Lake with domed structure and birds
Culture & tradition,  History,  Rajasthan

Tales of death in Jaisalmer and beyond

Deep in the Thar Desert in the far west of Rajasthan is a golden city. A fairy tale fort sits on a ridge overlooking the town, still home to many families whose houses cluster within its sheltering walls.

View of a hilltop fort
Jaisalmer Fort from Gadisar Tank

I loved Jaisalmer’s remoteness, its border-town mentality, and the beauty of its golden architecture. And I enjoyed the personal stories of life (and death) here, as told by our Brahmin guide Gaurav, who lives in the fort. I will talk about life here in a future post; today my focus is on the intriguing (to me) historical customs of sati and jauhar.

Sati memorials

My interest was piqued by the memorials we saw on the shores of Gadisar Lake, also sometimes referred to as Gadisar Tank. This lies on the southern side of town, overlooked by the fort.

Gadisar was built as a reservoir for the city of Jaisalmer by Rawal Jaisal, the first maharaja of Jaisalmer. It was later restored and improved by Maharaja Maharwal Gadsi Singh in about 1400 AD. There are a number of temples and shrines not only around the lake but also out in the middle, and several ghats once (but no longer) used for cremations.

Some of the structures around Gadisar Lake have small memorial stones, beautifully carved. Gaurav told us that these commemorated women who had immolated themselves.

In fact, I have since learned, they commemorate first and foremost the men who died and were cremated at these ghats; but also their wives who practised what is known as sati, self-immolation on the funeral pyre of their husband. A stone with the carving of a man on horseback is a memorial to the man; one of figures with their hands folded is for the wives, with the number of figures showing how many wives performed sati.

Sati was initially a voluntary act on the part of the woman, and considered courageous and heroic. It symbolised closure to a marriage, the final act of a devoted wife as she followed her husband to the afterlife. Later however it became a forced practice. Widows who had no children to support them were considered a burden on society, and were pressurised to consent to sati.

The name comes from Sati, the wife of Lord Shiva, whose father never respected Shiva. In protest against the hatred her father had for her husband, Sati burned herself alive, and while she was burning prayed to be reborn again as Shiva’s wife. She got her prayer and was reincarnated as Parvati. But when Sati burned herself she wasn’t a widow, so the connection to her is somewhat tenuous even though it has been used to justify the practice.

Sati seems a horrific idea to Westerners, and probably these days to most Indians too. However Gaurav told us that it was not so long ago that it was still practised here. His own great grandmother had immolated herself on the death of her husband. I didn’t think to ask about the date, being quite shocked at the revelation. But I would guess from Gaurav’s age that it must have been in the first part of the twentieth century, long after the practice was officially banned in India.

Vyas Chhatri

Small domed structures glowing in sunlight
Sunset at Vyas Chhatri

Later that day Gaurav took us to watch the sunset from the cenotaphs, a popular activity in Jaisalmer. From what I have read it seems that many people visit Bada Bagh, the cenotaphs of the Jaisalmer Royal Family; but Gaurav brought us to these Brahmin cenotaphs instead. The place had a particular meaning for him; he explained that it was here that his great grandmother had performed immolation on the death of her husband, according to the then-tradition, as he had told us that morning by Gadisar Lake.

It is not usual in Hinduism to erect such tombs for the dead, as Hindus believe that their souls will be reborn through reincarnation. But when the Mughals brought Islam to India they brought with it the custom of erecting tombs. This gradually become popular among Hindus too in some regions, especially in these western desert parts. Kings and important people would be honoured and remembered in these ‘tomb gardens’, which were established in prominent spots such as this hillside and were open to the public.

The word chhatri literally means ‘canopy’ or ‘umbrella’, but it is usually applied to the small domed pavilions seen in so much of Mughal architecture. They appear both as decorative pavilions on grand buildings and, as here, as canopies over a cremation site or tomb. This particular group of cenotaphs is named after Rishi Ved Vyas, who wrote the Mahabharata.

This is still an active cremation site, where we saw the remains of fires and wood stacked for future use. I have seen some visitors suggest that this makes it inappropriate to visit as a tourist attraction; but I felt it was no more so than visiting a graveyard, for instance, and the fact that it was suggested by a local with a direct connection to the place reassured me further.

