About two and a half decades ago news reporters busied themselves with extensive coverage on demonstrations in New Delhi. The demonstrations, which began in north India, were mostly peopled by women provoked by a sense of (misplaced) religious fervor, who were demonstrating the “right to sati.” (Sati is self-immolation of a widow by burning on the funeral pyre of her husband.) According to Hindu mythology, Sati, the wife of King Dakhsha was so overcome at the demise of her husband that she immolated herself on his funeral pyre and burnt herself to ashes. Since then, her name has come to be symptomatic of self-immolation by a widow.
Propagating this “cause” soon spread into various pockets of the country, ironically, by several women's organizations demanding a woman's right to commit sati. What sparked off these demonstrations at the capital, followed by similar protests all over the country, was the prime minister's withdrawal of a grant to build a sati temple in the old parts of the city. In Delhi the well-known Rani Sati Organization, which already owned several sati temples in the city had been granted land to build yet another commemorative shrine celebrating sati, by the local municipality. It was a relatively innocuous news item to this effect in one of the dailies that caught the attention of an NGO (nongovernmental organization) that dealt with women's issues. Their efforts in thwarting the local municipality boomeranged into a shocking all-India support from like-minded fanatics. However, it was only after a cataclysmic response intensified by agitations from feminist groups and supported by then-prime minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi, that the land grant was withdrawn. Concerted efforts were initiated to cull the “sati-glorifying preaching and educate the believers.” However, one can imagine the resistance to such efforts within a religiously oriented state.
Decades later the practice, though curtailed, continues in distant remote villages. The memory of those who commit sati is kept alive till today by bards and songs, which glorify their act. The halo of honor granted supposedly by their supreme sacrifice is burnished by several even today.
To quote Dr. Veena Das, the well-known Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Anthropology who has researched extensively on collective and domestic violence in everyday life and social suffering, “The glorification of a particular social or religious practice however, is open to a greater range of freedoms and merges with the right to practice one's religion. Interference with this custom raises the question of whether the state has a right to control the future or whether it can also redefine, and in this sense control, the past.” Rumblings of sati occurrences continue and on July 22, 1999, The Hindustan Times reported about a woman forced to commit sati, stating “Family members of a man who had killed himself allegedly forced his wife to commit sati. They forced her to first drink poison and later made her sit on the pyre of her husband even though she was alive. According to reports, the chowkidar [guard or watchman] of the village connived with the family members and made arrangements to prepare the pyre of the deceased beside a small canal in the village. It was then that the family members reportedly put the woman on the pyre. Since the body of the woman was only partially burnt, members of the family buried her body.” In March 2004 it was reported that in Samatipur, north India, an 80-year-old widow decided to “join her demised 90-year -old husband on his last journey.”
The reasons why this practice could have come into being are many. But the principal among them could be identified in the same setting, which has also given birth to the dowry (compulsory cash and valuables given to the groom at the marriage by the bride's family). Closer examination of this practice of immolation supports this inference. Immolation as a widely prevalent practice can be seen only since the medieval period, but there are reasons that trace its origins to antiquity. Incidentally, this practice of self-immolation is more prevalent among the higher marital castes. Among the lower castes and aboriginal tribes it is nearly absent. Sati among the higher castes is no coincidence.
As mentioned earlier, among the higher castes, a bride was looked upon as a burden as she represented a drain on the family's income while not contributing anything toward it. If this was her status as a bride, it is not surprising that if she had the misfortune to become a widow, her presence in the family was dreaded. And apart from being considered the harbinger of ill omens, her very presence after her husband's demise was like an albatross to her in-laws. The country owes the first attempts at the abolition of this deplorable practice to the crusading efforts of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the 18th-century crusader of social reform and women's issues.
In a country that worships womanhood as an embodiment of shakti or power, where the woman-goddess rules in a pantheon of a million gods, where in her image of a woman she is venerated daily, such barbaric rituals come undoubtedly as ruthless contradictions. And if sati and the dowry system makes one baulk, take the long-prevalent customs of the Devadasis (literally meaning god's girl-slaves) wherein young girls are rigorously trained in nritya or temple dance, and then as virgins, dedicated to the temple either to appease the fiery Goddess Yellamma for a misfortune that may have befallen them or to plead the goddess's blessings and goodwill. Staunch believers of the Yellamma cult furiously defend their belief in the power of this goddess and the sanctity of being devoted to Yellamma and the temple. However, the reality is that the young virgins who are dedicated by their families to the temple, live in unspeakable misery with a life riddled with disease and poverty “serving and appeasing” the desires of the temple priests and rich male patrons. They eke out a living through prostitution and begging. Over the years spirited exchanges have taken place between the believers of this centuries-old tradition and various NGOs. The latter's attempts to redeem the Devadasis and alter the practice have met with very little success. The practice is now carried out in great secrecy. The embarrassed local authorities, under the spotlight of international media, have off and on made reluctant attempts to curtail the custom. Religious sentiments ride on frail steeds. Coupled with rampant ignorance such rituals and customs are assured a heady survival.
However, several NGOs and citizen groups have with missionary zeal taken up the task of reforming these customs. Traditions, especially in a country like India, die hard and though it is undoubtedly an uphill task, what with government apathy and a nation's religious fervor at stake, small inroads have been made to change the way people interpret and translate religious myth and scripture.
The work of the NGOs is indisputably aided by the work of several young photojournalists and filmmakers. Armed with their lenses and a refined sense of vigilance they make forays into the deep pockets of religious and social practice. Largely these photographers are part of the rapidly expanding media industry, their rousing images shake the apathetic stupor not only of those in power, but more important, of the average reader.
Inherent contradictions are now being addressed with a realization that perhaps these can no longer be skirted.
Niyatee Shinde is the founder and director of Turmeric Earth‹curatorial assistance, Mumbai, India. She has curated numerous exhibitions throughout the Sub continent and Europe.