“It is known that women get their hearts’ desires here if they pray with true faith,” said Phoolkali, a visitor at the Jarimata temple in Banda district of Uttar Pradesh’s Bundelkhand region. Located in Badokhar Khurd block, the temple is dedicated to Javitri, a local woman who allegedly committed sati in the district’s Jari village in 1984.

Sati is a funeral custom, now banned in India, in which a widow immolates herself on the pyre of her husband.

Like everyone else from these parts, Phoolkali, who is from the neighbouring Bargehni village, has heard Javitri’s story several times since her childhood.

The temple’s head priestess, Maya, narrated the story matter-of-factly. “She [Javitri] was at her mother’s place when she had a dream that her husband had died,” said Maya. “She woke up in the middle of the night and declared that she must go back to Jari. That she must commit sati.”

After Rajasthan, home to the infamous Roop Kanwar sati case of 1987, Uttar Pradesh has the most number of shrines and temples dedicated to sati mata – the goddess of sati. India’s most populous state also tops the list of crimes against women, according to recent data from the National Crime Records Bureau. Besides the deification of sati, these crimes include the practice of samjhauta, prevalent in Bundelkhand, in which negotiations are conducted between the family of a woman murdered for dowry and her in-laws – virtually over her body at the cremation ground – with the objective of avoiding a police case.

Sati: A crime

Sati was outlawed in India in 1987 by the Sati (Prevention) Act, which criminalised the burning or burying alive of widows, the glorification of such action via any ceremony, the creation of a financial trust or the construction of a temple in connection with a case of sati, or any actions to commemorate or honor the memory of the widow who committed sati.

But in Bundelkhand, the practice does not simply exist, it thrives. The last reported case of sati from this region was in 2005, and at the Jari temple, twice-a-day special prayers attract fervent devotees. The flurry of devotional activity ranges from the common “naariyal-chadhaava” (the ritual offering of a coconut) to the more specific offering of “sindoor and bangles” – symbols of marriage that Hindu wives wear as long as their husbands are alive.

Phoolkali is an annual visitor at the temple and the fair that springs up around it every Navratra season. “I bring bangles and sindoor [to offer the deity],” she said.

Rani, who is from Phoolkali’s village, spoke animatedly of how Javitri waved her blessing to everyone from the pyre, minutes before she burned to death. Asked if she was present at that time, Rani, who is possibly in her mid-thirties, nodded unconvincingly, pulling the end of her sari tighter around her head.

Rani and Phoolkali are among thousands of women who visit the Jari temple every year.

Local residents recall that the district administration organised special transport for worshippers at Jari not long ago.

Sati and myth-making

Situated at a distance of 70 km from the district headquarters in Banda, the concrete structure of the Jarimata temple looks like any other temple in the area – but only until one steps inside. Against a raised platform meant to symbolise the funeral pyre is a photograph of Javitri. The fresh red tika on the monochrome image makes her almost come alive in the confined space. Placed next to it are photographs of her husband, other family members (all male), and various gods and goddesses.

Maya says she was present during the sati. “Yes, I remember…She sat down right here,” she said, waving at the pedestal-like structure around which devotees perambulate. “She placed her husband’s body in her lap,” said Maya. “And the fire lit on its own. She became a sati.”

This is not an isolated case. There are several such sati cases in Bundelkhand, with local residents and family members weaving an elaborate web of myths around each incident. In 1994, a case of sati was reported from Chaudhury village in Banda; in 1999, a woman called Charan from Satpura in Mahoba allegedly committed sati; in 2002, came the case of Kattubai in Panna. The last known reported case, in 2005, came from Bahundari village, and involved 70-year-old Ramkumari, who is now a legend in these parts.

“Her face had gained an ethereal glow,” said one local resident. “We tried to stop her, but the minute we touched her, we got an electric shock,” said another. These are just a few samples of the comments offered by local residents to describe Ramkumari’s unnatural death.

‘A form of collective murder’

Uma Kushwaha, a local activist underlined that women who commit sati are coerced into throwing themselves on the funeral pyre of their husbands. “This is nothing but a form of collective murder,” said Kushwaha. “The woman is cornered into it, pressured…Coconuts are thrown at her, people start chanting her name as Sati, an entire village turns against her…What is she supposed to do in such a situation?”

Ranjana, a teenager visiting the Jari temple along with her mother, best exemplified Kushwaha’s point. Asked about her opinion on the practice, Ranjana is coaxed by the mass of believers around her into saying how noble and godly sati is, even though she looks unconvinced herself.

At a sati temple in Chitrakoot, also a district in Bundelkhand, asked why the practice still exists in the region despite being outlawed, Bal Kisan, a local resident, said sombrely: “Aastha hai [It is called faith].”

Women, virtue, worship: The idolisation of sati in Bundelkhand.