Clouds of brightly colored powders and the fragrance of flowers filled the air as the people of India gathered in the streets to welcome yet another springtime to their country. But for the widows of Vrindavan, the 2013 Holi Festival signified the end of a bleak, centuries-long winter.
For generations, widows in India have suffered mistreatment and oppression. Up until the eighteenth century, it was commonly expected that a widow should burn herself to death on her husband’s funeral pyre. Today, this practice of sati is illegal, however in its place, thousands of widows are sentenced to a living death.
Through strict codes of dress and behavior, many widows find themselves dehumanized and ostracized from their communities. The rules are the same regardless of the widow’s age, and with the practice of child marriage still alive, many widows are quite young, even still in their childhoods. No longer considered a “her,” but an “it,” a widow is no longer allowed any personal display of feminine beauty. She must dress only in white, the color of mourning, and is not allowed to wear any adornment such as jewelry. She may even be required to shave her head. Considered a burden by her relatives and stigmatized in the community as bad luck, a widow is often abandoned by her family, shunned by society, and sentenced to a reclusive life of poverty.
With nowhere else to go, thousands of widows have relocated to the city of Vrindavan, known as the “city of widows,” where they live segregated as outcasts in ashrams that serve as communal shelters. A widow must often beg on the streets in order to earn a meager sustenance and in some instances is forced into prostitution to earn extra money for the head of her ashram. Considered cursed, widows have traditionally been banned from public festivities such as weddings and holiday celebrations. The forty million widowed women and girls living in India today are often subjected to cruel name calling or are simply treated as invisible.
The plight of the widows has not gone unnoticed however. Social activist groups such as Sulabh International are working to bring India’s widows back into the mainstream of society. Sulabh is currently providing food, health care, education, and vocational training to the widows in Vrindavan.
Equally important, Sulabh is also restoring dignity and infusing life back into the barren souls of these once vibrant women. This year with the encouragement of Sulabh, the widows of Vrindavan broke with tradition to join in their community’s annual celebration of Holi. Donning colorful saris, the widows welcomed spring alongside their neighbors with a wildly joyous celebration of this Festival of Colors. With beaming smiles and tears streaming down their cheeks, the widows danced, showering each other with the brightly colored powders of Holi while sweetly scented rose petals rained down from above.
Bindeshwar Pathak, the founder of Sulabh International, explains the significance of the event by saying, “When I came last, in August 2012, everybody used to say ‘no, we want to die now. We don’t want to live more.’ Yesterday when we celebrated Holi, they all said, ‘no, no, no, we want to live.’ They are forgetting the past.”
My passion as documentary filmmaker is to leverage the power of a stories like this to educate and mobilize support for those who are suffering injustice, like the widows of India. Learn more about my new film and how you can help tell stories like this here.