I was thankful afterwards, however, that we didn’t see signs of a very recent cremation and come across its smouldering ashes, as happened to one shocked tourist whose account I read (The creepy beautiful cenotaphs of Rajasthan).

The same blogger also notes with some revulsion that funerals in this part of India at least are still caste-based. Only Brahmins will be cremated here while other castes each have their own site. I find the whole caste system bewildering and somewhat anachronistic. But by this point in our trip I had learned to accept that to many of the locals we spoke with it was an unquestioned way of life, and perhaps even more so to a high-caste Brahmin like Gaurav.

Sati in Jodhpur

In Jodhpur a few days later we saw these handprints on the wall of the Loha Pol (Iron Gate) at the Mehrangarh Fort. There are 31 on one side and five on the other. They were left by the royal queens who immolated themselves on the death of their husbands, the maharajas. According to most sources these ones probably date back to the 1843 death of Maharaja Man Singh, some years after the British had banned the practice. The wives left their handprints on the stone before voluntarily (it is said) climbing on to the funeral pyre, dressed in their wedding finery.

Terracotta coloured handprints on a wall
Sati handprints at the Mehrangarh Fort

The British may have banned sati in 1829, but as these handprints show (and Gaurav can attest), it survived for some time afterwards. There was even, horrifyingly, an incident recorded as recently as 1987, when an 18 year old bride of just eight months burned to death on her husband’s funeral pyre watched, it is said, by a crowd of thousands. Since then the Indian government has come down hard on the practice of sati. Anyone found to be encouraging or supporting it faces life imprisonment or the death penalty.

Chittorgarh

Crumbling wall and temples among green trees
On the ramparts at Chittorgarh

At Chittorgarh, the former Raiput capital, we learned about a related practice, jauhar. This area was the site of many bloody battles, as the warriors of the fort rode out to face their enemies and were often slaughtered. In the regular battles between Mughal invaders and Rajput rulers here, the Rajputs would do anything to avoid being captured alive and enslaved or tortured. So when defeat became inevitable they would ride to their deaths rather than continue to resist the siege; this practice was known as the saka. For the same reason the women would practice jauhar, mass immolation, along with their children, since the Mughals were believed to rape even the bodies of dead women.

View over plains from high ramparts
View from the Sun Gate ~ on the plains below many battles were fought

Chittorgarh is renowned for the three major acts of jauhar committed here, after defeat in three sieges. The first of these sieges was in 1303, and all for the sake of a queen, Padmini. Maharani Padmini was the wife of Rana Ratan Singh, and very beautiful. Hearing of her beauty Ala-ud-din Khilji, the Sultan of Delhi, laid siege to Chittorgarh hoping to capture her.

After seven months of siege, when those inside the fort were close to collapse, Ala-ud-din proposed to spare them if he could be granted one glimpse of Padmini. Ratan Singh agreed but didn’t permit a direct look. Instead a mirror was placed in the building today known as Padmini’s Palace, while she sat on the steps of the small building in the lake, the Jal Mahal. Pretending himself to be satisfied with this, Ala-ud-din Khilji asked Ratan Singh to accompany him to the gate of the fort to see him off; and as the Rajputs were unused to subterfuge, Singh agreed.

Of course it was a trap, and he was captured by the Sultan’s army. Again Ala-ud-din proposed a deal: if Padmini would agree to go with him, her husband would be released. So she hatched a plan, agreeing to go with Singh only if her entourage of servants and companions could accompany her, as befitted a queen. Her wish was granted; but the palanquins that went with her to the gates of the fort held not maidservants but soldiers, who attacked the invading troops.

Defeated Ala-ud-din retreated, only to return again the following year with more and better soldiers. This time Chittorgarh could not hold out and the Rajputs were overpowered. Their warriors died on the battlefield and Padmini led the women of the fort into the burning pyres in the first of the three acts of jauhar to be performed here.

The other instances of jauhar followed the sieges of 1528 and 1568. Although similar to the practice of sati it differs from it in that in the latter a widow or concubine committed suicide as a sign of devotion to her dead husband and grief at his death. Meanwhile jauhar was usually a mass act, motivated by a desire to avoid being captured and raped by the invading Muslims; that is, to prevent something happening rather than a response to something that had happened.

