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An old Buddhist relief from the Bharahat Stupa

Chapter 2 – The Practice of Suttee, or Widow-Burning, in India, According to Greek, Latin, Arabic, Persian, Italian, Dutch, French, and English Accounts

Among the peculiar Hindu customs sanctioned by antiquity and practised until a century ago, when it was abolished by an act of the British government, was the inhuman practice of “suttee,” or widow-burning. The word “suttee,” derived from the Sanskrit sati, literally means “a true wife,” and the term was properly applied to a woman whose faithful devotion to her husband, during his lifetime, earned for her this well-deserved title of praise; but it came early to be used as the special designation of the wife whose love for her lord and master led her to sacrifice herself in the flames of his funeral pyre. This latter employment of the term has unfortunately been the general one for ages, so that suttee and widow-burning are synonymous.

As was pointed out in the first volume of this series (p. 61), there has been much discussion as to whether this Indian custom dates back to the ancient period

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Hindu Races in the Vedic and Epic Ages

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Blank page

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of the Rig-Veda, and the solution of the question depends largely upon how we are to interpret certain verses of the Funeral Hymn in the tenth book of that collection; but the practice is certainly alluded to in the great Indian epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana, and is frequently mentioned in the later Sanskrit literature belonging to the classical period. On foreign authority, moreover, we can vouch for its existence as early as the fourth century before the Christian era, judging from the sources to which Diodoros Sikelos went back; and during all periods of India’s history there is abundant material to show the prevalence of the custom throughout the land, as suttee is a subject regarding which much would naturally be written17.

The abolition of the terrible practice was due to the action of the British government in 1829 - 1830, during the Indian administration of Lord Bentinck, whose name will always be connected with this beneficent act for the advancement of the cause of humanity in India, and with it likewise will be associated that of the native ruler, Raja Ram Mohun Roy, who lent his support to the reform. Although forbidden by legislature, sporadic instances of the practice of suttee nevertheless occurred long afterwards, and as recently as November, 1905, the Indian newspapers of Lahore, in Northern Hindustan, reported the fact that a wretched woman in one of the outlying districts had thus perished in the flames – a sacrifice to an ancient fanatical custom,

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Lord William C. Bentinck, under whose Administration Suttee was Abolished.

so difficult to stamp out. An occurrence so recent as that helps to lend colour to the accounts which are here presented, covering a period of fully two thousand years, from classic to mediaeval and modern times. The first selections are from Greek and Latin writers. The Greek historian Nikolaos Damaskenos, who wrote toward the close of the first century B.C., explicitly states in his “Paradoxical Customs” that “when the Hindus die, they cause to be burned with them the most devoted one of their wives; and there is great rivalry on the part of the wives themselves, as well as of their friends, each striving to gain the day18.” Plutarch, in the first century A.D., reiterates

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in his “Morals” the assertion that “among the Hindus the faithful wives are so ardently devoted to their husbands that they enter into strife and rivalry with each other as to which of them shall enjoy the privilege of the pyre; and the one that is successful in the contest is burnt with her dead husband, while the others extol her good fortune19.” Aelian, also writing in Greek a century later, repeats the same statement in substance, to the effect that “Hindu wives enter into the same funeral pyre as their dead husbands, and they engage in rivalry with each other for the privilege; and whichever of them obtains the lot is burnt with him20.”

The Roman statesman, orator, and philosopher, Cicero, among the Latin writers of the first century B.C., breaks forth in his “Tusculan Disputations” with an impassioned utterance against this barbarous Hindu usage, that “when the husband dies, the wives dispute as to which of them loved him most (for polygamy is customary among them), and she that gains the day is escorted in triumph by her household and is placed by the side of her husband on the pyre, while the unsuccessful wife withdraws in dejection21.” The Latin poet Propertius, a late contemporary of Cicero, regards with poetic sentiment this custom among the Hindus and felicitates the East upon its having wives that contend with each other to die in the flames with their beloved, and “feel it a shame not to be permitted to die, while those who are successful, offer their bosoms

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Women at the village pond

to the fire and press their burning lips upon those of their lords22.” Valerius Maximus, who flourished in Italy during the first Christian century, had to recognize, like Cicero, the undaunted courage of the Indian women, “who, although several are married to one man according to the custom of their country, nevertheless engage in a struggle and contest, when their husband dies, as to which of them he loved the most. The victress, jubilant with exultation and escorted by her relatives, who wear a glad countenance, throws herself into the flames of her husband’s pyre and, as if exceedingly happy, is burned along with him; while those who are defeated remain in life with sadness and grief23.”

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The fullest classical account of the Indian suttee, however, is that by the Greek writer Diodoros Sikelos, in the first century B. C., who refers (as did Strabo, already cited) to the custom of widow-burning among the Kathaioi and gives an elaborate description of such a voluntary sacrifice by the wives of a Hindu general that was slain in battle. “Among the Kathaioi,” he says, “it is customary for the wives to be burned with their husbands – a sanctioned custom which became established among the barbarians on account of one woman’s having made away with her husband by poison24.” Diodoros’s elaborate and graphic description of the suttee that followed upon the death of Keteus, the Indian leader who fell in battle, runs as follows:–

‘There occurred at this time a strange circumstance which differs wholly from the customs of the Greeks. Keteus, the general of the Indian contingent, had been slain in battle after a noble fight. He left behind him two wives who had accompanied him throughout the campaign. One he had but lately married; the other had been wedded to him some years previously; and both loved him devotedly.

Now, owing to an old custom among the Hindus, for young men and maidens to marry, not according to their parents’ advice, but after their own mutual inclination, the young people in former times married rashly. As a result their choice was often a failure, followed by speedy repentance on both sides; and many wives, yielding to their passions, became corrupted and

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fell in love with other men. But not being able honourably to leave those of their original choice, they made away with their husbands by poison. The means to do this were more readily found, owing to the many and various poisonous elements produced in the country, some of which caused death if merely rubbed on the food or mixed with the drink. Owing to the prevalence of this villainy, and because of many such murders, and inasmuch as punishing those whose guilt was proved had failed to deter others from the crime, a law was made to the effect that widows, unless they were pregnant or had children, should be burnt with their dead husbands; and that whosoever should refuse to obey this law, should remain a widow always and should be debarred for ever from sacrificial rites and other privileges because of her impiety. With the establishment of this law the wickedness of the wives was turned into quite the reverse; for, on account of the enormity of the disgrace, every woman chose rather to die with her husband, and as a consequence they not only looked after the well-being of their husbands, as a matter of common concern, but even rivalled one another as if to attain the greatest glory.

