The popular ancient Hindu festival ‘Holi’ was celebrated over the weekend but in many communities in India where orthodox Hinduism is practiced, Hindu widows are still not permitted to participate in the festivities.
A tradition that sees widowed women shunned from society when their husbands die and abandoned by their families, with some superstitious family members blaming them for their husband’s death, these women are among the poorest of the poor in India.
“In India, when a lady loses her husband she has no means of earning a living, and neither is she able to enjoy festivals,” Vinita Verma, a spokesperson for NGO Sulabh International told EFE.
A report published by charity Loomba Foundation found that there are roughly 46 million widows in India, making up nine percent of the country’s population.
Viewed by society and even their own families as bad omens, the widowed women are expected to give up all worldly pleasures, dress only in white and live out their days in worship. Impoverished, neglected and often banished by their families, many of the women make their way to the holy city of Vrindavan in northern India to find solace.
In a 2009 research paper about Hindu widows it states: “Widowhood in India is often described as a definitive and tragic moment in a woman’s life—one in which her identity is stripped away with the death of her husband.
“As early as the second century BCE, the Laws of Manu, an influential text in Hindu scripture, had created a set of structured gender relations in the Brahmin caste. Included in the text are the statutes that a widow must remove all excess adornments, observe fasts, eat limited meals each day, forgo hot foods… The same text also pronounces that a woman who is widowed cannot remarry.”
Thus celebrating Holi, often referred to as the Hindu Festival of Colours, had been forbidden for Hindu widows for more than 400 years. But all this changed in 2012 when the Supreme Court of India, took plight of these women and passed special orders for their identification, rehabilitation and empowerment.
Following the Supreme Court’s historic decision, in March 2013, Sulabh International, an NGO established in 1968 inspired by the Mahatma Gandhi’s peaceful and non-violent approach to social change, organised a gathering in Vrindavan which saw widowed women participating in Holi celebrations for the very first time.
These delicate issues were explored in the 2019 Indian feature film ‘The Last Color‘ produced and directed by Indian-American chef Vikas Khann, adapted from his novel of the same name.
“Even though I have seen it a lot as a kid — how [widows] weren’t allowed to be part of any festivities or even birthdays — that hurt me deeply,” explains the chef turned filmmaker to Lifestyle Asia. “So this memory was stuck in my mind, why is nobody questioning it.
“And when Holi was arranged for these widows in 2013, I saw it as a symbol of change. A rebirth of traditions. It was then that I figured this story needs to be a novel.”
While things are slowly changing for widowed women in India thanks to increased awareness of these cultural issues in the media, they still face an uphill battle to overcome social stigma, abuse and discrimination.
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Cover image by Tom Watkins.