||Issue Date: 4 / 2007
A Love Story: Sati in Contemporary Rajasthan
Ann Newton Holmes
The storyteller, a Rajput from a major royal family of Rajasthan, rose and bowed deeply. "Give me your blessing," he said.
Roop Kanwar, eighty-three,
related the story of her sister-
sati Sugan Kanwar. (Ann
Taken aback, I replied, "I'm not qualified to dispense blessings, but you certainly have my best wishes."
"You are writing about our sacred sati. You are telling the West that sati is not suicide. You are holy." Bowing again, he asked me to place my palm on his bared head.
I could see there was no point in arguing, even about his assumption regarding what I would write. I put my palm on his head, mumbled a few words and fled.
A month later it came to me. To individuals in the West, sati, or suttee, the self-sacrifice of a widow on the funeral pyre of her husband, is a horror story. To Rajputs, it's a love story.
Ten years previously, the subject of sati had been dropped in my lap by two elders of the Jodhpur royal family. I was interviewing Maharaj Himmat Singh, uncle of the present Maharaja, about growing up in the world's largest Art Deco palace, the Umaid Bhawan, when he switched from tales of boisterous Holi celebrations to speak in hushed tones about the most moving experience of his life, the 1954 sati of Sugan Kanwar. A few days later, Maharaj Sajjan Singh paused in his exuberant tales of pig sticking to whisper reverently about the same sati. Each man, after forty years, remembered Sugan Kanwar's god-inspired radiance, her calm, her dignity on the pyre. Each insisted that I hire a taxi and visit her temple.
In the course of future research, I heard more accounts of this last sati in Jodhpur and was introduced to members of the sati's family. When I requested permission to interview them, they graciously agreed. This tale of the last hours of Sugan Kanwar's life is reconstructed primarily from conversations with her son, Thakur Manohar Singh, her sister-in-law, Dowager Roop Kanwar, and nephew, Thakur Sunder Singh, in February 2002, and with her son and a family friend, who wished to remain anonymous, in February 2004. These meetings were not really interviews. Many of my prepared questions remained unasked because information flowed most freely when I listened to what the individuals wished to say, took notes, and asked questions simply to clarify details.
My experience is consistent with Rajput culture in which those who tell tales are highly appreciated and those who directly respond to questions are rare. In Rajput society, where history is preserved through oral tradition, a story, though remaining accurate at its core, is individually colored with each retelling and enters the realm of myth. The stories I heard of the sati of Sugan Kanwar, though clearly representative of events, had been transformed over the past fifty years by the Rajput oral tradition into social mythology, with all its central truths and supernatural nuances. I recorded the tales as they were told to me, with no effort to edit to some presumed underlying Western "rational truth."
The mythology of sati
Sati is close to the surface of the folk consciousness in Rajasthan. Ask any storyteller for tales of sati, as I asked Rajvi Jaipal Singh Rathore, of the Bikaner royal family, and Dr. Mahendra Singh Nagar, Director of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, and he will fill your ears for the next several hours. Though the specifics in such tales vary from sati to sati, certain consistencies reveal mythology as integral to sati as flames of the pyre. A true sati is always voluntary. "It is not sati if it is forced," Jaipal Singh said. "Sati is not for every widow. Every widow is not holy. Only the holy are gifted by God to become sati." Manohar Singh, son of Sugan Kanwar, defines sati as "a supernatural act, the natural consequence of a love so deep the souls do not wish to be separated."
A true sati, according to the mythology, possesses supernatural powers that manifest differently in various circumstances. For example, a sati may hold her hands over a candle and not be burned, light the pyre spontaneously, perform miracles of healing, call down curses on those who try to prevent her from becoming sati, predict the future, and cause interfering authorities to encounter delays. She is described as "radiant with divine power" by those who witnessed the rites. It is claimed that a sati is given a time frame by God in which to mount the pyre. During that period she is protected from the pain of burning and instead feels as if cool water is being poured over her head. If she is prevented from completing the act during her prescribed time, she loses both her supernatural powers and her divine protection.
