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On India's back roads, sati revered

The ancient Hindu tradition of a widow burning alive on her husband's funeral pyre defies the modern era.

December 10, 2006|Tim Sullivan | Associated Press

BANIYANI, INDIA — It's an unused cornfield at the edge of an isolated village, an empty plot of earth that the police flattened with a backhoe and hosed down with a water tanker.

But villagers take off their shoes when they step on the field. They do it as a sign of respect for what happened there a couple of months ago, and to honor the woman they say became a goddess that afternoon when she chose to be burned alive.

"It has become a holy place, and people want to worship there," said Daya Ram, an aged man who looks battered by decades of labor. "The police won't let them."

That, authorities say, is no surprise. They see nothing holy about what happened in Baniyani.

"It's murder," said Chanchal Shekhar, the region's top police official. "It's blatantly a murder."

The reality is something more complicated, a tangle of traditions, laws and beliefs where clear explanations are anything but blatant. Because more than 175 years after India's former colonial rulers outlawed sati, an ancient Hindu practice whereby a widow burns herself alive on her husband's funeral pyre, it remains powerfully resonant in pockets of rural India -- and a profound embarrassment to the country's increasingly urbanized elite.

Urban and rural

India remains, in many ways, two countries -- a place that is both urban and rural, modern and pre-industrial, educated and illiterate. Sati is a reflection of how vast that divide can be.

Though sati cases are rare today -- India normally has one every year or so -- recent months have seen a surge: At least three widows have died on their husbands' pyres since August, and another was stopped from burning herself to death when villagers intervened.

Experts can find no explanation for the increase. It's possible that media reports and word-of-mouth lead to a copycat effect.

But across rural India, it's easy to find people who revere sati as the ultimate demonstration of womanly honor, devotion and piety. Thousands of sati temples have been erected over the centuries, many carefully preserved and still in daily use.

"India's modernization has not really reached out to our far-and-beyond villages. It's very urban, it's very metropolitan, it's very middle class," said Ranjana Kumari, a prominent women's rights activist in New Delhi, the capital, about 400 miles north of here. "We are many cultural nations within one nation."

If this nation of more than a billion people appears increasingly modern, a country of software developers and outsourcing firms, the reality is different for most people. More than two-thirds of Indians still live in villages such as Baniyani, and most depend on agriculture.

The country seems to thrive on contradictions: India produces more than 300,000 engineers a year, but 700 million Indians lack access to toilets. Top Indian universities are among the world's most competitive, but nearly 40% of adults are illiterate. India now has Ferrari dealerships, but only 6% of rural homes have telephones.

Women's issues are a big concern. Thousands of young brides are believed to be killed annually over dowry disputes, and statistics indicate that in a society that prefers to have boys, abortion of female fetuses has left the country with 10 million "missing" girls. It's not all about education and modernization: Some of the country's wealthiest communities have the biggest imbalances.

But to modern India, sati is a reminder of what it is trying to leave behind, and it reacted with scorn and shame to what happened in Baniyani. "Barbaric," one news report called it. "Medieval," said another. Politicians hailed the police for arresting 13 villagers, including the four sons of Kariya Bai, the woman who died. For weeks afterward, a police detachment stayed in the village to ensure the cremation site was not turned into a shrine. In India, even glorifying sati is illegal.

In Baniyani, though, tales of sati have been passed down for generations, and the story of what happened here is told with reverence.

"I've heard that police say it was a murder, but that's not true," said Ram Bali, a 51-year-old farmer walking into the village late one afternoon, exhausted from a day hacking needle-filled brush from nearby fields. "Kariya Bai has become a saint."

Stunned neighbors

This much, at least, most everyone agrees on: A frail woman about 95 years old, Bai lived with her husband and sons in a mud-walled house barely 15 feet wide. In mid-September, Bai's husband died after a long illness.

He had asked to be cremated on his own land. So his sons built a pyre of dried cow dung in the cornfield and set his body atop.

That's where the disagreement starts.

Bai, her neighbors say, was a quiet, uneducated woman who had given birth to five sons, suffered through the death of one, and watched the others grow to be laborers or small-time farmers. For years, she had talked about how she did not expect to live long past her ailing husband.

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