the issue of floral waste. “A project using temple flowers was new to everyone and had no business model,” says Shivpuri.

Flowers from the temples at Chaitanya Vihar Mahila Ashraya Sadan   -  P ANIMA


Talks for the project began last October, and by April, the Brijgandha Prasar Samiti was formed with the Mathura district magistrate as the chairperson. “The government has given a two-year grant of ₹1.67 crore. Once the project begins, the women will be paid about ₹100 an hour,” says Sumati Mishra, general manager, MKV. The intent, says Shivpuri, is to make it self-sustaining. The initiative has enabled the coming together of the administration as well as the civil society, and was commended by the Supreme Court (SC) in April, which directed temple towns across the country to emulate the model. Renuka Kumar, principal secretary, women and child department, had written to the SC detailing the project that aimed to convert garbage into eco-friendly, handmade products.

The Chaitanya Vihar sadan, home to 240 women, is the primary hub for the project. A large pile of dry flowers is spread out on sheets in the corridor. The new distillation machine awaits installation, and inside, restructuring is under way at the two halls earmarked for the project. Flowers from around 15 temples in town are now dropped off at the sadan. “We have one representative at each of the temples. Some like Isckon and Prem Mandir tend to have a lot of floral offerings. At the Shiv temple, offerings are large on Mondays,” says Shivpuri, charting out the logistics. Dry jasmine makes a large part of the pile now. But that is not always the case, he points out. “Sometimes, we get a lot of roses, marigold on other occasions.” The flowers are dried, sorted and packed in sacks. “We have about five quintals of flowers now, dried and stored,” he says. While training is under way to teach the women to make agarbattis, dhoop battis and gulal, training to make fragrant essence will begin only after the distillation machines are functional. “The flowers have to be moist to press out the oil, hence, they have to be in the machine within an hour after it reaches us,” points out Shivpuri.

FFDC, the technical partner, is tasked with machinery installation, training as well as evolving fragrances. While setting up the distillation machine is expected to take time, the others will be installed sooner setting off trial production. The brand name, online domain, and packaging are being worked out. “We are trying to keep the packaging eco-friendly. The durability and strength of the products will also have to be considered,” adds Shivpuri.

The project team aims to use the first phase of production to iron out the creases. Janmashtami, a big celebration in Vrindavan, will be a testing ground to plug shortcomings, streamline the process and test the products.


Brisk strokes: The Vrindavan widows are the mainstay of the project, and so far, 210 of them have been trained in making agarbattis and dhoop battis   -  P ANIMA


Logistics and technical know-how are vital for the project. But its mainstay is the Vrindavan widows. So far, 210 women from the two sadans have been trained for 10 days each in making agarbattis, dhoop battis and gulal. Some of them have been earnest, and cannot wait for production to begin. A few have surprised with their skilled handwork. Sitting with the other women in the hall that will soon be their workspace, Shresta Chakravorty says she cannot but be moved by the spirituality of the exercise. Among the younger inmates in the sadan, Chakravorty says, “There are a lot of people who wish to come to Vrindavan, but cannot. Our agarbattis and dhoop battis, made with floral offerings, is a way to take Vrindavan to them.” Though this is the first time Chakravorty is engaging in such work, she has come to like it.

Shanti Mitra, who has been at the sadan for three years, says the work has given her purpose. “These flowers would otherwise lie on the road and be trampled upon. The streets will now be less dirty. Garbage is being turned into puja material — prasad, and it will be made with our hands,” says Mitra. Urmila Shukla, who has spent the last six years here, keeps it simple — Mann lag raha hai (My heart is in it). She is cryptic about the training too — “Batayenge to seekhenge,” (Show and will learn) she says. Anupama Mukherjee is diligent and follows the tutor’s instructions carefully. Back in her room after the training, Mukherjee had lit a couple of joss sticks she had made and timed it. “One burned for a full 30 minutes and the other for 35. The instructor had told us that it would burn for this long,” she says. At Chaitanya Vihar, 120 women have finished training.

At Meera Sahbhagini, the seventh batch is undergoing training. Karmakar says, “There is no point sitting idle.” After her husband’s death, Karmakar worked as a domestic help for a few years, before making Vrindavan home. That was 16 years ago. She lives on the 15 kg rice, 20 kg wheat, 3.5 litres of kerosene and ₹1,850 allowance she gets from the government. She cooks her meals and spends the rest of the day in prayer. Training in stitching, candle-making and now agarbattis, have helped. “It takes skill to roll the mixture around the stick,” says Karmakar. Sixty-four-year-old Basanti Das is on the ekadasi fast. After the session, she will head back to her room to have the bottle gourd and potato subzi, and before one knows it, she is reeling out the recipe. She also describes the five ingredients that go into making agarbattis with equal purpose. “I made agarbattis with rose powder,” she says. Since machinery is yet to be installed, FFDC got the flowers for the training powdered at its Kannauj unit. Vrinda Das, a priest, is among the oldest inmates in the sadan and has spent the past 40 years in Vrindavan. She had rolled out 80 agarbattis on the first day of the training, “It is thakurji’s wish,” she says with a toothy grin.


As the project rolls out, Shivpuri says the range of work will be varied — sorting, product making, packaging, taking stock and selling. If some are good at all jobs, some are skilled in few. “We have to find out what they can and cannot do, and allot work.” Some women are too old or ill, and a few have opted out of the project. “The intent is to not force them, but to get them together,” says Shivpuri.

The women are aware that once the project takes off, they will earn money from it. But Shivpuri is quick to add that the priorities of the Vrindavan women are different. “If we wanted a business model, all we have to do is go to the neighbouring village where there are many women, healthy and willing to do the job. Here, we are working with women whose willingness and physical abilities are different. They do not have the pressure to make ends meet,” says Shivpuri. Instead, what they seek is spiritual strength in the later years, and an engagement is what the architects of the project believe will keep them going. “I was talking to the matas about what they would like to do while making the products. Would they gossip? They came up with the idea that they could chant as they made the agarbattis. The spiritual way appears to be the way to do it.”


Published on June 08, 2018

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