Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
A Suttee[1] on the Nerbudda.

We took a ride one evening to Gopālpur, a small village situated on the same bank of the Nerbudda, about three miles up from Bherāghāt. On our way we met a party of women and girls coming to the fair. Their legs were uncovered half-way up the thigh; but, as we passed, they all carefully covered up their faces.


'Good God!' exclaimed one of the ladies, 'how can these people be so very indecent?' They thought it, no doubt, equally extraordinary that she should have her face uncovered, while she so carefully concealed her legs; for they were really all modest peasantry, going from the village to bathe in the holy stream.[2]


Here there are some very pretty temples, built for the most part to the memory of widows who have burned themselves with the remains of their husbands, and upon the very spot where they committed themselves to the flames. There was one which had been recently raised over the ashes of one of the most extraordinary old ladies that I have ever seen, who burned herself in my presence in 1829.


I prohibited the building of any temple upon the spot, but my successor in the civil charge of the district, Major Low, was never, I believe, made acquainted with the prohibition nor with the progress of the work; which therefore went on to completion in my absence. As suttees are now prohibited in our dominions[3] and cannot be often seen or described by Europeans, I shall here relate the circumstances of this as they were recorded by me at the time, and the reader may rely upon the truth of the whole tale.


On the 29th November, 1829, this old woman, then about sixty-five years of age, here mixed her ashes with those of her husband, who had been burned alone four days before. On receiving civil charge of the district (Jubbulpore) in March, 1828, I issued a proclamation prohibiting any one from aiding or assisting in suttee, and distinctly stating that to bring one ounce of wood for the purpose would be considered as so doing.


If the woman burned herself with the body of her husband, any one who brought wood for the purpose of burning him would become liable to punishment; consequently, the body of the husband must be first consumed, and the widow must bring a fresh supply for herself.


On Tuesday, 24th November, 1829, I had an application from the heads of the most respectable and most extensive family of Brahmans in the district to suffer this old woman to burn herself with the remains of her husband, Ummēd Singh Upadhya, who had that morning died upon the banks of the Nerbudda.[4] I threatened to enforce my order, and punish severely any man who assisted; and placed a police guard for the purpose of seeing that no one did so.


She remained sitting by the edge of the water without eating or drinking. The next day the body of her husband was burned to ashes in a small pit of about eight feet square, and three or four feet deep, before several thousand spectators who had assembled to see the suttee. All strangers dispersed before evening, as there seemed to be no prospect of my yielding to the urgent solicitations of her family, who dared not touch food till she had burned herself, or declared herself willing to return to them.


Her sons, grandsons, and some other relations remained with her, while the rest surrounded my house, the one urging me to allow her to burn, and the other urging her to desist. She remained sitting on a bare rock in the bed of the Nerbudda, refusing every kind of sustenance, and exposed to the intense heat of the sun by day, and the severe cold of the night, with only a thin sheet thrown over her shoulders.


On Thursday, to cut off all hope of her being moved from her purpose, she put on the dhajā, or coarse red turban, and broke her bracelets in pieces, by which she became dead in law, and for ever excluded from caste. Should she choose to live after this, she could never return to her family. Her children and grandchildren were still with her, but all their entreaties were unavailing; and I became satisfied that she would starve herself to death, if not allowed to burn, by which the family would be disgraced, her miseries prolonged, and I myself rendered liable to be charged with a wanton abuse of authority, for no prohibition of the kind I had issued had as yet received the formal sanction of the Government.


On Saturday, the 28th, in the morning, I rode out ten miles to the spot, and found the poor old widow sitting with the dhajā round her head, a brass plate before her with undressed rice and flowers, and a coco-nut in each hand. She talked very collectedly, telling me that 'she had determined to mix her ashes with those of her departed husband, and should patiently wait my permission to do so, assured that God would enable her to sustain life till that was given, though she dared not eat or drink'.


Looking at the sun, then rising before her over a long and beautiful reach of the Nerbudda river, she said calmly, 'My soul has been for five days with my husband's near that sun, nothing but my earthly frame is left; and this, I know, you will in time suffer to be mixed with the ashes of his in yonder pit, because it is not in your nature or usage wantonly to prolong the miseries of a poor old woman'.


