Whilst most of the western world is out celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day, in India, the spring festival of Holi has fallen on the date. All across India there are flowers being thrown in the air and water fights with a difference, the water is colored so that the celebrators are stained in a multitude of hues. In the Northern region of Uttar Pradesh, in the town of Vrindavan, approximately 1,000 widows are joining in the fun this year. This act is a form of protest as the women are supposed to renounce all earthly pleasures and wear white as a mark of their widow status.
The area is something of a haven for widows, as it is seen as a holy town and the birthplace of their god, the Lord Krishna. In fact, there are so many widows in the area that the non-government organization, Sulabh International has set up a monthly stipend of $32, as well as providing healthcare facilities and food. The organization also provides literacy classes and teaches them sewing, garland and agarbathis (a form of incense) making. This is in an effort to provide the women with some gainful means of employment. The women previously lived in marginalization, their families place the blame of their husband’s deaths around their shoulders. Many were married as young as 10 years old, and widowed by the age of 17. They have lived their lives in relative homelessness and poverty.
Amongst the celebrating women is Lalita Adhikari. She is 108 years old and has lived in Vrindavan for over 70 years. To begin with, she was skeptical about joining in on the festivities. Although the others view their participation in the festival of Holi as a form of protest of their widow status, initially Adhikari, who has borne witness to times when widows were treated worse than dogs, can not see how one day will undo all those years. She reportedly comments that when she arrived in Vrindavan, she used to work in a glass factory and send money back home to her family, but they would not accept it from her. However, after a moment. she asked for a little bit of the color and it is brought to her and applied on her forehead. After 80 years of widowhood, her saree finally has a drop of color again. She remembered playing Holi as a child, but had not been allowed to since the death of her husband.
Last year the women made their first steps towards Holi as they took part by throwing flowers in the air and singing songs. This year, they decided to throw themselves into the festival. They joyfully smeared themselves and their guests with gulal (colored powder) and danced in an ashram courtyard while colored water was poured on them from above. One resident of the ashram where the widows live stated that she never wanted the day to end. Another commented she wished the color would never come off.
The event was organized by Sulabh International, who wished to see the widows happy and joining in the celebrations of Holi. The widows, empowered by their protest, will no doubt return next year in even stronger numbers.
By Sara Watson