Such was the case on this occasion; for although according to law only one wife was to be burnt, both entered into a contest at the death of Keteus as to which should gain the privilege of dying with their husband. When the generals undertook to decide the matter, the younger wife said that the other was with child and could not therefore take advantage of the

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An Indian woman with her Jewels

law. The latter, on the other hand, insisted that it was more proper for herself to have the first place in honour, as being the elder, because among all peoples the senior always takes precedence over the junior in the matter of honour and of respect. Upon learning from those who were skilled in midwifery that the elder actually was with child, the generals decided in favour of the younger. Whereupon, she who had lost the privilege went away weeping, rending her veil, and tearing her hair, as though she had been told of some terrible misfortune. The other, on the contrary, overjoyed at the victory she had won, went forth to the funeral pyre, receiving from the women of her household a head-dress (literally, “mitres”) as a crown, and splendidly decked, as though for a wedding, while she was escorted also by her kinsmen, who sang hymns in honour of her heroism.

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As soon as she came to the pyre, she took off her ornaments and distributed them among her household and friends, leaving a memento, so to say, to those who loved her. The ornaments were these: she had on her fingers a quantity of rings, set with precious stones of different colours; on her head she wore a number of golden stars set off by all kinds of jewels; and around her neck there were several necklaces, smaller or larger according as they hung higher or lower upon her breast.

At last, when she had taken leave of her household, she was placed upon the pile by her brother, and then, amid the wonderment of the crowds that had assembled to witness the sight, she brought her life to its heroic end. The soldiers, all in full armour, marched three times around the pile before it was kindled; while she lay down by her husband’s side. Not a word did she utter, not a sign of fear did she betray as the flames came on. Some of those who witnessed the spectacle were moved with pity; others were stirred to extravagant praise. Of the Greeks, however, some condemned the custom as savage and barbarous.’

A notice of the custom of Indian widow-burning may be cited also from the well-known Arabian traveller Ibn Batuta, whose distant journeys led him to Hindustan in 1325 A.D. In describing his various experiences and the sights which he saw, Ibn Batuta says (as translated by Lee):–

“I also saw those women who burn themselves when their husbands die. The woman adorns herself and is accompanied by a cavalcade of

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Hindu women

the infidel Hindus and Brahmans, with drums, trumpets, and men, following her, both Moslems and Infidels, for mere pastime. The fire had been already kindled, and into it they cast the dead husband. The wife then threw herself upon him, and both were entirely burnt. A woman’s burning herself with her husband, however, is not considered as absolutely necessary among them, but it is encouraged; and when a woman burns herself with her husband, her family is considered as being ennobled, and is supposed to be worthy of

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Suttee, or Widow-burning, in Ancient Times

The accompanying illustration from an old engraving conveys some idea of the sad scenes that used to be enacted only too often on the banks of the Ganges and throughout all India, from the earliest ages down to the time when the cruel practice of suttee was abolished in the first half of the nineteenth century.

trust. But when she does not burn herself, she is ever after clothed coarsely, and remains among her relations on account of her want of fidelity to her husband. The woman who burns herself with her husband is generally surrounded by women, who bid her farewell and commission her with salutations for their former friends, while she laughs, plays, or dances to the very time in which she is to be burnt.”

The Persian treatise Dabistan or “School of Manners,” whose author lived in the first half of the seventeenth century and knew India, among other countries in which he travelled, writes in harmony with the preceding statements regarding the Hindu widow, and a passage from his work, as translated by Shea and Troyer, deserves citation:–

“If, on her husband’s death, she become not a Suttee, that is burn herself with the deceased, she is then to reside with his relations, devoting herself to rigid abstinence and the worship of the Almighty. They say that when a woman becomes a Suttee, the Almighty pardons all the sins committed by the wife and husband, and that they remain a long time in paradise: nay, if the husband were in the infernal regions, the wife by this means draws him from thence and takes him to paradise, just as the serpent-catcher charms the serpent out of his hole. Moreover the Suttee, in a future birth, returns not to the female sex; but should she reassume the human nature, she appears as a man; but she who becomes not a Suttee, and passes her life in widowhood, is never emancipated from the female state. It is therefore

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the duty of every woman, excepting one that is pregnant, to enter into the blazing fire. A Brahman’s wife in particular is to devote herself in the same fire with her husband; but others are allowed to perform the rite in a separate place. It is, however, criminal to force the woman into the fire, and equally so to prevent her who voluntarily devotes herself.”

In addition to the passages that have already been given, there are references to “suttee” in Sanskrit literature from the early centuries of the Christian era to the time of the Mohammedan conquest, but their number precludes citing them here. It is sufficient to .present three European accounts of this Indian practice, and I shall first quote from the well-known Italian .traveller Pietro della Valle, who visited India in the first quarter of the seventeenth century and records an instance of widow-burning at Ikkeri, now called Ikheri, in the Mysore district of Southern India, where the practice was less common than in other parts of India. His journal, which is accessible in the Hakluyt Society’s publications, contains the following memoranda among the entries for November 12, 1623.

‘As we returned home at night we met a Woman in the City of Ikkeri, who, her husband being dead, was resolv’d to burn herself, as ‘tis the custom with many Indian Women. She rode on Horse-back about the City with face uncovered, holding a Looking-glass in one hand and a Lemon in the other, I know not for what purpose; and beholding herself in the Glass, with a lamentable tone sufficiently pittiful to hear, went

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along I know not whither, speaking, or singing, certain words, which I understood not; but they told me they were a kind of Farewell to the World and herself; and indeed, being uttered with that passionateness which the Case requir’d and might produce, they mov’d pity in all that heard them, even in us who understood not the Language. She was followed by many other Women and Men on foot, who, perhaps, were her Relations; they carry’d a great Umbrella over her, as all Persons of quality are wont to have, thereby to keep off the Sun, whose heat is hurtful and troublesome. Before her certain Drums were sounded, whose noise she never ceas’d to accompany with her sad Ditties, or Songs; yet with a calm and constant Countenance, without tears, evidencing more grief for her Husband’s death than her own, and more desire to go to him in the other world than regret for her own departure out of this: a Custom, indeed, cruel and barbarous, but, withall, of great generosity in such Women and therefore worthy of no small praise. They said she was to pass in this manner about the City, I know not how many dayes, at the end of which she was to go out of the City and be burnt, with more company and solemnity. If I can know when it will be I will not fail to go to see her and by my presence honour her Funeral with that compassionate affection which so great Conjugal Fidelity and Love seem to me to deserve.’