'Indeed, it is not,—my object and duty is to save and preserve them [sic]; and I am come to dissuade you from this idle purpose, to urge you to live, and to keep your family from the disgrace of being thought your murderers.'


'I am not afraid of their ever being so thought: they have all, like good children, done everything in their power to induce me to live among them; and, if I had done so, I know they would have loved and honoured me; but my duties to them have now ended. I commit them all to your care, and I go to attend my husband, Ummēd Singh Upadhya, with whose ashes on the funeral pile mine have been already three times mixed.'[5]


This was the first time in her long life that she had ever pronounced the name of her husband, for in India no woman, high or low, ever pronounces the name of her husband,—she would consider it disrespectful towards him to do so; and it is often amusing to see their embarrassment when asked the question by any European gentleman.

They look right and left for some one to relieve them from the dilemma of appearing disrespectful either to the querist or to their absent husbands—they perceive that he is unacquainted with their duties on this point, and are afraid he will attribute their silence to disrespect. They know that few European gentlemen are acquainted with them; and when women go into our courts of justice, or other places where they are liable to be asked the names of their husbands, they commonly take one of their children or some other relation with them to pronounce the words in their stead.


When the old lady named her husband, as she did with strong emphasis, and in a very deliberate manner, every one present was satisfied that she had resolved to die. 'I have', she continued, 'tasted largely of the bounty of Government, having been maintained by it with all my large family in ease and comfort upon our rent-free lands; and I feel assured that my children will not be suffered to want; but with them I have nothing more to do, our intercourse and communion here end. My soul (prān) is with Ummēd Singh Upadhya: and my ashes must here mix with his.'


Again looking to the sun—'I see them together', said she, with a tone and countenance that affected me a good deal, 'under the bridal canopy!'—alluding to the ceremonies of marriage; and I am satisfied that she at that moment really believed that she saw her own spirit and that of her husband under the bridal canopy in paradise.


I tried to work upon her pride and her fears. I told her that it was probable that the rent-free lands by which her family had been so long supported might be resumed by the Government, as a mark of its displeasure against the children for not dissuading her from the sacrifice; that the temples over her ancestors upon the bank might be levelled with the ground, in order to prevent their operating to induce others to make similar sacrifices; and lastly, that not one single brick or stone should ever mark the place where she died if she persisted in her resolution.


But, if she consented to live, a splendid habitation should be built for her among these temples, a handsome provision assigned for her support out of these rent-free lands, her children should come daily to visit her, and I should frequently do the same.


She smiled, but held out her arm and said, 'My pulse has long ceased to beat, my spirit has departed, and I have nothing left but a little earth, that I wish to mix with the ashes of my husband. I shall suffer nothing in burning; and, if you wish proof, order some fire, and you shall see this arm consumed without giving me any pain'. I did not attempt to feel her pulse, but some of my people did, and declared that it had ceased to be perceptible. At this time every native present believed that she was incapable of suffering pain; and her end confirmed them in their opinion.


Satisfied myself that it would be unavailing to attempt to save her life, I sent for all the principal members of the family, and consented that she should be suffered to burn herself if they would enter into engagements that no other member of their family should ever do the same.


This they all agreed to, and the papers having been drawn out in due form about midday, I sent down notice to the old lady, who seemed extremely pleased and thankful. The ceremonies of bathing were gone through before three [o'clock], while the wood and other combustible materials for a strong fire were collected and put into the pit.


After bathing, she called for a 'pan' (betel leaf) and ate it, then rose up, and with one arm on the shoulder of her eldest son, and the other on that of her nephew, approached the fire. I had sentries placed all round, and no other person was allowed to approach within five paces. As she rose up fire was set to the pile, and it was instantly in a blaze. The distance was about 150 yards. She came on with a calm and cheerful countenance, stopped once, and, casting her eyes upward, said, 'Why have they kept me five days from thee, my husband?'


On coming to the sentries her supporters stopped; she walked once round the pit, paused a moment, and, while muttering a prayer, threw some flowers into the fire. She then walked up deliberately and steadily to the brink, stepped into the centre of the flame, sat down, and leaning back in the midst as if reposing upon a couch, was consumed without uttering a shriek or betraying one sign of agony.