Since sati is an act of love, a sati mounts the pyre dressed as a bride, in a wedding sari of red, pink or magenta, wearing wedding bangles and hennaed designs on her palms. Traditionally, she slaps her vermilion-painted palm on the gate of the fort as she walks in procession to the pyre. Her act of self-sacrifice is said to bring seven generations of good fortune to her own family and to her husband's family, as well as to the village in which she resides.
The sati's role, other than to die with honor, proving her purity and her devotion to her husband, is to assist him in entering heaven, thus smoothing the path for his successful rebirth. A sati goes directly to heaven, it is believed, and holds out her hand to her husband so that he, too, ascends to grace. An old doha, a four-line poem, loosely translated for me by a young nobleman, Bhanwar Anirudh Singh, explains the enduring attraction of sati in a culture where the wife is totally devoted to the well being of her husband.
When a warrior dies in battle,
A single angel beckons him to come.
When his wife embraces sati,
All heaven bids him welcome.
Choosing sati proves the widow is as committed to "death before dishonor" as was her warrior husband. Her reward for such courage and fealty, for such demonstration of love, is that in her next rebirth, she will be born, not an "ignoble" female, but a "superior" male. Belief in rebirth, that this life is not the beginning and end of individual existence, is the key to understanding sati. A sati knows the flames will carry her from this life to another where she will be exalted for having died upon her husband's funeral pyre. And this, her last female incarnation, will be remembered "as long as the sun and moon shall endure" for the flames that bear the sati's spirit to heaven elevate the lowly widow to a goddess, a Sati Mata, worthy of respect, reverence and worship.
The sati of Sugan Kanwar: The personalities
Brigadier Thakur Zabar Singh, husband of Sugan Kanwar and respected grandson of Sir Pratap Singh who served as Regent for three Jodhpur Maharajas, had risen to Commandant of the Jodhpur State Forces prior to Independence in 1947. At the time of his death he held the MBE (Member of the British Empire) and was Comptroller of the Umaid Bhawan Palace. His heart condition hadn't slowed his pace much, but after walking up to Mehrangarh Fort behind the six-year-old Maharaja's palanquin during the Dussera festivities, he complained of pains in his chest. A doctor suggested oxygen and warned the Brigadier that not much time remained to him. Less than a fortnight later, on October 18, 1954, he came home from his office and collapsed. His son Manohar Singh was sent racing to the hospital for an oxygen tank. When he returned, he was met by an uncle who informed him that his father "was no more." The Brigadier was forty-five.
Sugan Kanwar, Zabar Singh's wife of twenty-seven years, mother of three daughters and one son, had chosen purdah, seclusion behind the veil, upon her marriage. (In those days, purdah was common among Rajputs, though they are Hindu. Today Hindu purdah remains widespread in the villages.) Sugan Kanwar was a devout woman who had her own small shrine for pujas--not unusual for a woman of comfortable means--and was active in providing for lepers and feeding cows. But she was also relaxed and easy and liked to pull pranks. (One man fondly remembered her locking him and his bride in a room on Holi and demanding a ransom to free them so they could join in the festivities.) At the death of her husband, Sugan Kanwar was forty-three.
Though a Rajput woman does not traditionally attend cremations, even that of her husband, mother or sister, she does pray and mourn with other women as well as console them. For this reason Sugan Kanwar spent the long night following Zabar Singh's death with Roop Kanwar, her sister-in-law. I interviewed Roop Kanwar in the living room of her son's spacious home in Jodhpur. A four by six foot portrait of sati Sugan Kanwar ascending to heaven dominated one wall. At eighty-three the dowager possessed the calm and gentleness that comes with a gracious old age. Since she spoke no English, her son Thakur Sunder Singh, Private Secretary to the Maharaja of Jodhpur, translated for her and shared his own recollections as well. Sunder Singh was a boy at the time of the sati; his mother was thirty-six.
