Hindus seek new status for the sati widows' temples

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The Independent Online

India's coalition government is coming under pressure to give national monument status to 300 temples across the country that glorify the burning of widows. The Hindu custom known as "sati", by which widows cast themselves into their husband's funeral pyre and thereby attained sainthood, was banned by the British in 1829 and remains illegal, but the practice, and the veneration of those who have committed it, refuse to die.

India's coalition government is coming under pressure to give national monument status to 300 temples across the country that glorify the burning of widows. The Hindu custom known as "sati", by which widows cast themselves into their husband's funeral pyre and thereby attained sainthood, was banned by the British in 1829 and remains illegal, but the practice, and the veneration of those who have committed it, refuse to die.

Less than two months ago, on 28 December 2000, in the village of Kidhauli in Banda, Uttar Pradesh, a 32-year-old woman named Radha Bai followed the corpse of her husband, a lawyer aged about 40, to the local cremation ground wearing her wedding finery.

She had resolved to commit sati, having been exhorted to do so in a dream, and a large crowd gathered to encourage her. Her children, witnesses say, did nothing to talk her out of it.

But the police were tipped off and intervened before Ms Bai could get near the flames. "People have forgotten about the incident," a local journalist told The Independent yesterday. "She is living quietly with her family."

This custom of sati is deeply embedded in Hindu society, and the immolated widows are commemorated and revered in temples built on the sati sites. Now an organisation called the Historical Sati Temple Preservation Committee is exhorting the Hindu nationalist-led coalition government to give these temples special status as national monuments.

The national convener of the committee, Mr Shyam Sundar Poddar, who is based in Calcutta, has a distinctively nationalistic interpretation of sati. He said: "There was no sati system in India before the arrival of Islam and the Moguls. It arose because Muslim invaders treated our women as objects of plunder." Wives of defeated Hindu warriors, he said, would commit themselves to the flames rather than allow themselves to be conscripted into the invaders' harems.

Mr Podder said the sati temples were the only Hindu manifestations to survive the Islamic onslaught. "Only because of the sacrifice of our great mothers has Hinduism been allowed to survive," he said. "That's why the temples should be declared national monuments." Mr Poddar's view is contradicted by historians who find sati's roots deep in Hindu mythology.

The hold of the practice on simple communities in some parts of the country remains strong today. Lakshmi Narayan Ray, president of Brahmo Samaj, a social reform organisation, condemned the national monument campaign. He said sati temples brought about "the immortalisation of ordinary mortals" and that they were built "without substantial proof of whether these women sat on their husbands' pyres willingly or without their consent".

He added: "Going by history, most widows underwent the cruel system because they were brainwashed into believing that committing sati would make them immortal. It was seldom a personal wish."

A leading authority, Dr Sakuntala Narasimhan, wrote in her book Sati: "Even when actual physical force is not employed to push or drag a woman to her death, the threat of force brings about a similar result." She quotes one witness to a sati describing "Brahmins holding lit torches forming a ring around the pyre while a second ring was formed by relatives and friends who held swords and other arms".

Mr Poddar said his organisation "totally opposes" acts of sati today But Mr Ray fears granting special status to sati temples could "fuel public sentiments". He said: "Who knows? A villager in remote Rajashthan might preach to his daughter to become a sati so a temple of national monument status could be built in her home."

The most infamous sati in memory was the suicide of 18-year-old Roop Anwar on the pyre of her husband in the village of Deolara, Rajasthan, on 4 September 1987. Dr Narasim-han says the brick platform that marks the sati site "draws on an average 100 visitors per day and five times as many on special days".

Rajasthani women in traditional, colourful attire prostrate themselves before the platform, seeking the benediction of the sati mata (Mother Sati), the girl who is believed to have become deified through her fiery immolation on the pyre of her husband.

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