Vrindavan, India - Breaking the centuries-old custom of widows not celebrating festivals, Tukni Devi, a 90-year-old, took part in Holi celebrations for the first time in 66 years. Widowed at the age of 24, Devi was shunned by her family and lived as a recluse in an ashram in the holy Indian city of Varanasi.
"Widows in our society are treated worse than animals. I was abandoned by my family to starve and fend for myself. The society thinks we are not worthy of living with them as we lost our husband. I have never celebrated any festival after his death," she said.
Holi, the festival of colours, is one of the biggest Hindu holidays celebrated across India. However, orthodox traditions forbid widows from taking part in the celebrations, which involves playing with coloured powder. In an effort to draw these widows into mainstream society and lower the social stigma surrounding them, the NGO Sulabh International organised three days of Holi festivities for widows living in the northern Indian cities of Vrindavan and Varanasi. The two holy cities are located in the state of Uttar Pradesh and are often referred to as the cities of widows. Women who are shunned by society after the deaths of their husbands are often abandoned in these cities or go there to voluntarily seek refuge in the different ashrams for widows.
"It was in 2011 that we received a letter from the Supreme Court of India about the pathetic condition of widows living in Vrindavan and Varanasi. They were starving and were not even managing to get one meal in a day. Their condition was worse than stray animals. We started the process of giving them two meals a day and providing financial assistance," said Vinita Verma, vice president of Sulabh International.
"This kind of celebrations and activities is being done to improve the condition of these widows. We did face resistance from the orthodox members of the society but we will also not give up. Traditionally they are allowed to just wear a white sari [the traditional colour for widows] and cannot wear any makeup. Here they will play with colours, wear colourful clothes and some of them have even decided to apply makeup," she added.
The celebrations that took place at Pagal Baba Widow Ashram in Vrindavan saw participation by more than 1,000 widows. Over 1,400kg of flower petals and 1,000kg of gulal (coloured powder) were brought in by the NGO for the celebrations.
"Life is tough in the widow ashram. I am the youngest in the ashram and I lost my husband three years ago. We are expected to give up on all the earthly desires and just wait for death. I have been leading a life of hopelessness because there is still a long life ahead of me. However this celebration is giving me hope and I have been never been so happy," said Annapurna Sharma, 38, a widow from Varanasi.
Another participant in the celebrations was octogenarian Manu Ghosh who has lived in an ashram for widows in Vrindavan after she lost her husband when she was 37.
"The only wish I have is to celebrate this festival with fervour till the time I live on this earth," she said.