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Forgotten widows of Vrindavan celebrate Holi

The Hindu celebration of Holi, the festival of colour, has in recent years moved beyond India’s borders, with young people around the world partaking in exuberant, messy festivities. Now, it has also come to Vrindavan, the Indian city where widows go to die.

When their husbands die, women from certain parts of India can suffer a fate worse than death. Their very presence is considered bad luck and, in poor communities, they are considered nothing more than an extra mouth to feed. They are shunned by their families and communities, and can face violence and abuse at the hands of their own children. They are forbidden from wearing coloured clothing or jewellery, and from taking part in any sort of recreation or celebration. Many flee to Vrindavan where, hoping for peace and death, they eke out a living begging or singing religious songs at temples, sometimes for decades, until the day they die.

Charity organisation Sulabh International is trying to assist the widows, by donating food and offering vocational training. For Holi this year, it shipped in more than 1,000kg of coloured powder and 1,500kg of flower petals into Vrindavan so that the widows could join the celebrations.

Indian freelance photographer Showkat Shafi travelled to Vrindavan to witness the celebrations.

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“I wanted to capture these images, but I also wanted to portray the daily struggle of the women, along with their symbolic association with the colour white,” Shafi said in a post on Medium.

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“The thought of these Indian widows being shunned and handed a life sentence by an orthodox society for no fault of their own is mind-numbing. The thought of them being forced to beg to survive makes me want to shake the other members of society and force them to see reason.”

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“Photographers from all around the world gathered here to capture colorful images of the celebration of Holi.”

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“I, too, wanted to capture these images, but I also wanted to portray the daily struggle of the women, along with their symbolic association with the colour white.”

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“Although she was happy about the celebrations, the widow’s face bore the pain of years of solitude and of being rejected by her family.”

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“Her story was one of sorrow and grief. I wanted to comfort her but didn’t know how.”

Showkat Shafi bio picShowkat Shafi is a freelance news photographer and has completed assignments for Al Jazeera English and The New York Times. He was born in Kashmir. Follow him on Twitter. The images used in this story were originally published on Medium.

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