The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Nov 25, 2008

Hodges in India

[William Hodges, landscape painter of note, member of James Cook's Pacific expeditions, travelled across India in the 1780s, the first Western landscape artist to have visited the country. He wrote a well-received book on his travels when he returned to London (excerpted and commended in the European Magazine and London Review of April 1793), from which I excerpt the following passages, where he deals with suttee, an act that was even then horrific to the Enlightenment mind. (For an appraisal of the man's artistic and intellectual endeavours, the recent book by G.H.R. Tillotson, The Artificial Empire: The Indian Landscapes of William Hodges appears to be a good reference.)]

While I was pursuing my professional labours in Benares, I received information of a ceremony which was to take place on the banks of the river, and which greatly excited my curiosity. I had often read and repeatedly heard of that most horrid custom amongst, perhaps, the most mild and gentle of the human race, the Hindoos ; the sacrifice of the wife on the death of the husband, and that by a means from which nature seems to shrink with the utmost abhorrence, by burning. Many inftances of this practice have been given by travellers ; those whom I have met with only mention it as taking place among the highest classes of society, whose vanity united with superstitious prejudices might have dictated the circumftance ; and I confess I could not entertain any other ideas, when I observed the theatrical parade that seemed to attend it. Mr. Holwell, in his curious work entitled Historical Events relative to India, thus accounts for this more than inhuman practice :
" At the demise of the mortal part of the Hindoo great law-giver and prophet, Bramah, his wives, inconsolable for his loss, resolved not to survive him, and offered themselves voluntary victims on his funeral pile. The wives of the chief Rajahs, the first officers of the state, being unwilling to have it thought that they were deficient in fidelity and affection, followed the heroic example set them by the wives of Bramah. The Bramins, a tribe then newly established by their great legislator, pronounced and declared, that the spirits of those heroines immediately ceased from their transmigrations, and had entered the first boboon of purification : it followed, that their wives claimed a right of making the same sacrifice of their mortal forms to God, and the manes of their deceased husbands. The wives of every Hindoo caught the enthusiastic (now pious) flame. Thus the heroic acts of a few women brought about a general custom. The Bramins had given it the (lamp of religion, and instituted the forms and ceremonials that were to accompany the sacrifice, subject to restriction, which leave it a voluntary act of glory, piety, and fortitude."
The author proceeds to state expressly, that he has been present at many of these sacrifices, and particularly and minutely records one that happened on the 4th of February, 1742-3, near to Coslimbuzar, of a young widow between seventeen and eighteen years of age, leaving at so early an age three children, two boys and a girl; the eldest he mentions as not then being four years of age. This infatuated heroine was strongly urged to live, for the future care of her infants ; but notwithstanding this, though the agonies of death were painted to her in the strongest and most lively terms, me, with a calm and resolved countenance, put her finger into the fire, and held it there a considerable time ; she then with one hand put fire in the palm of the other, sprinkled incense on it, and fumigated the Bramins. She was then given to understand, by some of her friends, that she would not be permitted to burn herself, and this intimation appeared to give her deep affliction for a few moments ; after which she resolutely replied, that death was in her own power, and that if she was not allowed to burn, according to the principles of her cast, me would starve herself. Her friends, finding her thus peremptory ,were obliged at last to consent to the dreadful sacrifice of this lady, who was of high rank.

