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The Predicament of Women in Ancient India: Widow Burning in Bali

Published: 21.06.2008
Updated: 02.07.2015

The island of Bali is to this day culturally a Hindu territory (the remaining part of Indonesia being now Muslim). For the Balinese widow burning we have to rely on WEINBERGER and FISCH. The latter also informs us about the history of the custom (Bali and Java, widow burning since the 6th c.; FISCH 195) and about the available sources and publications (FISCH 193-196).

Widow burning was stepwise prohibited in Bali by the Dutch government, and this policy came to an end in 1904. The last case with traditional publicity (two widows of a local ruler) was in 1903. After the prohibition the custom came gradually to an end (FISCH 211-212).

WEINBERGER 1-13, FISCH 193-212: The two descriptions (W. and F.) are mainly based on an extensive letter by PIERRE DUBOIS (1830). See WEINBERGER 1-2, 221; and FISCH 195, footnote 12. FISCH has used DUBOIS' manuscript, but also mentions VAN DER KRAAN. Our sources are not adequate. We hope the reader will excuse the loose form of the following text.

The cremation of the widow(s) followed not immediately after the death of the ruler (or princely husband in general) but sometimes months or years later.

One had to wait for an auspicious day to be fixed by the Brahmans. The self-immolation was voluntary, and when the women faced instant death they were generally (though not always) composed: "perfect serenity, ecstatic anticipation." The widows generally belonged to the upper classes (royal families). Husband and wives were burned in separate fires (FISCH 200, footnote 31).

The “architecture” of the cremation ground deserves special attention. A place in the capital is reserved for cremations (WEINBERGER 2). Each woman had her own contrivance: a moveable pyramidal tower with a ladder (up to four hundred porters: WEINBERGER 5). Further structures: the so-called bridge and a pavilion-cum-pit. The connection between "bridge" and "pavilion-cum-pit" is not clear.

Two women (the widow and an escort) stand "atop its upper storey" as the tower moves (the beginning). At its destination the two women are carried "down the ladder," each by two men. The men then carry the two women "up the bridge" [she will jump... infra]. The bridge (ramp?) is the contrivance from which the widow jumps into the fire. WEINBERGER 4-5 (3-9). FISCH 196-197; Fig.7 (full scenario drawn but drawing not clear).

The cremation has drawn an enormous crowd [DUBOIS], and the setting of the widow burning is an impressive architectural scenario ("apparatus of death"). The cremation of the women takes place after the cremation and funeral of the king, a ritual which can be skipped over. There are generally several women who follow the deceased ruler (widows and female slaves), seven women in the case witnessed by DUBOIS. The end of life is by fire (“suttee”) or, rarer, by the kris.

In the first case, the woman has to jump from the "bridge" into the flames. It is on the bridge that the final drama takes place. It is also on the bridge that the manko (escort, WEINBERGER 8, FISCH 196) checks the medical condition of the woman: If she is menstruating (impure), she is restored to life (WEINBERGER 8). Postponement is no alternative. Standing on the bridge and before its end, the widow (the determined widow) loosens her hair, begins to dance as in a trance, afflicts with a kris wounds to her arm and shoulder, applies with the weapon some blood to her forehead (as a demonstration of strength), starts singing together with those around her, and finally leaps into the burning pit. WEINBERGER 8-9, FISCH 197.

If the widow is unable to commit herself to her fate, she is thrown into the flames by her father or by her brother (FISCH 197). Remarkable was the case of a brother who had been appointed to kill his sister. He asked his sister whether she was prepared to die, and the sister nodded. He then begged her pardon, pressed the kris into her left breast, threw the kris away and fled. The widow was still living and standing; one of the nobles present completed the gruesome work (FISCH 206).

As we have seen, the Balinese suttee is an upper class custom (FISCH 198), and this is the sine qua non for the magnificent arrangement, for the availability of several women (the rule), and for a smooth settlement. The concept is, clearly, different from the often crude and hasty procedure in India (general tendency, very necessary in the case of unreliable women). There is in Bali no parallel to the Indian widow burning in the case of non-Kshatriyas (Brahmans and further castes). It would appear that now and then in Bali widows from lower castes (below the level of nobility) committed suicide. But this was probably rare. The average widow combined moral strength with proper education and with good breeding (compare the Rajput women). Readiness towards self-immolation ran only or primarily through the blood of the nobility.

The lapse of time between death and cremation theoretically facilitated a change of mind. But one feels that the willingness to die did not crumble among the noble ladies when the date was postponed. Change of mind was tolerated if it did not come at the last moment. Involuntary death was the consequence.

It is possible that the number of burned widows was greater before the 19th century than during and after DUBOIS, and that the liberality as indicated by the latter (change of mind no problem) was a more recent development. FISCH 201-204 (201-209). Perhaps the time-span (delay of cremation) was shorter in the past and the psychological pressure greater.

As in India, the widows in Bali expected heavenly bliss and union with the husband (or a good rebirth on earth). It seems that the expectation of heavenly bliss was a fairly concrete motivation in a number of cases (FISCH 293-294). However, the Balinese upper-class widows also expected temporal glory and material gain for their families (205). The situation in India (motivation by promises) was certainly similar, but the promises were less ostentatious, and apart from a few exceptions the rite did not have much glamour. -- J.FISCH doubts whether "victims and actors really believed in the promises concerning the next world." (205) The question of religious scepticism has probably not been mentioned in the suttee debate (Indian suttee).

Some differences between Bali and India are worth noting. In Bali, the widow could choose between fire and kris; there were separate pyres (pits) for the husband and the widow(s); prior to the cremation, the body of the deceased was kept in a coffin; at times embalmed and preserved bodies were kept up to desiccation, i.e. for months and years (WEINBERGER 3). As in the royal funerals of India there were two categories of women for cremation: royal widows and female slaves (concubines). Apparently the distinction was in Bali more accentuated..

In India, the royal suttees received less attention than in Bali. At least we have in the case of India not many detailed descriptions of great suttees. But see DATTA Sa 156-162: “Suttee among the Sikhs” (§ 12.2).

Title Photo Background:
Picture Credits: ASW - Aktionsgemeinschaft Solidarische Welt e.V., BERLIN.

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