A few instruments of music had been provided, and they played, as usual, as she approached the fire, not, as is commonly supposed, in order to drown screams, but to prevent the last words of the victim from being heard, as these are supposed to be prophetic, and might become sources of pain or strife to the living.[6] It was not expected that I should yield, and but few people had assembled to witness the sacrifice, so that there was little or nothing in the circumstances immediately around to stimulate her to any extraordinary exertions; and I am persuaded that it was the desire of again being united to her husband in the next world, and the entire confidence that she would be so if she now burned herself, that alone sustained her.


From the morning he died (Tuesday) till Wednesday evening she ate 'pans' or betel leaves, but nothing else; and from Wednesday evening she ceased eating them. She drank no water from Tuesday. She went into the fire with the same cloth about her that she had worn in the bed of the river; but it was made wet from a persuasion that even the shadow of any impure thing falling upon her from going to the pile contaminates the woman unless counteracted by the sheet moistened in the holy stream.


I must do the family the justice to say that they all exerted themselves to dissuade the widow from her purpose, and had she lived she would assuredly have been cherished and honoured as the first female member of the whole house.


There is no people in the world among whom parents are more loved, honoured, and obeyed than among the Hindoos; and the grandmother is always more honoured than the mother. No queen upon her throne could ever have been approached with more reverence by her subjects than was this old lady by all the members of her family as she sat upon a naked rock in the bed of the river, with only a red rag upon her head and a single-white sheet over her shoulders.


Soon after the battle of Trafalgar I heard a young lady exclaim, 'I could really wish to have had a brother killed in that action'. There is no doubt that a family in which a suttee takes place feels a good deal exalted in its own esteem and that of the community by the sacrifice.


The sister of the Rājā of Rīwā was one of four or five wives who burned themselves with the remains of the Rājā of Udaipur; and nothing in the course of his life will ever be recollected by her brother with so much of pride and pleasure, since the Udaipur Rājā is the head of the Rājpūt tribes.[7]


I asked the old lady when she had first resolved upon becoming a suttee, and she told me that about thirteen years before, while bathing in the river Nerbudda, near the spot where she then sat, with many other females of the family, the resolution had fixed itself in her mind as she looked at the splendid temples on the bank of the river erected by the different branches of the family over the ashes of her female relations who had at different times become suttees.


Two, I think, were over her aunts, and one over the mother of her husband. They were very beautiful buildings, and had been erected at great cost and kept in good repair. She told me that she had never mentioned this her resolution to any one from that time, nor breathed a syllable on the subject till she called out 'Sat, sat, sat',[8] when her husband breathed his last with his head in her lap on the bank of the Nerbudda, to which he had been taken when no hopes remained of his surviving the fever of which he died.


Charles Harding, of the Bengal Civil Service, as magistrate of Benares, in 1806 prevented the widow of a Brahman from being burned. Twelve months after her husband's death she had been goaded by her family into the expression of a wish to burn with some relic of her husband, preserved for the purpose.


The pile was raised to her at Rāmnagar,[9] some two miles above Benares, on the opposite side of the river Ganges. She was not well secured upon the pile, and as soon as she felt the fire she jumped off and plunged into the river. The people all ran after her along the bank, but the current drove her towards Benares, whence a police boat put off and took her in.


She was almost dead with the fright and the water, in which she had been kept afloat by her clothes. She was taken to Harding; but the whole city of Benares was in an uproar, at the rescue of a Brahman's widow from the funeral pile, for such it had been considered, though the man had been a year dead.


Thousands surrounded his house, and his court was filled with the principal men of the city, imploring him to surrender the woman; and among the rest was the poor woman's father, who declared that he could not support his daughter; and that she had, therefore, better be burned, as her husband's family would no longer receive her.


The uproar was quite alarming to a young man, who felt all the responsibility upon himself in such a city as[10] Benares, with a population of three hundred thousand people,[11] so prone to popular insurrections, or risings en masse very like them.


He long argued the point of the time that had elapsed, and the unwillingness