Amriti is staring at the other women while they dance in a cloud of colors. She wears a shy smile and tears of joy dampen her eyes. Her white sari is stained with the colors of Holi, the Hindu festival that marks the beginning of spring. This is unusual for many Indian widows; tradition dictates that they mourn the memory of their husbands until they die.

In many areas of the subcontinent, widows still suffer abuse and humiliation. Considered pariahs by patriarchal Indian society, they are stigmatized by prejudices and superstitions. Mistreated and forced from home, many widows seek shelter in the holy city of Vrindavan, on the banks of Yamuna River, where Lord Krishna is believed to have spent his childhood, and where today thousands of neglected women live in the ashrams run by the government. They pray and wait to die.

Last year, for the first time since the death of their husbands sentenced them to a life of solitude and exclusion, the widows of Vrindavan sprinkled flowers and colors, escaping for a day the endless routine of their lonesome lives. Sulabh International, an NGO that took over five ashrams with the aim of improving the living conditions of these women, fulfilled a wish they made: to play Holi once again. A small symbolic gesture, yet a groundbreaking move against tradition.

Maria Tavernini

A widow returns to the cells of the ashram where she first found shelter twenty years ago.

A widow returns to the cells of the ashram where she first found shelter twenty years ago.
The invisible community of widows includes more than 15,000 in Vrindavan alone.

The invisible community of widows includes more than 15,000 in Vrindavan alone.
It is believed that dying in the city of Krishna will free one from the reincarnation cycle.

It is believed that dying in the city of Krishna will free one from the reincarnation cycle.
Many widows gather to sing bhajan (religious songs) in honor of Krishna.

Many widows gather to sing bhajan (religious songs) in honor of Krishna.
Widows dressed to celebrate Holi inside the Ashram.

Widows dressed to celebrate Holi inside the Ashram.
A group of women wrapped in white sarees, the traditional mourning dress, and peering from behind a curtain.

A group of women wrapped in white sarees, the traditional mourning dress, and peering from behind a curtain.
The widows start to dance, sprinkling colored powder and flowers.

The widows start to dance, sprinkling colored powder and flowers.
A boy takes part in the celebration of the “Widows’ Holi” at Meera Sahabhgini Ashram.

A boy takes part in the celebration of the “Widows’ Holi” at Meera Sahabhgini Ashram.
A widow dressed up as a Hindu goddess dances in a cloud of colors and petals.

A widow dressed up as a Hindu goddess dances in a cloud of colors and petals.
A widow in a cloud of colored powder and rose petals celebrates the beginning of spring.

A widow in a cloud of colored powder and rose petals celebrates the beginning of spring.
A dancer performs a show for an audience of fascinated widows in the ashram.

A dancer performs a show for an audience of fascinated widows in the ashram.
The dancer faints on a flower-covered floor after her performance for the widows.

The dancer faints on a flower-covered floor after her performance for the widows.
A widow dressed up like Krishna, the god of love, to whom many widows are devoted.

A widow dressed up like Krishna, the god of love, to whom many widows are devoted.
Widows in their power-covered sarees smile during the celebration.

Widows in their power-covered sarees smile during the celebration.
A widow moved by the joyful day hugs a social worker.

A widow moved by the joyful day hugs a social worker.
A group of widows play traditional instruments on a flower-covered floor.

A group of widows play traditional instruments on a flower-covered floor.
Indian widows are an invisible community of women neglected by a patriarchal society.

Indian widows are an invisible community of women neglected by a patriarchal society.
The widows’ traditional white sarees are smeared with Holi colors.

The widows’ traditional white sarees are smeared with Holi colors.
Savitri, in her powder-covered saree, smiles while watching the other widows dancing.

Savitri, in her powder-covered saree, smiles while watching the other widows dancing.