Four days later Pietro della Valle adds to his notes the following touching description of his interview with the woman:–

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Indian musical instruments

After originals in the Museum of the East India House.

‘November the sixteenth. I was told that the aforemention’d Woman, who had resolv’d to burn her self for her Husband’s death, was to dye this Evening. But upon further enquiry at the Woman’s House I understood that it would not be till after a few dayes more, and there I saw her sitting in a Court, or Yard, and other persons beating Drums about her. She was cloth’d all in White and deck’d with many Neck-laces, Bracelets and other ornaments of Gold; on her Head she had a Garland of Flowers, spreading forth like the rayes of the Sun; in brief she was wholly in a Nuptial Dress and held a Lemon in her Hand, which is the usual Ceremony. She seem’d to be pleasant enough, talking and laughing in conversation, as a Bride would do in our Countries. She and those with her took notice of my standing there to behold her, and, conjecturing by my foreign Habit who I was, some of them came toward me. I told them by an Interpreter that I was a Person of a very remote Country, where we had heard by Fame that some Women in India love their Husbands so vehemently as when they dye to resolve to dye with them; and that how, having intelligence

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that this Woman was such a one, I was come to see her, that so I might relate in my own Country that I had seen such a thing with my own Eyes. These people were well pleas’d with my coming, and she herself, having heard what I said, rose up from her seat and came to speak to me.

We discours’d together, standing, for a good while. She told me that her name was Giaccama, of the Race of Terlenga, that her Husband was a Drummer; whence I wonder’d the more; seeing that Heroical Actions, as this undoubtedly ought to be judg’d, are very rare in people of low quality. That it was about nineteen dayes since her Husband’s death, that he had left two other Wives elder than she, whom he had married before her (both which were present at this discourse), yet neither of them was willing to dye, but alledg’d for excuse that they had many Children. This argument gave me occasion to ask Giaccama (who shew’d me a little Son of her own, about six or seven years, besides a little Daughter she had) how she could perswade her self to leave her own little Children; and I told her, that she ought likewise to live rather than to abandon them at that age. She answer’d me that she left them well recommended to the care of an Uncle of hers there present, who also talk’d with us very cheerfully, as if rejoycing that his Kins-woman should do such an action; and that her Husband’s other two remaining Wives would also take care of them. I insisted much upon the tender age of her Children, to avert her from her purpose by moving her to compassion for them,

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Children near a Ruined Shrine in the Bombay Presidency

well knowing that no argument is more prevalent with Mothers than their Love and Affection toward their Children. But all my speaking was in vain, and she still answer’d me to all my Reasons, with a Countenance not onely undismay’d and constant, but even cheerful, and spoke in such a manner as shew’d that she had not the least fear of death.

She told me also, upon my asking her, that she did this of her own accord, was at her own liberty and not forc’d nor perswaded by any one. Whereupon, I inquiring whether force were at any time us’d in this matter, they told me that ordinarily it was not, but onely sometimes amongst Persons of quality, when some

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Widow was left young, handsome, and so in danger of marrying again (which amongst them is very ignominious) or committing a worse fault; in such Cases the Friends of the deceas’d Husband were very strict, and would constrain her to burn her self even against her own will, for preventing the disorders possible to happen in case she should live (a barbarous, indeed, and too cruel Law); but that neither force nor persuasion was used to Giaccama, and that she did it of her own free will; in which, as a magnanimous action (as indeed it was), and amongst them of great honour, both her Relations and herself much glory’d. I ask’d concerning the Ornaments and Flowers she wore, and they told me that such was the Custom, in token of the Masti’s joy (they call the Woman, who intends to burn her self for the death of her Husband, Masti) in that she was very shortly to go to him and therefore had reason to rejoyce; whereas such Widows as will not dye remain in continual sadness and lamentations, shave their Heads and live in perpetual mourning for the death of their Husbands.

At last Giaccama caus’d one to tell me that she accounted my coming to see her a great fortune, and held her self much honour’d, as well by my visit and presence as by the Fame which I should carry of her to my own Country; and that before she dy’d she would come to visit me at my House, and also to ask me, as their custom is, that I would favour her with some thing by way of Alms toward the buying of fewel for the fire wherewith she was to be burnt. I answer’d

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An Indian Woman with a Characteristic Necklace

her that I should esteem her visit and very willingly give her something; not for wood and fire wherein to burn her self (for her death much displeas’d me, and I would gladly have disswaded her from it, if I could), but to do something else therewith that her self most lik’d; and I promis’d her that, so far as my weak pen could contribute, her Name should remain immortal in the World. Thus I took leave of her, more sad for her death than she was, cursing the custom of India which is so unmerciful to Women.

Giaccama was a Woman about thirty years of age, of a Complexion very brown for an Indian and almost black, but of a good aspect, tall of stature, well shap’d and proportion’d. My Muse could not forbear from chanting her in a Sonnet which I made upon her death, and reserve among my Poetical Papers25.

