by Somadeva | 1924 | 1,023,469 words | ISBN-13: 9789350501351
This is the English translation of the Kathasaritsagara written by Somadeva around 1070. The principle story line revolves around prince Naravāhanadatta and his quest to become the emperor of the Vidhyādharas (‘celestial beings’). The work is one of the adoptations of the now lost Bṛhatkathā, a great Indian epic tale said to have been composed by ...
The practice of burning the living widow with the corpse of the husband is stated to have been an ancient Indo-Germanic custom, based upon the belief that life in the next world is a reflex of this life, and consequently, in his new home, the deceased must be provided with what has been dear to him, or necessary to his comfort, while on earth.
Apart from the prevalence of widow-burning in India (which I shall discuss at some length), there is early evidence of the practice both in Europe and the Far East.
Procopius tells us (Bellum Goticum, ii, 14 et seq.) that the Heruli retained many striking primitive customs, among which was the suicide of widows on their husbands’ pyres. We may surmise that such immolations were of fairly frequent occurrence, for it was also a custom that when death seemed imminent, either through illness or old age, the men were stabbed by an executioner and burned on a pyre.
Between the third and sixth centuries of our era this Teutonic tribe had migrated to many parts of Europe, from Sweden to the Black Sea, so that their customs must have been familiar over a wide area.
Grimm states in his Deutsche Rechtsaltertümer (p. 451) that the suicide of widows was a regular custom among the Scandinavians; while Ralston, speaking of the Slavs, says:
“The fact that in Slavonic lands, a thousand years ago, widows used to destroy themselves in order to accompany their dead husbands to the world of spirits, seems to rest on incontestable evidence.”
In the Norse versions of the Nibelung myth, which preserve more of the primitive traditions than the Nibelungenlied, we have the account of the immolation of Brunhild. In the Volsuṅgasaga, maddened by jealousy, she compasses the death of Sigurd, and then flings herself on his pyre, thereby assuring herself of a speedy reunion with him in the next world. (See Hagen’s Helden-Sagen, vol. iii, p. 166.)
In Greece we have the story of Evadne, the wife of Capaneus, one of the seven heroes who marched against Thebes. When climbing up to the walls of the city he was struck by a thunderbolt of Zeus, and when he was burning on the pyre his wife threw herself into the flames. (See Apollodorus, Library, iii, 6, 7; iii, 7, 1; Euripides, Suppliants, 1034 et seq.; Zenobius, Cent., i, 30; Propertius, i, 15, 21 et seq.) In some accounts of the death of Paris, his wife CEnone, distracted with grief at not having forgiven his desertion, threw herself on to his burning pyre. Herodotus tells us (v, 5) that among a certain polygamous Thracian tribe it was the custom, at the death of the husband, for the wives to vie with each other as to who was the most loved, so that she might have the honour of being slain (not burned) on her husband’s tomb. (Cf. the account given by Diodorus later in this appendix.) The chosen woman was killed by her nearest relative, and buried with great honour beside her husband. Monier Williams (Indian Wisdom, p. 258n1) refers to Herodotus’ (iv, 71) description of the burial of Scythian kings, where a concubine was strangled and placed on the pyre, together with servants and horses— in fact, the necessities for the next life. In this custom he sees the possible origin of the rite of satī amongst the Hindus. It certainly seems quite probable that early immigrants brought the custom into India over the north-western passes. The date of its introduction must have been very early, for by the fourth century B.C. it was well established in the Pañjāb.
Suicide of widows seems also to have been known among the ancient Egyptians. Several bodies of women were found in the tomb of Ȧmen-ḥetep II at Thebes, which proves that in the eighteenth dynasty favourite wives were either poisoned, strangled or allowed to commit suicide, so that their spirits might go to their husband in the other world and continue their wifely service to him.
Such customs, however, seem to have belonged to the early dynasties, and it is only with bloodthirsty rulers like Ȧmen-ḥetep II that the old customs were revived. The more usual practice was to bury a number of Uṣabtiu or Shabti figures of stone, alabaster, wood, faïence, etc., instead of living slaves, who in earlier dynasties were put in the tombs with their arms and legs broken at the joints. (See E. A. Wallis Budge, Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection, 2 vols., London, 1911, vol. i, pp. xxii, 224 and 229. On this latter page he cites as a modern African revival of satī a certain king of Oyo, Southern Nigeria, who died in 1859, at whose death four men were sacrificed and forty-two of his wives committed suicide.)
