“Do you like the tradition of Sati?”
The above question is highly controversial. Those who ask and those who answer in affirmative shall face tremendous opposition. It is 21st century. The practice, propagation and adulation of this tradition have been banned by law. But, the memories of those who committed it in the past cannot fade away. The word “Sati” has been inscribed in the memory of majority of people born in this country. It is understood by everyone and does not require any elaborate description. Actually, “Sati” and “Savitri” were the two words that mainly defined the code of Indian married women for many centuries. Even now, the twin-word “Sati-Savitri” is uttered as the highest decorative title to describe a devout married woman, though the connotation may not directly represent the real acts for which those two words were coined. Suddenly, another question props up.
“Should a modern civil society idolize and worship Sati?”
Tough question, isn’t it?
Anyway, there would be no place better than the Temple of Rani Sati at Jhunjhunu to understand the concept.
The temple was quite famous in Jhunjhunu. Everybody knew about it. Our auto-rickshaw driver was always willing to take us there. So, we reached there without any difficulty. In the huge ground in front of the temple, a thriving market with variety of shops was situated. There was also a large parking space for the vehicles and auto-rickshaws. The architecture of the temple building had the Colonial-Rajput influence which was visible through arched colonnade corridors and symmetrical cemented railings on the roof. Lined with the railings, there were full-size statues of mythical figures of Lord Krishna, Goddess Lakshmi and Goddess Bhawani along with the animal figures of lions and elephants. Painted with light pink, bright yellow and light green colours, the façade of the temple building looked very imposing. A marble plaque placed on the gate informed that the gate was constructed by a business family of Jhunjhunu, which has migrated to erstwhile Bombay.
The mid-day sun was setting. It was a pleasant evening. Gradually, people from the city and outside started to assemble there in all colourful attire and usual din. The atmosphere was electric. In fact, I was neither expecting the temple of sati to be as grand as it was in reality nor I thought of so many people gathering there for one evening. We entered the temple accompanied with a crowd.
Once inside, we came to another enclosed compound. There was a long beautifully painted corridor for people to sit and to take rest. Nearby this corridor, there was also a canteen providing food and beverages to all at a cost. The female forms, floral, geometric and spiritual designs, such as trident and swastika etc. were painted aesthetically over the entire ceiling, columns and the walls of this corridor. These paintings were not the original Shekhawati fresco paintings of 18th-19th century. Still, it gave the corridor a very good feel. We were in no hurry. So, we sat there for a while and appreciated its painting. Coming back to the origin of Sati Tradition, I later learnt that it could be traced to pre-historic times and was observed in many cultures. However, Hindu religious scriptures of certain era do not mention about it, giving rise to an observation that it had become extinct in those times. Again, its prevalence could be traced to medieval period, when Muslim invasion and constant wars and skirmishes were on the rise in the territory of the then Shekhawati. At that time, women performed “jauhar” and “sati” to avoid being captured and tortured by enemy army.
After resting for a while, we proceeded towards the “Braj gate”. It was constructed by another business family of Jhunjhunu, which had migrated to Rangoon. This gate had sculpted figures of Lord Krishna with Radha, Goddess Saraswati, nymphs playing musical instruments and one life-size sentry at each side of the gate. In addition, there were paintings of Gop-Gopis with cows on the walls of the gate. Initially, I could not identify the reasons for associating figures renowned for the land of Vrindavan (Braj-bhoomi) with the temple building in Shekhawati. But soon I remembered that Vrindavan is also said to be the land of widows, where the women after the death of their husbands come to reside in the spiritual association with the Lord Krishna. It is said that out of these women, almost ninety percent come from Bengal, which pioneered in the eradication of the tradition of Sati. Initially, it was Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who visited Vrindavan and reportedly advised these women to spend their lives as a consort to the mythical Krishna instead of choosing the rite of sati. Later, Raja Ram Mohan Roy of Bengal came as a modern thinker, who got the sati-prevention law enacted in the rule of Lord William Bentick in British India. However, there was another story as well that explained the presence of Lord Krishna at that temple, which I would narrate later.
In Bengal province, the custom of maintaining a concubine by the rich upper class and the incidences of deep-rooted poverty in the lower class coupled with gradual profusion of ritualistic practices observed through centuries might be considered as the root cause of prevalence of Sati. While appreciating the figurines of Braj gate, all these cross-cultural connections revolved in mind in a flash. The Bengal connection still exists, as the temple is managed by the Marwari temple Board, situated in Kolkata. Anyway, entering through the Braj gate, we came into yet another enclosed compound, where we were greeted by a white marble statue of Lord Ganesha. The Lord was mounting on his immortal rat, which is considered as his eternal transport.
