VRINDAVAN, India – Hundreds of widows in the northern Indian town of Vrindavan broke on Tuesday with traditions forcing them to live modest lives and threw colored powders and flowers at each other in celebration of the festival of Holi.
The festivities were held for the sixth consecutive year in a town known as “the city of widows” in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where thousands of Hindu widows live and are bound by certain traditions, like having short hair, dressing in white – the color of mourning in India – or refraining from eating delicious food.
“If you are a widow, you cannot marry or get good food, wear colorful clothes or simply look good,” Vinita Verma, vice-president of the nonprofit organization Sulabh International, told EFE.
“When a woman loses her husband, his family members start to feel that she is a burden on them,” she added, stressing that it affected women from all castes and classes.
Now covered in red, yellow and blue hues, Krishnadevi, 45, a widow since she was 25, who has attended the celebrations for the past four years, told EFE she enjoys Holi immensely, but it was unthinkable for her to join in any earlier due to social norms preventing widows from participating in such festivals.
Sandikai, 60, said she did not participate directly and preferred to watch the other widows dancing instead.
Sulabh International, which launched Holi for widows back in 2013, aims to give shelter and monthly economic aid to 700 women in Vrindavan, as well as end the stigma associated with being a widow in India.
Verma said celebrating Holi and other Hindu festivals such as Diwali has brought a positive change to the lives of these women.
She pointed out the event faced opposition from monks in its first two years, but they have since started to attend the event and this year’s edition saw a group of four Hindu monks taking a selfie along with the dancing widows.
The number of widows left in Vrindavan has dropped to about 16,000, compared to 25,000 some 25 years ago, according to Mohini Giri, an activist and president of the Guild of Service charity, which helps widows and runs training programs.
She acknowledged it was difficult to measure the exact number of widows in the absence of an official census.
There was a lot to be done, according to Verma, as the three government shelters and four others run by charities were not enough to house all the widows, many of whom are forced to go to temples and beg for food.
“They sing for hours and after that get only 4 rupees ($0.015) and a meal. This is not sufficient to survive, and when they cannot sing any more due to their health and old age, they become penniless and sick,” Verma said.