A brief but vivid description of the cruel rite not

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only of burning the wife by the side of her dead husband, but sometimes of burying her alive in the same grave with his body, is given by the Dutch missionary Abraham Roger, whose account of India in the first half of the seventeenth century forms a later chapter in this book. The section relating to suttee is inserted here instead of being reserved for its place in that chapter:–

‘So soon as the husband dyeth, if the wife promiseth of her own accord that she will follow him in death, then the preparations necessary for this business are hastened, for then is there no longer a loophole open for the wife, and then may she have no hope more, nor may the affair suffer any delay, since the wife must be burnt on the same day on which her husband is burnt, when the fire is almost become coals. This is observed very strictly by the Bramines (Brahmans) and Weinsjaes (Vaisyas); but the Settreaes (Khshatriyas) and Soudraes (Sudras) have a custom that, . even though the husband hath died elsewhere and hath been burnt long before, the wife must also be burnt if only they receive a token of the husband’s death and are certified thereof. Accordingly, the husband is brought without delay to a pit which is digged without the city and is burnt therein; the wife, well adorned after their fashion, is set upon a seat under a canopy outside the door; bassoons are blown; drums are beaten; she is entertained continually by being given betel to eat; and meanwhile she uttereth the name of God continually. The last woman whom I attended

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continually said “Naraina” (Narayana), the which she repeated so quickly and rapidly that it was a marvel. The Settrea and the Soudra sometimes hold it for their custom to give the women somewhat with their betel whereby they be half-robbed of their senses, so that they may not become afflicted in spirit at their approaching pain and anguish, and seek to recall their word. But the Bramin Padmanaba said that the Bramines do not so to their women, since they may not bring the women to die as with force, against their will.

When the wife goeth forth of her house, she biddeth her friends farewell; and if she be of the Settrea or Soudra caste, she hath a lemon in one hand and a mirror in the other; and continually she uttereth the name of God. Some repeat Naraina (Narayana) and some Ramma (Rama), or any other name wherewith, in their language, they name the god they serve. But if the wife be of the caste of the Bramines or of the Weinsjaes, she holdeth not the aforesaid things in her hand, but sometimes flowers, red in colour, such as are common in their temples, to strew on and before her idol; although the flowers may be those which have already been offered to the idol. Around her neck they hang the figure of her idol, and thus the wife fareth forth of the city to where her husband is burnt, going either on foot, or, if she be the wife of a Bramin, in a palanquin. She is accompanied by her friends, who encourage her with their words, if she be of the Settrea or Soudra caste; and thus, at length, she neareth the place where her husband is burnt. But

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The Rama Ghat at Ayodhya

before she goeth to leap in the fire, she fareth to a tank, or pool of water, which is nigh there, to wash her body. The which being done, they take from her the jewels wherewith she was adorned, and at that place a prayer is offered by a Bramin, and alms are given to the Bramines. This being done, and having been clad, in the pool, with a shroud of yellow colour, she cometh forth from the water and goeth joyfully toward the place where she shall spring into the fire. Before her she findeth a deep pit with glowing coals, but that

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she should not be affrighted therefrom by the horrible sight, mats are placed in front so that she may not see into the pit. Each of the bystanders hath wood in his hand to cast upon the woman’s body, so soon as she hath sprung into the fire, that she may be burnt to powder.

When the wife draweth nigh the pit, she findeth a high place at the end of the pit, which is made of the earth which is thrown out of the pit; and then she goeth until she cometh to the mat that preventeth her from seeing into the awful pit. There she biddeth farewell to the friends who are with her, the which encourage her good spirit; over the mat, into the fire, she throweth a pilang, that is, a rice-stamper, and a sioup, or little fan wherewith the rice is fanned when it is stamped, and also other things that women commonly use there in their houses; on her head she bath a pot of oil, a part whereof she herself poureth over her head; and meanwhile she uttereth the name of God continually. And then the mat, which standeth before her, is taken away, and she falleth down from above with the pot of oil into the fire, and straightway she is covered, well-nigh to the height of a man, with the wood which the bystanders had in their hands. And thus is this sad spectacle brought to an end whensoever the women are of the Settreas, Weinsjaes, and Soudraes.

But when the wives be of a Bramin, then is this horrible matter carried out with still greater cruelty; for the wives of the Bramines do not spring into the

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fire like the others; but they lay themselves by their dead husband on a pile of wood, even as they would go to rest beside him; and when they have lain down by him, then is a great mass of wood piled upon their body. This being done, they kindle the wood at the head, where some oil is poured that the wood may catch fire the better. Oh, inhuman cruelty! Who is not horrified at such horrible things, which, nevertheless, be true and customary in these places? So soon as the wife is laid in the pit and covered with wood, wailing and lamentation ariseth from certain women, the which stand as in a ring and cry and beat upon their breasts like desperate creatures; but what they mean hereby I cannot say, for I myself have never investigated it.

It seemeth, in sooth, a wondrous thing that the women can let themselves be persuaded to such extreme pain, and to plight their word thereto; but it cometh to pass through the leasing tongues of the Bramines, who not only set before them the examples of them that have done this, but also say that they can do much good thereby to their husbands whom they held dear; since if, for love and single affection, they let themselves be burnt with their dead husbands, not only shall this tend marvellously to their weal in the world to come, but they shall also release their husbands, even were they godless, from the pain of hell. They also persuade the women that if they do this for single love, they will not feel the pain of the fire so much; and who can bear them other testimony herein, since they have spoken to none who have told them how they fared

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there’? And this also aideth much herein that the wives, if they survive and are not burnt, are a shame and scandal in the sight of the world. Their hair is shorn off, they may eat no betel, they may wear no jewelry, nor may they marry again. In short, every vexation and indignity that could be imagined is put upon them, so that the wives, who have but scant spirit and courage, would not refuse such a thing; since, more than this, they are bereft of all honour and reverence, and the possession of their goods is taken from them.

A betel-box

For when the husband dyeth, then the widow abideth not in possession of the means which the husband hath left; but the sons, and especially the eldest, enter into their father’s place. Here, then, the mother may be subordinate and may provide for the training of the children. Nevertheless, if no sons, but only daughters, survive, then cometh the brother of the deceased and entereth into the full possession of all; and he oweth the widow and daughters no more than their maintenance. So that these women lose much in their husbands, and have naught else to expect save indignity and distress. It may readily be presumed that ofttimes they are reproached their whole lives long by the dullards who have come into their

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possessions, and who must give them maintenance, for that they were so frail in their love for their husband that they would not die with him.

Since the husbands, when death is nigh, urge their wives to die with them, either by being burnt or buried alive, and since we have seen in what fashion the burning taketh place, some may readily be eager to know how matters go when a wife is buried alive with her dead husband. To satisfy the curious herein, I shall also relate the fashion which the heathen have in the burying of these wives; the which I have not from hearsay, like the foregoing, but I myself have seen it there.

