Friday, March 21, 2008

Suttee, an eyewitness's account from AD 1824

An old painting on Suttee


Sati, (it means, a chaste woman. Suttee is an English corruption of this word)) was the ancient practice among some north Indian Hindu communities in which the widowed woman immolated herself in the husband’s funeral pyre.

The barbaric custom existed over two millennia till the early part of the 19th century. Though many attempts, over centuries, had been made to forbid the practice, it was Lord William Henry Cavendish-Bentinck, the Governor General of India between AD 1827 and 1835, who passed a regulation ,despite fierce opposition, and declared that all who abetted Suttee were “ guilty of culpable homicide.”

Widow sacrifice has not been peculiar to India alone. E. B. Tylor in his Primitive Culture has provided evidences of such rites among all primitive Aryan nations.

The purpose of this note is not to dwell on the history or the other ritualistic aspects of Suttee, but to bring to the notice of the readers of an eyewitness’s account of an actual rite which he saw in early 1824. Of course, Lord Bentinck also may have read this account, as this happened at Serampore, very near to his head quarters.


An old view of Serampore


The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Miscellany :(Volume XVIII July to December 1824)
- Page 316-

Extract of a letter dated from the river near Serampore, 4th February 1824


Noticing a crowd of natives proceeding in the same direction, I enquired the cause, and was informed that a certain Sircar having died, his two wives proposed to be burned with his body. I joined them, and on arriving at the place, where the sacrifice was to take place, I found a great number of people assembled, the piles prepared and the two women engaged in worshipping, for the last time, the sacred Ganges. They were surrounded by their relations, and seemed to entertain no apprehensions of their approaching fate, nor was any feelings testified by their friends, who were near them. When they left the river, myself and a friend by whom I was accompanied inquired of them whether they were about thus to immolate themselves of their own free will, to which they replied in the affirmative. The elder of the women was fifty, the younger of about forty years of age. The cry of ”Hurree Bol” commenced, they calmly ascended the pile, and taking an adieu of their friends, they laid themselves, the one on the one side, and the other on the other of their departed husband and were quickly enveloped in flames. No appearance of force or undue persuasion existed, intoxicating drugs were not employed, nor were the bamboo levers used to keep them down on the pile, and in a few moments they died, without a struggle. After this the cry of ”Hurree Bol”became louder , the immediate relations seemed to exult in the deed which they had just performed , and I, perfectly horrified, left the scene.

ps: Serampore (Srirampur) is a municipality in the Hoogly District of Kolkata, in West Bengal.
Dubai, Good Friday 2008.

2 comments:

Maddy said...

am a little surprised that sati existed in bengal. I thought they had more sense than that..

Halley said...

Sati have existed all throughout the subcontinent .. not just to north India or Bengal .

Although reportings of sati was of highest numbers from Bengal , because of the simple fact that Calcutta was the capital of British India and most europeans initially landed on Calcutta port .

Although in many cases it was a barbaric act of forceful immolation . There have been many instances where the widow herself was determined to end her life and entered the fire in perfect tranqulity !!!