The night of vigil
When Roop Kanwar was informed of the Brigadier's death, she left for his house after seeing to it that her husband, the widow's brother, Lt. Col. Thakur Bishan Singh, was notified. A member of the Rajasthan Legislative Assembly that was in session in Jaipur, he set out on the seven-hour drive to Jodhpur with the Brigadier's brother, Major Jagat Singh Bera, who was also in Jaipur.
Shortly after Roop Kanwar's arrival at the house of mourning, the widow Sugan Kanwar began her preparations for sati, although she had not yet made her intentions clear. She asked her sister-in-law to bring urine from "the cow which is standing outside." Since the family did not keep cows, Roop Kanwar explained its presence by saying, "A cow had come automatically as it was needed." The widow, as is the custom on important occasions, bathed in cow urine and then in water and asked her sister-in-law to help her put on her ivory wedding bangles. Roop Kanwar objected. "You are a widow. You can't wear wedding bangles." But Sugan Kanwar insisted and then asked her sister-in-law to paint her hands with henna as those of a bride would be painted. There was no henna in the house so Roop Kanwar painted the widow's hands with a paste made of the red powder for the tikki that women wear on their foreheads.
When Sugan Kanwar brought out the new sari she had purchased in preparation for the death of her husband, Roop Kanwar saw it was not the white or dull gray appropriate for widows, but rani colored, a magenta worn for weddings. She then understood that Sugan Kanwar intended to embrace sati.
After her husband's body had been bathed, Sugan Kanwar seated herself and took his head in her lap. Beside her an oil lamp burned. A cluster of incense sticks smoldered alongside a sacred tulsi (basil) plant in a clay pot. She asked for her mala, a circular string of 108 rudraksha beads, her copy of the Bhagavad Gita and a whole coconut. When the items were brought, she announced to the assembled family, "I want to die with my husband. I have lost everything."
Her father Thakur Nathu Singh objected. "What you want to do is illegal and will bring down the authorities on the family. They will put a stop to it and bring shame upon all of us."
Sugan Kanwar remained unmoved. "You have not understood my feelings for my husband. He is moving away from me and I must join him." She gestured toward the smoldering incense sticks and they flamed brightly, quickly reducing themselves to ash. "You have also not understood my powers."
Major Jagat Singh, her brother-in-law, stated flatly that sati was wrong. Her brother said, "Forget it. Have you gone mad? There will be no sati."
"Don't worry. I am not one who will change her mind on the pyre," she replied. She held her hand over the burning oil lamp. After two minutes in contact with the flame, it remained unharmed.
While her family tried to shake her resolve, Sugan Kanwar sat during the long night with her husband, murmuring to him, "Do not be in such a hurry, I am about to join you." At sunrise her brother delivered a red sari, suitable for brides and satis, instead of the traditional pale sari he would have presented to a widowed sister. This gesture announced that, despite their fear of the consequences, family members would abide by her wishes.
Twenty-year-old Manohar Singh, son of the deceased Brigadier, had broken down after his father's death and had been given a sedative. He slept the night through while the debate over sati occupied the other occupants of the household. In the morning he came upon his mother seated beneath the neem tree in the zenana courtyard. She was wearing the magenta sari, her wedding bangles and the family's heirloom wedding necklace. He had read enough about sati to recognize with a start what she intended to do. Sugan Kanwar, upon seeing her son's reaction, said, "Be brave. Put a stone on your heart. I will go with my husband. But remember me when you are in trouble and I will be with you."
As the time approached for the funeral procession to leave the house, Sugan Kanwar ordered the red powder for the tikki to be poured into a plate. She pressed the palm of her right hand in the color and clapped it on the left side of the entrance gate, then placed her palm again in the color and marked the spot where she had sat on the marble floor. These palm prints have been preserved.
The funeral procession
Two members of the Jodhpur royal family who came to the house, Maharaj Himmat Singh and Maharaj Sajjan Singh, had heard the news of the death of the respected Brigadier at their club the previous evening. They had also learned that Sugan Kanwar intended to become sati--the first sati in Jodhpur in over a century. The news had spread like dust blown in by the Loo, the hot desert winds that gust in unexpectedly from the desert.