The preparations for the burning and the burying of the wives are one and the same, the difference is only in the burying itself. When the wife hath bathed in the pool, in manner as the wives who be burnt, then fareth she with pipes, drums, bassoons, and such like tokens of joy, to the melancholy pit which is digged for her, where she findeth her dead husband. This pit is digged and made in fashion as a cellar; it hath an arch of earth, and is also entered by stairs. The wife who is to be buried goeth along the stairs aforesaid into the pit, and findeth there, under the arch, a bench, also of earth, whereon she sitteth and taketh, after that she hath sat down, her dead husband in her arms; and then taketh she a pot with fire, wherein she casteth some incense and burneth incense over her dead husband therewith.

This being done, they begin softly to fill the pit,

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without throwing in the earth unmannerly and without harming the woman. The wife, like as I have seen, herself scrapeth the earth about her body. When, now, the earth beginneth to come about her neck, then two of them that fill the pit with earth take a cloth, the which they hold before the mouth of the pit, that what they do may not be clearly seen of any, and that the women may not take affright. When, now, they hold the cloth before the pit, they give the wife somewhat in a shell; the which when I asked of the heathen that stood by what it was, they said that it was poison. The which I also saw to be true, for in the woman’s face straightway a great change might be perceived. The poison being given her, then break they the woman’s neck. But all this is done so dextrously behind a cloth that no one can see it, even though he press right close to the pit. I ween that they do this concerning the woman to make short her pain and anguish. And in this fashion goeth it in the burial of wives.’

Still more detailed and impressive is the account of the sacrifice of widows given by Abbé Dubois, a French missionary of Madras in Southern India between the years 1792 and 1823, who describes a suttee from actual experience and repeats the accounts of eye-witnesses who were present when two queens perished in the flames of the funeral pyre of the King of Tanjore. The abbé’s graphic description of the scene of these gem-decked victims going or being led to self-immolation upon the fiery altar of ancient custom is interesting

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A group of Child Widows

to compare with the accounts, given above, by the Greek writers of nearly two thousand years before. It reads as follows:–

‘Although the ancient and barbarous custom which imposes on widows the duty of sacrificing themselves voluntarily on the funeral pyre of their husbands has not been expressly abolished, it is much more rare nowadays’ than formerly, especially in the southern parts of the Peninsula. In the north of India and in the provinces bordering on the Ganges, however, women are only too frequently seen offering themselves as victims of this terrible superstition, and, either through motives of vanity or through a spirit of blind enthusiasm, giving themselves up to a death which is as cruel as it is foolish.

The Mohammedan rulers never tolerated this horrible practice in the provinces subject to them; but, notwithstanding their prohibition, wretched fanatics have more than once succeeded in bribing the subordinate representatives of authority to give permission

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to commit the deed in violation of the laws of humanity and common sense.

The great European power which nowadays exercises its sway all over the country has tried, by all possible means of persuasion, to put an end altogether to this barbarous custom; but its efforts have been only partially successful, and, generally speaking, it has been obliged to shut its eyes to this dreadful practice, since any attempt to remedy it by force would have exposed it to dangerous opposition.

Nobody is a greater admirer than myself of the wise spirit that animates this enlightened and liberal government in manifesting to its Hindu subjects such a full and perfect tolerance in the practice of their civil and religious usages; and nobody is more fully alive than I am to the dangers and difficulties that an open defiance of these prejudices, which are looked upon as sacred and inviolable, would give rise to. But does the abominable custom in question form part of Hindu institutions? Are there any rules which prescribe its observance by certain castes? All the information which I have been able to gather on the subject tends to make me believe that there are no such rules. The infamous practice, although encouraged by the impostors who regulate religious worship, is nowhere prescribed in an imperative manner in the Hindu books. It is left entirely to the free will and pleasure of the victims who thus sacrifice themselves. No blame and no discredit are attached nowadays to the wife whose own honest judgment suggests that she ought not to

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be in such a hurry to rejoin in the other world the husband who so often made her wretched in this. It would be quite possible, therefore, by the display of firmness, combined with prudence, to strike, without any considerable danger, at the very root of this shocking practice. Certainly it reflects discredit on the government which tolerates it and manifests no great indignation with regard to it.

It was principally in the noble caste of rajas that suttee originated. It was looked upon as a highly honourable proof of wifely attachment and love, which enhanced the glory of the families of these wretched victims of blind zeal. Should a widow, by reason of a natural fondness for life or through lack of courage, endeavour to avoid the honour of being burnt alive on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband, she was considered to be offering a gross insult to his memory.

I was once able thoroughly to convince myself of the influence which this false point of honour still exercises over the minds of fanatical Hindus, and at the same time to discern that this act of devotion to which these wretched victims sacrificed themselves is not always the result of their own free will and resolution. The Poligar, or Prince, of Kangundi in the Karnatic having died, neither entreaties nor threats were spared to induce his widow to allow herself to be burned alive with him. It was urged that this honourable custom had been observed for a long time past in the family, and that it would be a great pity, indeed, to allow it to fall into disuse. The funeral ceremonies were delayed from

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day to day in the hope that the widow would at last make up her mind to prefer a glorious death to a remnant of life spent in contempt and opprobrium. It was a fruitless attempt! The obstinate princess turned a deaf ear to all the pressing entreaties of her relatives; and ultimately the deceased was obliged to depart alone to the other world.

A pillar of the Gupta Age

It must, however, be confessed that some widows commit this folly readily enough, spurred on as they are by the thought of the wretchedness of widowhood, by vanity, and by the hope of acquiring notoriety – perhaps also by a genuine feeling of enthusiasm. It should be remembered that they are awarded boundless honours, and are even deified after death. Vows are made and prayers addressed to them, and their intercession is sought in times of sick-ness and adversity. Such remnants of their bodies as have not been entirely consumed by the fire are most devoutly gathered together, and on the spot where they have sacrificed themselves small monumental pyramids are erected to transmit to posterity- the memory of these brave victims of conjugal affection – a tribute all the more conspicuous, because the erection of tombs is almost unknown among the Hindus. In a word, women who have had the courage to deliver themselves so

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heroically to the flames are numbered among the divinities, and crowds of devotees may be seen coining in from all sides to offer them sacrifices and to invoke their protection.

