Voluntary punishment of Gentoo widows on the death of their husbands
IT has been our painful duty to record so many dreadful instances of women murdering, and otherwise ill-treating their husbands, that our readers will almost be inclined to doubt the fact, that there are parts of this habitable globe, where females, so far from lifting a hand against, will not even survive the loss of their partner in this life; but offer themselves voluntary sacrifices on his funeral pile.
To relate the mode of punishment in different parts of the world, is a prominent feature in the proposals for the publication of this work; and though it may be observed, that the law of the East itself inflicts no penalty in such cases, yet custom, from time immemorial, has devoted the widowed victim to the flames. A description, therefore, of a punishment self-inflicted, will not, we presume, prove the least acceptable part of our volumes. This we have been able to accomplish, from meeting with a valuable work on the historical events relative to the provinces of Bengal, and the empire of Hindostan,, by the late J. Z. Holwell who resided in that country.
Among other historical facts, Mr. Holwell gives the following circumstantial account of the burning of a Gentoo lady, with her husband's body, of which, with several other English officers, he was an eye-witness.
"At five of the clock in the morning, of the 4th of February, 1742-3, died Rhaam Chund Pundit, of the Mahahrattar tribe, aged twenty- eight years; his widow, aged between seventeen and eighteen, as soon as he expired, disdaining to wait the term allowed her for reflection, immediately declared to the Bramins and witnesses present, her resolution to burn; as the family was of no small consideration, all the merchants of Cossimbuzaar, and her relations, left no arguments unassayed to dissuade her from it. Lady Russel, with the tenderest humanity, sent her several messages to the same purpose; the infant state of her children (two girls and a boy, the eldest not four years of age) and the terrors and pain of the death she sought, were painted to her in the strongest and most lively colours; -- she was deaf to all -- she gratefully thanked Lady Russel, and sent her word, "She had now nothing to live for," but recommended her children to her protection.
When the torments of burning were urged in terrorem to her, she, with a resolved and calm countenance, put her finger into the fire, and held it there a considerable time; she then, with one hand, put fire into the palm of the other, sprinkled incense on it, and fumigated the Bramins.
The consideration of her children, left destitute of a parent, was again urged to her. She replied, "He that made them would take care of them." She was then given to understand, she should not be permitted to burn; this, for a short space, seemed to give her deep affliction, but soon recollecting herself, she told them, "death was in her power, and that if she was not allowed to burn, according to the principles of her cast, she would starve herself."-- Her friends finding her peremptory and resolved, were obliged at last to assent.
The body of the deceased was carried down to the water side, early the following morning; the widow followed about ten o'clock, accompanied by three very principal Bramins, her children, parents, and relations, and a numerous concourse of people, The order of leave for her burning did not arrive from Hosseyn Khan Fouzdaar of Morshadabad, until after one, and it was then brought by one of the Soubah's own officers, who had orders to see that she burnt voluntary.
[Note: The Gentoos are not permitted to burn, without an order from the Mahometan government, and this permission is commonly made a perquisite of.]
The time they waited for the order was employed in praying with the Bramins, and washing in the Ganges. As soon as it arrived, she retired, and stayed for the space of half an hour in the midst of her female relations, amongst whom was her mother; she then divested herself of her bracelets and other ornaments, and tied them in a cloth, which hung like an apron before her, and was conducted by her female relations to one corner of the pile. On the pile was an arched arbour, formed of dry sticks, boughs, and leaves, open only at one end, to admit her entrance. In this the body of the deceased was deposited, his head at the end opposite to the opening. At the corner of the pile, to which she had been conducted, the Bramin had made a small fire, round which she and the three Bramins sat for some minutes, one of them gave into her hand a leaf of the bale tree (the wood commonly consecrated to form part of the funeral pile) with sundry things on it, which she threw into the fire; one of the others gave her a second leaf, which she held over the flame, whilst he dropped three times some ghee on it, which melted and fell into the fire, (these two operations were preparatory symbols of her approaching dissolution by fire) and whilst they were performing this, the third Bramin read to her some portions of the Aughtorrah Bhade (a periphrastic comment on the Shasta), and asked her some questions, on which she answered with a steady and serene countenance; but the noise was so great, we could not understand what she said, although we were within a yard of her. These over, she was led with great solemnity three times round the pile, the Bramins reading before her; when she came the third time to the small fire, she stopped, took the rings off her toes and fingers, and put them to her other ornaments; here she took a solemn majestic leave of her children, parents, and relations; after which, one of the Bramins dipt a large wick of cotton in some ghee, and gave it, ready lighted, into her hand, and led her to the open side of the arbour; there all the Bramins fell at her feet: after she had blessed them, they retired, weeping; by two steps she ascended the pile, and entered the arbour. On her entrance she. made a profound reverence at the feet of the deceased; and advanced and seated herself by his head; she looked, in silent meditation, on his face, for the space of a minute, then set fire to the arbour in three places; observing that she had set fire to leeward, and that the flames blew from her, instantly seeing her error, she rose and set fire to windward, and resumed her station. Ensign Daniel with his cane separated the grass and leaves on the windward side, by which means we had a distinct view of her as she sat. With what dignity and undaunted a countenance she set fire to the pile the last time, and assumed her seat, can only be conceived, for words cannot convey a just idea of her. The pile being of combustible matters, the supporters of the roof were presently consumed, and it fell in upon her."
In a short account of the execution of Elizabeth Herring, on the 13th of September, 1773, for the murder of her husband, by stabbing him in the throat with a knife, we find a minute description of the mode of punishment for the commission of this horrid crime.
"Mrs Herring was placed on a stool, something more than two feet high; and a chain being placed under her arms, the rope round her neck was made fast to two spikes, which being driven through a post against- which she stood; when her devotions were ended, the stool was taken from under her, and she was strangled. When she had hung about fifteen minutes, the rope was burnt, and she sunk until the chain supported her, forcing her hands up to a level with her face, and the flame being furious, her body was soon consumed. The crowd of spectators was so immensely great, that it was a long time before the faggots could be placed for the execution."