THE PRACTICE OF SATI


One of the most repugnant aspects of medieval Indian society was the Hindu custom of sati, whereby the widow was immolated on the funeral pyre of her husband during his cremation. Here the Portuguese venturer Duarte Barbosa describes such a practice in the southern state of Narsyngua.


In this kingdom of Narsyngua there are three classes of Heathen, each one of which has a very distinct rule of its own, and also their customs differ much one from the other.

The principal of these is that the King, the great Lords, the knights and fighting men, who may marry, as I have said, as many women as they wish, and are able to maintain; their sons inherit their estates; the women are bound by very ancient custom, when their husbands die, to burn themselves alive with their corpses which are also burnt. This they do to honor the husband. If such a woman is poor and of low estate, when her husband dies she goes with him to the burning ground, "where there is a great pit" in which a pile of wood burns. When the husbands body has been laid therein and begins to burn she throws herself of her own free will into the midst of the said fire, where both their bodies are reduced to ashes. But if she is a woman of high rank, rich, and with distinguished kindred, whether she be a young maid or an old woman, when her husband dies she accompanies the aforesaid corpse of her husband to the aforesaid burning ground, bewailing him; and there they dig a round pit, very wide and deep, which they fill with wood (and in great quantity of sandal wood therewith), and, when they have kindled it, they lay the man's body therein, and it is burnt while she weeps greatly. Wishing to do all honor to her husband she then causes all his kindred and her own to be called together, that they may come to feast and honor her thereby, all of whom gather together at the said field for this ceremony, where she spends with them and with her kindred and friends all that she has in festivities with music and singing and dancing and banquets.

Thereafter she attires herself very richly with all the jewels she possesses, and then distributes to her sons, relatives and friends all the property that remains. Thus arrayed she Mounts on a horse, light grey or quite white if possible, that she may be the better seen of all the people. Mounted on this horse they lead her through the whole city with great rejoicings, until they come back to the very spot where the husband has been burnt, where, they cast a great quantity of wood into the pit itself and on its edge they make a great fire. When it his burnt up somewhat they erect a wooden scaffold with four or five steps where they take her Up just as she is. When she is on the top she turns herself round thereon three times, worshipping towards the direction of sunrise, and, this done, she calls her sons, kindred and friends, and to each she gives a jewel, whereof she has many with her, and in the same way every piece of her clothing until nothing is left except a small piece of cloth with, which she is clothed from the waist down. All this she does and says so firmly, and with such a cheerful countenance, that she seems not about to die. Then she tells the men who are with her on the scaffold to consider what they owe to their wives who, being free to act, yet burn themselves alive for the love of them, and the women she tells to see how much they owe to their husbands' to such a degree as to go with them even to death. Then she ceases speaking, and they place in her hands a pitcher full of oil, and she puts it on her head, and with it she again turns round thrice on the scaffold and again worships towards the rising sun. Then she casts the pitcher of oil into the fire and throws herself after it with as much goodwill as if she were throwing herself on a little cotton, from which she could receive no hurt. The kinsfolk all take part at once and cast into the fire many pitchers of oil and butter which they hold ready for this purpose, and much wood on this, and therewith bursts out such a flame that no more can be seen.


Source: The Book of Duarte Barbosa (Nedeln, Liechtenstein: The Haklvy Society, 1967), II, p. 19


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