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Blind faith in sati
- Pyre death sparks rush of worshippers

TAPAS CHAKRABORTY, The Telegraph 26 May


Banda (Uttar Pradesh), May 25: Ramkumari died on her husband's pyre earlier this month. No one is certain whether it was sati or suicide.

But Banhudarhi, a village near Allahabad, has found its new deity in the 70-year-old woman.

The hamlet with brick houses, electricity and neat roads just 150 km from Uttar Pradesh's second city could become the site of the latest sati temple in Bundelkhand, strewn with such shrines.

Although there is no temple yet, worshippers are trickling in religiously in groups of 50 to 60 every day, braving the scorching sun. They come bearing flowers and incense sticks, even musical instruments. The processions stop in a field a kilometre from Banhudarhi - the burning  ground where Ramkumari climbed onto her husband's pyre on the night on May 7 and killed herself.

It is not known if she committed sati. "We are still trying to probe if  this really was sati or suicide," said Banda district magistrate Dhiraj Sahu. There are even whispers of a land dispute leading to her death.

But villagers of Banhudarhi and the neighbourhood have christened the 4ft x 5ft chabutara (platform) built as a memorial to Ramkumari and her husband Jageswar Tiwari the "sati sthal". They stand before it, hands folded, offer flowers and light candles and incense before shouting Sati
Devi ki jai and melting away.

Some bring along musical instruments and sing hymns.

A group of policemen led by an inspector of Jashpura police station, Surendra Singh Yadav, stands guard. "This is not a sati temple," Yadav insists. "We are not allowing anyone to set up a temple although some villagers tried to do it."

On the afternoon of May 7, when Jageswar, 78, died after a long illness, his wife was not heard crying aloud. Ramkumari locked herself in her room, stepping out for a while only when her husband's body was taken for cremation at 6 pm.

Srikrishna, Jageswar's brother, said: "We returned from the crematorium at
8.30 pm. Bhabi couldn't be found anywhere. We searched for her everywhere, at our friends' homes, near the temple in our house and on the terrace where she used to retire sometimes."

Ramkumari's younger son Rajendra says: "At
9.30 pm, an ominous idea struck us. Could she have gone to the crematorium?"

A neighbour and a relative who went to the burning ground found Ramkumari on the pyre. The fire had almost died and only one leg of the frail woman who was not much known in the village except as the wife of an accountant remained unburnt.

The family thinks Ramkumari must have added wood to her husband's pyre and lit it afresh before climbing on it because by the time they returned from the ground after Jageswar's last rites, the fire had been reduced to a flicker. Later, they found she had left her slippers and her old sari behind in her room. According to the sati custom, widows dress up in new clothes and walk barefoot to the pyre.

No one saw Ramkumari go, although Rajendra's wife and several relatives and neighbours were present in the house.

Banhudarhi is home to about 60 families, most of them Brahmins, like the Tiwaris. The villagers, barring a few, are farmers. The Tiwaris are respected because both of Jageswar and Ramkumari's sons have jobs.

Rajendra, in his early forties, is a primary school teacher and lives in the family home while his elder brother is a senior clerk in a PSU in Delhi. Jageswar himself was an accountant in a government office in Banda, the district bordering Madhya Pradesh in which the village falls.

Neighbouring villages like Gandariha, Amraha Marjita have invisible caste walls that divide people, but sati binds them all. The custom has deep roots in Bundelkhand, a region straddling two states that was once identified with the brave
Jhansi ki Rani and is now infamous as dacoit country.

News of Ramkumari's immolation trickled out only after May 19 when the shradh was held. A probe was ordered after Samajwadi Party's Jamuna Prasad Bose visited the site and drew the attention of the police.

Senior superintendent of police Jackie Ahmed said: "It is true that Ramkumari went to the crematorium on the very night when her husband had been burnt, set up wood on the same pyre and lit it before entering the flames."

However, Ahmed claimed there was no sign of provocation or glorification of sati, the two offences for which action can be taken under the Sati (Prevention) Act. He denied that villagers were worshipping the chabutara.

Sources said the police had initially tried to hush up the case. "On the night of May 7, we had informed the Jashpura police station of what happened," Rajendra claimed. But the inspector warned the family against leaking the news, saying all of them would be jailed.