Widows break taboos at India′s festival of colors | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 27.03.2013
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Widows break taboos at India's festival of colors

A group of Indian widows has created waves by taking part in the annual Hindu festival of colors, Holi. A charity taking care of the women says it is a symbolic beginning of the end to an ingrained form of prejudice.

Thousands of years after a Hindu text described widows as "more inauspicious than all other inauspicious things," in many parts of India, after their husbands' death, Hindu women remain virtual pariahs.

In many sections of the conservative Hindu society the Hindu widows are traditionally expected to renounce materialistic pleasure - they are barred from marrying again and taking part in many colorful celebrations or festivities.

Deserted by relatives and society, many poor Hindu widows have for centuries landed in the Hindu holy city of Vrindavan, in northern India, to spend the last days of their life depending on charity.

With almost no support from the government, most Vrindavan widows survive by begging. But in recent years some non government organizations and other charities have come forward to provide support.

Non-profit organization Sulabh International last year adopted five widow homes in Vrindavan after pledging that it would help the widows "live with dignity."

A widow covered with dust and flowers (Photo: DW/Shaikh Azizur Rahman)

For many of the women, taking part in Holi once again was a moment they had longed for

‘Dreams come true'

On Sunday, 800 widows from the five homes made history by celebrating Holi - the annual Hindu festival of colors, albeit before the rest of the country. The women ended their celebration on Wednesday, the day that Holi began across India as a whole.

Pictures of the exuberant widows showering flower petals and colored powder at each other and dancing to traditional Holi songs were broadcast live on national TV channels. Bindeshwar Pathak the founder of Sulabh said that his group sponsored the celebration to make the widows feel free from the "shackles of tradition".

"The widows are forbidden to look attractive. They are barred from wearing any form of color. They are made to wear only white saris and keep their head shaven. The patriarchal society shackled the widows in all ways possible," Mr Pathak said to DW.

"For many years most of these widows were forced to live a life doomed in penury and seclusion. But after we adopted them, the basic needs of their life are fulfilled. By wanting to celebrate Holi they wanted to fulfill one of their long-cherished desires. I immediately said that our organisation must support their Holi."

Most of the widows who took part in the Holi said that it was a "dream-come-true" celebration for them.

Minati Majumder, who arrived Vrindavan from West Bengal 21 years ago, said that she never believed that as a widow she could take part and enjoy Holi before her death.

Two widows enacting a Holi play (Photo: DW/Shaikh Azizur Rahman)

As well as celebrating color, widows sang and danced to music

"For two decades I used shut myself in our room because we knew we were widows and Holi was not for us," Minati, 68, said to DW.

"On Sunday I really enjoyed Holi at our home, I danced around… the way I had done in my childhood and when my husband was alive. I enjoyed it a lot. On Sunday I felt I was 30 years younger."

Scenes divide opinion

The celebration of Holi by the widows in Vrindavan has triggered mixed reactions across the country. Jogeswar Baba, a Hindu monk in Vrindaban said, widows had indulged in anti-Hindu act by celebrating Holi.

"All Hindus know that widows never play Holi. The poor widows in Vrindavan struggle to manage their livelihood. They could have never thought of celebrating the Holi on their own," Baba said to DW.

"The organisation (of Sulabh) is spoiling the widows. It helped the widows indulge in a forbidden ritual."

However, rights activist and professor in Shillong's North Eastern Hill University, Prasenjit Biswas, said that it was the patriarchal priestly class that distorted the Hindu scriptures and introduced the taboos that ran contrary to religious tradition.

A widow collecting flower petals (Photo: DW/Shaikh Azizur Rahman)

Flower petals are collected and thrown during the festival, along with colored powder

"Debarring the widows from playing Holi smacks of sexist anti-Hindu, illiberal and orthodox prejudice amounting to violation of fundamentals rights," Prof Biswas told DW.

Meanwhile, All India Progressive Women's Association secretary, Kavita Krishnan, said that it was an indictment of modern India that the notion of widows celebrating Holi attracted so much attention.

"We welcome the celebration of the Holi by the widows in Vrindavan. We still await the day when Vrindavan will have no women set apart as "widows" - rather all women will be recognised as persons in their own right, with inalienable citizenship rights," Ms Krishnan said to DW.

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