Skip to navigationSkip to content
Celebrating in defiance. (Reuters/Cathal McNaughton)
PUT YOUR HANDS UP

The empowering story behind this colorful photo of India’s rebel widows

By Selina Cheng

For conservative Hindu women in India, becoming a widow can mean eternal banishment from society. When husbands die, widows often end up ostracized, dismissed as inauspicious perpetual mourners. Until recently, they were not socially permitted to celebrate the colorful Hindu spring festival of Holi.

“A widow must not dress in colors or make herself pretty, because that would be inappropriate to her new role as eternally diminished mourner. A widow must eat only bland food, in small portions, because richness and spice would stir passions she should never again experience,” reported National Geographic in a February feature about global widowhood. “These are fading Hindu rules, largely dismissed by educated Indians as relics of another century, but they are still taken seriously in some villages and conservative families.”

Holi festivities include music, dancing, flinging vibrant powders in the air and at others, and drinking cannabis-based bhaang—nothing appropriate for a person socially expected to spend her life in depression. But NGO Sulabh International, which provides services and shelter to widows in Vrindavan, has started organizing public Holi celebrations for widows.

This year, on March 9, a rebel group of widows in Vrindavan, northern India, joined in the fun, Indian daily Business Standard reports. In the following images, they undergo an apparent transformation, their white saris of widowhood covered in brilliant yellows, pinks and greens. For women condemned to eternal grief, it’s a visually stunning act of joyful defiance. 

Hindu widows throw flower petals during Holi celebrations at the Gopinath temple in Vrindavan, south-east of New Delhi, India, March 9. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)
(Reuters/Cathal McNaughton)
(Reuters/Cathal McNaughton)
An Indian widow walks past the painting of Lord Krishna and his concert Radha during Holi, the arrival of spring festival at the Gopinath temple in Vrindavan, March 9. (AP Photo /Manish Swarup)
(AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
(AP Photo /Manish Swarup)
Locals including Hindu widows throw flower petals and colored powder at the Gopinath temple in Vrindavan. (AP Photo /Manish Swarup)