Aruna Samaddar threw fistfuls of colored powder into the air. Blue and red and green, the cheerful colors settled on her white sari and all over other women nearby.
In most of India, widows like Samaddar have no place in this joyful celebration of Holi, the Hindu festival of colors. The country’s millions of observant Hindu widows are expected to live out their days in quiet worship, dressed only in white. They are typically barred from all religious festivities because their very presence is considered inauspicious.
So for Samaddar, Monday’s celebration was a joy long denied.
“I am so happy. I am playing Holi after 12 years. I am happy, very happy,” said Samaddar, who appeared to be in her early 30s. The powder made her white sari and those of the widows around her shimmer in myriad colors.
So deep is the ostracization of widows that they’re often shunned by their families and forced to seek shelter in temples.
The holy city of Vrindavan, in India’s Uttar Pradesh state, is known as the City of Widows because it has given so many women shelter. And in recent years, widows have found a bit of color and joy here as well.
Aid group Sulabh International has been organizing regular Holi celebrations in Vrindavan since 2013. Samaddar and more than 1,000 other widows gathered in the courtyard of one of the city’s oldest temples — devoted to Krishna, the most playful of the Hindu gods. The festival of Holi falls on Thursday this year, but in Vrindavan and many other parts of the country, the playing of colors begins a week ahead.
Hindu priests chanted religious verses as hundreds of widows splashed colored powders and played with water pistols filled with colored water. Showers of flower petals filled the air.
As loud music blasted, the younger women jostled with each other as they played with the colors.
For dozens of older women, years of social conditioning proved hard to break. They applied only tiny dots of color to each other’s foreheads.
“Their participation in Holi symbolizes a break from tradition, which forbids a widow from wearing a colored sari, among many other things,” said Bindeshwar Pathak, the head of Sulabh International.
Sulabh was asked to oversee the lives of widows of the city by India’s Supreme Court following news reports of the widows being forced to beg for food and into prostitution. While there are tens of thousands of widows in Vrindavan, the group has been appointed caretaker for about 1,500.
The organization looks after their basic needs and gives them a stipend of 2,000 rupees ($30) to buy essentials. They are taught to make incense sticks and garlands to ensure that they can earn a small amount of money on their own. But for most part, the women spend the day singing hymns to Krishna, for which they earn 10 rupees (15 cents).
The women range in age from 22 to 100. Some were abandoned by their families decades ago.
While some women were not comfortable joining in the celebration of colors Samaddar was determined to have at least one day of cheer.
“We have got just one day to celebrate life,” she said as she tossed the colors joyfully. “Let’s do it to the hilt.”