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.

About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

16 responses to “A witness to suttee”

  1. Scovarnogion says :

    Interesting. It should be remembered that fundamentalist Hinduism (aspects of which are inherited by Sikhism) demands widows become outcaste (and sometimes literally cast out) and with usually no option of re-marriage. In some ways the unveiling of the widow in this case already marked her as dead to the world; she had already lost her status in this incarnation. Watching herself in a mirror was perhaps the last shred of dignity remaining to her. Even today Hindu widows are sometimes regarded as dead even to their own families and entirely reliant on their own children for the most basic support. Occasionally even their own children won’t support them.

    Were the widows of Ranjit Singh originally Sikh or Hindu and are their actions religious or cultural? It appears from Honigberger’s account that both faiths were directly involved in the funeral itself which is unlikely to be typical.

    Whether their fate was as voluntary as suggested is doubtful; for the widows at least there was probably little practical alternative and to commit sati removed the ‘burden’ the widows were considered to put upon others. When it comes to the slaves the motive is less clear; it would be interesting to know whether any were themselves married. Voluntary should also not be confused with free choice; to desire to commit sati for its own sake or religion, e.g., to proceed towards moksha, is very different from having to fulfill cultural norms and tradition.

    • Llewelyn Morgan says :

      Very interesting, thank you. I don’t (yet) know enough about Ranjit Singh to be clear how “orthodox” he is, but my assumption is that the ritual is basically Sikh. The Punjab was religiously diverse, of course, so I guess like the Moghuls the Sikh Empire had to make significant compromises with other religious communities. Agree entirely on “voluntary”: that’s Honigberger’s perception, and for me part of the interest of the piece is a Westerner with a comparatively deep understanding of the local culture doing his best, but failing, really to understand what he’s looking at.

      • Scovarnogion says :

        The practice predates Guru Nanak and hence Sikhism. There are sati stones from across India that demonstrate widespread practice outside the Punjab; these stones apparently celebrating the ‘virtue’ of the widow (though that label might perhaps be Brahminical revisionism?). I haven’t seen the sources but apparently the practice was observed by Greek chroniclers (with Alexander) in the early centuries BC and attempts were later made to outlaw it by the Delhi Sultanate and later the Mughals. It appears therefore to be a (proto-) Hindu custom. Interestingly restrictions imposed by Muslim rulers seem to have been to limit coercion which might suggest that widows were put under pressure to avoid becoming a burden – expedience seems more likely to be a driver of cultural norms than virtue – one less mouth to feed etc.

        Peter Mundy’s account is interesting as the practice seems slightly different although maybe the ‘cottage’ is simply rush mats again and hence suffocation was expected? The explicit prevention of the widow escaping is perhaps telling, though whether fleeing the agony or the populace is perhaps debatable!

        Horrific and pretty spine tingling stuff.

    • anshu1 says :

      Theologically speaking, the practice of Sati is deplored in the worst terms in Sikhism, both in scripture and in dogma. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to estimate that this might be perhaps the only case of Sati involving a Sikh monarch. To understand, why is to simply look into the cultural, religious and political context described in the passage above. Ranjit Singh governed a Kingdom that was largely non Sikh, about half his subjects were Muslims, and out of the other half, perhaps only 30 to 40 percent would have identified as Sikhs separate from Hinduism. For the overwhelming majority of Ranjit Singh’s non Muslim subjects, their faith would have been somewhere between the points of Sikhism and Hinduism. This compacted with the fact that Hinduism provided for the ritual, pomp and circumstance necessary for anointing and legitimizing a monarchy meant, that regularly in all of India, non Hindu monarchs engaged in Hindu rituals, or hired Hindu priests to justify their rule and entrench it with the weight of myth, age and custom that Hinduism brought with it. A further thing to be noted is that 3 out of the 4 wives who comitted Sati with Ranjit Singh were from Orthodox Hindu Rajput artisocratic families where Sati was standard practice for a widowed princess or Queen. This coupled with the fact that Ranjit Singh’s funeral seems to be more administered by Hindu Brahmins, than either Sikh or Muslim clerics seems to indicate that the terrifying end these women reached with the body of their dead husband was the exception to the rule rather than standard practice in Sikh society

      • Llewelyn Morgan says :

        That is very, very interesting. I had wondered about the compatibility of sati with Sikhism, and your explanation is entirely persuasive. Fascinating, thank you.

      • R says :

        Anshu1 is right. None of Ranjit Singh’s Sikh and Muslim ranis and concubines committed sati. But the aristocratic Rajputs, it was a tradition they thought of as entirely their own.

        See this for an interesting account of Rajput attitudes to sati

      • Llewelyn Morgan says :

        Yes, very interesting indeed. Thank you. Confirms my impression that it was all a very meaningful process on the part of the satimatas (if that’s right). I’ve learned such a lot about Ranjit Singh and the Rajputs by posting this!

