India's abandoned widows break taboos to join festival

NEW DELHI (AFP) - Abandoned Indian widows have broken taboos and are taking part for the first time in the exuberant annual Hindu festival of colours, said a charity working to end the stigma surrounding the women.

Banished by families after their husbands' deaths for supposedly bringing bad luck, desperately poor widows have for centuries travelled to the northern city of Vrindavan, where the Hindu god Krishna is said to have grown up, to pray and wait to die.

But this year, the widows in Vrindavan, 135km south of the Indian capital New Delhi, are taking part in the Hindu festival of colours known as Holi, which heralds the advent of spring, Sulabh, a civic charity, said.

"It's a Holi of hope for these women," Mr Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International, which works with the widows, told AFP, saying the women would take part in more festival celebrations over the next few days.

On Sunday, March 24, hundreds of widows participated in the first day of the festivities which culminate on Wednesday, pelting coloured powder at each other, dancing to traditional Holi songs and showering each other with flowers.

"In this Holi we are celebrating we are trying to free these widows from the shackles of tradition," said Mr Pathak.

The women, cast off by relatives who see them as a financial drain and consider even their shadows a curse, have traditionally sung hymns and begged in the pilgrimage city on the banks of the Yamuna River.

"The 'shame' of widowhood is still very strong in some traditional quarters - they aren't allowed to celebrate, attend marriages, they're supposed to live in seclusion, shave their heads and dress in white," Mr Pathak said.

"It is essentially a form of life imprisonment for these widows," he said.

Sulabh, which has done pioneering social work in India in sanitation and other fields, was tasked by the Supreme Court last August to work with the women after reports of widows' bodies being put in sacks and thrown in the river.

Sulabh has been providing a monthly allowance of 2,000 rupees (S$46) a month to 700 widows and teaching skills but is reaching only a small number of the estimated 15,000 widows said to be living in Vrindavan.

The women who took part in Holi celebrations on Sunday said the day was special.

"We used to watch men and women play Holi from the windows of our ashram (secluded community). The celebrations of the town are legendary," Ms Pushpa Adhikari told the Times of India.

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