India guide 'glorifies' ritual deaths of widows

New Delhi, India - India's tourist mecca of Rajasthan, famed for its lake palaces and picturesque ruined forts, has discovered a new and highly controversial selling point: temples devoted to the outlawed custom of suttee.

Human rights campaigners have accused a new, official guidebook to the state of glorifying the ancient practice of widows throwing themselves on to their husband's funeral pyres.

"There is not a spot in the state where women had not committed suttee," says the book, Popular Deities of Rajasthan, before listing in reverential tones cases of women who sacrificed themselves to honour their husband's memory.

"Brave women who sacrificed their lives for the sake of 'sat' [truth] are best known as suttees," reads one passage. "The suttee was not restricted by compulsions of caste. Women from every caste committed suttee."

What might sound like a harmless history lesson has caused outrage among human rights and women's groups, who have petitioned the state's high court to have the guidebooks withdrawn.

Suttee, although banned by the British as early as 1829, remains a highly contentious issue in India, where the last legislation on the subject was passed as recently as 1987.

The Suttee Prevention Act followed the case of Roop Kanwar, a 17-year-old girl who threw herself on to her husband's pyre in Rajasthan in front of a crowd of 5,000 who stoned the police when they tried to intervene.

As well as outlawing the practice, the law also bans any act that glorifies suttee, including constructing temples "with a view to perpetuating the honour of, or to preserve the memory of, the person committing suttee".

However, Rajasthan still has many temples where suttees are deified and worshipped. New brides are often taken to the temples to be blessed before being allowed to cross the threshold of their husbands' houses.

Ajay Jain, a lawyer for the protesting groups, including the All India Women's Association, said the guidebook was in clear breach of the law and that a case would be filed, even if it meant going to the Indian Supreme Court.

The furore over the book has been given added impetus by allegations that there was a case of suttee last month in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh involving a 75-year-old woman.

Initial reports suggested that the widow, Ram Kumari, crept out of her house without her family seeing and cast herself into the flames. Only her legs were recovered.

However, this was contradicted by evidence from a gardener named Gangacharan, who claimed that when he approached the pyre he saw the widow's walking stick on the ground and "a couple of persons nearby [who], when they saw me, melted away".

The case of suttee - whether coerced or voluntary - attracted several hundred pilgrims who rushed to venerate the spot, offering flowers, coconut and incense sticks as part of the suttee puja (prayers).

Among past suttees singled out for veneration is Narayani Bai, the wife of the Nawab of Hissar, who died in 1652, and a more recent suttee who, according to local tradition, brought the region rain by her act of sacrifice.

Historians say that suttee has its more recent origins in the desire of 16th-century Hindu warriors to prevent their women from being taken by their Mughal conquerors after the husbands were killed in battle.

Some 300 years later, when the British, led by Lord William Bentinck, banned the practice, it had become almost routine, with 639 cases registered in Bengal alone during the 10-year period from 1815 to 1825.

Rajasthan's state government, which was last year accused of being "prosuttee" when it refused to appeal against the acquittal of 11 defendants in the Roop Kanwar case, initially refused to apologise for the book.

However, as the pressure intensified, the tourism minister, Usha Punia, said the inclusion of the suttee goddesses had been a mistake - but one caused by a "printing error".