      • rajanbawa2020 says :

        Yes I agree with Anshu1: The practice of Sati was indeed deplored not only by Sikhs but by many Hindu intellectuals as well (Raja Ram Mohan Roy for example, even though he came much later). As a child, when I first learnt about this deplorable and barbaric practice, I was moved to write the following poem:


        Three vultures stir the deep blue cup,
        A black pall slowly rises up,
        A silent, cruel dying sun;
        Watches well a silent dead son.
        The flames alive; higher they leap,
        The morbid sky’s a filthy sweep,
        A figure lone, lithe, pale and slim;
        Into the hungry flames does swim,
        Burning flesh: A nausea rare,
        The air’s alive with burning hair,
        A wave of horror; crest held high;
        Watches the dead live, the live die!
        ——————– Rajan Bawa

        Typically the burning corpse “writhes” in the flames which is why it is securely bound to the pyre. Hence my allusion to “the dead live”

        “The fire will cause the soft tissues to contract, which causes the skin to tear and the fat and muscles to shrink. The internal organs will also shrink. The muscles contract due to burning and this causes the joints to flex. As a result, burned bodies are often contorted into what’s known as a pugilistic, or boxer pose.” Quote from link below:


    • Konkaneya says :

      I don’t mean to nitpick, but just though I should give my experience nonetheless – “Even today Hindu widows are sometimes regarded as dead even to their own families and entirely reliant on their own children for the most basic support” This statement may have been true *under some subset of cases* pre-1900 or very early 20th century, but is largely untrue** in the present day. The only taboo that perhaps remains is against intermarriage, which is much less common than Muslims, or Christians.

      I say this from some amount of personal family history since (one of) my own great-grandmothers was a widow in a rural part of the Indian west coast in the early 1930s, and she had a largely similar lifestyle [her children were <5] before and after her husband's demise, modulo the small amount of economic hardship which is bound to arise, continuing to live in the same house with the support of her father and brothers-in-law.

      Even in the older days, the condition of being "cast out" did arise, but only in some subset of cases of widowing, specifically
      a) Where the marriage had been an underage marriage and the husband had died pretty early leaving the
      couple childless. In this case, the social stigma was significant since the wife had been "unlucky" in some
      sense, plus there was no pull on the husband's side [they were not familiar, nor were there children]. In
      most of these cases still, the widow ended up living with her brother's or her parents, unless they turned
      her out. And yes, this did give rise to causes for mistreatment and negligence [regardless on which side
      the widow stayed, since her healthcare and in general all expenditure on her could be seen as a burden
      by the brothers wife and children etc etc] . Nonetheless, as a matter of duty one of the sides did have the
      onus of supporting the widow for some extent for some years , and in some houses they were indeed
      treated as valuable members of the family since they provided an additional hand at housework and
      childcare [especially in large-children families]
      b) Where the widow was too old and her children were wary of the care/support required

      In most other cases, there was social expectation for the husband's side to continue supporting the widow [with or without children, but especially in the former case]

      There were some general disqualifications though , basically a) No remarriage b) Shaving of head c) Dressing austerely

      This is not to justify or condone the practices or disqualifications, but just to be more specific about the circumstances in which it prevailed [in my understanding]. The increasing age of marriage, the decreasing average age gap between husband and wife, and the increasing employable skills which women got over the years [not initially at the same level as men – but even sewing, operating flour mills, and the like] eventually closed out the likely loopholes and greatly reduced the extent of discrimination [leaving aside the specific religious reforms to address the specific custom itself]

      ** Since Hindu practice and customs are subject to a large range of variation at various levels, all my statements are probabilistic in nature

  2. Danielle Yardy (@danielleyardy) says :

    An interesting point of comparison might be the early modern interpretations. As you’re in Ox, there’s a wonderful example in MS Rawl. A 315: “Itinerarium Mundi”, Peter Mundy’s travel diary from the C17th. It has a wonderful sketch of sati (and an accompanying description, which can be found transcribed here: http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/16century/topic_2/mundy.htm)

  3. Jung Singh says :

    A Famed general of the Sikh army, Shyam Singh Attariwala’s wife also did sati upon receiving news of her husband’s death.

  4. Kanwal Dhaliwal says :

    This account is also mentioned by Indian historian Sayed Muhammad Lateef in his book History of the Punjab (1889). It not only proves how religions have slaughtered humanity all over the globe in different names and customs, but also that Sikh as a faith group was only an off chute of Brahminism ( Fanatic Hinduism) and remined so up to almost in the beginning of 20th century, which had started as a reform movement within Hinduism in 15th Century.

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