One doesn’t have to go far to find a place in India to celebrate Holi—the Hindu Festival of Spring.
Holi, one of the biggest Hindu holidays, is celebrated all over India, actually all over the world, so our tour company (Jim Cline Photo Tours) had lots of choices to take us to capture the experience on our cameras. For more about Holi see earlier blog posts.
They chose Vrindavan, known as the City of Widows, telling us that they thought it would be safer and less chaotic than the big cities where not only do people enthusiastically throw powdered paint and flower petals, but large amounts of colored water gets sloshed on happy participants. The ground gets slimy and slippery and some times folks who have had too much to drink get a little crazy.
Doesn’t sound good for folks with cameras so Vrindavan seemed like a smart choice.
At the time I really didn’t totally understand the significance of this city, but I do now and I’m really glad we went there.
Vrindavan–The City of Widows
Vrindavan is known as the City of Widows because it is a magnet for widows from all over India. In India widows are frequently ostracized, shunned as bad luck and kicked out of their homes when their husbands die with barely the saris on their backs. It is sometimes believed that they caused the death of their husbands.
Their plight is bleak. No money. No resources. No one to care for them. In a country known for vibrant and joyous color, they are expected to wear white. It’s like striping them of their personhood. Hindu tradition frowns on widows participating in occasions like weddings or Holi, considering their presence to be bad luck.
One article I read on-line said, “It’s something India doesn’t want the rest of the world to know about. “
Historically the Hindus have a tradition of Sati—or a widow killing herself when the husband dies by throwing herself on his funeral pyre. While this is no longer practiced, life for widows in India is often described as “A Living Sati.”
No one really knows why the widows are so drawn to Vrindavan but the theory is that they flock to this city because it is the birthplace of Krishna and the beautiful Radha. Their love affair is legendary.
We celebrated Holi several times in Vrindavan, one of them at the Ma Dham Ashram, a center for widows.
The mission of this Ashram is to provide a home, medical care, education and a good life for as many widows as possible. Over the 11 years they have been operating they have served 500.
Ma Dham serves widows in India
This is a drop in the bucket as estimates are that India has 40 million widows, many of whom live on the streets and beg for money for food.
When we arrived at Ma Dham, the widows were sitting on the floor in their great room, pulling the petals off the flowers in anticipation of our festivities. We took pictures. Oh, how I wanted to hear their stories. Some sat elegant and proud, others with worry and age lines etched into their faces. It broke my heart to know they had been cast off by their families.
After we took pictures indoors, we gathered outside where we were told by our Tour Leaders that the women would dance and throw flowers in the Holi tradition while we photographed them.
Joyously Celebrating Holi
Hah. The idea of the ladies dancing and throwing flowers while we stood on the sidelines clicking away lasted about three minutes. Almost immediately we were drawn into the midst of the festive celebration, trying to capture the moment on camera while dancing, scooping up flowers from the ground to throw and having them heaved at us. All in joyous fun.
This scenario was repeated over and over. A smiling widow would advance towards me with both hands filled with flowers and we’d meet eye to eye in a moment of recognition and then, POW, she’d plaster me with the colorful blooms while laughing gleefully. I’d let my camera hang on its strap while I reached for the ground to scoop up as many flower petals as I could and chase after her in happy revenge. We’d both laugh and then head off to find someone else to pelt with color while dancing to the booming music.
Pure fun. Pure joy.
Out-of-focus photos but plenty of fun.
As you can imagine I got a lot of out of focus images because of all the jumping around and laughing. It was pretty hard to take photos while scooping up handfuls of flowers to throw at my new friends.
But you know what? It didn’t matter. It was a special privilege to celebrate the coming of spring with women who have had so much taken from them. Their ability to find pleasure in the simple festive dance was truly an inspiration.