Before speaking of the Indian satī I would draw attention to the prevalence of the custom in China.
The remarriage of Chinese widows was always looked upon as an act of unchastity, while those who committed suicide at their husband’s death had honorary gateways, known as p’ai lou or p’ai fang, erected in their honour by Imperial command. De Groot tells us that the instances of such suicides are so many that it would be useless to enumerate them in detail. The mode of death was usually poison—often an overdose of opium—but hanging, stabbing, starving and drowning were also employed. Owing to the rarity of the cremation of the dead, burning is not at all common, although a few cases have been recorded.
Betrothals being considered as binding as the actual married state, we find many instances of suicide on the death of the affianced husband.
Apart from the details to be found in De Groot’s work, Dr Giles tells me that Chinese scholars will find many interesting examples of widow-suicide in the great T’u Shu Chi Ch’êng, the Chinese Encyclopædia (of 745 volumes!). Section xvi, in which these examples occur (45-114), forms, says Dr Giles, a repertory of female biography such as no other nation, even at the present day, can make any pretence of rivalling. The sub-head, “Widows who Refuse to Marry a Second Time,” with its 210 chüan, is in itself the equivalent of a voluminous work, being only exceeded in length by “Medicine,” in section xvii.
In Bali, an island in the East Indies, where Hinduism remains the accepted creed, the custom of widow-burning is still occasionally practised. At the death of a king all his wives and concubines were burned, amounting sometimes to over a hundred. (See J. Crawfurd, History of the Indian Archipelago, 1820, and Friederich, Verhandelingen van het Batav. Genootschap, xxiii, 10.)
In some instances the customs were less exacting. Thus among certain American Indian tribes the practice of burning the widow has been mitigated into a rule that she must lie beside her husband’s corpse on the pyre till she is nearly suffocated, when she is allowed to withdraw. See Morse, Report on Indian Affairs, p. 339 et seq. He is quoted by Frazer (Pausanias, vol. iii, p. 200), who adds several other useful references. See also Westermarck, op. cit., vol. i, p. 320.
Having thus briefly glanced at the evidence of widow-burning in places other than India, we will now consider the practice in India itself.
It is known by the name of suttee, or, more correctly, satī. The Sanskrit word satī is a feminine noun meaning “good,” “devout,” “true,” and consequently it denotes a person and not a practice. The application of the substantive to the act instead of to the person is European.
Although the antiquity of satī cannot be denied, and is probably a relic of prehistoric barbarism preserved in aristocratic Kṣatriya families, it is, at first sight, a curious fact that the Ṛg-Veda is innocent of the practice. Further, it is not acknowledged in the Sūtras or even alluded to in Manu. It is practically absent from the Rāmāyaṇa and receives but little approbation in the Mahābhārata. Thus it was not a Brāhmanic rite at all, and was only sanctioned in later days because it could not be suppressed.
In order to understand how satī gradually became established in Hindu ritual it is necessary to remember exactly what the status of the widow was, and how dependent upon the priests the people were for the exact interpretation of the Vedas.
From the earliest times the lot of the widow was miserable and humiliating in the extreme. Although the laws were often contradictory, remarriage was generally not countenanced, and in most cases meant social ruin. On the death of her husband the widow passed under the protection of her sons, if adult; otherwise she was dependent on her husband’s nearest relatives. Her place in the household now became of the lowest. She had to lead a life of the greatest austerity. All her jewellery was removed, her head was shaved, she had but one meal a day, she was forced to sleep on a single mat, and was excluded from all festivities, family gatherings, etc. Her touch, in fact her very shadow, was contaminating.
Nor is her lot less hard to-day. Her unhappy fate has been described recently by a lady whose researches have been carried on in a part of India where Brāhman traditions have been most closely preserved.