In many sub-cultures of great traditions of Hindu beliefs, people do place the idol or image of Lord Ganesha at the gate or door of their homes. It is believed that it brings good luck and prosperity. Similarly, the Ganesh idol was located in front of the final entrance gate of the temple of Rani Sati. However, in the same compound where I was standing, there was a cluster of temples. These temples were dedicated to Lord Hanuman, Lord Shiva, Goddess Sita and Lord Ganesha. There was no rush in these temples. One male pujari in each temple had been deputed for helping the visitors, if they wish to perform any ritual in any of these temples. When we went to these temples, we got plenty of “prasadam”.
Then, it was time for entering into the inner-most compound. One has to remove the shoes/sandles etc. before entering into the final compound. There was a free facility for keeping these items safely. It might be running on voluntary service basis. The final compound was entirely feminine fully with temples of many Goddesses of Hindu scriptures. There was a very neatly kept garden too. There was one life-size statue of Lord Shiva sitting in the “Padmasana” posture. It might be because Goddess Parvati (whose story of immolating herself at the instance of disrespect shown to her husband during the divine Yajna is available in scriptures) is considered as the divine consort of the Lord Shiva. Anyway, we first went to see the temple of sixteen mother goddesses (Matrikas), which was situated in the garden itself. This temple appeared to be very recent. Sixteen red coloured flags were flying high on the cylindrical and flat dome, each denoting the presence of one of the matrikas. A huge effort is required to explain the stories associated with each of these sixteen matrikas. However, in nutshell, it can be said that all of them are some manifestations of Goddess Parvati, who is revered by the name of “Adi-shakti”, “Sati” and ‘Jagadamba” etc.
From the garden, the moment one turns his eyes towards the cluster of thirteen conical domes, he is struck their majestic presence. Twelve smaller domes represent twelve sati, who are venerated along with Rani Sati, whose dome is much higher in size. It is said that the top of the higher dome is made of gold. I visited the shrine of all those 12 sati as well though I could not get much information about them, except that they belonged to one family. In was my first visit to any such temple dedicated to sati. I must write that it was a very strange feeling mixed with the sense of awe, valour, sorrow and devotion. But, the feeling of women visitors might be totally different than me. Actually, I felt my limitation in describing the mix of real emotions that a woman might feel in the presence of these grand temples.
After paying our tribute to all the twelve sati, we went inside the main mandapam of the Rani Sati. It was huge structure similar to those found in the Rama Krishna Mission temples. Lots of space was available for people to sit and pray. There was no statue of any sati. Instead a simple trident depicting the Goddess was placed for devotees to pray before her. The walls and columns of the mandapam were again beautifully painted. Two or three purohits were helping the devotees in offering prayers there. The followers of Rani Sati trace her origin from the times of Mahabharata, in which she was the wife of Arjuna’s son Abhimanyu. Her name was Uttara. She wanted to perform the rites of sati, when Abhimanyu died in the Mahabharata battle. Then, Lord Krishna persuaded her not to do so, giving her a boon that she would get an opportunity to perform Sati in her next birth. As prophesied by Krishna, she was born in modern-day Rajasthan (Shekhawati) and Abhimanyu was born near modern-day Hissar in Haryana. Her name was Narayani and Abhimanyu’s name was Tandhan. He had a beautiful horse, which was also eyed by the King’s son. However, in the battle for the horse, king’s son was killed. Further, an infuriated king killed Tandhan in the battle. The brave Narayani, after killing the King in revenge, performed sati at the pyre of her husband. She was supported by the caretaker of the horse, named Ranaji. For his efforts, the brave sati granted Rana Ji a boon that his name would always be remembered before her vey name. Thus, the name “Rani Sati” came into existence.
The temple remains open from 04 am to 10.30 pm, except between 01 to 03 pm. The best time to visit is to see the evening aarti take takes place between 06.30 to 07.00 pm. People started gathering there in huge number and soon the mandapam was filled to its capacity. Just before the evening aarti, the drum was played by the drummer using two curved sticks, one in each hand. And, what a sound it produced! It started with a slow pace and soon graduated into a fast beat producing a sound of an army rapidly marching towards victory or millions of devotees running towards their spiritual goal. I felt that during good old days of Shekhawati, the nagaras must have played a significant role in the socio-cultural life of its inhabitants. This instrument had survived the eons of history and is played even to this day.
The aarti was spectacular. Actually, it was a treat to watch. The playing of drum, prayers, lighting of diyas and the rituals all were perfect. The entire orgnisation was imitable. No one was allowed to stand, except for the persons/officials who were ringing bells, blowing conch shells and managing traffic of the devotees. Some people, whose desires have been fulfilled, come here to do seva(voluntary service) during the aarti.
After watching the entire aarti, I came to conclusion that it was purely the worship of an essence without promoting the practice of rites of sati. The main purpose of worship is nothing but to bring inner peace. Just like one can worship nature, air, fire, rocks, water etc., one can also worship in this temple. Simultaneously, It was felt that to eradicate what is/was wrong, the peaceful and continued existence of sovereign state, economic and linguistic growth of its citizen are essential ingredients. My own question had been answered on spot.
In the meantime, there was a joyous glow on the face of my wife.