Burning Widows Alive
Gautam Kumar Das
The notoriety of Satidaaha Ghat adjacent to
Pataleswar Shiva temple at Cossimbazar of Murshidabad is still afresh in the memory of the locals even after a gap of 200 years back. Lalgola passenger train takes only 7-8 minutes to cover the distance of less than 4 km in between the Berhampur court and Cossimbazar station. For reaching the Satidaaha Ghat, I shared a hired toto (read 'tuktuk') from the Cossimbazar station accompanied with a young local rural married woman. How much time it would take to reach the Satidaaha Ghat? The woman, an ordinary homemaker replied smiling—mere ten minutes or a little bit. On the way she suddenly asked the toto-driver to stop the toto and got down to collect the empty gas-cylinder from her paternal home for its replacement. What a nice building with orchard at its surroundings! She spontaneously replied, "Come and have a cup of tea with my brothers". She returned back to toto within a minute with the gas cyclinder. "You are very simple and cordial". She replied smiling, "We, all the women here are simply cordial and caring." Her words had swung this writer to the thoughts of Satidaaha once again. For these simplicity and caring habits, they were not tolerated and burnt alive within the same pyre of their dead husbands of about 200 years back. At Satidaaha Ghat tears of widows were burnt all on a sudden in the pyre of their dead husbands. The burning pyres stopped their cry with the roaring sounds of the different indigenous bands. The sounds of bands had been stopped with the stop of movement of the widow inside the pyre.
The plan of burning widow alive by the heads of the society was then succeeded. Rest of the family members of her husband's house of the widow were impudently cool for no more sharing of bread to that widow, even of a room for her stay within the family. Along with not sharing the bread, encroachment of the property was too a major cause to burn the widow alive in the name of Satidaaha. The heads of the society, fearsome on thoughts of taking away of young Hindu widows by the people of the other communities and might enrich their brothels, were relieved from those thoughts after a successful execution of Satidaaha as remarriage of the widows were not allowed in the Hindu religion at that time. The practice of Satidaaha i.e. burning alive the Hindu widows in the pyre of their husbands was supported nowhere in the epics or religious books of the Hindu religion for committing this type of crime. Burning alive the Hindu widows was banned in Calcutta in 1798, but it was continued at Cossimbazar which is only 195 km away from Calcutta. It was the Satidaaha Ghat of Cossimbazar only where on an annual average of 100 widows were burnt alive from 1817 to 1828. Raja Ram Mohan Roy after being appointed by the authority of the East India Company came to Cossimbazar in 1803. He was puzzled by seeing the denudation of dangerous act of crime i.e. Satidaaha at the cremation ground namely Satidaaha Ghat at Cossimbazar on the bank of Kali Ganga, an abandoned river bed of the Bhagirathi. His own sister-in-law had been forced to commit Sati. Raja Ram Mohan Roy started writing of number of articles related to the ins and outs against the Satidaaha describing this practice as a crime in the magazine Sambad Koumudi and started campaigning even in the cremation grounds not to do that crime to the widows. Ultimately he became successful when Lord William Bentinck issued the order banning the practice and announced the act of Satidaaha as a homicidal crime.
It was that transitional period when the Mohammedan rule in Bengal was over and the rulers on behalf of the East India Company gradually took the administrative charge of Bengal province. The Hindu societal leaders had chosen the period to re-establish the Hinduism through religious customs like Satidaha etc. First Satidaaha was introduced within the Brahmin community and after that this ritual was transmitted among communities like baidya, kayastha etc. And that's why about 700 hundred widows were burnt alive in Bengal alone in 1817 only as recorded by the East India Company government. First the heads of the Hindu community made the widows understood to leave their lives in the burning pyres of their dead husbands comprehending them as the holiest activities for their re-birth in this materialistic earth considering their husband as the god Shiva. When the widows were not trapped and succumbed to that policy, they were then intoxicated and were thrown into the burning pyres in unconscious conditions after being hands and legs tightly fastened with ropes. The king Ballal Sen of the Sen Dynasty introduced 'Koulinyo Pratha' in Bengal. But before being hit of that "Koulinyo Pratha", the control of the then society had been transferred to the Mohammedan rulers and the Hindu people were away from the practice, although Satidaha Pratha was not among the rituals ruled for the Koulinyo Pratha. Mohammedan rulers ruled out almost all the rituals of the Hinduism of the lower caste-people by converting them into musalmans who were tortured by the upper caste Hindu community like Brahmins. Naturally during the Mohammedan era upper caste Hindus found no people to show their religion as a great religion. Further, the Hindu deities were fallen back lagging behind by the introduction of Dharmashila via Shunyo Puran composed by Ramai Pandit. At that time Buddhism gradually swallowed the Hinduism basically of the lower caste people. Further, lower caste Hindus were either the disciples of Dharma or were the converted-Muslims. Brahmins were then undone. They took a chance in this transitional period of the earliest eighteenth century to recover their religion as well as to boost up their earnings through different rituals like Satidahha. Satidaaha took place at that time in huge numbers. That was a turmoiling period of disorder and lawlessness in Bengal. Warren Hastings, the then governor-general was harassed by social anarchies like great famine of 1770, peasants' insurgency at Rangpur and Dinajpur, Sannyasi-Fakir insurrections etc. Further the company rulers left Cossimbazar of Murshidabad during earlier years of the eighteenth century and settled at Kolkata village after construction of the Fort William at the adjacent village Gobindapur. Naturally, there was nobody to prevent the Brahmins away from the Satidaaha rituals of the Hindu religion at Cossimbazar.
Satidaaha were happened to execute more at those areas like Cossimbazar which were then surrounded by the people of other religions. Further, the widows were then burden to the family. The family had to pay for her bread, clothes and minimum one room for her living without return of a single penny. So, the head of the family forced juveniles, young, middle-aged and even the aged widow to commit sati execution with the conspiration of the Morol (head) of the village. Widowed daughters were never allowed for a come-back to her parental house. Although the widow-daughters were refused to stay within the parental family and ultimately executed as sati only due to economy, the kith and kin of her paternal side were acquainted themselves as the brother of sati, father of sati, uncle of sati in the society seeking reverence of holiness from the villagers and neighbours. One sacrificed her life forcefully committing as a sati, the others took the social advantages through her immolation. Consequently, Satidaaha practice went on woolgathering chase-romoured festival to the common people where widow was turned to primary attraction in lieu of her dead-husband who was forcefully brought to the cremation ground.
The ground where widows were forced to commit Sati is known as ghat instead of burning ghat. All those ghats stood at the bank of the Ganges are known as Satidaaha Ghat till date even though Satidaaha practice was banned about 200 years back. In those ghats, rituals were undergone to the fresh widow in front of the pyre made up of dry woods for her dead husband. She was bathed first immersing in the river waters of the Ganges. Then she was worn washed fresh clothes with a new pair of bangles (saankha) and smeared with vermillion at her forehead. She was worshipped like sati (first wife of lord Shiva) by a burning ghat Brahmin in the cremation ground, and then she was thrown into the burning pyre of her dead husband keeping all of her protests blowing in the wind. After that she was called a widow no more, but became a Sati in the society.
Vol. 49, No.23, Dec 11 - 17, 2016