Colour Used As Punishment

widow plays holi

The Hindu festival of colour (Holi) was celebrated today and I was drawn to the story in the Indian Express of an NGO, Sulabh International,  that arranged for 1000 widows to celebrate Holi in the City of Widows, Vrindavan.  William Dalrymple dedicated a chapter in his book, The Age of Kali to this city and its unique population of cast out women.

In Hindu tradition, a woman is stripped of colour once she becomes a widow.  She can only wear white irrespective of whether she became a widow as a child or an older woman.  She is cursed and often cast out of a family home, she is treated like a witch of Western fairy tales: a bad omen, evil and bringer of bad luck.  These attitudes towards widows crossed over even into Pakistan which is a Muslim country in which the Prophet married a widow such is the power of the cultural attitudes.  Whilst not quite cast out entirely, their presence is not always welcome at wedding ceremonies lest they bring bad luck.

The story in the newspaper drew particular attention to one woman who is 108, was a child bride married at the age of 10 and widowed by the age of 20.  This Holi was the first since she became a widow that she touched and embraced colour and it was heart breaking reading her account and reading of the psychological impact and empowerment the bright colours brought to her.  Like a life-term prisoner set free suddenly at first she was angry and confused at the colourful fingers flicked at tradition but then all of a sudden she was overwhelmed by memories of being prevented from wearing lipstick and anything of colour and joined in with the other widows.

I’ve pondered on this article the entire day, having sent the link to my sister too.  I think it’s fascinating how colour can be used to punish in one culture and embraced in another as empowering or ultra chic.  Is the difference choice?   Those who embrace minimalist Zen interior design of pure white enjoy it whereas white is thrust upon widows in Hinduism as a prison uniform as punishment.

Religion is mostly funny business in my opinion.  I am a humanist first and spiritual second. Death will come to all so why punish the living?


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