Blind faith in
death sparks rush of worshippers
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.