On the day of her bereavement the widow dons an old sārī and sits alone in a corner of the room without taking any food. Here she sits for a whole year, eating very little, and only going out at twilight to answer the calls of nature. Her head is shaven and she is given the terrible name Rāṇḍīrāṇḍa (one who has been a prostitute), which testifies that she is now penalised for the sins of a previous life. On the thirteenth day after the death the widow’s own mother brings her a sārī, the four corners of which are dipped in water used during the śrāddha ceremony (see Vol. I, p. 56n1). She now leaves her corner and is invested in the sārī by another widow. It is known as the pota sārī, and is so unlucky that none of her husband’s relatives will even let the hem of the garment touch them. This has to be worn for a year. The family honour does not permit the widow to look happy, healthy or properly fed; accordingly all the hard work is allotted to her, as little food as possible is given to her, while her fasts have to be often and rigid. If by this time she is really starving, her mother can take her away to her own house. If she has no mother her one chance of preservation is gone. A terrible fact is that the younger, and therefore the more unprotected and helpless, the widow is, the more it proves how vile her sin (in a previous life) must have been. Accordingly the fate of a widow of six or seven years old is better imagined than described.
After wearing the pota sārī for a year it is exchanged for a black one, which is worn until her death. All her clothes are black; she carries bad luck with her wherever she goes, and even her friends will turn back if they meet her in the road.
The widow’s only chances of a tolerable existence are either that her age may be such that she can retain her senior position in the house, or else that her mother-in-law has a kindly nature which ameliorates her unhappy lot.
When making her numerous inquiries into the question of the lot of widows, Mrs Stevenson was answered more than once by the terrible saying:
“Paraffin is cheap.” We English,” she concludes,
“believe satī to be extinct; reformers in certain districts of India will tell us differently. They know that there are easy methods of getting rid of an unwanted widow: simply to turn her out of house and home; to push her down a well; to give her poison; to take her on a pilgrimage and either lose her or sell her; or to set fire to her and burn her to death.
“It is quite simple to soak a heavy wadded quilt in paraffin, to tie a young widow up in it, pour more oil over her, set fire to it and lock her up in a room. Then the neighbours can be told that she either accidentally caught fire when cooking, or, like a faithful wife, herself committed satī; and only God, ‘the Judge of the fatherless and the widow,’ knows on which side the door of that hellish room was locked. ‘Paraffin is cheap’—and the family honour has been saved.”
We are now in a better position to understand the horror with which the Indian woman must have looked upon the possibility of becoming a widow, and terrible as satī was, we can well imagine many of them preferring to face the flames and so end their life in honour, than drag out a dreary existence in misery and humiliation.
Apart from this, however, there were several inducements offered, which would doubtless appeal to the Hindu satī. She was promised as many years in Svarga as there are hairs on the human head— i.e. thirty-five million. In addition to this, the act purified all members of both her own and her husband’s family, even from the guilt of killing a Brāhman. Finally, a white pillar, or memorial stone, would mark the place of her sacrifice and her spirit would be venerated.
The satī stones, known as maha-satī-kal in the South, are generally sculptured with a pointed pillar or post, from which projects a woman’s right arm, bent upwards at the elbow. The hand is raised, with fingers erect, and a lime-fruit is held between the thumb and forefinger. This is what is alluded to in the old inscriptions, where women are said to “have given arm and hand.” Some of these memorials are accompanied with elaborate inscriptions.
As was only natural, the early Greek invaders of Northern India were struck with the curious practice of satī, and it is from them that we get our first accounts of the rite. Onesicritus spoke of it as specially a custom of the Kṣatriyas (Cathæans) (Strabo, xv, c. 700).
