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India's 'water wives'
02:29 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Denganmal is located in a part of western India that routinely experiences drought

Though bigamy is illegal in India unless you're Muslim, Sakharam Bhagat, a Hindu, has three wives

His second and third wives play a crucial role in helping to collect water for the family

CNN  — 

Denganmal is a typical village in India’s western Maharashtra state. With a population of around 500 people, it’s a tiny place, where everyone knows everyone.

We were there to meet Sakharam Bhagat.

Bhagat’s modest house is made of mud, supported by a few wooden beams. But it’s one of the bigger huts in the neighborhood – and Bhagat’s family is one of the largest.

A middle aged lady wearing a colorful sari and a bright smile comes out to greet us, introducing herself as Tuki, while two other women peep out from inside the house to see who has come.

I understand their curiosity. We’re strangers who’ve shown up at their doorstep with a bunch of cameras and many questions.

While Tuki chats with us, the other ladies, Saakhri and Bhaggi hover around.

The hierarchy is clear: Tuki is Sakharam Bhagat’s first wife. “I’ve been married for so long, I can’t even remember how many years it’s been,” she laughs.

Saakhri and Bhaggi joined the family later. They are Sakharam’s second and third wives, respectively.

Illegal marriage

It’s an unusual and complicated relationship. It’s also against the law: polygamy is illegal in India unless you’re Muslim, and the Bhagat family is Hindu.

Initially hesitant to talk about it, Tuki eventually explains their circumstances.

She and Sakharam have six children. When they were younger, Tuki was responsible for looking after them while her husband went to work in the fields. Tuki would run the house, cook, clean, feed and bathe her children – but she faced a massive problem: There was no water.

Denganmal is located in a region which routinely experiences drought-like conditions. In the summer months, the heat is so severe that wells run dry and cattle die. There is no water connection in this village. It’s in a remote, hilly area, isolated from other villages.

The only solution is to walk to a well or to river, carrying vessels to fill up with water. Neither are close by. It can take up to 12 hours to go there and return home. “How could I leave my children alone for so long?” Tuki asks.

Sakharam had no option. He married again. And again. So that wife number two and wife number three could go and collect water while Tuki managed the home and kids.

“I did what I did only because of water,” he tells me.

Water wives

Saakhri and Bhaggi are now known locally as “paani bais,” or water wives.

For years, they’ve been performing the same routine. In the summer months, Saakhi and Bhaggi leave home at sunrise, carrying empty vessels on their head. They walk through fields and mud tracks, up and down the hilly terrain, to a river where they fetch water.

READ: Why does India get such extreme summers?

It’s a challenging journey. Each vessel carries approximately 15 liters of water and each woman usually balances two vessels on her head. During the monsoon months, the walk is shorter because a well close by fills up.

It’s a tough life. Saakhri and Bhaggi don’t talk to me about their situation but Tuki tell us they were both widows. By marrying again, the women gain status in society once more. In many parts of rural India where traditions run deep, women are ostracized after their husbands die. They aren’t allowed to participate in religious functions or festivals, and in some cases, aren’t permitted to eat with the rest of the family either.

While I don’t know Saakhri and Bhaggi’s individual life stories, I do know they get the respect associated with being married women once again. The family eats together, lives together, and we see and hear them laugh together.

They’ve had this arrangement for years, Tuki tells me.

Little has changed in Denganmal over that time. There’s still no water in the village. So wives two and three must still go out and get water every day. They need it to cook, clean, bathe and wash utensils and clothes.

It’s water – or the lack thereof – that keeps this unusual family together.