A witness to suttee
The idea of this blog was to let me share mindworms (intellectual earworms, I mean: please don’t be put off), and this one’s been haunting me all weekend. It’s a description of sati or suttee, the self-immolation of the widow (or in this case widows) of a dead man at her husband’s funeral. There’s some contemporary resonance, I suppose. I’d certainly like to hear how the nineteenth-century debates on suttee, which resulted in a ban on the practice by the British imperial authorities, would play out in newspapers and blogs and on Twitter today. General Napier’s response to the argument that the religious customs of different communities should be sacrosanct, for which I’m grateful to Brian Williams, would come in for some criticism, I’m sure. But it’d be hard to argue he’s wrong on the basic issue.
The account comes from the autobiography of Dr Martin Honigberger, a Transylvanian physician at the court of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, Sikh ruler of the Punjab at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Like many of the other Europeans employed by Ranjit Singh, Honigberger was also an enthusiastic amateur archaeologist and coin-collector, keen to uncover evidence of Greek activity in what is now Pakistan, Afghanistan and N-W India. In Thirty-five Years in the East (1852) Honigberger described his travels and medical activities. What follows is just a part of his description of the funeral of Ranjit Singh in 1839, pp. 101-3 of this edition if anyone wants to read further.
Honigberger is appalled by suttee, and he makes that perfectly clear at the end of this excerpt. But for the most part he describes what he saw with a doctor’s detachment and attention to detail: the woman unveiling herself for the first and only time in public as she walks to her death; the mirror held before her face so that she can be sure she is betraying no fear; the simple clothes and bare feet. I’ve made no change to Honiberger’s text except to break up his long nineteenth-century paragraphs. The elaborate tomb that Honiberger mentions, erected on the site of Ranjit Singh’s cremation, still stands in Lahore.
Early in the morning subsequent to that on which the death of the maharajah happened, I went down the Tukht (coronation-square), accompanied by Col. Henry Steinbach (lately in the service of the maharajah, Gholab Sing, in Cashmere, now in Europe), and we directed our steps towards the large yard, which we had to cross, in order to get betimes to a convenient place close to the funeral pile. This was erected between the walls and the fortress, in a small garden, the conflux of the people having been so enormous in the fortress.
In the large yard, we observed one of the four ranees (queens) coming out of the harem on foot and unveiled, for the first time in her life. She was slowly proceeding towards the place where the royal body was lying, and she was surrounded by about one hundred persons, who kept themselves at some distance, while accompanying her. Close to her side there was a man carrying a small box, containing the remainder of her jewels (as she had already distributed some ), which she made presents of, handing them one by one to the people on her right and left. Two or three steps in front of her, there was a man moving in a backward direction, his face turned towards her, and holding a looking-glass, that she might convince herself that her features were unaltered, and no fear visible on them. At the distribution of the jewels, Col. Steinbach made the observation that, had we stretched out our hands to receive a present, it certainly would not have been denied; but we thought proper to leave it to the poorer people, because we occupied lucrative posts.
It is curious, indeed, that this was the very ranee whom Runjeet Sing married in the first year of my residence in that country, ten years having passed since I witnessed the nuptials at Nadoun. She was, as I mentioned before, a daughter of Sunsarchund, and she had a younger sister, whom the maharajah at the same time took also for a wife, and conveyed them both to Lahore; the latter, I am told, had died of consumption during my absence. As for the former, although I was present at her wedding, I nevertheless had never seen her before, and it was only on her last fatal walk, which she took to her funeral pile, that I could behold her.
The funeral train, accompanied by many thousands of spectators, was now proceeding; all were on foot, their abode in the fortress not being far distant from the place of the ceremony. The four ranees only were carried, in open palanquins, behind the deceased, after them followed the seven female slaves, barefooted; some of them appeared to be not more than fourteen or fifteen years of age. The ranees, too, were barefooted, their silk dresses were simple, and without any ornaments, and they appeared to be indifferent to the awful though voluntary fate which awaited them. Perhaps our hearts throbbed more at the view of this dismal train than those of the poor victims themselves.
The body of Runjeet Sing was placed on a board, to which it was probably fastened, and was carried on a light and decorated bier constructed in the shape of a ship; the sails and flags of the vessel were made of rich golden and silk stuff (kimkab), and of Cashmere shawls. A number of people carried the bier from the interior of the fortress up to the funeral-pile, there the board with the body was taken out of it and deposited on the ground, where, on what was a small garden, now stands a summood, i.e., a tomb of the royal family Runjeet Sing, Kurruck Sing and No-Nehal Sing, i.e., the father, son, and grand-child, together with their wives and slaves. The costly ornaments of the richly decorated bier were given to the mob; the Brahmins performed their prayers from the Shaater, a book written in the Indian or Sanscrit language; the Gooroos, or priests of the Sikhs, did the same, from their holy scripture called Grunthsaheb, and the Musselmen accompanied them with their “Ya, Allah! Ya, Allah!”
A slow, but not displeasing rumbling of the drums, and the murmuring of the people, gave to the whole scene a melancholy aspect, and was peculiar to the country. The funeral pile which displayed itself before the eyes of the spectators, was constructed of dry woods, amongst which there were pieces of aloe; it was about six feet high and square. After the prayers of the Brahmins and Gooroos, which lasted nearly an hour, the minister and other sirdars ascended by a ladder the funeral-pile, upon which ignitible matters and substances, as cotton seeds, &c., were strewn, and the royal body was respectfully placed in the middle of the pile, together with the board.
After this, the ranees ascended the fatal ladder, one by one, according to their rank, the slaves followed, and the minister showed himself very officious in affording them assistance. The ranees placed themselves at the head of the royal body, and the slaves close at its feet. There they cowered, remaining in silent expectation for the fatal moment, when a strong thick mat of reeds being brought, with which the whole were covered, oil was then poured over the mat, the minister and sirdars descended, and the pile was lighted at each corner. In a few moments, the deplorable victims of an abominable and fanatic ceremony had ceased to exist.