A good account is given by E. R. Bevan in the Cambridge History of India, p. 415, of a satī which occurred at the time of Eumenes (316 B.C.). The leader of an Indian contingent which had gone to fight under Eumenes was killed in battle. He had with him his two wives. There was immediately a competition between them as to which was to be the satī. The question was brought before the Macedonian and Greek generals, and they decided in favour of the younger, the elder being with child. At this the elder woman went away lamenting, with the band about her head rent, and tearing her hair, as if tidings of some great disaster had been brought her; and the other departed, exultant at her victory, to the pyre, crowned with fillets by the women who belonged to her, and decked out splendidly as for a wedding. She was escorted by her kinsfolk, who chanted a song in praise of her virtue. When she came near to the pyre, she took off her adornments and distributed them to her familiars and friends, leaving a memorial of herself, as it were, to those who had loved her. Her adornments consisted of a multitude of rings on her hands, set with precious gems of diverse colours, about her head golden stars not a few, variegated with different sorts of stones, and about her neck a multitude of necklaces, each a little longer than the one above it. In conclusion, she said farewell to her familiars and was helped by her brother on to the pyre, and there, to the admiration of the crowd which had gathered together for the spectacle, she ended her life in heroic fashion. Before the pyre was kindled the whole army in battle array marched round it thrice. She meanwhile lay down beside her husband, and as the fire seized her no sound of weakness escaped her lips. The spectators were moved, some to pity and some to exuberant praise. But some of the Greeks present found fault with such customs as savage and inhumane. (Quoted from Diod., xix, 34.)
The Greeks, we find, had a theory to account for the custom, whether of their own invention or suggested to them by Indian informants we cannot say. The theory was that once upon a time wives had been so apt to get rid of their husbands by poison that the law had to be introduced which compelled a widow to be burnt with her dead husband.
The question naturally arises as to how such a cruel custom, not enjoined by the Vedas, was adopted by Hindus in so many parts of India. It has been suggested that it is perhaps the extension of a royal custom, mentioned in the Epics, which gradually made the rule general, until later law and practice recommended satī for all.
With the passing centuries it acquired the sanctity of a religious rite, and no one thought of challenging its authority. By this time the priests themselves knew little of the ancient Vedic texts, and the people, dependent on the priests for their religious knowledge, knew still less. Moreover, it does not seem to have been a practice which the priesthood would readily let drop, for there is ample evidence to show that certain of their members, at any rate, derived considerable benefit from the widow’s immolation in both goods and property.
It appears that occasionally the direct authority for satī in the Vedas was questioned, and accordingly the Brāhman priests quoted a certain passage from the Ṛg-Veda, which, it was said, clearly enjoined the practice. Whether this passage was merely wrongly quoted on purpose, or actually forged and produced as evidence, is not at all clear. Scholars have endeavoured to prove that such a forgery was perpetrated in the middle of the fifteenth century by one Raghunandana.
The passage in question taken from the Ṛg-Veda text (x, 18, 7) is as follows: —
“Anaśravo ’namīvāḥ su-ratnā ā rohantu janayo yonim agre.”
(“Without tears, without sorrow, bedecked with jewels, let wives go up to the altar first.”)
The corresponding passage in the Atharva-Veda (XVIII, iii, 1) definitely condemns satī and could not be altered so easily.
According to the translation by W. D. Whitney, it reads:
“Get up, O Woman, to the world of the living; thou liest by this one who is deceased; come! to him who grasps thy hand, thy second spouse, thou hast now entered into the relation of wife to husband.”
Many attempts were made to suppress the custom, but with little success. In the sixteenth century the Sikh Guru Amar Dās (1552-1574) condemned the practice, saying:
“They are not satis who burn themselves with the dead. The true satī is she who dieth from the shock of separation from her husband. They also ought to be considered satīs who abide in chastity and contentment, who serve, and, when rising, ever remember their lord.”
Akbar also tried to suppress it, but only managed to declare the act voluntary. After capturing Goa one of the first acts of Albuquerque was to abolish satī (1510). It was not until the end of the eighteenth century that the British began to turn their attention to the subject. The question was first taken up by Sir C. Malet and Jonathan Duncan in Bombay, but little was done, as the Government refrained from interfering with such a time-honoured custom of the people. Even such authorities as Colebrooke and Wilson gave their opinion against any interference. This attitude, however, did more harm than good, and the number of satīs increased. In 1817 the number of widows burned in Bengal alone was over seven hundred. In 1827 Lord William Bentinck became Governor-General of India, and one of his first reforms was to make satī illegal. He carried the regulation in Council on 4th December 1829, by which all who abetted satī were declared guilty of “culpable homicide.” To the surprise of many people the action caused scarcely any discontent or remonstrance.
