We have all heard about sati, the cruel practice of making a widow burn herself alive on the funeral pyre of her dead husband. Memoirs of some foreign travellers like the French physician Bernier in 17th century India, who personally witnessed incidents of sati contain graphic details which can horrify one even hundreds of years later.
Sati was widely prevalent among the Hindus. Muslim rulers tried their best to suppress this barbaric custom. Since the population of the Hindus was greater than that of the Muslims and the latter did not want to be accused of interference in the former’s religious affairs, they tried various other means to keep this practice in check.
A law was enacted which mandated that no woman could sacrifice herself without the permission of the governor of the province in which she resided. The governor would try to reason with the woman and dissuade her from committing sati. If such persuasion failed, he would send her to his women hoping that their remonstrations may work where he had failed. In spite of that, many self-immolations occurred, but mainly in territories that were ruled by rajas where no Muslim governors were appointed.
Once when travelling from Ahmedabad to Agra through the territories of the rajas, Bernier’s caravan halted in the shade of a banyan tree whereupon news reached him that a widow was at the point of burning herself with the body of her husband.
He rushed to the spot and came upon a deep pit that was filled with wood on which lay a dead man and a woman who was very much alive. Both of them were seated upon the same pile of wood. Some Brahmins proceeded to set fire to the pile of wood. Five middle-aged women were holding hands, singing and dancing around the pit. Also present were a great many spectators. The pile on which a great quantity of butter and oil was poured, was soon on fire and enveloped in flames. The widow’s garments, which had been impregnated with scented oil mixed with sandalwood powder and saffron, caught fire too.
Bernier was astounded that the victim did not betray the slightest indication of pain or uneasiness.
However, what followed was more horrifying. He had presumed that the singing and dancing of the women was only a part of the ceremony.
Suddenly, to his astonishment, one of the women cast herself into the pit. She was followed by her companions, who holding hands, proceeded to immolate themselves too by jumping into the pit. Bernier then learnt that the five women were the widow’s slaves. They were so moved by their mistress’s deep affliction on the death of her husband and her resolve to perish with him that they too entered into a pact to perish by the very flames that consumed their beloved mistress.
Bernier found that this abominable practice was the result of deep-rooted prejudice. Every girl was taught by her mother that it was virtuous and laudable in a wife to mingle her ashes with those of her husband’s and no woman of honour would refuse compliance with the established custom.
But not every woman sacrificed herself willingly. Many shrank with terror at the sight of the piled wood. Bernier observed a woman who shrank back a few paces from the pit but was mercilessly thrust forward and forced into the fire. Other wretched women struggled to leave the funeral pyre as the fire blazed around them but they were prevented from escaping by the long poles of their diabolical executioners.
The most poignant incident was the one that he witnessed in Lahore where the victim was barely twelve years old. The child appeared more dead than alive when she approached the dreadful pit. Her agony was hard to witness as she trembled and wept bitterly. However, three or four Brahmins, assisted by an old woman, held her by her arms and forced the unwilling victim towards the fatal spot, seated her on the pile of wood, tied her hands and feet with ropes lest she escaped. The innocent, unwilling victim was then burnt alive.
In some parts of India, the widow was buried alive by the Brahmins by slow degrees up to the throat. Then some of the Brahmins would fall suddenly on the victim, wring her neck and when her last breath left her body, they would cover the body with earth.