The crowds roaming the streets, as the rumor of impending sati spread, would have made it difficult to walk in procession. In addition, sati and the abetting of sati were against the law, so speed was necessary to avoid a confrontation with the authorities. Since the Brigadier had held an important position at the Palace, the family called upon the Palace for a truck to convey the coffin to the cremation site. When the truck arrived, it was sprinkled with Ganges water to purify it, and Sugan Kanwar emerged from the house, helping to bear the red-velvet draped coffin. The men who had gathered outside were surprised by her vigor and her radiance, which, Himmat Singh said, "made it difficult to look at her face." According to several onlookers, she "vaulted" into the back to sit with the coffin.
Others clambered up behind her. One of those was a young man whom she knew quite well. As the truck bumped along the road, their shoulders touched and he received an electric shock that he still attributes to her "supernatural, god-gifted powers."
"Are you afraid?" she asked him.
He replied that he feared at any moment the police would come and arrest them and take the body away.
"No one will come until after I become sati," she said.
Along the route men chanted "sati Mata ki jai," "Victory to the Sati Mata," and asked for predictions of the future. She responded that she would answer from the pyre.
To avoid the authorities, who it was feared were waiting to intercept the party at the main cremation ground, the truck went to the private family cremation ground of Zabar Singh's celebrated grandfather, Sir Pratap. There the pyre had not been prepared because no one knew how to arrange the logs for a sati. As one man said, "That was a closed chapter in India's history, and we wondered what to do." Sugan Kanwar took charge. She ordered Ganges water sprinkled on the site and directed the placement of three big logs on the ground. Before assuming her place on the logs, she unclasped the heirloom necklace and gave it to her son and then removed the ivory wedding bangles, which, she instructed, were to be presented to a Brahmin's daughter.
When her husband's body, garbed in a brocade aachan (tunic), white trousers and yellow turban, was removed from the coffin, she braced herself on the logs and had her husband placed with his head on her lap. She grasped the Gita in one hand and her mala of rudraksha beads in the other and ordered the pyre to be constructed around her, leaving the area over her head open. Sugan Kanwar supervised the finishing of the pyre and then, staring straight at her twenty-year-old son Manohar Singh, ordered him to light the fire.
Looking at this command through the lens of the sati tradition, Sugan Kanwar was simply asking her son to perform the last rites, his proper duty to his parents according to Hindu scripture. From his viewpoint, she was asking him to initiate the blaze that would turn her to ashes, an act that he knew would haunt him the remainder of his existence. He hesitated, sickened by the thought of what he had been asked to do. His mother upbraided him, "Why do you stand like a coward? If you are my true son, then light the pyre."
As he approached the pyre, she gave him the coconut she had kept with her during the night and assured him that he would not be alone, her Shakti (creative, active female power) would always be there for him. Then, as the fire was kindled by her son and a cousin, Sugan Kanwar forbade all women of her husband's family, the Ranawats, from ever wearing the magenta color she had worn to the pyre.
She chanted "Om, Om" and encouraged the crowd to respond with "Ram, Ram." As the flames caught hold and others were forced back by the heat, she sat quietly, her hair loose, her sari as yet unburned. She glanced at one side of the pyre where the fire was damping to warn them to pour more ghee there. As the flames progressed, her sari caught fire, but she remained calm and continued chanting. Then her hair flamed, her head sank forward and she was silent. Her son insists she was "absolutely calm and quiet as if she were taking a cool bath on a hot day," and adds, "Within three Oms her body was not there."
The cremation ground was opposite the house of the Superintendent of Police so it was not unexpected that the police would disrupt the procedures. Some time after the pyre was lighted, they arrived with the fire brigade that doused the flames. The police poked through the remains, uncovering the Gita which, miraculously, remained unharmed. They carried away unburned body parts to test for opium, trying to prove that Sugan Kanwar had been drugged. They also checked for traces of camphor that would have made her body burn more quickly. Finding either opium or camphor would have resulted in immediate arrests.
