For India's Widows, A Riot Of Color, An Act Of Liberation

Mar 6, 2015
Originally published on March 7, 2015 10:03 pm

"I have no one. I've lost everything. My children are gone, my parents are gone. My husband's family doesn't ask about me. They don't even look for me, they don't even know if I eat," says Manu Ghosh, 85.

That's her above, seen before and after the Hindu festival of Holi at her ashram in northern India.

Manu was married at age 10 and found her way to the northern city of Vrindavan at 37. By that time, she was already widowed and had lost three children, who she says all died prematurely. Manu is one of many widows among the ashrams of Vrindavan whom I met covering this year's Holi festival.

Holi is the festival of colors, culminating in the riotous tossing of powder and water balloons meant to herald the arrival of spring. Bonfires on the eve of this ancient celebration mark the triumph of good over evil and are seen as a chance to forgive. It's celebrated wherever there are people of Indian descent — Bangladesh, Nepal, Guyana, South Africa — but here the celebrations take on the hue of liberation.

Hindu tradition frowns on widows celebrating at such festivals. In some parts of the culture, the women are seen as the cause of their husband's death and relatives believe they should be cast out. The segregation of widows can be so extreme that in some places they are prevented from attending family gatherings, including weddings. Many poor widows are abandoned by their families and left to fend for themselves. According to census data, India is believed to have tens of millions of widows. Thousands live out their lives in the ashrams in the ancient temple-filled city of Vrindavan, popularly known as the City of Widows.

But when the widows of Vrindavan ignore the social taboo and join in the fun, Holi takes on a whole new dimension. Cavorting in the chaos of color, women young and old stand in showers of rose petals and marigolds and playfully smear each other with fuchsia, green and gold powder. With this act of joy, the women fight back against restrictions that have ostracized them.

Photographer Susannah Ireland and I spent two days with the widows as they went through their morning rituals, nimbly preparing blossoms that perfumed the celebrations and shopping for new saris. Widows traditionally wear white, but breaking the mold, they go for a splash of color.

Widows are reclaiming their "womanhood," says Annapurna Sharma, 38, seen fixing her hair in the image above. She traveled 400 miles from Varanasi for her first Holi since her husband died six years ago, and she took the daring step of applying makeup for the occasion.

Urmila Sarkar, 73, balancing blossoms on her head in the image above, says her family wants her to come home, but she prefers to stay at the ashram. "My husband is now Lord Krishna," she says, flashing a coquettish smile.

It's not just color that is tossed around. Petals of roses, marigolds and daisies are meticulously gathered to be thrown into the air marking the beginning of festivities. For the third consecutive year, Sulabh International, an Indian nonprofit group, has helped the widows stage the festivities inside the Meera Sahbhagini Ashram, where they live.

Dancers perform Raas Leela, re-enacting Lord Krishna's playful teasing of Radha, a gopi or female devotee who is said to have loved him unconditionally. The ashram widows are often described as Krishna's gopis, having made him the governing force of their lives.

Here's the climax of all their work: the widows reveling in the shower of powder that turned the courtyard a cloud of pink. Some are octogenarians, but these spry widows played pranks that could rival any teenager. They have dance moves to match. They ambush the unsuspecting with the eye-stinging powder. More than once, I missed them coming straight for me. Bam! Another pigment pie in the eye. I worried they'd get sick and that all their frolicking would end badly. But these women are made of sterner stuff, having weathered abuse, rejection, isolation and worse. A little powder was not about to stop them.

Before they played Holi in Vrindavan, there were plenty of tears. Women told me of how their lives broke down, recounting the in-laws who discarded them, the threats of violence from their own sons, and husbands who sold them off to other men. Basana Dasi, 42, was widowed by the age of 15. Dabbing her eyes and nose with her brand new sari, she recalled her mother-in-law saying, "My son is no longer here. What do I do with a daughter-in-law?"

The celebrations are ephemeral. The wounds these women carry will last a lifetime.

During this festival, however, those wounds don't weigh so heavily. For Shakuntala Devi, 65, it was her first Holi in 27 years. Drenched in color, she beamed, "I was remembering the way we used to play Holi in my family." Then she adds, "Today, this is my family."

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We're going to go now to the Indian city of Vrindavan. It's also known as the city of widows. Many poor widows live there, by custom they've been abandoned by their families, and Hindu social restrictions discourage them from celebrating national occasions. But this week, as India welcomed the the arrival of spring in a festival of colors called Holi, widows happily snubbed the social taboos. NPR's Julie McCarthy was there.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: In a centuries-old tradition, widows from all over India come to Vrindavan in the north to live out the rest of their lives.


