Sati was an ancient practice among Hindu communities in India Image Credit: Twitter/ Intekhab Alam @Bhola4u

In the Indian state of Rajasthan, Roop Kanwar’s Sati case trial has reached its final stage. Kanwar 32 years ago sat on her husband’s funeral pyre and was burnt to death at Deorala village in Sikar district.

As reported by news website “18-year-old Roop Kanwar remains India’s last known case of Sati, her death stunning a nation and forcing a rewrite of its laws. 32 years later, as the last of the cases associated with her death winds its way through a Jaipur court, two Rajasthan villages keep her alive, in photos, and as a “devi”(goddess) who will be worshipped.”

What is Sati?

Sati was an ancient practice among Hindu communities in India, in which a recently widowed woman, either voluntarily or by force, immolated herself on her deceased husband's pyre.

The woman was then referred to as a Sati, which was also interpreted as a 'chaste woman' or a 'good and devoted wife'.

Due to many instances of shunning and mistreatment, often the only solution for a widow was to practice Sati, as it was considered to be the highest expression of wifely devotion to a dead husband.

The word is derived from Hindu mythology, from the name of the the deity Sati, who immolated herself because she was unable to bear her father Daksha's humiliation of her husband Shiva (a Hindu deity).

Banned in 1829

In December 1829, the Bengal Sati Regulation banning the Sati Pratha (practice) in all jurisdictions of British India was passed by the then Governor-General Lord William Bentinck.

But, this did not stop the practice.

Roop Kanwar’s case

On September 4, 1987, 18-year-old Roop Kanwar was burnt alive on the funeral pyre of her dead husband.

Kanwar’s Sati left the nation shocked and forced lawmakers to rewrite the laws.

Soon after the incident, the Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987 was enacted by the state government with provisions to punish glorification of Sati.

On September 22, 1988, the state police arrested 45 people from the village including her in-laws, for glorifying the practice.

Of the 45, 25 were acquitted in 2004 for lack of evidence, six died while on trial, and five are absconding, while the case is being heard against the remaining nine.

Roop Kanwar’s death: Forced or voluntary?

The Sati prompted questions about whether Roop Kanwar was coerced into the act or if she willingly sat on her husband’s pyre.

@universalgtk, a Twitter user who shared the story asked: “This is disgusting. It’s not even clear if she killed herself willingly. India’s last known case of Sati: ‘She ceased to be a woman… was a Goddess’.”

However, villagers have no doubt that it was an act of true love. They say that on September 4, 1987, after her husband’s death, Roop Kanwar recited the Gayathri Mantra (a prayer) dressed up in solah shringaar (16 adornments) while thousands of villagers from Divrala and neighbouring villages participated, and then did Sati. Folklore goes that her hair or clothes didn’t burn at first, and that she didn’t let out a single scream, according to a report by Indian news website

The Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987 prohibits the construction of temples in the memory of someone who has committed Sati, and empowers District Magistrates to remove them. Yet, in home after home in Divrala are photographs of Roop Kanwar that often share space with other Hindu deities.

“I am proud of what my sister did,” Gopal Singh Rathore, 60, told the Indian Express.

“As per Rajput traditions, it is agad prem (unparalleled love) towards one’s partner that makes one take such a step,” said Rathore, adding that it is this love for which his sister Roop Kanwar, “a devi”, is worshipped.