In the native states, however, matters did not improve, and in the Oxford History of India, p. 689n1, V. A. Smith says that among the Sikhs in the Pañjāb the sail murders were atrocious. Four ladies were burned with Rañjīt Singh; one, against her will, with Kharak Singh; two with Nao Nihāl Singh; 310 (10 wives and 300 unmarried ladies of his zenana) were sacrificed at the obsequies of Rājā Suchet Singh; in September 1845 four wives of Jawāhir Singh were forced on the pyre by the soldiery; and, after Sobrāon, the widow of Sardār Ṣān Singh burnt voluntarily. Sir Lepel Griffin in 1898 described that as being the last case in the Pañjāb.
Although satis in the present century are rare, several cases have occurred. One, for example, was carried out in 1904 in Behar, another in a small village in the Pañjāb in 1905, and two in 1906 at Cawnpore and Calcutta.
Turning now to actual descriptions of satis, the one which has the greatest interest for us is undoubtedly that of Queen Sūryavatī, who, in A.D. 1081, threw herself on the pyre of her husband Ananta.
In my Introduction to Vol. I (p. xxxii) I referred to this satī of our author’s patroness and to Ananta’s suicide through despair at the evil doings of his son Kalaśa.
In Kalhaṇa’s Rājataraṅgiṇī, or Chronicle of the Kings of Kaśmīr, is the following account of the queen’s (her name is spelt Sūryamatī) satī (Stein’s translation, 1900, vol. i, pp. 305-307):—
Then she stood up, and as a Satī herself taking the stick, performed the office of doorkeeper for her husband while she had him adorned for the last [rites].
She first ordered a hundred mounted soldiers to watch there over her grandson; then she sent forth her husband placed on a litter.
Having thus passed one night and half-a-day, this devoted wife paid her reverence to [Śiva] Vijayeśāna (Vijayeśa) and proceeded outside seated in a litter.
When the people saw those two going forth, the horizon was rent, as it were, by their tumultuous lamentations, which mixed with the vibrating sounds of the funeral music.
Waving in the wind, the locks of the princes who had put their shoulders under the hearse appeared like splendid Chowries [held] over the king, who was placed in it.
Viewing the last service of the troops, the queen reached the burning-ground as the day was sinking.
Whether from maternal affection, which is hard to abandon, or for some other reason, she longed at that moment to see her son.
Thinking that the dust which the wind had tossed up was raised by an armed force, she looked out, trembling with agitation, in the hope of Kalaśa’s coming.
At that moment some people arrived by the road from the city (Śrīnagar). These she herself asked: “Well, has Kalaśa come?”
But the son, who had wished to come to his mother, was kept back that time by the fomenters of the quarrel, who frightened him in various ways.
After this the queen abandoned the hope of seeing her son, and asking for water from the Vitastā, recited the following verse:—
“But those who die with Vitastā water in their body, obtain for certain final deliverance, just like those who proclaim sacred learning.”
When she had drunk the water brought to her, and had sprinkled it [over parts of her body], she thus cursed those who had destroyed affection [between parents and son] by their calumnies:
“May those who have caused the fatal enmity between us two and our son quickly be destroyed, together with their descendants!”
Through this unfailing curse of the afflicted [queen] Jayānanda, Jindurāja and others found an early death.
In order to put a stop to the slanderous rumours which had grown up with regard to Haladhara’s position as her confidant, she, the Satī, took an oath in proper form, pledging [her happiness in a] future life.
Having thus attested the purity of her moral character, she leaped with a bright smile from the litter into the flaming fire.
The sky became encircled [and reddened] with sheets of flames, just as if the gods, in order to celebrate her arrival, had covered [it] with minium.
The beings here do not last long, being fragile, as they are [mere] mechanical contrivances. The mind and the glass bottle have [both however] this one lasting quality, that the astonishing tale and the divine Gaṅga-water which are preserved in them [respectively] do not escape, nor become stale nor decrease.
Before leaving Kashmir I would like to refer to a double satī which took place in A.D. 1111. King Uccala had been treacherously murdered by conspirators just as he was on his way to the apartments of Bijjalā, his favourite wife.
Immediately after the murder, Raḍḍa, the chief conspirator, seized the throne, but he occupied it only during the night of the murder and the following morning, for Gargacandra, one of Uccala’s favourite ministers, killed him, together with the other conspirators.
