Today is Holi! Most people know it as the joyful Hindu holiday that greets the arrival of spring, offers gratitude for a plentiful harvest, and encourages the tossing of colored powder on anything and everything. Vibrant images of multi-colored faces doused in powder appear on the internet, and everyone looks happy and carefree. It’s a playful day of laughter and fun for nearly everyone in India. Except the widows. They are not allowed to celebrate religious/cultural festivals. But with the help of one man — and the organization he founded — the widows are slowly and steadily chipping away at this age-old custom.
The Plight of Widows in India
Widows in India are still shunned by their families, particularly in rural areas. The days of women throwing themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre are long gone, but neglect and abject poverty still rear their ugly heads in the lives of women whose husbands have died. A select number of widows (about 10,000 out of the country’s estimated 46 million) end up in Vrindavan, a city in Northern India that is believed to be the birthplace of Lord Krishna. Many widows travel hundreds of miles to reach Vrindavan but, once there, many receive both a small monthly pension and some access to health care. The really lucky ones also receive shelter.
In 1970, Bindeshwar Pathak, a sociologist by training, founded Sulabh International. The organization mobilizes thousands of volunteers to promote human rights, education for all, and environmentally sound waste management. In 2013, Pathak began leading the Vrindavan widows in the annual festival of colors. Historically, widows in India are required to wear all white, to keep their hair cropped short, and to remain single. They are also barred from celebrating Holi, India’s popular festival of colors. Pathak’s flagrant disregard for this cultural ban and his encouragement of the Vrindavan widows offer an annual spotlight on India’s ongoing debate about civil rights for widows.
2018 marks the 6th year that the widows of Vrindavan have celebrated Holi.