This Holi came with a difference for the widows and abandoned women living in Vrindavan, near Mathura.

Unlike earlier years, when these women — addressed respectfully as ‘mayyas’ or ‘matas’ — played Holi only with ‘Thakurji’ (Lord Krishna), this time it was a riot of colours, flowers and lots of people to celebrate with.

In a departure from tradition, hundreds of widows gathered to play Holi with one other with flower petals and gulal (coloured powder).

The spirit of Holi was palpable across the five government-run shelter homes where Sulabh International has been giving stipend, arranging for food and providing healthcare facilities to the women.

Around 800 women participated in the festivities on Sunday that marked the first day of the four-day celebrations. The celebrations were held at the 100-year-old Meera Sahbhagini ashram.

To add more colour, dozens of former conservancy workers were brought to the ashram. “Life has changed so much for us ever since we gave up conservancy work,” says Sheela Athwale. She started doing the work from the age of 7, but gave it up in 2006 when Sulabh imparted skills to them and sent their children to school. Many like her were imparted training for cutting and tailoring, and other crafts.

“You will not believe it, I have been to New York and Paris with Sulabh,” Ms. Athwale said with a glitter in her eyes. There were 115 families involved in conservancy work in her town in Alwar while the adjoining Tonk district had over 200. None exists now.

“In an effort to bring widows to the mainstream and help in their social assimilation, we have organised several events to encourage them to participate in Holi celebrations at Vrindavan,” founder of Sulabh Bindeshwar Pathak said.

As part of the celebrations, traditional “Raas-Leela” dance and other programmes have been organised at the ashrams. “I used to play Holi earlier also but not with so many people,” said an old and frail Rajdhwoni, her white outfit totally pink at the end of the celebrations.

Sulabh is working for the empowerment of these widows. In August 2012, the Supreme Court directed the U.P. government to ensure at least proper cremation and last rites for the widows in Vrindavan.

The court suggested that Sulabh can be contacted for help. Since then, the NGO is taking care of these widows by providing them healthcare and a monthly allowance of Rs. 2,000.

They are now learning English and earning by way of jobs such as making agarbathis and garlands.

Among the widows are many who lost their husbands at 16 or 17 and have since lived an obscure life, abandoned by their families.

“I want to ensure that no widow is found begging on the streets,” said O.P. Yadav, district probation officer of Mathura, who participated in the function.