When the police and fire brigade departed, the fire was rekindled and the cremation completed. A relative, who held the Gita retrieved from the fire, tossed it back on the pyre rather than thinking to preserve it. When the fire died down, ashes and fragments of bone were removed to be immersed in the Ganges at Hardwar and in the lake at Pushkar.
At sunset the police, finding no evidence of opium or camphor, turned over their grisly sample to the doubly grieving family. Since the original cremation site was jammed with a delirious mass of celebrants of the sati tradition, the family transported the remains to the garden behind Sugan Kanwar's brother's home for a private cremation.
Creation of a sati goddess
At the original cremation site, worshippers of Sugan Kanwar, the new sati goddess, threw coconuts on the blaze and kept it burning for weeks. A hundred thousand attended the uthavana ceremony, the religious ceremony at the cremation site on the twelfth day following the sati. On the spot where the pyre had blazed, a Sati Mata chattri/temple was erected to honor the act of Sugan Kanwar.
According to Manohar Singh's wife, Indira Kanwar, pilgrims to the temple often leave a small silver foil cradle or tie a ribbon on the grate to request the boon of a child, especially a male child. The temple is a traditional stop for newlyweds of the family, who pay their respects and ask for blessings, and is the site of all-night chanting each year on the lunar anniversary of the event. In 2004, on the fiftieth anniversary of the death of the Brigadier and of Sugan Kanwar's choice to embrace "Divine satihood," the family planned to install marble busts of the couple in the Sati Mata Temple, but has delayed the installation and dedication ceremony indefinitely. Devotional songs, however, will be sung all day and night, and Brahmins and poor children will be fed.
A second chattri, a small memorial monument, was built to honor the sati at Sugan Kanwar's brother's home where the second cremation took place. It stands today on the grounds of the Karni Bhawan Heritage Hotel. From nine to eleven p.m. on the anniversary of the sati Brahmins chant the scriptures here.
This, then, is the love story of Sugan Kanwar, an example of mythic sati that occurred in the real world in the not-so-distant past. For tradition-oriented Rajputs, it is, as one confidant phrased it, "A real valentine--the expression of true love." It is romance with a capital R. The essence of devotion distilled into a single dramatic act.
Sati retains a hold on the Rajput folk consciousness, a hold that is not limited to those of the older generation. I did not realize the breadth of its appeal until word spread that I was researching sati and individuals came to me with their stories. There were the storytellers cited previously, of course, but also local noblemen, the driver of a car I hired, the manager of a hotel, the clerk in a pastry shop, the young man at a cyber cafe, and the waiters in restaurants. They all had a tale or two to tell or a newspaper clipping to share. They wanted to know what I thought about sati and what I would write about it.
Late one night, when my husband and I were the only remaining patrons at the restaurant on the ramparts of Jodhpur's Mehrangarh Fort, three young Rajput waiters gathered around our table. They brought me a newspaper clipping about the most recent developments in a court case related to a 1987 sati. The waiters were well informed about this sati and discussed it in detail, betraying both reverence and an edge of excitement. They were quite convinced it was a genuine, voluntary act. I was not so certain. It was not as straightforward as the sati of Sugan Kanwar.
The controversial 1987 sati of Roop Kanwar (no relation to Dowager Roop Karwar mentoned above), an eighteen-year-old beauty in Deorala village near Jaipur, created a firestorm that singed the nation. The husband's father and other family members claimed that the girl insisted on becoming sati despite their protests. Others reported she had been drugged and thrown onto the pyre. The truth remains with the villagers. Since abetting sati is illegal, few will admit to even being present, though hundreds were. In addition, though rumors of force persisted, no one would testify for the prosecution in court.
What struck me as odd about this sati was that the husband's family, though claiming to have tried to prevent the act, did not inform the girl's parents of the death of her husband so they could make the short drive from Jaipur to comfort her. If they had been with her in her husband's village, would she have "chosen" sati? What also stood out was the amount of money made by selling 30,000 copies of an eerie photo collage of Roop Kanwar beaming on the pyre with her husband's corpse grinning in her lap. The photo was created by posing a couple in the proper position and pasting in the faces of Roop Kanwar and her husband, Mal Singh. Also unsettling was the prosperity villagers could expect from a steady stream of pilgrims, requiring food, drink and housing as well as souvenirs. The sati of Roop Kanwar put Deorala on the map and many there appeared ready to profit.