To these inducements of vain and empty glory – sufficient of themselves to make a deep impression on a feeble mind – must be added the entreaties of relatives, who, if they perceive the slightest inclination on the part of the widow to offer up her life, spare no means in order to convince her and force her to a final determination. At times they go so far as to administer drugs, which so far deprive her of her senses that under their influence she yields to their wishes. This inhuman and abominable method of wheedling a consent out of the unhappy woman is in their opinion justified, because her tragic end would bring great honour and glory to the whole of their family.

Some authors have maintained that this detestable practice originated primarily either from the jealousy of husbands, or rather, perhaps, from their fear that their discontented wives might seek to get rid of them by poison. As for myself, I have been unable, either in the writings of Hindu authors, or in my free and familiar intercourse with many persons well versed in the manners and customs of the country, to discover any justification for either of these two theories. And surely the lot of a wife, even when she is doomed to suffer wrong at the hands of a cruel and immoral husband, is far preferable to that of a widow, to whom all hope of a remarriage under happier conditions is forbidden.

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It is hardly likely, indeed, that Hindu women would go to the length of committing a crime which must render their lot much worse than before! At the same time I am by no means inclined to attribute these voluntary sacrifices to an excess of conjugal affection. We should, for instance, be greatly mistaken were we to allow ourselves to be deceived by the noisy lamentations which wives are accustomed to raise on the death of their husbands, and which are no more than rank hypocrisy. During the long period of my stay in India, I do not recall two Hindu marriages characterized by a union of hearts and displaying true and mutual attachment.

A type of Brahman woman

When a woman, after mature deliberation, has once declared that she desires to be burned alive with her deceased husband, her decision is considered irrevocable. She cannot afterwards retract; and should she refuse to proceed of her own free will to the funeral pyre, she would be dragged to it by force. The Brahmans who regulate all the proceedings of the tragedy,

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and also her relatives, come by turns to congratulate her on her heroic decision and on the immortal glory which she is about to acquire by such a death – a death which will exalt her to the dignity of the gods. All possible means which fanaticism and superstition can suggest are brought to bear upon her in order to keep up her courage, to exalt her enthusiasm, and to excite her imagination. When, at last, the fatal hour draws nigh, the victim is adorned with rare elegance; she is clothed in her richest apparel, is bedecked with all her jewels, and is thus led to the funeral pyre.

It is impossible for me to describe the finishing scenes of this dreadful ceremony without feelings of distress. But, in the meantime, I must solicit the indulgence of my readers for a short digression which is not wholly disconnected with my subject. When a husband has several lawful wives, as often happens in the caste of the rajas, the wives sometimes dispute as to who shall have the honour of accompanying their common husband to the funeral pyre, and the Brahmans who preside at the ceremony determine which shall have the preference. Here is an instance to the point extracted from the Mahabharata [the great Sanskrit epic to which allusion has often been made, particularly in the first volume of this series]:–

King Pandu had retired into the jungles with his two wives, there to devote himself to acts of penance. At the same time a curse was imposed upon him, which doomed him to instant death should he dare to have intercourse with either of them. The passion which

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he felt for the younger of his wives, who was extremely beautiful, overcame all fear of death; and, in spite of the fact that for several days she continued to represent to him the dire results that must necessarily follow his incontinency, he yielded at last to the violence of his love; and immediately the curse fell upon him. After his death, it was necessary to decide which of his two wives should follow him to the funeral pyre, and there arose a sharp altercation between them as to who should enjoy this honour.

The elder of the two spoke first, and addressing the assembly of Brahmans who had gathered together for the purpose, she urged that the fact of her being the first wife placed her above the second. She should, therefore, be given the preference. Besides, she urged, her companion had children who were still young, and who required their mother’s personal care and attention for their bringing up.

The second wife admitted the seniority of the first; but she maintained that she alone, having been the immediate cause of the sad death of their common husband in allowing him to defy the curse which doomed him to perish, was thereby entitled to the honour of being burned with him. “As regards the bringing up my children,” she added, addressing the other wife, “are they not yours just as much as they are mine? Do not they too call you mother? And by your age and experience are you not better fitted than I to attend to their bringing up?”

In spite of the eloquence of the younger wife, it was,

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at last, unanimously agreed by the judges that the first wife should have the preference – a decision at which the latter lady was greatly delighted.

Most Sudras, as well as Hindus of the Saivite sect, bury their dead instead of burning them, and there are several instances of wives having been buried alive with their deceased husbands. But the ceremonies in either case are nearly the same.

I will relate here two incidents which took place at no great distance from the place where I was living, and which will give a good idea of what these deplorable scenes of mad fanaticism are like.

In 1794, in a village of the Tanjore district called Pudupettah, there died a man of some importance belonging to the Komatty (Vaisya) caste. His wife, aged about thirty years, announced her intention of accompanying her deceased husband to the funeral pyre. The news having rapidly spread abroad, a large concourse of people flocked together from all quarters to witness the spectacle. When everything was ready for the ceremony, and the widow had been richly clothed and adorned, the bearers stepped forward to remove the body of the deceased, which was placed in a sort of shrine, ornamented with costly stuffs, garlands of flowers, green foliage, etc., the corpse being seated in it with crossed legs, covered with jewels and clothed in the richest attire, and the mouth filled with betel. Immediately after the funeral car followed the widow, borne in a richly decorated palanquin. On the way to the burning-ground she was escorted by an immense

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The Moat and Ramparts at Tanjore.

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crowd of eager sightseers, lifting their hands toward her in token of admiration and rending the air with cries of joy. She was looked upon as already translated to the paradise of Indra, and they seemed to envy her happy lot.

While the funeral procession moved slowly along, the spectators, especially the women, tried to draw near to her to congratulate her on her good fortune, expecting at the same time that, in virtue of the gift of prescience which such a meritorious attachment must confer upon her, she would be pleased to predict the happy things that might befall them here below. With gracious and amiable mien she declared to one that she would long enjoy the favours of fortune; to another, that she would be the mother of numerous children who would prosper in the world; to a third, that she would live long and happily with a husband who would love and cherish her; to a fourth, that her family was destined to attain much honour and dignity, and the like. She then distributed among them leaves of betel; and the extraordinary eagerness with which these were received clearly proved that great value was attached to them as relics. Beaming with joy, these women then withdrew, each in the full hope that the promised blessings of wealth and happiness would be showered on her and hers.

