10.) A Puzzle: Revival of Sati Under the British?

It is well known that the Moghuls tried to discourage the practice of Satī. S. M. Ikram writes:

Although the Mughals interfered little with Hindu customs, there was one ancient practice which they sought to stop. This was sati, or the custom of widows, particularly those of higher classes, burning themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres. Akbar had issued general orders prohibiting sati and, in one noteworthy case, personally intervened to save a Rajput princess from immolating herself on the bier of her husband. Similar efforts continued to be made in the succeeding reigns. According to the European traveler Pelsart, governors did their best to dissuade widows from immolating themselves, but by Jahangir’s orders were not allowed to withhold their sanction if the woman persisted. Tavernier, writing in the reign of Shah Jahan, observed that widows with children were not allowed in any circumstance to burn, and that in other cases governors did not readily give permission, but could be bribed to do so.[1]

He goes on to say:

Aurangzeb was most forthright in his efforts to stop sati. According to Manucci, on his return from Kashmir in December 1663, he ‘issued an order that in all lands under Mughal control, never again should officials allow a woman to be burnt.’ Manucci adds that ‘the order endures to this day.’ This order, though not mentioned in the formal histories, is recorded in the official guidebooks of the reign. Although the possibility of an evasion of government orders through payment of bribes existed, later European travelers record that sati was not much practiced by the end of Aurangzeb’s reign. As Ovington says in his Voyage to Surat: “Since the Mahometans became Masters of the Indies, this execrable custom is much abated, and almost laid aside, by the orders which nabobs receive for suppressing and extinguishing it in all their provinces. And now it is very rare, except it be some Rajah’s wives, that the Indian woman burn at all.”[2]

Aurangzeb’s rule ended in 1707. The British abolished Sati in 1829. If, according to this account, Sati had virtually died down by the end of Aurangzeb’s reign, how is its recrudescence in the intervening period to be explained? The major political development during this interval was the establishment of the rule of the East India Company, or British Rule, if you will, beginning with the battle of Plassey in 1757.

[1] S. M. Ikram, Muslim Civilization in India (edited by Anslie T. Embree) (New York and London: Colombia University Press, 1965) p. 236.

[2] Ibid., p. 236-237.


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