Reflection

I found these tales of immolation in ancient, and not so ancient, India both disconcerting but also strangely compelling. Maybe it was simply the fact that it seemed so alien to Western culture? Perhaps I was haunted by these extraordinary women and these memorials of their actions? Or perhaps it was the personal connection I felt, listening to Gaurav’s account of his great grandmother’s own sati?

I visited Rajasthan in 2015

18 Comments

  • Anonymous

    Another brilliant piece, Sarah.

    Although it is 30 years this month since I was in India I still remember it fondly and I do think that Jaiselmer was my favourite place there. I remember coming in on an overnight train and watching the light of the sunrise making the Fort and the rock glow red. It truly was magical.

  • Easymalc

    VT was a great website for all sorts of reasons, but it never really allowed anybody to express their travel experiences in such a way that you have managed to capture here Sarah. Superb.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you so much Malcolm, I really appreciate this coming from such an experienced and very readable blogger 😀 You’re right, blogging is much better than VT for this sort of ‘story-telling’, whereas VT was better for practical advice. As you can tell, I’m enjoying myself with all of this!

      • Easymalc

        I’m really pleased, but not surprised, that you’ve found a platform for your experiences and obvious photographic skills, It’s also good to see that you’re building up a nice few followers 🙂

  • starship VT

    I found your post explaining sati and juahar both interesting and disturbing at the same time, but certainly educational. I understand it was once an accepted practice in India, but I am glad sati was finally banned for good. Sometime ago, but definitely during the current century, I read about disgruntled bridegrooms in India immolating or critically injuring their brides when the bride’s family’s dowry promise was broken or the dowry considered insufficient — this is often known as “dowry violence” or “bride burning.” It’s difficult for me to reconcile the mindset of families who praise widows for performing sati to show devotion to dead husbands while even in this century living vindictive husbands display just the opposite and still kill or disfigure their wives based on their dissatisfaction with their wives’ dowry. It’s sad. That being said, Sarah, I think your photos are marvelous!!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      It is sad Sylvia. There are still a lot of places around the world where among some communities at least a notion that wives/women are more like possessions than people persists and it needs to be challenged. The prevalence of FGC in Africa is another such issue – appalling.

  • SandyL

    Very interesting Sarah. I enjoy your pictures but appreciate you background narrative even more.

    One should never be critical of another’s culture but the caste system is one which I cannot understand. It seems to be a foundation of some pretty horrific practices, the worst of which seem to be against women.

    On the other hand, your photos remind me of the awesome history in India. It’s amazing to think of these ancient kingdoms whose buildings still exist. I can’t imagine the glass & steel towers in my downtown core lasting as well, hundreds of years from now.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Sandy, I’m so pleased you found this interesting. I agree with you about the caste system. I believe there are plenty of people inside the country trying to modernise it, at least. But as you can imagine perhaps, having a Brahmin as guide here meant that it wasn’t the time or place to challenge it ourselves!

  • wetanddustyroads

    I agree with you – though it is hard to read about these practices of immolation, it is also astonishing that it was done with such firm belief.
    Your photo’s are just beyond beautiful (I don’t know if there is such an expression), but it is truly special. Thanks for a great post and your amazing pictures 🌸.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Ah yes, I was about to mention that 😆 We also went to Goa many years ago, which was partly a beach holiday but we also did some exploring – a night at a wilderness camp in the interior of the state, and an overnight trip to Karnataka by train. I’m not sure I’ll get around to writing that one up, but I will post more about both Kerala and Rajasthan in due course. I enjoyed both of those trips but if I had to pick it would be Rajasthan. I loved the mania of its roads, the stunning forts, the desert, the architecture. I would love to go back to see more of the north one day!

          • margaret21

            I’ve reached the age when getting decent travel insurance is tricky. Though when I was hospitalised in Chennai, my 3 day bill was £28.

          • Sarah Wilkie

            Ah yes, that’s an issue – it can really push the price of travelling up, I know. But that hospital stay sounds like a bargain! I paid more than that (around £50) when I broke my foot in Marrakesh, and all I needed then in the way of treatment was a couple of x-rays and a foot and lower leg in plaster 😒

  • margaret21

    In his year before university, my son worked in a school in Uttar Pradesh before going travelling, and he visited each of the sites you talk about today. He told some of the same tales, but has far fewer photos than you, so tit’s good to see yours. I didn’t go to the north at all on my one visit to India so I’m eager to see if you travelled in the south at all.

Do let me know what you think - I'd love to hear from you

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