My most memorable encounter with the tradition of Sati was in the enchanting novel on the Raj, The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye. The gripping tale of Ashton (Ashok) and Princess Anjuli, of unconsummated love and a loveless marriage climaxed with Ashton shooting the terrified princess on the funeral pyre of her husband, the dead king, to save her from the agony of immolation.
The Egyptians buried alive the wives and servants of the dead Pharaohs so that they may serve their master in the afterlife. The ancient Greeks practiced the ritual of sati. It is also said to have been practiced in Ancient China. Aristobulus of Cassandreia, a Greek historian and engineer who traveled to India with the expedition of Alexander the Great, recorded the practice of sati at the great city of Taxila, now in ruins and located in western Punjab in Pakistan.
Painting of woman on funeral pyre by
There were many social compulsions as to why such an unthinkable act from today's perspective was committed throughout the ages with clockwork regularity. At times of war the womenfolk of the dead warriors would not allow themselves to be taken prisoner by their enemies for a future of abuse. In India this was often true when the winning side was Muslim warriors considered to be worse than untouchable by the high caste Rajput Hindus. Another reason is the social stigma attached to widowhood in the Hindu society. Life ended abruptly with the death of a husband. There was no second marriage, no honour to salvage but only a life of discrimination and penury awaited the unfortunate widows. It was better to die in one last fiery hurrah! Then there was filial coercion, the pressure put on by relatives on the widows to continue a time-honoured tradition considered to be an honour for the dead husband especially those coming from noble houses. Any wife not willing to commit sati would not be considered chaste but seen as a duplicitous suspect in the eyes of society. Tongues would wag. Lastly, politics would play a major role as to who would commit sati as attested to by what unfolded in Nepal 200 years ago.
Hindus of the ruling Kshetriya castes of India took refuge in the Himalayan valleys throughout the Middle Ages having lost their ground to Moslem conquerors. The ruling families of modern Nepal, the Shahs and the Ranas, came from these same roots and brought the tenets of Orthodox Hinduism to Nepal untainted, in their eyes, from the polluting influences of the Moslem conquerors.
In the history of modern Nepal we find many instances of royal widows committing sati on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands, the famous case being that of Queen Raj Rajeshwori Devi the consort of King Rana Bahadur Shah. After the consolidation of modern Nepal by grandfather King Prithivi Narayan Shah the first great crisis to hit the dynasty can be attributed to the whimsical fancy of the spoilt baby king. When Rana Bahadur Shah came of age he was quickly married twice as per custom, firstly to Queen Raj Rajeshwori Devi a princess from Gulmi and secondly to Queen Subarna Prabha from Gorakhpur. Getting a male heir to the throne was the first imperative. The second queen produced a male heir Prince Ranoddyat but soon after King Rana Bahadur Shah was smitten by a Tirhut Brahmin widow of great beauty named Kantabati who was visiting Kathmandu Valley for the festival of Maha Shivratri. Girvana Yuddha Bikram Shah was born from this union.
Kantabati was elevated to the rank of Bada Maharani and, against the wishes of the court, Rana Bahadur named Girvana his younger son the heir to the throne. Unconvinced that his will of succession would be carried out after his death, King Rana Bahadur abdicated the throne in favor of the crown prince and a 2 year old baby Girvana Yuddha was crowned king in 1799 A.D. The old king became an ascetic in the style of Nirgunananda Swami. Senior Queen Mother Raj Rajeshwori Devi became the Regent of Nepal. Shortly thereafter in 1802 A.D. the courtiers led by Damodar Pandey the hero of the Nepal-Tibet wars prevailed upon the ex-king to exile himself to Benaras and the Queen Regent accompanied him. The Junior Queen Subarna Prabha became Regent of Nepal with the strongman of the Nepalese army Kazi Damodar Pandey firmly behind her. The junior queen would rule for 2 years 1802 -1804 A.D. until the return of the ex-king from exile.
Ex-king Rana Bahadur Shah prevailed upon the British to let him return to Nepal and take control over his lost kingdom. Damodar Pandey would lose his head and Junior Queen Subarna Prabha would be arrested and imprisoned. Queen Raj Rajeshwori returned to assume the regency. It was soon after on the 26th of April 1806 the ex-king was killed in a full Durbar by his half brother Chautariya Sher Bahadur Shah. After the death of Damodar Pandey another strongman General Bhimsen Thapa had taken control of the Nepalese army and he took this opportunity to finally rid the court of all competition. The Pandey clan had been eclipsed after the death of Damodar Pandey and the incarceration of the junior queen. The youngest wife of the ex-king Lalit Tripura Sundari was only a teenage girl but she was a grand-niece of Bhimsen Thapa and elevating her to the rank of Regent of Nepal to rule on behalf of her step-son Girvana Yuddha would be the masterstroke that would consolidate Bhimsen's power. There was only one problem remaining - the Queen Regent Raj Rajeshwori Devi.
The ancient ritual of Sati would rid the senior queen mother and her cohorts paving the way for General Bhimsen Thapa's supremacy. It is said that Bhimsen forced Queen Raj Rajeshwori Devi to commit Sati ten days after the cremation of her husband on the banks of Sali Nadi rivulet in Sundarijal on 5th May, 1806 A.D. It is such a historical anomaly that two remaining queens of King Rana Bahadur Shah, Subarna Prabha and Lalit Tripura Sundari, escaped this traumatic fate the senior queen succumbed to. While Subarna Prabha remained imprisoned, Lalit Tripura Sundari became the new Regent of Nepal. The uncontested era of Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa dawned in Nepal. It was in no small measure to the ancient tradition of sati.