During the whole procession, which was a very long one, the widow preserved a calm demeanour. Her looks were serene, even smiling; but when she reached the fatal place where she was to yield up her life in

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so ghastly a manner, it was observed that her firmness suddenly gave way. Plunged, as it were, in gloomy thought, she seemed to pay no attention whatever to what was passing around her. Her looks became wildly fixed upon the pile. Her face grew deadly pale. Her very limbs were in a convulsive tremor. Her drawn. features and haggard face betrayed the fright that had seized her, while a sudden weakening of her senses betokened that she was ready to faint away.

The Brahmans who conducted the ceremony, and also her near relatives, ran quickly to her, endeavouring to keep up her courage and to revive her drooping spirits. All was of no effect. The unfortunate woman, bewildered and distracted, turned a deaf ear to all their exhortations and preserved a deep silence.

She was then made to leave the palanquin, and as she was scarcely able to walk, her people helped her to drag herself to a pond near the pyre. She plunged into the water with all her clothes and ornaments on, and was immediately afterwards led to the pyre, on which the body of her husband was already laid. The pyre was surrounded by Brahmans, each with a lighted torch in one hand and a bowl of ghee in the other. Her relatives and friends, several of whom were armed with muskets, swords, and other weapons, stood closely round in a double line, and seemed to await impatiently the end of this shocking tragedy. This armed force, they told me, was intended not only to intimidate the unhappy victim in case the terror of her approaching death might induce her to run away, but also to overawe

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An old picture of a widow preparing to be burned with her husband

any persons who might be moved by a natural feeling of compassion and sympathy, and so tempted to prevent the accomplishment of the homicidal sacrifice. At length, the principal Brahman gave the fatal signal. The poor widow was instantly divested of all her jewels, and dragged, more dead than alive, to the pyre. There she was obliged, according to custom, to walk three times round the pile, two of her nearest relatives supporting her by the arms. She accomplished the first round with tottering steps; during the second her strength wholly forsook her, and she fainted away in

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A scene at the village well

the arms of her conductors, who were obliged to complete the ceremony by dragging her through the third round. Then, at last, senseless and unconscious, she, was cast upon the corpse of her husband. At that moment the air resounded with noisy acclamations. The Brahmans, emptying the contents of their vessels on the dry wood, applied their torches, and in the twinkling of an eye the whole pile was ablaze. Three times was the unfortunate woman called by her name. But, alas! she made no answer.

The last king of Tanjore, who died in 1801, left behind him four lawful wives. The Brahmans decided that two of these should be burnt with the body of their husband, and selected the couple that should have the preference. It would have been an everlasting shame to them and the grossest insult to the memory of the deceased had they hesitated to accept this singular honour. Being fully convinced, moreover, that no means would be spared to induce them to sacrifice themselves either willingly or unwillingly, they made a virtue of necessity and seemed perfectly ready to yield to the terrible lot which awaited them.

The necessary preparations for the obsequies were completed in a single day. Three or four leagues from the royal residence a square pit of no great depth, and about twelve to fifteen feet square, was excavated. Within it was erected a pyramid of sandalwood, resting on a kind of scaffolding of the same wood. The posts which supported it were so arranged that they could easily be removed, and would thereby cause the whole

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structure to collapse suddenly. At the four corners of the pit were placed huge brass jars filled with ghee, to be thrown on the wood in order to hasten combustion.

The following was the order of the procession as it wended its way to the pyre. It was headed by a large force of armed soldiers. Then followed a crowd of musicians, chiefly trumpeters, who made the air ring with the dismal sound of their instruments. Next came the king’s body borne in a splendid open palanquin, accompanied by his guru, his principal officers, and his nearest relatives, who were all on foot and wore no turbans in token of mourning. Among them was also a large number of Brahmans. Then came the two victims, each borne on a rich decorated palanquin. They were loaded, rather than decked, with jewels. Several ranks of soldiers surrounded them to preserve order and to keep back the great crowds that flocked in from every side. The two queens were accompanied by some of their favourite women, with whom they occasionally conversed. Then followed relatives of both sexes, to whom the victims had made valuable presents before leaving the palace. An innumerable multitude of Brahmans and persons of all castes followed in the rear.

On reaching the spot where their untimely fate awaited them, the victims were required to perform the ablutions and other ceremonies proper on such occasions; and they went through the whole of them without hesitation and without the least sign of fear. When, however, it came to walking round the pile, it was observed that their features underwent a sudden

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change. Their strength seemed well-nigh to forsake them in spite of their obvious efforts to suppress their natural feelings. During this interval the body of the king had been placed on the top of the pyramid of sandalwood. The two queens, still wearing their rich attire and ornaments, were next compelled to ascend the pile. Lying down beside the body of the deceased prince, one on the right and the other on the left, they joined hands across the corpse. The officiating Brahmans then recited in a loud tone several mantras, sprinkled the pile with their tirtha, or holy water, and emptied the jars of ghee over the wood, setting fire to it at the same moment. This was done on one side by the nearest relative of the king, on another by his guru, on others by leading Brahmans. The flames quickly spread, and the props being removed, the whole structure collapsed, and in its fall must have crushed to death the two unfortunate victims. Thereupon all the spectators shouted aloud for joy. The unhappy women’s relatives standing around the pile then called to them several times by name, and it is said that, issuing from amidst the flames, the word Yen? (What?) was heard distinctly pronounced. A ridiculous illusion, no doubt, of minds blinded by fanaticism; for it could never be believed that the unfortunate victims were at that moment in a condition to hear and to speak.

