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A Victorian Scrapbook

A Scrapbook of Newspaper Articles Compiled by George Burgess (1829-1905)

Victorian Politics and History

The Burning of the Indian Widow

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Transcript from original newspaper article: -
THE BURNING OF THE INDIAN WIDOW.

I RECENTLY witnessed one of the most extraordinary and horrid scenes ever performed by a human being – namely, the self-immolation of a woman on the funeral pile of her husband. The dreadful sacrifice has made an impression on my mind, that years will not efface.

This event is so recent, I can hardly compose myself sufficiently to relate it. Last night I could not close my eyes, nor could I drive this martyred woman from my recollection. I am almost sick to-day, and I am sure you will not wonder at it. But this ceremony is so much celebrated, and by my countrymen so much doubted, that I was resolved to see if such “deeds could be.” I have seen: and the universe would not induce me to be present on a similar occasion. I cannot realize what I have seen – it seems like a horrible dream.

Yesterday morning, at seven o’clock, this woman was brought in a palanquin to the place of sacrifice. It is on the banks of the Ganges, only two miles form Calcutta. Her husband had been previously brought to the river to expire. His disorder was hydrophobia – think of the agony this must have occasioned him. He had been dead for twenty-four hours, and no person could prevail on the wife to save herself. She had three children, whom she committed to the care of her mother. A woman, called to be undertaker, was preparing the pile. It was composed of bamboo, firewood, oils, resin, and a kind of flax, altogether very combustible. It was elevated above the ground, I should say twenty inches, and supported by strong stakes. The dead body was lying on a rude couch, very near, covered with a white cloth. The eldest child, a boy of seven years, who was to light the pile, was standing near the corpse. The woman sat perfectly unmoved during all the preparation; apparently at prayer, and counting a string of beads which she held in her hand. She was just thirty years old; her husband twenty-seven years older.

The government threw every obstacle in the way of this procedure. They were not strong enough to resort to violent measures to prevent this abominable custom. Nothing but our religion can abolish it, and I do not believe there is a single particle of Christianity in the breast of a single native in all India.

These obstacles delayed the ceremony until five o’clock, when the permit from one of the chief judges arrived. Police officers were stationed to prevent anything like compulsion, and to secure the woman at the last moment, should she desire it. The corpse was now placed on the ground, in an upright posture, and clean linen crossed round the head, and about the waist. Holy water was thrown over it by the child, and afterwards oil by the Brahmins. It was then placed upon the pile, upon the left side. The woman now left the palanquin and walked into the river, supported by her brothers, who were agitated, and required more support than herself. She was divested of all her ornaments; her hair hanging disheveled about her face, which expressed perfect resignation. Her forehead and feet were stained with a deep red. She bathed in the river, and drank a little water, which was the only nourishment she received after her husband’s death. An oath was administered by the attending Brahmins, which was done by putting the hand in holy water, and repeating from the Shaster a few lines. The oath was given seven times. I forgot to say the child received an oath before the corpse was removed. The brothers also prayed over the body, and sprinkled themselves with consecrated water. She then adjusted her own dress, which consisted of long clothes, wrapped round her form, and partly over her head, but not so as to conceal her face. She had in her hand a little box, containing parting gifts, which she presented to her brothers, and to the Brahmins, with the greatest composure. Ted strings were then fastened round her wrists. Her child now put a little rice in her mouth, which was the last thing she received. She raised her eyes to heaven several times during the river ceremonies, which occupied ten to twenty minutes. She took no notice of her child; having taken leave of her female friends and children early in the morning. A little cup of consecrated rice was placed by the child at the head of the corpse. She now walked to the pile, and bent with lowly reverence over the feet of her husband; then, unaided, she passed three times round the pile. She now seemed excited by enthusiasm; some said of a religious nature, others, of affection for the dead. I do not pretend to say what motive actuated her; but she stepped up to the pile with apparent delight; unassisted by anyone, and threw herself by the side of the body, clasping his neck with her arm. The corpse was in the most horrid putrid state. She put her face close to his; a cord was slightly passed over both; lighted fagots and straw, with some combustible resin; were then put upon the pile, and a strong bamboo pole confined the whole; all this was done by her brothers. The child then applied the fire to the head of the pile, which was to consume both parents. The whole was instantly on fire. The multitude shouted, but not a groan was heard from the pile. I hope and trust this poor victim expired immediately. She undoubtedly died without one struggle. Her feed and arms were not confined; and after the straw and fagots were burnt, we saw them in the same condition in which she had placed them.

This was a voluntary act. She was resigned, self-collected, and perfectly herself. Such fortitude, such magnanimity, such resolution, devoted affection, religious zeal, and mad delusion combined, I had not conceived of, and I hope never to witness again. Hundreds witnessed this scene. Some admired the heroism of the woman – some were ready to tear the Brahmins to pieces; for myself, I was absolutely mortified with pity and horror at this dreadful immolation. I am grieved to say, this in not an uncommon instance.

G. N. S.


RELEVANT LINKS

SATI - The practice of satidaho (or suttee) is a South Asian funeral custom, now abolished, in which the dead man's widow immolates herself on her husband’s funeral pyre.