MCCARTHY: An estimated 15,000 widows, a quarter of the city's population, live in ashrams like this one known as Meera Sahbhagini. Ornate carvings on the exterior evoke a former glory that since faded in the narrow lanes, running with raw sewage.


MCCARTHY: Even as they prepare for Holi, the women of the ashram maintain their early morning ritual - chanting around a fire of wood, charcoal and cow dung. The pungent prayer room doubles as their dormitory. Everything the women possess fits beneath their beds. Widows dance, some drum and still others venerate a small shrine that glows on one end of the dark room. Temples abound in this ancient city devoted to Lord Krishna, the deity in the Hindu faith that is now the governing force in these widows' lives. Across the hall, 85-year-old Manu Ghosh invites us in to her decaying quarters, with its peeling paint and exposed electrical wiring.

MANU GHOSH: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: Head shaven and wearing a widow's white sari, Ghosh recounts her difficult life - married at age 10, making her way to Vrindavan at age 37, widowed and grieving her three children who all died, she says. Seated on her bed as hard as stone, the rheumy-eyed widowed gives a vivid account of what brought her here.

GHOSH: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: Manu Ghosh is saying she has no one. She has lost everything. "My children are gone, my parents are gone," she said, "My husband's family doesn't look for me." She said, "They don't even know if I eat." She says, "Here in this ashram, I'm happy, and we celebrate all of the festivals." For their Holi celebrations, the women sat and plucked over 2,000 pounds of rose and marigold petals. Between the piles of flowers, steps Urmila Sarkar. Rapunzel-like at 73, she effortlessly balances bowls of the blossoms on her head.

URMILA SARKAR: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: She says her family wants her back, but she refuses to go. She chooses to be in Vrindavan near Lord Krishna, the God renowned for his charms and female followers. "I couldn't look at another man," Sarkar says with a coquettish smile. Mohini Giri, former chairman of the National Commission for Women, says widows are expected to shun worldly pleasures. Giri says shaving their heads and dressing in white are intended to strip them of their desirability, especially cruel for young widows, she says, who may want to remarry.

MOHINI GIRI: She has no appeal to anybody. Once she wears those colors, she's not a sex object to men. The root cause of all this is patriarchy.

MCCARTHY: But women too shunned widows, suspiciously regarding them as competition. Mohini Giri, who's agitated for widows' rights for decades, says in some places, widows are blamed for their husband's death and considered inauspicious. Their own relatives bar them from family weddings. But widows are spurning decades of stigma that's banished them and going shopping for new outfits to wear for this year's Holi.


MCCARTHY: Crowding the stall, they scan for any sari with color. Organizer Vanita Varma says the new clothes are a gift from Sulabh International, a social service organization that has adopted seven government ashrams. It's staged Holi for the past three years, Varma says, to help these windows rejoin the mainstream despite the naysayers.

VINITA VARMA: They keep on telling you, OK, you are widow, you can't eat, you can't dress, you can't do make up. But then we have to cut all these things, break all these traditions. So this is a very revolutionary step which we are doing, you know?

MCCARTHY: Yet even widows selecting their saris rationalize the discrimination against them. Listen to Sarati Mujumdar, 61, from West Bengal, a state that's produced a disproportionate share of exiled widows.

SARATI MUJUMDAR: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "My son has a small income. I'm a mother and I left because I cannot see him suffering to support me," she says, justifying her exile. In that sense, the plight of these widows is a contradiction in India, where caring for one's parent is an unquestioned duty. The discarded widows of this Vrindavan find solace from the sting of exclusion in a full-throttle Holi.


MCCARTHY: Music blaring, they frolicked in a storm of rose petals. Widows, aged at 38 to 102, joined the reverie. Elfin-like octogenarians darted between the merrymakers, dousing unsuspecting victims in a hail of fuchsia, green and gold powder. The courtyard turned a haze of pink. Eighty-five-year-old Manu Ghosh emerged covered in colors and beaming with delight. The widows reconnected with the wider world, where slowly they have been gaining acceptance. Annapurna Sharma traveled 400 miles from from Varanasi to play Holi for the first time since her husband died six years ago. The 38-year-old not only donned a bright floral sari, she took the radical step of applying makeup.

ANNAPURNA SHARMA: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "When I put on makeup, it makes me feel good," says Sharma. She says she's reclaiming her femininity, her womanhood. "People used to make you feel awkward, but times are changing," Sharma says, "society is changing." Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Vrindavan, India. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.