Two days after, when the fire was completely extinguished, they removed from amidst the ashes the remnants of the bones that had been entirely consumed, and put them into copper urns, which were carefully

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The sacred waters of the Ganges

sealed with the signet of the new king. Some time afterwards, thirty Brahmans were selected to carry these relics to Kasi (Benares) and to throw them into the sacred waters of the Ganges. It was arranged that, on their return from that holy city, they should receive valuable presents upon producing authenticated certificates to the effect that they had really accomplished the journey, and had faithfully executed the task entrusted to them. A portion of the bones was, however, reserved for the following purpose:– they were reduced to powder, mixed with some boiled rice, and eaten by twelve Brahmans. This revolting and unnatural act had for its object the expiation of the sins of the deceased – sins which, according to the popular opinion, were transmitted to the bodies of the

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persons who ate the ashes, and were tempted by money to overcome their repugnance for such disgusting food. At the same time, it is believed that the filthy lucre thus earned can never be attended with much advantage to the recipients. Amidst the ashes, too, were picked up small pieces of melted gold, the remains of the ornaments worn by the princesses.

Presents were given to the Brahmans who presided at the obsequies, and to those who had honoured the ceremonies with their presence. To the king’s guru was given an elephant. The three palanquins which had served to carry the corpse of the king and the two victims to the pile were given away to the three leading Brahmans. The presents distributed among the other Brahmans consisted of cloths and of money amounting to nearly twenty-five thousand rupees. Several bags of small coin were also scattered among the crowds on the roadside as the funeral procession was on its way to the pyre. Finally, twelve houses were built and presented to the twelve Brahmans who had the courage to swallow the powdered bones of the deceased, and by that means to take upon themselves all the sins of the dead.

A few days after the funeral the new king made a pilgrimage to a temple a few leagues distant from his capital. He there took a bath in a sacred tank, and was thus purified of all the uncleanness that he had contracted during the various ceremonies of mourning. On this occasion also presents were given to the Brahmans and to the poor of other castes.

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A modern burning-ghat at Calcutta.

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On the spot where the deceased king and his two unhappy companions had been consumed a circular mausoleum was erected, about twelve feet in diameter, surmounted by a dome. The reigning prince visits it from time to time, prostrates himself humbly before the tombs, and offers sacrifices to the spirit of his predecessor and to those of his worthy and saintly spouses.

Crowds of devotees also repair thither to offer up vows and sacrifices to the new divinities, and to implore their help and protection in the various troubles of life. In the year 1802 I heard accounts of a great number of so-called miracles performed through their intercession.

It is only after long and serious reflection on the many eccentricities and inconsistencies of the human mind that one can look without astonishment upon the deplorable scenes of which a few of the main features have just been described. It is indeed unaccountable how these Brahmans, who are so scrupulous and attach so much importance to the life of the most insignificant insect, and whose feelings are excited to pity and indignation at the very sight of a cow being slaughtered, can with such savage cold-bloodedness and wicked satisfaction-look upon so many weak and innocent human beings, incited by hypocritical and barbarous inducements, being led with affected resignation to a punishment so cruel and undeserved. I leave to others the task of explaining these inconceivable contradictions, if, that is to say, it is possible to assign any reasons

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for such superstitious fanaticism, whose characteristic feature is to suppress all natural and rational sentiment.’

Long after its abolition suttee continued to be practised here and there, especially among the Rajputs. The heroic spirit of these princely rulers had fostered for ages the sentiment of sacrifice, and instances of wholesale self-immolation by Rajput women have already been referred to in the preceding volumes (e. g. iv, 22). Trevor’s “Rhymes of Rajputana,” based upon the annals collected by Tod in- that warlike district, gives well in ballad form an account of the suttee of Gorah’s wife when her lord fell in battle. The brevity and swiftness with which the verses tell the tale admirably represent the Rajput courage when called upon to act. The ballad is given in full:–

‘Gorah and Badal, the Chauhans and kin

To fair Padmani, that fierce onslaught led.

Badal, a boy, was wounded; Gorah dead,

Covered with wounds and honour, was brought in

And laid upon the pyre while drums made din.

His wife, the spirit of the Rajput glowing

Within her breast that swelled with love and pride.

Questioned the boy of how her lord had died;

What glories crowned his coming and his going.

“Mother,” the lad replied – “as reapers reap

The wheat, so he the harvest of the battle;

And I who followed ‘mid the noise and rattle

Gleaned in the wake of his terrific sweep.

Before he laid him down to rest and sleep,

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He spread a carpet of the slain upon

The gory bed of honour, made a prince

His pillow, rested joyfully, and since

Unto the mansions of the Sun has gone.”

“I know,” she cried – “what more ? go on! go on!

Tell me again about my love, I pray.”

He said, “What further, mother, can I tell?

He left no foe to dread or praise.”


She smiled, “my lord will chide me for delay” –

Sprang on the pyre, and with him passed away.’

To show the sporadic, though persistent, survival of the suttee ideal among the folk in our own times, allusion may be made in conclusion to a recent occurrence in the district of Lahore, which the Bombay newspaper “Jam-e Jamshed,” November, 1905, calls “The Most Recent Suttee,” and of which it urges a strict investigation.

‘It is to be hoped that careful investigations will be made in the case of suttee that has been reported from Lahore last week. The husband of the Kamboh woman is reported to have died two or three years back, and this ought to make the inquiry all the more essential as to whether the woman was led to perform this act of her own free will, or whether she was goaded on to it by others. It has been reported that the woman made the funeral pyre, set fire to it and perished in the flames in the presence of a large number of persons. Who were those persons? Were they all as superstitious as herself, and did none of them dare to save

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her from this act of suicide or run up to fetch the assistance of the police? Or did some one try and was prevented from helping the poor woman? We are indeed told that all efforts to dissuade her proved unavailing, but was this dissuasion not very much like consent? Finally, the police did not arrive in time to save her life. Could it be that all the preparations were made single-handed by the woman, and yet the police had no inkling of it till the moment when it was too late?’


17. Consult, for example, the references in Yule, Hobson-Jobson, article “Suttee,” and look up the allusions given by Lanman, Sanskrit Reader, p. 382.

18. Nikolaos Damaskenos, Paradoxon Ethnikon Synagoge, Fragm. 143.

19. Plutarch, Moralia, p. 499c.

20. Aelian, Varia Historia, 8. 18.

21. Cicero, Tusculanae Disputationes, 5. 27, 78.

22. Propertius, 4. 12. 15–22.

23. Valerius Maximus, Factorum et Dictorum Memorabilium Libri, 2. 6. 14.

24. Diodoros Sikelos, Historia, 17. 91.

25. This sonnet has apparently been lost.

This collection transcribed by Chris Gage
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