When Widows Were Burnt Alive In India

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Illustration depicting a Sati ritual, where a woman is being set alight
Under the practice of Sati, widows were burned alive after their husbands died. It was a ritual sacrifice - condoned by society.

In the late 18th century, a young Raja Rammohan Roy couldn’t understand why his sister-in-law was being dressed in her finest wedding outfit, mere moments after her husband had passed away. He was too young to understand even his brother’s death. But soon, he was to understand the horrific practice of Sati.

His brother’s funeral pyre was lit, the Brahmin priests chanted their mantras and the young widow was dragged towards the flames. She was terrified. Rammohan objected and tried to save her, but to no avail. The girl was burned alive, while people chanted “Maha Sati! Maha Sati!” (A great wife!). She was 17.

The event left a deep imprint on Rammohan. Not so much on the people around him, however, for the burning of a widow after her husband’s death was a common practice in those days. Several orthodox Hindu Brahmins hailed the rite – Vijnaneswara in the 12th Century Chalukya Court and Madhavacharya (13-14th Century)  hailed the practice as a pious act that absolves women of their sins, guaranteeing salvation.

There are many accounts by European colonizers of Sati being performed in the subcontinent. One such account was by the Frenchman, John Colbert, Finance Minister of Louis XIV, who wrote a letter describing two instances of Sati in 1664. One was of a middle aged lady who voluntarily committed herself to the act, the other a 12-year-old girl who was terrified and pushed into the flames by the Brahmin priests in Lahore.

In later years, Fanny Parkes also recounted an incident of Sati that her husband had witnessed. She begins her narration by stating the death of a merchant. His wife announced that she would perform Sati, resulting in drumbeat and a musical performance by the locals. The local magistrate tried to dissuade her, but she was adamant. Local customs required the widow not to partake of food or drink until her husband’s cremation, and the magistrate locked her up for 48 hours in a bid to get her to eat and self-nullify her decision. She didn’t touch a morsel.

When she finally set herself alight, the feel of flame on skin changed her mind. She attempted to run away from the pyre – only to be threatened by a sword-wielding vigilante. When she tried to escape again, the magistrate intervened and had her doused. She went on to live, to the detriment of her relatives who would have gained her land had she died.

Banning the fire

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Sati was not restricted to India. In parts of South East Asia, like Bali, it persisted as a Hindu ritual. (Image: Sati in Bali by Houtman, 1597)

The banning of Sati in British India was a landmark moment in abolishing old, inhuman rituals. It was controversial then and remains controversial today – as it is seen as an example of the British ‘civilizing‘ India. But the British government was not the first to ban this barbaric practice.

Moves to abolish Sati date back to Mughal times, when under emperor Akbar, it was mandated that women seek police permission before performing the act. Aurangzeb issued the first ‘firman‘ (order) to ban Sati outright.

After Akbar, the Portuguese banned it in their colony at Goa in 1615, followed by the Dutch Hugli-Chanchura and the French in Pondicherry. But these colonies were small, and by the 19th century, the practice was prevalent. Between 1813-1838, 8135 women committed Sati in Bengal alone – ten time the rate that of the rest of the country.

From 1813, Rammohan infuriated many by campaigning against Sati.

But when the British Governor-General, Lord William Bentinck, asked his opinion on a nationwide-wide Sati ban, Rammohan advised against it. His reasons were based on realpolitik – if the British banned it outright, they would be seen as violating their policy of tolerance for religious practices. Rather, he suggested a silent revolution, making it difficult for the practice to continue and one led by voluntary renouncement of Sati.

But Bentinck went ahead with the ban anyway, outlawing it in Bengal in 1829 – an act for which Rammohan gave his complete support, travelling to Britain to ensure that it was not withdrawn. The rest of the country followed suit, though some Princely states did not ban it. In Scinde, when the priests complained to Charles James Napier, he reportedly said:

Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.

In independent India, Sati deaths ebbed to a low, until an incident in 1987 woke the country up. Roop Kanwar was forced to perform self-immolation by her in-laws and worshipped for the act. The resultant outrage saw the Commission Of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987 enacted in 1988.

Today, the abolishing of Sati is used as an example to push for social reform among other religions, notably for the Uniform Civil Code amongst Muslims. But forms of Sati persist in Hindu society even today.

In 2010, there were 8391 cases of dowry deaths reported across the country – where a bride is murdered for the in-laws to pocket the dowry. Many of these were bride-burnings. The difference is that these are often cases of homicide, whereas Sati was ostensibly a ritualistic, customary suicide.

The horror of Sati is among the worst consequences of ritualistic belief in the country. The Indian justice system needs to crack down on dowry killings and other forms of ritualistic murder if it is to claim an improvement over the British Raj.

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