The person whom I saw was of the Bhyse (merchant) tribe or cast; a class of people we would naturally suppose exempt from the high and impetuous pride of rank, and in whom the natural defire to preferve life would in general predominate, undiverted from its proper course by a prospect of posthumous fame. I may add, that these motives are greatly strengthened by the exemption of this class from that infamy with which the refusal is inevitably branded in their superiors. Upon my repairing to the spot, on the banks of the river, where the ceremony was to take place, I found the body of the man on a bier, and covered with linen, already brought down and laid at the edge of the river. At this time, about ten in the morning, only a few people were assembled, who appeared destitute of feeling at the catastrophe that was to take place; I may even say that they displayed the most perfect apathy and indifference. After waiting a considerable time the wife appeared, attended by the Bramins, and music, with some few relations. The procession was slow and solemn ; the victim moved with a steady and firm step ; and, apparently with a perfect composure of countenance, approached close to the body of her husband, where for some time they halted. She then addressed those who were near her with composure, and without the least trepidation of voice or change of countenance. She held in her left hand a cocoa nut, in which was a red colour mixed up, and dipping in it the fore-finger of her right hand she marked those near her, to whom she wished to shew the last act of attention. As at this time I stood close to her, she observed me attentively, and with the colour marked me on the forehead. She might be about twenty-four or five years of age, a time of life when the bloom of beauty has generally fled the cheek in India ; but still she preserved a sufficient share to prove that she must have been handsome : her figure was small, but elegantly turned ; and the'form of her hands and arms was particularly beautiful. Her dress was a loose robe of white flowing drapery, that extended from her head to the feet. The place of sacrifice was higher up on the bank of the river, a hundred yards or more from the spot where we now stood. The pile was composed of dried branches, leaves, and rushes, with a door on one side, and arched and covered on the top: by the side of the door stood a man with a lighted brand. From the time the woman appeared to the taking up of the body to convey it into the pile, might occupy a space of half an hour, which was employed in prayer with the Bramins, in attentions to those who stood near her, and conversation with her relations. When the body was taken up she followed close to it, attended by the chief Bramin ; and when it was deposited in the pile, she bowed to all around her, and entered without speaking. The moment she entered, the door was closed ; the fire was put to the combustibles, which instantly flamed, and immense quantities of dried wood and other matters were thrown upon it. This last part of the ceremony was accompanied with the shouts of the multitude, who now became numerous, and the whole seemed a mass of confused rejoicing. For my part I felt myself actuated by very different sentiments : the event that I had been witness to was such, that the minutest circumstance attending it could not be erased from my memory ; and when the melancholy which had overwhelmed me was somewhat abated, I made a drawing of the subjeft, and from a picture since painted the annexed plate was engraved.

In other parts of India, as the Carnatic, this dreadful custom is accompanied in the execution of it with still greater horror. It is asserted, that they dig a pit, in which is deposited a large quantity of combustible matter, which is set on fire, and the body being let down, the victim throws herself into the flaming mass. In other places, a pile is raised extremely high, and the body with the wife is placed upon it, and then the whole is set on fire. Whatever is the means, reason and nature so revolt at the idea, that, were it not a well known and well authenticated circumstance, it would hardly obtain credit. In truth, I cannot but confess, that some degree of incredulity was mingled with curiosity on this occasion ; and the desire of ascertaining so extraordinary a fact was my greatest inducement to be a spectator.

-- William Hodges, R. A. Travels in India during the years 1780, 1781, 1782, & 1783, J. Edwards, London, 1793 (Chapter V).


munish said...

Nice informative post.

Maddy said...

i really have my doubts about the 'sati'. it was not so widespread and only some high caste Rajputs followed it i believe, what say you?

Harkabir said...

Nice post Feanor, I like all things related to 18th century East India Company and of course Hodges and Zoffany were the most famous painters of this time.

I think the myriad and highly fractious nature of Hinduism does lend itself to generalizations, exceptions and exceptions to exceptions. We know that the idea of Hinduism is a product of a process of forced conformity first imposed around the Enlightenment and hence this unnatural clubbing together resulted in too many generalizations and too many wrong perceptions.

Some practises were followed in all regions, others only in a few and yet others only in regions separated by hundreds of millions and with no apparent connections.

Perhaps Sati was followed only in some sections and certain geographic pockets. My view is that, by the end of the 18th century, Sati was definitely wide spread amongst the Rajputs be they from Raputana, Awadh, Kanpur, Punjab or anywhere else. It was perhaps even well established in some of the other factions in Hindustan (the are north of the Chambal river and south of the Himalayas).

Fëanor said...

Maddy: I'm afraid I have not much idea about the prevalence of sati. It appears to have scandalised public opinion in Europe sufficiently that people ventured out to see it for themselves, as evidenced by this note from Hodges (and the related tale in Jules Verne's Round the World in 80 Days). I must say that the tale of its origins as recounted by Hodges is also new to me.

Harkabir: thanks for your note and clarifications on the practise. I expect I'll need to do quite a bit more reading before I can comment knowledgeably on the topic.

Harkabir said...

Good friend please continue, you're doing a great job. The direction your posts take is more important than the getting the details exactly right.
And of course equally important are your views and opinions. That's what blogging is about isn't it.

And yes I think you are absolutely correct when you say that it was quite the 'in-thing' for Europeans to get a first hand account of Sati.

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