Now besides Bijjalā the late king had a wife of low birth named Jayamatī, and when affairs had reached this crisis she thought she would probably be expected to become a satī, so, being eager to live, she said coaxingly to Gargacandra: “Brother, make an arrangement with me.” He, however, took the words to be merely conventional, and began to prepare her funeral pyre.
In the eighth book, 365-371, the Rājataraṅgiṇī (Stein, vol. ii, p. 31) describes the efforts made by Bijjalā to throw herself on the pyre first, and the disgraceful behaviour of the pilferers. The author first marvels at the mentality of these satīs.
Nobody can understand these women of unscrutable mind, in whose heart there is found, as it were, combined the waviness of their ample locks, the excessive unsteadiness of their eyes and the firmness of their round breasts.
While she, proceeding in a litter, was delaying on the road, Bijjalā got in front of her and entered the pyre.
Then as she (Jayamatī) was ascending the pyre her limbs were hurt by the pilferers who robbed her in eager desire of her ornaments.
When the people saw the two queens being consumed by the flames, together with their Chowries and parasols, they, too, all raised lamentations, and their eyes were as if burning with pain.
He (Gargacandra) then displayed his noble character in full purity, when, though requested by all, he did not seat himself on the throne.
He looked out eagerly for certain persons in whose arms he wished to place King Uccala’s infant son, in order to have him consecrated as king.
In Southern India the rites of satī seem to have reached their height of development during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in the kingdom of Vijayanagar. Interesting accounts are given by Fernão Nuniz and Duarte Barbosa. That of Nuniz appears in Sewell’s A Forgotten Empire, pp. 391-393, and gives a really graphic description of the rite:
The women have the custom of burning themselves when their husbands die, and hold it an honour to do so. When, therefore, their husbands die, they mourn with their relations and those of their husbands, but they hold that the wife who weeps beyond measure has no desire to go in search of her husband; and, the mourning finished, their relations speak to them, advising them to burn themselves and not to dishonour their generation. After that, it is said, they place the dead man on a bed with a canopy of branches and covered with flowers, and they put the woman on the back of a worthless horse, and she goes after them with many jewels on her, and covered with roses; she carries a mirror in her hand and in the other a branch of flowers, and (she goes accompanied by) many kinds of music, and his relations (go with her) with much pleasure. A man goes also playing on a small drum and he sings songs to her telling her that she is going to join her husband, and she answers also in singing that so she will do. As soon as she arrives at the place where they are always burned, she waits with the musicians till her husband is burned, whose body they place in a very large pit that lias been made ready for it. covered with much firewood. Before they light the lire his mother or nearest relative takes a vessel of water on the head and a firebrand in the hand, and goes three times round the pit. and at each round makes a hole in the pot; and when these three rounds are done, breaks the pot, which is small, and throws the torch into the pit. Then they apply the tire, and when the body is burned comes the wile wit all the feasters and washes her feet, and then a Brāhman performs over her certain ceremonies according to their law: and when he has finished doing this she draws off with her own hand all the jewels that she wears, and divides them among her female relatives, and if she has sons she commends them to her most honoured relatives. When they have taken off all she has on. even her good clothes, they put on her some yellow cloths, and her relatives take her hand and she takes a branch in the other, and goes singing and running to the pit where the lire is, and then mounts on some steps which arc made high up by the pit. Before they do this they go up three times round the fire, and then she mount s the steps and holds in front of her a mat that prevents her from seeing the lire. They throw into the lire a cloth containing rice, and another in which they carry betel-leaves. and her comb and mirror with which she adorned herself. saying that all these arc needed to adorn herself by her husband's side. Finally she takes leave of all. and puts a pot of oil on her head, and casts herself into the lire with such courage that it is a thing of wonder: and as soon as she throws herself in. the relatives are ready with firewood and quickly cover her with it. and after this is done they all raise loud lamentations. When a captain dies, however many wives he has. they all burn themselves, and when the King dies they do the same.
The spot where these cremations took place was probably at Nimbāpuram. close to Talarigattu. where there is a large cinder mound covered over with rank vegetation and trees of considerable age. (See A. II. Longhurst. Hampi Ruins, Madras, 191 7. p. 11(?).)
