Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
Suttee Tombs—Insalubrity of deserted Fortresses

On the 3rd we came to Bahrol,[1] where I had encamped with Lord William Bentinck on the last day of December, 1832, when the quicksilver in the thermometer at sunrise, outside our tents, was down to twenty-six degrees of Fahrenheit's thermometer. The village stands upon a gentle swelling hill of decomposed basalt, and is surrounded by hills of the same formation. The Dasān river flows close under the village, and has two beautiful reaches, one above, the other below, separated by the dyke of basalt, over which lies the ford of the river.[2]


There are beautiful reaches of the kind in all the rivers in this part of India, and they are almost everywhere formed in the same manner. At Bahrol there is a very unusual number of tombs built over the ashes of women who have burnt themselves with the remains of their husbands.


Upon each tomb stands erect a tablet of freestone, with the sun, the new moon, and a rose engraved upon it in bas-relief in one field;[3] and the man and woman, hand in hand, in the other. On one stone of this kind I saw a third field below these two, with the figure of a horse in bas-relief, and I asked one of the gentlemen farmers, who was riding with me, what it meant. He told me that he thought it indicated that the woman rode on horseback to bathe before she ascended the pile.[4] I asked him whether he thought the measure prohibiting the practice of burning good or bad.


'It is', said he, 'in some respects good, and in others bad. Widows cannot marry among us, and those who had no prospect of a comfortable provision among their husband's relations, or who dreaded the possibility of going astray, and thereby sinking into contempt and misery, were enabled in this way to relieve their minds, and follow their husbands, under the full assurance of being happily united to them in the next world.'


When I passed this place on horseback with Lord William Bentinck, he asked me what these tombs were, for he had never seen any of the kind before. When I told him what they were, he said not a word; but he must have felt a proud consciousness of the debt of gratitude which India owes to the statesman who had the courage to put a stop to this great evil, in spite of all the fearful obstacles which bigotry and prejudice opposed to the measure.


The seven European functionaries in charge of the seven districts of the newly-acquired territories were requested, during the administration of Lord Amherst in 1826, to state whether the burning of widows could or should be prohibited; and I believe every one of them declared that it should not. And yet, when it was put a stop to only a few years after by Lord William, not a complaint or murmur was heard. The replies to the Governor-General's inquiries were, I believe, throughout India, for the most part, opposed to the measure.[5]


On the 4th we came to Dhamonī, ten miles. The only thing remarkable here is the magnificent fortress, which is built upon a small projection of the Vindhya range, looking down on each side into two enormously deep glens, through which the two branches of the Dasān river descend over the tableland into the plains of Bundēlkhand.[6] The rays of the sun seldom penetrate to the bottom of these glens, and things are, in consequence, grown there that could not be grown in parts more exposed.


Every inch of the level ground in the bed of the streams below seems to be cultivated with care. This fortress is said to have cost more than a million of money, and to have been only one of fifty-two great works, of which a former Rājā of Bundēlkhand, Bīrsingh Deo, laid the foundation in the same happy hour which had been pointed out to him by his astrologers.[7]


The works form an acute triangle, with the base towards the tableland, and the two sides hanging perpendicularly over the glens, while the apex points to the course of the streams as they again unite, and pass out through a deep chasm into the plains of Bundēlkhand.


The fortress is now entirely deserted, and the town, which the garrison supported, is occupied by only a small police-guard, stationed here to see that robbers do not take up their abode among the ruins. There is no fear of this. All old deserted fortresses in India become filled by a dense stream of carbonic acid gas, which is found so inimical to animal life that those who attempt to occupy them become ill, and, sooner or later, almost all die of the consequences.


This gas, being specifically much heavier than common air, descends into the bottom of such unoccupied fortresses, and remains stagnant like water in old reservoirs. The current of pure air continually passes over, without being able to carry off the mass of stagnant air below; and the only way to render such places habitable is to make large openings in the walls on all sides, from the top to the bottom, so that the foul air may be driven out by the current of pure atmospheric air, which will then be continually rushing in. When these fortresses are thickly peopled, the continual motion within tends, I think, to mix up this gas with the air above; while the numerous fires lighted within, by rarefying that below, tend to draw down a regular supply of the atmospheric air from above for the benefit of the inhabitants.


When natives enter upon the occupation of an old fortress of this kind, that has remained long unoccupied, they always make a solemn religions ceremony of it; and, having fed the priests, the troops, and a crowd of followers, all rush in at once with beat of drums, and as much noise as they can make. By this rush, and the fires that follow, the bad air is, perhaps, driven off, and never suffered to collect again while the fortress remains fully occupied. Whatever may be the cause, the fact is certain that these fortresses become deadly places of abode for small detachments of troops, or small parties of any kind. They all get ill, and few recover from the diseases they contract in them.


From the year 1817, when we first took possession of the Sāgar and Nerbudda Territories, almost all the detachments of troops we required to keep at a distance from the headquarters of their regiments were posted in these old deserted fortifications. Our collections of revenue were deposited in them; and, in some cases, they were converted into jails for the accommodation of our prisoners.


Of the soldiers so lodged, I do not believe that one in four ever came out well; and, of those who came out ill, I do not believe that one in four survived five years. They were all abandoned one after the other; but it is painful to think how many hundreds, I may say thousands, of our brave soldiers were sacrificed before this resolution was taken. I have known the whole of the survivors of strong detachments that went in, in robust health, three months before, brought away mere skeletons, and in a hopeless and dying state. All were sent to their homes on medical certificate, but they almost all died there, or in the course of their journey.


Notes:


1. December, 1835. The name of the village is spelled Behrole by the author.


2. The Dasān river rises in the Bhopāl State, flows through the Sāgar district of the Central Provinces, and along the southern boundary of the Lalitpur subdivision of the Jhānsī District, United Provinces of Agra and Oudh. It also forms the boundary between the Jhānsī and Hamīrpur Districts, and falls into the Betwa after a course of about 220 miles. The name is often, but erroneously, written Dhasān. It is the Sanskrit Dasārna.


3. This emblem is a lotus, not a rose flower. The latter is never used in Hindoo symbolism. The lotus is a solar emblem, and intimately associated with the worship of Vishnu.


4. It rather indicates that the husband was on horseback when killed. The sculptures on satī pillars often commemorate the mode of death of the husband. Sometimes these pillars are inscribed. They usually face the east. An open hand is often carved in the upper compartment as well as the sun and moon. A drawing of such a pillar will be found in J.A.S.B., vol. xlvi. Part I, 1877