The British Narrative of SutteeEvery British schoolchild was once taught the story: “In 1829 the British government in India put an end to the Hindu practice of suttee, their moral outrage at this barbaric violation of human rights outweighing their characteristic liberal tolerance of the religious practices of people under their benign rule.” But almost every element in this credo is false. True, a law was passed in India in 1829 making it illegal for widows to be burnt with their husbands, but moral outrage was not the predominant factor in the British decision to outlaw suttee, nor did they succeed in ending it. On the contrary, the fear of offending high-caste Hindus serving in the British army and civil service, and concern about the political costs of legal interdiction, had led the British for many years to sanction suttee under some circumstances (as long as the woman had no children and persuaded the magistrate that she was acting of her own free will), thus effectively encouraging it by giving it a legal support it had never had before, making it a colonially enhanced atavism.
In 1680, the Governor of Madras prevented the burning of a Hindu widow, and ten years later, an Englishman in Calcutta was said to have rescued a Brahmin widow from the flames of her husband’s funeral pyre and taken her as his common law wife. After that, the British generally looked the other way where suttee was concerned. On April 20, 1813, a British circular proclaimed that suttee was meant to be voluntary, and that it would be permitted in cases where it was countenanced by the Hindu religion and prevented when the religious authorities prohibited it, as when the women was less than 16 years old, pregnant, intoxicated, or coerced. In fact, there was a dramatic increase in the number of suttees from 1815 to 1818, the first three years of data collection and the first three years after the circular was published: the toll went from 378 to 839 cases. After that, the numbers declined and then fluctuated between 500 and 600. The numbers may have grown because of government intervention: they had authorized it (their work made it seem as if a legal suttee was better than an illegal one) and given it interest and celebrity, so that there were copycat suttees. Finally, in 1829, several years after prominent Brahmins had already spoken up against suttee, and at a time when there were many Indians in the legislature and William Bentinck, an evangelical sympathizer, was Governor General (1828-35), the British banned suttee altogether, as well as child marriage.
The P.R. Use of SutteeRelatively few women died by committing suttee, in contrast with the hundreds, even thousands, who died every day of starvation and malnutrition; but suttee had P. R. value. The debate, in both India and Britain, turned what had been an exceptional practice into a symbol of the oppression of all Indian women and the moral bankruptcy of Hinduism. The main effect of the British law was to stigmatize Hinduism as an abomination in Christian eyes. Suttee is a pornographic image, the torture of a woman by fire, hot in every sense of the word. Nor did the 1829 law, or, for that matter, the new legislation enacted by India after its Independence, put an end to it; at least forty widows have burned since 1947, most of them largely ignored and some even now attested only in obscure local archives.
Description of the Balinese rite of self-sacrifice or Suttee, in Houtman's 1597 Verhael vande Reyse ... Naer Oost Indien
A Hindu widow burning herself with the corpse of her husband, 1820s.
Suttee, by James Atkinson 1831
A shrine to wives of the Maharajas of Jodhpur who have committed sati. The palmprints are typical.
"A Hindu Suttee", 1885 book
The Bride Throws Herself on Her Husband's Funeral Pyre. This miniature painting originates from the period of the Safavid dynasty, first half 17th century. (Attributed to the painter: Muhammad Qasim)
*"Brulement des femmes aux Indes," an unsigned Dutch-school etching, c.1700-25*
"Manner in which they Bury Themselves alive with the corpse of their Husband" (1728)
*an Indian woman is buried alive with the dead body of her husband*
*"Veuve hindoue allant au bucher," from 'Voyage de l'Inde a la Mekke' by Abdul-Kerym, 1797*
"The funeral pile of a husband in Hindoostan," an engraving c.1810
An Hindoo Woman throwing herself on the funeral pyre of her Husband"
"A Woman going to burn on the funeral pile of her Husband," a copper-plate engraving published in London, 1811
Immolation of a Hindoo Widow upon her Husband's Funeral Pile, by Lester, in 'The Gallery of Nature and Art' (1814)*
"La vedova di un Indiano che sacrificasi sul Rogo dello Sposo," from 'Atlante Illustrato', Florence, 1845*
*The favorite Wife of Sevajee, preparing for the Suttee," from an English history book, 1851
Suttee pillar at a Benares burning ghat, where Hindu widows died on husbands' funeral pyres," a stereoscopic view, c.1900*
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia--http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sati_%28practice%29