A great pit is dug in the burning-ground, in which a pile of wood burns. When the husband’s body has been laid therein, and begins to burn, the widow, if poor and of low estate, throws herself into the midst of the fire.
With a woman of high rank, the rites are much more costly and elaborate.
After her husband’s body has been burned, she entertains her friends and relations in as lavish a manner as possible. She then attires herself in her finest clothes and, wearing all her jewels, is led on a horse (white, if possible) through the whole city with great rejoicings, until the part}' arrives back at the spot where the husband has been burnt. They now cast a great quantity of wood into the pit itself and on its edge make a great fire. When it has burned up somewhat they erect a wooden scaffold with four or five steps, where they take her up just as she is. When she is on the top she turns herself round thereon three times, worshipping towards the direction of sunrise, and, this done, she calls her sons, kindred and friends, and to each she gives a jewel, whereof she has many with her, and in the same way every piece of her clothing until nothing is left except a small piece of cloth with which she is clothed from the waist down. All this she does and says so firmly, and with such a cheerful countenance, that she seems not about to die. Then she tells the men who are with her on the scaffold to consider what they owe to their wives, who, being free to act, yet burn themselves alive for the love of them, and the women she tells to see how much they owe to their husbands, to such a degree as to go with them even to death. Then she ceases speaking, and they place in her hands a pitcher full of oil, and she puts it on her head, and with it she again turns round thrice on the scaffold and again worships towards the rising sun. Then she casts the pitcher of oil into the fire and throws herself after it with as much goodwill as if she were throwing herself on a little cotton, from which she could receive no hurt. The kinsfolk all take part at once and cast into the fire many pitchers of oil and butter, which they hold ready for this purpose, and much wood on this, and therewith bursts out such a flame that no more can be seen. The ashes that remain after these ceremonies are thrown into running streams.
In the case of the death of a king, Barbosa tells us that four or five hundred women burn themselves with him, as well as many men “who are his intimates.” In a note on the passage Dames says that there is abundant testimony as to the number of satīs at the death of a king of Vijaya-nagar. Nicolo Conti was told that the king had 12,000 wives, of whom 2000 or 3000 were chosen only on condition that at his death they should voluntarily burn themselves with him.
Dames states in a note on page 213 that other interesting descriptions of satis in other parts of India are given by Mandelslo, Peter Mundy and Thomas Bowrey. In the case of Mandelslo the woman gave him one of her bracelets, no doubt in making a distribution of her jewels such as is described by Barbosa (Travels, English translation by John Davies, 1669, p. 32). In the same way Thomas Bowrey was given by the widow some flowers from her hair (Countries round the Bay of Bengal, edited by Sir R. Temple, Hakluyt Society, London, 1903, p. 38). His description refers to Careda, between Madras and Machhlipatam, in the year 1672, while Mandelslo’s refers to Kambāyat. It is evident, therefore, that this custom was widely diffused.
Peter Mundy’s account (Travels, edited by Sir R. C. Temple, Hakluyt Society, vol. ii, 1914, pp. 34-36) refers to a sail at Surat of a Banyā’s widow in 1630, of which he has left his own sketch. In none of these cases is there anything to show that the cremation took place, as at Vijaya-nagar, in a deep pit into which the widow threw herself either while her husband’s body was burning, or, in the case of persons of high rank, afterwards, with a procession on horseback, and great ceremonies. The custom of performing the cremation in a pit, as described by Barbosa and Nuniz, was evidently common in Southern India. Tavernier alludes to it in the seventeenth century as prevailing on the coast of Coromandel. His account, though short, shows that the ceremony was identical with that described in the text (Tavernier’s Travels, English edition, 1678, Part II, bk. iii, p. 171).
In general the cremation seems to have taken place on a pyre, and not in a pit, and such is the usage in cremations at the present day in Northern India. In Western India W. Crooke says (Popular Religion and Folk-Lore of Northern India, vol. i, p. 188) a grass hut was erected in which the widow sat holding her husband’s head in her lap, supporting it with her right hand and holding in her left a torch with which she kindled the hut. Such a sail is that described by Peter Mundy, and the hut or “cottage,” as he calls it, is shown in the background of his sketch. See also Dellen’s description of a sail in his Voyage to the East Indies, London, 1698, pp. 48-50, which closely resembles Mundy’s account.
