Suttee: a Willing Victim, and an Unwilling Victim

The Willing Victim

Nicholas Withington worked for the East India Company and travelled extensively in India from 1612-16, recording his experiences in a journal and various letters that were later published as a book, entitled Pilgrimes. Here he describes Suttee (from the Sanskrit sati meaning “good woman” or “chaste wife”), the Hindu custom of a wife immolating herself either on the funeral pyre of her dead husband or on her own pyre. The account is of special interest because it records the young widow’s refusal to accept the Governor’s order “that shee should not dye”, based on the technicality that “she had never layen with her husband”.

When the Rasbooche [Hindu Rajput] dies, his wife, when his bodye goes to bee burned, accompanieth him, attyxed with her beste arrayments and accompanyed with her frends and kyndred, makinge much joye, havinge musicke with them. And cominge to the place of burninge, the fyer beeinge made, sitteth downe, havinge t’wice or thrice incompassed the place. Firste, shee bewayleth her husband’s death, and rcjoycinge that shee is nowe reddye to goe and live with him agayne ; and then imbraceth her frends and sitteth downe on the toppe of the pile of wood and dry stickes, rockinge her husband’s head in her lappe, and soe willeth them to sett fyer on the wood ; which beeinge done, her frends throwe oyle and divers other things, with sweete perfumes, uppon her; and shee indures the fyer with such patience that it is to bee admired, beeinge loose and not bounde. Of theis manner of burninge I have seen manye. Tlie firste that ever I sawe was in Surratt, with our Agente and the reste of our Englishe. It was verye lamentable. Tlie woman wiiich w’as burnte was not above ten yeares of age and had never layen with her husband. But this yt was. Ilee beeinge a souldier, and goinge uppon service, was slayne in the action, and there burned, but his clothes and turbante ware brought home with newes of his death ; wheruppon his wife would needes bee burnte, and soe made preparations for it. And beeinge reddye to sacrefise her selfe with her husband’s clothes, which she had with her, order came from the Governor that shee should not dye, in regard she had never layen with her husband ; which newes she took wonderfull passionately, desirie them to sett fyer on the wood presentlye, sayinge her husband w’as a greate waye before her. But they durste not burne her, till her frends wente to the Governor and intreated him, givinge him a presente for the same ; which when they obteyned, they retorned and (with greate joye to her, as she seemed) burnte her to ashes with her husband’s clothes^ and then caste the ashes into tiie river. This was the firste that ever I sawe ; at the sight wherof our Agente was soe greeved and amazed at the undaunted resolution of the younge woman that hee said hee would never see more bumte in that fashion while hee lived.

The Unwilling Victim

Fanny Parks lived in India from 1822 to 1845. Her husband Charles worked for The East Indian Company and they were based in Allahabad and Calcutta. Fanny kept a diary recording her experiences of local society, culture, and religion. Here she describes a suttee that had a (reasonably) satisfactory ending.

If a widow touch either food or water from the time her husband expires until she ascend the pile, she cannot, by Hindoo law, be burned with the body; therefore the magistrate kept the corpse forty-eight hours, in the hope that hunger would compel the woman to eat. Guards were set over her, but she never touched any thing. My husband accompanied the magistrate to see the suttee : about 5000 people were collected together on the banks of the Ganges : the pile was then built, and the putrid body placed upon it; the magistrate stationed guards to prevent the people from approaching it. After having bathed in the river, the widow lighted a brand, walked round the pile, set it on fire, and then mounted cheerfully: the flame caught and blazed up instantly; she sat down, placing the head of the corpse on her lap, and repeated several times the usual form, “Ram, Ram, suttee; Ram, Ram, suttee;” i. e. “God, God, I am chaste.”

As the wind drove the fierce fire upon her, she shook her arms and limbs as if in agony; at length she started up and approached the side to escape. An Hindoo, one of the police who had been placed near the pile to see she had fair play, and should not be burned by force, raised his sword to strike her, and the poor wretch shrank back into the flames. The magistrate seized and committed him to prison. The woman again approached the side of the blazing pile, sprang fairly out, and ran into the Ganges, which was within a few yards. When the crowd and the brothers of the dead man saw this, they called out, “Cut her down, knock her on the head with a bamboo; tie her hands and feet; and throw her in again;” and rushed down to execute their murderous intentions, when the gentlemen and the police drove them back.

The woman drank some water, and having extinguished the fire on her red garment, said she would mount the pile again and be burned. The magistrate placed his hand on her shoulder (which rendered her impure), and said, “By your own law, having once quitted the pile you cannot ascend again; I forbid it. You are now an outcast from the Hindoos, but I will take charge of you, the Company will protect you, and you shall never want food or clothing.”

He then sent her, in a palanquin, under a guard, to the hospital. The crowd made way, shrinking from her with signs of horror, but returned peaceably to their homes; the Hindoos annoyed at her escape, and the Mussulmans saying, “It was better that she should escape, but it was a pity we should have lost the tamasha (amusement) of seeing her burnt to death.”

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