Academic background in Archaeology probably developed an eye for old things and symbolism of death. Mocked as “grave robbers”, the field training in archaeology indeed drew me closer to look at the philosophy of death, the attitudes towards death across various parts in India and so on.
In this vein, Sati memorials intrigue me. These memorials were commissioned by the medieval community to honour the death of the chaste wife with her husband who died fighting for the people. A strong religious connection is often linked through the iconography and associated literature with these memorials. Mushroomed across the modern states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka (as far as my study) in India, the Sati memorials often ape the stylistic form of the hero-memorials (those which honour the fallen heroes, the husbands in most cases).
The practice of Sati has been continually discussed and debated over centuries of scholarship. It was made popular and stirred many discussions across the globe with the release of a recent Bollywood film, Padmavaat. My interest however is focused on the manifestation or crystallization of the practice and belief in the form of these memorials.
The memorial stellae have been studied widely; through emic and etic perspectives, examining sociological implications, political ramifications, historical continuity and as art-historical inquiry. My “obsession” with the study of Sati memorials has been a walk on the tight-rope from one aspect to the other. I have not been able to have a singular frame to examine these, as I think that would render the entire study unjustifiable.
Sometimes rendered as a mere standing pole, or a carved upturned arm on the pole, the Sati memorials in their simplest forms are seen in the forested areas of Western India. The elaborate examples from c.900 CE onward are the profusely carved stone slabs, often with some inscription. The iconography of Sati stones fluctuates between an upturned blessing arm, a standing or seated female figure and palm print carving. Often, the representation of a couple can be taken to be a conjoined Sati and Hero memorial. It also seems to emanate from the stellae used to signify “ancestors”.
The honour of being a Sati is highlighted through literary treatises and social commentaries from the early part of 8th century CE. Direct elevation to the status of deity in the community is reiterated to be the coveted end for the Sati practice. It can be argued that the practice was popular among the members of royal family, or the ruling elites in Rajasthan and Gujarat. The practice was upheld by some prominent families in Maharashtra as well, to “save their honour”. This troupe is consistent through the oral narratives in many parts of Western India that I had a chance to visit. The fear of being captured by the enemy once the males in the community are killed in the war prompted the women to self-immolate; has been a widely held belief. Interestingly, some of the Sati stones show graphic scenes of women immolating themselves on the funeral pyre. It is also worth noting, that the iconography makes clear indications of the status of women as married with bangles and often henna-like designs on the palm.
My explorations to look for Sati stones lingered mostly in Kutch (Gujarat) and the coastal villages of Konkan in Maharashtra. The stylistic differences of the memorials oin both these areas are stark; but what is more interesting is the fluid transformation of these “totems” into other forms of expression in Kutch and Konkan. Kutch exhibits Rajput elements in iconographic rendering, while the Konkan examples hinge onto Hoysala and other styles of rendering from the state of Karnataka.