Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque
From 1600 to the early 1800s, few officials of the English East Indian Company lived with English wives in India. This practice began to change as transportation became easier with the development of steamships. Born in 1794, Fanny Archer married Charles Parks, a writer (clerk) with the Company, in March 1822 and arrived in Calcutta in November 1822. She and her husband lived in India until 1845, mostly in and around Allahabad at the confluence of the Jumna and Ganges Rivers. Fanny Parks wrote her diary as a record for her mother in England and included descriptions of her daily activities and her observations of Indian religion, society, and customs. She never saw a sati ritual but described and commented on a sati cremation that her husband witnessed in Allahabad on November 7, 1828, when sati was legal if voluntary. Consider the similarities and differences in her account of the sati and that which Francois Bernier made in his 1667 letter, and whether gender or the time period in which each was writing made any difference in their attitudes toward the ritual of sati and the Hindu widows who performed sati.
A rich buniya [merchant], a corn chandler, whose house was near the gate of our grounds, departed this life; he was an Hindoo. On the 7th of November, the natives in the bazar were making a great noise with their tom-toms, drums, and other discordant musical instruments, rejoicing that his widow had determined to perform suttee, i. e. to burn on his funeral-pile.
The magistrate sent for the woman, used every argument to dissuade her, and offered her money. Her only answer was, dashing her head on the floor, and saying, “If you will not let me burn with my husband, I will hang myself in your court of justice.” The shastrus [Hindu scriptures] say, “The prayers and imprecations of a suttee are never uttered in vain; the great gods themselves cannot listen to them unmoved.”
If a widow touch either food or water from the time her husband expires until she ascend the pile, she cannot, by Hindoo law, be burned with the body; therefore the magistrate kept the corpse forty-eight hours, in the hope that hunger would compel the woman to eat. Guards were set over her, but she never touched any thing. My husband accompanied the magistrate to see the suttee : about 5000 people were collected together on the banks of the Ganges : the pile was then built, and the putrid body placed upon it; the magistrate stationed guards to prevent the people from approaching it. After having bathed in the river, the widow lighted a brand, walked round the pile, set it on fire, and then mounted cheerfully: the flame caught and blazed up instantly; she sat down, placing the head of the corpse on her lap, and repeated several times the usual form, “Ram, Ram, suttee; Ram, Ram, suttee;” i. e. “God, God, I am chaste.”
As the wind drove the fierce fire upon her, she shook her arms and limbs as if in agony; at length she started up and approached the side to escape. An Hindoo, one of the police who had been placed near the pile to see she had fair play, and should not be burned by force, raised his sword to strike her, and the poor wretch shrank back into the flames. The magistrate seized and committed him to prison. The woman again approached the side of the blazing pile, sprang fairly out, and ran into the Ganges, which was within a few yards. When the crowd and the brothers of the dead man saw this, they called out, “Cut her down, knock her on the head with a bamboo; tie her hands and feet; and throw her in again;” and rushed down to execute their murderous intentions, when the gentlemen and the police drove them back.
The woman drank some water, and having extinguished the fire on her red garment, said she would mount the pile again and be burned.
The magistrate placed his hand on her shoulder (which rendered her impure), and said, “By your own law, having once quitted the pile you cannot ascend again; I forbid it. You are now an outcast from the Hindoos, but I will take charge of you, the Company will protect you, and you shall never want food or clothing.”
He then sent her, in a palanquin, under a guard, to the hospital. The crowd made way, shrinking from her with signs of horror, but returned peaceably to their homes; the Hindoos annoyed at her escape, and the Mussulmans saying, “It was better that she should escape, but it was a pity we should have lost the tamasha (amusement) of seeing her burnt to death.”
Had not the magistrate and the English gentlemen been present, the Hindoos would have cut her down when she attempted to quit the fire; or had she leapt out, would have thrown her in again, and have said, “She performed suttee of her own accord, how could we make her? it was the will of God.” As a specimen of their religion the woman said, “I have transmigrated six times, and have been burned six times with six different husbands; if I do not burn the seventh time, it will prove unlucky for me!” “What good will burning do you?” asked a bystander. She replied, “The women of my husband’s family have all been suttees, why should I bring disgrace upon them? I shall go to heaven, and afterwards re-appear on earth, and be married to a very rich man.” She was about twenty or twenty-five years of age, and possessed of some property, for the sake of which her relatives wished to put her out of the world.
If every suttee were conducted in this way, very few would take place in India. The woman was not much burned, with the exception of some parts on her arms and legs. Had she performed suttee, they would have raised a little cenotaph, or a mound of earth by the side of the river, and every Hindoo who passed the place returning from bathing would have made salam to it; a high honour to the family.
Parks, Fanny. Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque. With an introduction and notes by Esther Chawner. Vol. I. Oxford in Asia Historical Reprints. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1975. First published 1850 by Pelham Richardson.