Sati – The custom of self-sacrifice

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To know my life depended on my husband’s; to know my life held no value, in comparison to that of my husband’s gave me a feeling of insecurity and uncertainty. My life had almost just begun. So many young women around the world were facing the same feelings of disillusionment and betrayal. The devotion to my husband need not be proven by the sacrifice of my life in his burning pyre. Most people believe that jumping in to our husbands pyre, symbolizes the pure love and devotion for our husbands. In communities like ours, we women who commit Sati are highly honoured and our families are given a lot of respect.

We were made to depend on them solely; our lives revolved around theirs. Every year our village would hear of a few Sati incidents; some who wished to sacrifice their lives for their husbands and others who were simply pushed into their husbands’ pyres, and left with no option. Among us Rajputs in Rajasthan, a lot of importance was given to this custom. As I walked out onto the veranda, my mother-in-law stood there with silver thali1, decorated with colourful powders and various other grains and spices. She stood with a smile pasted onto her face, and a large white Sari2 lay folded in her hands.

It was a silk woven sari, bordered with thick gold strips of cloth, and large silver bells hanging at random. She walked me to the dressing room, and motioned me to put on this large garment made of silk, which seemed even heavier than it looked. She seemed anxious, and I quietly went to put the sari on. Feelings of fear and weakness climbed up my spine, and to the rest of my body. Each vein seemed to pump the blood more vigorously, as my pulse quickened, and my heart felt numb and paralyzed. The death of my husband had brought about a large change in the family.

This tradition of sati had been instilled in us from childhood, and ingrained into the Rajput thought and psyche. Our family believed they would be released from the cycle of birth and re-birth through this sacrifice of mine. Although my thoughts differed, I could not say much, and quietly obeyed the ritual that was followed throughout the village; in every family who believed to be pure. This sacrifice is almost known as a passport to heaven, and being strong believers in the Hindu religion, our family thought just the same.

I was taken to a separate room, where a group of girls were to do my make-up. I sat patiently, as bridal make-up was applied to my young, fresh skin. This was all believed to be an act of purity, self-sacrifice and dignity. My mother-in-law entered the room, and sat down on the hard wooden bed. The silence between us was tense, and she didn’t have to explain this to me. I was aware of this ritual, and knew that I’d have to face it one day. I was always taught that this was not only for the salvation of my husband, but for his family as well.

As my make-up was done, and I was finally dressed appropriately for this custom, I was lead out by my mother-in-law. There stood a musical band in front of a large procession. I stood there, staring at almost half the village, which had to come to watch as though this were an amusing show. With great difficulty I was mounted onto a horse, and was made to hold a lemon in one hand, and a mirror in the other. I had to constantly make sure my bridal make-up was in tact. An umbrella was held to protect me from the glowering hot sun, and I was told to look as though I were not in mourning at all.

I was supposed to look anxious to join my husband. The villagers and the people in the procession sang glories and admired my sacrifice. The loud noises of the people rang in my ears, as I thought about all that had happened. Was this really an act of purity, or rather a traditional ideology that continues to oppress us women? Were we really committing this selfless act on the behalf of our family? My mind wandered to the numerous women who gave up their lives in the same manner, and my heart went out to them. Was this really the way to die?

My thoughts were interrupted by the bright flames that lit my husband’s pyre. The heap of wood lay there, still, aflame. The bright yellow flame ate into the mound of wood, burning the body along with it. I walked slowly towards the pyre as almost a 50 pairs of eyes watched me carefully. I was told to stand near the pyre, and repeat a few lines after the priest. I was almost like a puppet, being controlled by a number of people. I could barely think, as a countless number of thoughts ran in and out of my head.

A warped image of everything that had happened was imprinted in my head. Before I knew it, the formal procedure was over, and I was finally told to step into the fire. I took a deep breath, as all eyes were fixed upon me. The burning flames singed into my skin, and I was encompassed by the bright burning yellow of the flames. The crackling of the wood seemed louder than ever, as the burning heat of the flames surrounded me. Those dancing flames, which signified hope, power and an eternal and undying life, flickered, as they licked the air and eventually died down.

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