Sati: The Practice of Widow Sacrifice in Medieval India

In the medieval realm of the Hind–that is the Indian sub-continent circa 1300 A.D.–there was a practice among some of the folk there that, when a man died, his living wife would join in his cremation. Practiced through the 19th century until the laws of British imperialism suppressed it, isolated instances of it have occurred in modern times.

It went by the name “sati” or “suttee” (anglicized). The practice was rejoiced and celebrated, but not mandatory. Doing so was a sign of piety, devotion, and virtuous fidelity. A woman could bring great honor to her family by undertaking it. On the other hand not doing so could result in a loss of respect and reputation within her community. Sometimes the woman would even become despised and go on to live a life of misery, dressing in coarse rags, alone for the rest of her life. But, a woman was never forced to do it.

The famous Moroccan traveler, Ibn Battuta, witnessed this practice on multiple occasions and relates what he had seen. In sum, it would go like this:

For three days before the cremation, a celebration would be held with festivals of merriment and concerts with food and drinking. On the fourth day, the woman would be richly dressed and adorned in garments and perfume. She might hold a mirror in her hand to look at herself one last time while leading the funeral procession on horseback, followed in suit by the Brahmans, or Hindu chief priests. And a ceremonial train of drummers, buglers, and trumpeters would carry on behind her. All along the way, people would run up to her and ask her to say “Hi” and pass on messages to their deceased ancestors, which she would happily promise to do – for they believed in the persistence of one’s soul in the afterlife.

The parade would then arrive at some body of water like a lagoon or fresh pool, which the woman would dip in to, undress, and emerge cleansed of worldly concerns. She would then be covered in sesame oil so to incense the iminent flames. A wooden pavilion would have already been built there on the spot by the water. Then, the funerary flames would be lit. The woman would approach, praise the fire, and raise her hands up to the sky, then climb atop the pavilion and embrace her man in the funeral pyre. More kindling and larger beams of wood would then be put upon them so to stoke the flames and weigh the woman down and keep her from moving. All would cry out in their loudest voices and the musicians would raise a clamor to cover up the lady’s screams of pain.

Thence, the would-be widow and her deceased husband would remain embraced, as if hugging each other, in the flames till both their bodies depart from this world at the same time. Their ashes would then be taken on pilgrimage and dumped into the Ganges River, which was believed to be the pathway to Heavenly Paradise. And together, they would pass unto their next life, ever joined in loving, lasting union.

Sati Ceremony, painted c. 1800, http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O15842/sati-ceremony-painting-unknown/

Source: Ibn, Batuta, and Tim Mackintosh-Smith. The Travels of Ibn Battutah. London: Picador, 2002.

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