In more modern days, although satis have been fairly numerous, the prescribed rites followed at such immolations differ but little in detail from what has already been said.
In 1829, the very year in which satl was finally prohibited, Sir William Sleeman, in his Rambles and Recollections, describes the amazing persistency which a certain old woman at Jubbulpore showed in her desire to ascend the pyre of her husband. Sir William did all he could to prevent it, and actually succeeded in delaying it for five days, but the miseries of the woman seemed so genuine that at last he let her have her way.
“Satisfied myself,” he writes,
“that it would be unavailing to attempt to save her life, I sent for all the principal members of the family, and consented that she should be suffered to burn herself if they would enter into engagements that no other member of their family should ever do the same. This they all agreed to, and the papers having been drawn out in due form about midday, I sent down notice to the old lady, who seemed extremely pleased and thankful. The ceremonies of bathing were gone through before three, while the wood and other combustible materials for a strong fire were collected and put into the pit. After bathing she called for a pān (betel-leaf) and ate it, then rose up, and with one arm on the shoulder of her eldest son, and the other on that of her nephew, approached the fire. As she rose up fire was set to the pile, and it was instantly in a blaze. The distance was about one hundred and fifty yards; she came on with a calm and cheerful countenance, stopped once, and casting her eyes upwards, said: ‘Why have they kept me five days from thee, my husband?’ On coming to the sentries her supports stopped, she walked round the pit, paused a moment, and while muttering a prayer threw some flowers into the fire. She then walked deliberately and steadily to the brink, stepped into the centre of the flame, sat down, and leaning back in the midst as if reposing upon a couch, was consumed without uttering a shriek or betraying one sign of agony.”
Fuller details will be found in Russell, Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces, vol. ii, pp. 369-374.
Further descriptions would be superfluous, but the few following references might be added to those already given in the course of this appendix:—
- H. A. Rose, A Glossary of the Tribes and Castes of the Puñjab and North-West Frontier Province, Lahore, 1919, vol. i, pp. 200-201, 404;
- Indian Notes and Queries, vol. iv, p. 153;
- North Indian Notes and Queries, vol. ii, p. 726;
- The Imperial Gazetteer of India, vol. ii, 1909, pp. 218, 498;
- Government of Madras Legislative Department, The Madras Sail Regulation (Madras Regulation No. 1 of 1830) (as modified up to October 1909), Madras, 1909;
- Henry Jeffreys Bushby, Widow-Burning, London, 1855;
- A. K. Coomar-aswamy, Satī:
- a Vindication of the Hindu Woman (a paper read before the Sociological Society, London, 12th November 1912);
- G. T. Vigne, “Widow-Burning,” Travels in Kashmir, 2 vols., 1842, vol. i, pp. 82-94;
- “Suttee” in Yule and Burnell, Hobson Jobson: J. C. Oman, Brāhmans, Theists and Muslims of India, 1907, p. 191 et seq.
Footnotes and references:
O. Schrader, Prehistoric Antiquities of the Aryan Peoples, Eng. trans., London, 1890, p. 891.
W. R. S. Ralston, Songs of the Russian People, p. 327 et seq. This is quoted by Westermarck, The History of Human Marriage, vol. i, p. 319 et seq., who also mentions Dithmar of Merseburg, Chronicon, viii, 2 (Pertz, Monument a Germaniæ historica, v, 86l); and H. Zimmer, Altindisches Leben, p. 330.
See E. T. C. Werner, China of the Chinese, 1919, pp. 42, 43.
Religious System of China, vol. ii, p. 733 et seq.
See L. Giles’ Alphabetical Index to the Chinese Encyclopædia, 1911.
L. D. Barnett, Antiquities of India, p. 11.9.
Mrs Sinclair Stevenson, The Riles of the Twice-Born, 1920, pp. 204-208.
See H. H. Wilson, Journ. Roy. As. Soc., vol. xvi, 1828, p. 201 et seq.; and Fitzedward Hall, ditto, vol. iii, N.S., 1867, p. 188 et seq.