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Breaking taboos: First Holi ever for Indian widows

Updated Apr 10, 2015 11:37am

By Baba Tamim

Some of these widows are celebrating Holi for the first time.
Some of these widows are celebrating Holi for the first time.
Widows say breaking harsh Hindu tradition that prohibits them from playing Holi or dancing in the festivals must be shunned.
Widows say breaking harsh Hindu tradition that prohibits them from playing Holi or dancing in the festivals must be shunned.
A widow shows her hands, which she says never touched colour for decades altogether.
A widow shows her hands, which she says never touched colour for decades altogether.
Officials of NGO Sulabh International have been instrumental in challenging the traditional backlash on Indian widows that prohibits them from partaking in the festivals.
Officials of NGO Sulabh International have been instrumental in challenging the traditional backlash on Indian widows that prohibits them from partaking in the festivals.
Abandoned by the families, thousands of widows have found happiness in the Vrindavan shelters.
Abandoned by the families, thousands of widows have found happiness in the Vrindavan shelters.

Breaking away from the societal pressures, thousands of Indian widows take part in playing Holi - a Hindu festival of colours - in the northern city of Vrindavan.

Organised by NGO Sulabh International, about one thousand kilos of colour has been arranged for the four-day long activity, which has conventionally remained a non-event for widows.

Having been bereft of their families and living life normally after the death of their husbands, any chance of indulging in festivities is enough to uplift their spirits.

According to Hindu mythology, Vrindavan - a historic town in the Mathura district of northern Uttar Pradesh state - is a place where Hindu Lord Krishna grew up.

Today the city, some 150 kilometres from capital New Delhi, is known as the ‘abode of widows’ that shelters widows, mostly destitute, from across India after relatives and friends reject them.

In orthodox India, widows dress in white most of the time; forever grieving the loss of their husbands. They are not allowed to play with colours and partake in any function after their husbands’ death.

In orthodox India, widows can be seen in white dresses most of the time but at Vrindavan widows are opposing this code.
In orthodox India, widows can be seen in white dresses most of the time but at Vrindavan widows are opposing this code.
About 1000 kilos of powdered colour (Gulal) has been arranged for the four-day event.
About 1000 kilos of powdered colour (Gulal) has been arranged for the four-day event.
Vrindavan is known as the ‘abode of widows’ that shelters widows, mostly destitute, from across India after relatives and friends reject them.
Vrindavan is known as the ‘abode of widows’ that shelters widows, mostly destitute, from across India after relatives and friends reject them.
The four-day event is bringing smiles back on the faces of destitute.
The four-day event is bringing smiles back on the faces of destitute.

Organisers told Dawn that it was a “herculean task” to get these widows to play Holi in Vrindavan.

“It’s very difficult to protest against the social order. Usually widows are not allowed to enjoy the arrival of spring and play Holi. This is war and we’re fighting our enemy – Bad tradition,” Bindeshwar Pathak, advisor of Sulabh Movement told Dawn.

To Bindeshwari Devi, 92, whose husband died 25 years ago, her dream of playing with the colours has come true.

“It’s my first Holi after my husband’s death. It’s like a dream come true. None of my relatives are here. They have abandoned me. But I will remember this day. Not only did I play Holi but I was also photographed for the first time in my life,” she told Dawn.

Until recently widows were not allowed to play Holi after their husbands’ death. But things are changing now.
Until recently widows were not allowed to play Holi after their husbands’ death. But things are changing now.
Lunch being served to the widows post celebrations on the first day.
Lunch being served to the widows post celebrations on the first day.
Kanika Adhikari, 102, is the oldest widow living in the Pagal Baba Ashram (shelter). She was 17 when her husband died. Since then, she says, she has celebrated Holi only twice.
Kanika Adhikari, 102, is the oldest widow living in the Pagal Baba Ashram (shelter). She was 17 when her husband died. Since then, she says, she has celebrated Holi only twice.
Bindeshwari Devi, 92, says she has not only played Holi for the first time after her husband’s death “but I was also photographed for the first time in my life.”
Bindeshwari Devi, 92, says she has not only played Holi for the first time after her husband’s death “but I was also photographed for the first time in my life.”
A widow poses for media men in the event that has drawn wide attention.
A widow poses for media men in the event that has drawn wide attention.

And Urmila Tiwari, 65, doesn’t want to return to her family in eastern West Bengal state who abandoned here immediately after her husband’s death in 1990.

“At home widows have borders. But here (at widow shelters) there is no barrier to happiness. If I would ever go back to my home, I will feel like a guest there.”

She said playing Holi against the harsh customs is a “new revolution.”

“The change has come. And that is how a change must be celebrated,” she told Dawn.

India is celebrating Holi on March 6.

The writer can be followed at: @BabaTamim