Thursday, October 15, 2009

Suttee on the Nerbudda

Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the Bengali reformer, has been given a large share of the credit for stopping the practice of women being compelled to commit sati. But most of the widows seem to have voluntarily done so, genuinely believing that they would be reunited with their husbands.

Major Sleeman (he of the Eggs and Thugs fame) in his memoirs, “ Rambles and collections of an Indian official” (page 23) provides an account of a suttee and narrates a poignant tale of an old widow who simply could not be persuaded from being burnt at her husband’s pyre:

"On receiving civil charge of the district (Jubbulpore) in March, 1828, I issued a proclamation prohibiting any one from aiding or assisting in suttee; and distinctly stating, that to bring one ounce of wood for the purpose would be considered as so doing.

...On Tuesday, 24th November, 1829, I had an application from the heads of the most respectable and most extensive family of Brahmans in the district, to suffer this old widow to burn herself with the remains of her husband, Omed Sing Opuddea, who had that morning died upon the banks of the Nerbudda. I threatened to enforce my order, and punish severely any man who assisted; and placed a police guard for the purpose of seeing that no one did so. She remained sitting by the edge of the water without eating or drinking.

...Her sons, grandsons, and some other relations, remained with her, while the rest surrounded my house, the one urging me to allow her to burn, and the other urging her to desist. She remained sitting upon a bare rock in the bed of the Nerbudda, refusing every kind of sustenance, and exposed to the intense heat of the sun by day, and the severe cold of the night, with only a thin sheet thrown over her shoulders. On Thursday, to cut off all hope of her being moved from her purpose, she put on the Dhujja, or coarse red turban, and broke her bracelets in pieces, by which she became dead in law, and for ever excluded from caste. Should she choose to live after this, she could never return to her family.

...On Saturday the 28th, in the morning, I rode out ten miles to the spot, and found the poor old widow sitting with the dhujja round her head, a brass plate before her with undressed rice and flowers, and a cocoa-nut in each hand. She talked very collectedly, telling me, that "she had determined to mix her ashes with those of her departed husband, and should patiently wait my permission to do so, assured that God would enable her to sustain life till that was given, though she dared not eat or drink."

...She held out her arm, and said —" My pulse has long ceased to beat—my spirit has departed—and I have nothing left but a little earth that I wish to mix with the ashes of my husband—I shall suffer nothing in burning; and if you wish proof, order some fire, and you shall see this arm consumed without giving me any pain." I did not attempt to feel her pulse, but some of my people did, and declared that it had ceased to be perceptible.

...Satisfied myself 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. 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 upward said—" Why have they kept me five days from thee, my husband!" On coming to the sentries her supporters stopped—she walked once round the pit, paused a moment; and while muttering a prayer threw some flowers into the fire. She then walked up 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!

...I am persuaded that it was the desire of again being united to her husband in the next world, and the entire confidence that she would be so if she now burned herself, that alone sustained her. From the morning of the day he died, Tuesday, till Wednesday evening, she ate pawns or betel leaves, but nothing else and from Wednesday evening she ceased eating them. She drank no water from Tuesday. She went into the fire with the same cloth about her that she had worn in the bed of the river; but it was made wet, from a persuasion, that even the shadow of any impure thing falling upon her when going to the pile contaminates the woman, unless counteracted by the sheet moistened in the holy stream."

On page 33 of the memoirs, Sleeman records a conversation that took place between him and a native gentleman. The latter provides him with a fascinating justification for the practice of suttee.

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