By Shaurya Kshatri
Kathmandu, July 10: On May 5, 1806, on the bank of the Salinadi rivulet at Sankhu, Maharani Raj Rajeshwari Devi, the Queen Consort of Nepal burnt alive on a funeral pyre. Historians believe that the queen was forced against her will into practising the ancient ritual of sati. The episode has also been listed as a tragic incident of superstitious tradition in Michael Farquhar’s book ‘Bad Days in History’.
Like Queen Rajeshwari countless women throughout history have been condemned to this outrageous custom.
Instances of sati date as far back as ancient Hindu literature. The Mahabharata records at least three events of self-immolation, that of Pandu’s wife Madri, that of Vasudeva’s four wives, and the self-immolation of Krishna’s wives after his death.
In his comprehensive article, ‘Sati Custom in Nepal: A Historical Perspective’, historian Basudevlal Das of Thakur Ram Multiple Campus traces some of the first instances of the archaic ritual.
During his research, Das stumbled upon a passage in Rigveda that hints at Sati pratha. To a widow who is with her deceased husband on his funeral pyre, the passage says: “rise up, abandon this dead man and rejoin the living.”
The passage in the Rigveda emboldens the fact that the sati system was initially a voluntary act, as per Das, which later increasingly started to become a forced practice. In the context of Nepal, as well, scholars argue that the sati system wasn’t strictly enforced in ancient Nepal, especially during the Lichchhavi era. According to Jayanta Acharya, a prominent scholar and author of several articles on Nepal’s cultural history and grammar, the sati system is referenced in the inscription of King Manadev at the Changu Narayan temple in the north-eastern corner of Kathmandu Valley. Dating back to 464 AD, the inscription is said to be the earliest record of the said practice in all of the Indian Subcontinent. Even foreign scholars have recognised it as the first inscriptional evidence of the practice.
Apparently, Queen Rajyavati, mother of King Manadeva, following the death of her husband King Dharmadeva was willing to commit voluntary self-immolation. However, the inscription reads that King Mandeva had indeed forbidden his mother from burning herself alive. “It is unlikely that King Manadeva, who ruled ca. 464-505 AD, would have enforced the sati system since he himself stopped his mother from doing so,” explains Acharya.
Historian Das also agrees with Acharya adding that the system started to increasingly become more sinister, and authoritative from the Malla period onwards from the 15th to the 19th century. Following the death of then King Pratap Malla in 1674 AD, nine of his wives were burnt alive in the funeral pyre.
The evil practice continued to prevail even until the time of the Ranas before it was finally uprooted from contemporary Nepali society in 1920 AD.
Social reform work against sati began in the 1850s during the time of Jung Bahadur Rana. He made a set of rules to control and discourage the appalling practice by banning women aged below 16 years to commit sati. Similarly, if the woman had more than one husband, or if she was pregnant, sati was illegal. Ironically enough when Jung Bahadur died on February 25, 1877, all of his three wives committed sati.
Forty three years later, the custom was finally abolished on July 8, 1920 (Ashad 25, 1977 BS) by then Rana Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher.
Exactly 101 years has passed since then and still, one important figure in the abolishment of sati remains to be left out from the narrative. Yogmaya Neupane, an activist and ascetic is said to have played a prominent role in lobbying against the ills of sati pratha. For a long time, Neupane has remained unheard of among the masses.
In 1980 while travelling up the Arun River Valley, US-based anthropologist and journalist Barbara Nimri Aziz encountered a small settlement of women ascetics who disclosed the hitherto suppressed history of their departed Guru from Bhojpur, Yogmaya Neupane.
Nepali author Neelam Karki Niharika has also penned a Madan Puraskar-winning biography of the late activist. “Yogmaya is this fascinating figure who constantly challenged the autocratic Rana regime. She fought against societal norms that didn’t allow widows to remarry,” expresses Niharika.
Niharika claims that Neupane along with her 67 disciples committed mass suicide by hurling themselves into the Arun River sometime in 1941 as a form of protest against the Rana regime,
It is believed that Neupane herself was a widow, who established Nari Samiti in 1918 AD to strongly advocate against the sati system and fight against injustices.
Widows have always had to bear the brunt of social stigma in Nepal. Even to this day, prejudices are still rampant against widows, 101 years after the abolishment of sati pratha, as per Lily Thapa, founder of Women for Human Rights (WHR) that advocates rights for single women.
Things are looking up though, believes activist Thapa. “The recent fiscal budget has the provision of providing Rs. 2,660 as widow allowance while also encouraging capacity development and empowerment programmes,” she shares.
Now the Constitution and the new civil code both address widows’ property rights and set penalties for a failure to transfer property to widows.
– The Rising Nepal