Sati ritual


By editor - 8.3 2023

The ancient Hindu tradition called sati, wherein a widow would throw herself on her husband’s pyre and burn to death, was initially a voluntary act considered courageous and heroic, but it later became a forced practice. Although sati is now banned all over India, it has a dark history.

In mythological terms, Sati was the name of the wife of Lord Shiva. Her father never respected Shiva and often despised him. To protest against the hatred that her father held for her husband, she burned herself. While she was burning, she prayed to be reborn as Shiva’s wife again. This did happen, and her new incarnation was called Parvati. People used to justify the practice based on this tale, but when Sati burned herself, she wasn’t a window, and thus the practice is quite unrelated to this tale.

From voluntary to forced

According to ancient Hindu customs, sati symbolised closure to a marriage. It was a voluntary act in which, as a sign of being a dutiful wife, a woman followed her husband to the afterlife. It was, therefore, considered to be the greatest form of devotion of a wife towards her dead husband.

With time, it became a forced practice. Women who did not wish to die like this were forced to do so in different ways. Traditionally, a widow had no role to play in society and was considered a burden. So, if a woman had no surviving children who could support her, she was pressurised to accept sati.

History of sati

Historical records tell us that sati first appeared between 320CE to 550CE, during the rule of Gupta Empire. Incidents of sati were first recorded in Nepal in 464CE, and later on in Madhya Pradesh in 510CE. The practice then spread to Rajasthan, where most number of sati cases happened over the centuries.

Sati was at its peak between the 15th and 18th centuries. During this period, as many as 1000 widows were burned alive every year, most commonly in India and Nepal. However, records show that the practice was also popular in other traditions and in countries like Russia, Fiji and Vietnam.

Different ways of execution

Various accounts tell us about different ways in which the ritual of sati was carried out. Most accounts either describe women seated on their husbands’ funeral pyre or lying down next to the dead body. Some say women would jump or walk into the pyre after it had been lit, while others report that women would sit on the pyre and then light it themselves. The practice also varied from region to region. In some places, a small hut was constructed for the widow and her deceased husband. In several other regions, the corpse of the husband was placed in a pit along with combustible raw materials, and then the widow was required to jump in after the fire had been lit.

Some less torturous methods of execution were also prevalent back then. For example, before being placed on the funeral pyre, a woman could take poison or drugs, so that she would either start dying slowly or at least become unconscious. Sometimes, the widow herself would get snake-bitten or use a sharp blade on her throat or wrist before entering the pyre.

Societal exceptions to sati

There were, however, certain rules that exempted some women from this practice. The first sati rule stated that any widow who was pregnant, menstruating or had very young children, couldn’t partake in this ritual.

Women who committed sati were said to have died chaste, which, people believed, meant she would have good karma and a much better life in her next birth. But this justification didn’t work for Brahmin women as they already belonged to the highest caste, so karmically they couldn’t benefit from sati and thus did not have to practise it.

Sati hand prints and sati stones

Sati was frequently practised in Rajasthan, more specifically by the women of royal families. A sati stone was created, which was a memorial of all the wives of the kings who died this way. Before giving up their lives, the queens left their handprints on the wall, to be remembered as valiant and devotional wives. Some of these handprints can still be found inside the Mehrangarh Fort.

A different version of sati – Jauhar

Rajputs from Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh practised Jauhar. This was collective suicide by the widows of the royal families who preferred dying, rather than being captured, raped and disgraced by soldiers who defeated their kings in the wars. This practice grew in the 14th and 15th centuries, when the Hindu-Muslim wars were at their peak in northwest India. To commit Jauhar, special flammable rooms were built inside the forts out of lacquer and other combustible materials. The practice of Jauhar has been well depicted in the Bollywood movie Padmavat.

Prohibition of sati

If historical facts are to be believed, the practice of sati was prohibited many times between 15th and 18th centuries. In 1582, Mughal Emperor Akbar outlawed sati, and in 1663, Aurangzeb tried to end it again. Even the Portuguese, French and British, who came to India during the European colonial period, tried to stop sati. In 1850, the British hardened their rules against the practice. Sir Charles Napier ordered to hang to death any Hindu priest who presided over a widow burning. The princely states of India during that time were also pressurised to rule out sati completely. Raja Ram Mohan Roy was one of the key reformers who opposed the practice.

Prevention of Sati Act (1987)

In 1987, in the village of Deorala in Rajasthan, an 18-year-old married woman named Roop Kanwar was forced to become sati when her husband died after eight months of marriage. She refused. Consequently, a group of men from the village forcefully drugged and immolated her. Police investigated the case and those men were arrested. In light of this incident, the government created the Prevention of Sati Act, making it illegal to force or encourage a woman to commit sati, and anyone doing so would be punished by death. And yet, some widows still choose to become sati – at least four such cases were recorded between 2000 and 2015.

Sleeman's Eye Witness Account

Colonel William. H. Sleeman (1809 - 1856 A.D.) served as the collector of Jabalpur (in present day Madhya Pradesh). He is remembered as the official who tamed the Pindari dacoits who were active in the area. Among his diaries is a graphic account of a Sati instance.

Sleeman received word that one Umed Singh Upadhyaya passed away in the village of Gopalpur and his wife  wanted to go Sati. Sleeman traveled seven miles by horse to Beraghat and then walked three more miles to reach Gopalpur.

The widow was sixty years old and wanted to die on the funeral pyre of her husband. By this time, the practice of Sati was banned (by Lord William Bentick in 1829) and she had to obtain a permission to commit suicide, which is denied. She had refused to consume even water and had refused to move from the place of cremation. She declared to Sleeman that her decision to immolate herself was final. "She had discarded her jewelry and was holding coconut in her hands. She was wearing red. She had gathered some flowers, rice in a basket as if to go somewhere."

The widow then said "My husband has reached the Sun God (Surya) now. I have died with him in my past three lives; it is impossible for us to be separate... He is right now waiting for me at the wedding alter in heaven." Sleeman noticed irregularity in her pulse and gave her permission. Upon this, her joy knew no bounds. She asked for paan and made her lips red. She dedicated flowers to the pyre and jumped into the fire apologizing "I am sorry that these men kept me away from you for three days." She turned into ash in no time.

Account of Pietro Della Valle

Italian Traveler Pietro Della Valle (1586-1652) has documented the Sati ritual that he witnessed in the town of Ikkeri (in present day Karnataka state) in November of 1623. "There was a musical band in front of the procession. The widow was mounted on a horse. She was holding a lemon in her right hand and a mirror in her left. She was constantly making sure her bridal make-up was in tact. An umbrella was held to protect her from the sun. The widow was not in mourning at all. And instead looked as if she was anxious to join her husband. The people in the procession sang her glories and admired her sacrifice. While the system of Sati is a cruel one, the courage of the women is admirable. I am going to visit her on the day of the Sati and pay my respects to her eternal love."

Five days later, on the day of Sati, Pietro Della visited the widow. She belonged to the Terlenga (Telugu?) community and her name was Giyakkamma. She was wearing white and was decorated with flowers and jewelry. She rose from her rituals and spoke to Pietro. She told him she considered the death smaller than a mustard seed and was immolating herself voluntarily. She said she had two children, but since there were two other wives of the husband, they would be well cared for. Pietro Della wondered why any of the other wives did not volunteer in spite of their being elder, and was told that a woman goes Sati only by the wish of God. She explained to Pietro Della the meaning of various rituals that were going on.