The Rajasthan State government, choosing to view the sati as a religious act, failed to enforce the law by not immediately arresting those who had abetted Roop Kanwar's sacrifice. Angered by this inaction, feminists made a strong stand, demanding that the government prevent the chunari ceremony, a religious ceremony held on the twelfth day following the sati when the woman's' father and brothers cover a trident, symbol of sati, with a chunar, the scarf-like head covering a woman wears. This ceremony deifies the sati who then becomes a Sati Mata. Feminists view such deification and creation of a Sati Mata shrine as the glorification of an abhorrent act that demonstrates the second-class status of women in India and may possibly result in other women following the sati's example.
Government officials dithered, as only politicians anxious not to alienate a strong constituency can dither. In the end they did nothing more than ask the Rajput organizers, on the day of the event, to hold the ceremony a few hours early. Two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand people swarmed into Deorala by bus, truck, jeep, car, bullock and camel cart, tractor, and on camels, horses, and foot to deliriously glorify the sati. Roop Kanwar's sacrifice escalated into a free-for-all of feminists, traditionalists, fundamentalists, journalists, and politicians. It merely proved what everyone already knew; Delhi and Bombay are a lot further from the villages of Rajasthan than the less-than-two-hour airplane flight separating them would suggest.
Twenty-three men were arrested for abetting and/or glorifying the sati of Roop Kanwar. Because no witnesses were willing to come forward, the Rajasthan High Court finally dismissed all charges against the defendants in January 2004, nearly seventeen years after they had been charged. Among the twenty-three were three conservative politicians who had been very visible amidst the celebrating throng at the chunari ceremony in 1987. Following their arrest, they gained political power and position, as did the particular conservative political party they represented. But those times may be coming to a close, replaced by the rule of law. In August 2004, the case was reopened by the High Court of Rajasthan and the three conservative politicians, as well as others involved in the act, may yet be convicted for the exploitation of women.
Seema Burman, in a Times of India article on the 2002 sati of a sixty-five-year-old widow in Madyha Pradesh, pointed out that references to sati were not found in the ancient scriptures, but were interpreted from the later sacred texts, the lesser sources, as women slowly lost the status they held in Vedic times. She claimed, that with regard to sati, confusion exists between sacred duty and social custom and added, "The wise abandoned the practice of suttee [sati] with changing times. For others, it is one more way of inflicting injustice on women." What Seema Burman did not say is that, for the Rajput masses, sati is a mystic connection to a warrior past they see as more glorious than the colorless present, to a time when Rajput clans were feared and respected, to an era of grand gestures in the name of "honor."
We can conclude that sati in the past, whether we condone it or not, is a part of India's cultural history. Women lived and died according to their belief in sati and society's acceptance of it. Those women continue to deserve honor. But times have changed and different rules are suited to the present. For any number of reasons, including the emotional vulnerability of a new widow and her insecurities about the strictures of her future existence in a culture where she cannot remarry, sati should be considered an act that had its place in time, and that time has ended.
Manohar Singh, Sugan Kanwar's son, who experienced sati as intimately as one can without being on the pyre, would agree with this conclusion. In response to my question, "What is your opinion of contemporary sati?" he replied, "I have always respected my mother's decision which was based on her love for my father...but you can't maintain the traditions of the past in the present day or you'll never make progress."
As part of the rise of fundamentalist religion throughout the world, with politicians exploiting fundamentalist ideals to bolster and solidify their own power base, we see religion and tradition used to justify all manner of actions that stir up blind emotion in the masses. Kar Sevacs tearing down the Mosque at Ayodhya and their continued determination, despite the stalling tactics of the Indian government, to build a Hindu temple on the site, is simply one manifestation of this trend. Future cases of sati, unfortunately, may be another.
Ann Newton Holmes is a freelance writer.