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Widows' suicides divide India along cultural lines

Rural areas see surge in burnings

BANIYANI, India -- It's an unused cornfield at the edge of an isolated village, an empty plot of earth that the police flattened with a backhoe and hosed down with a water tanker.

But villagers take off their shoes when they step onto the field. They do it as a sign of respect for what happened on the field a couple of months ago, and to honor the woman they say became a goddess that afternoon when she chose to be burned alive.

"It has become a holy place, and people want to worship there," said Daya Ram, an aged man who looks battered by decades of labor. "The police won't let them."

That's because authorities see nothing holy about what happened in Baniyani.

"It's murder," said Chanchal Shekhar, the region's top police official. "It's blatantly a murder."

The reality is something more complicated, a tangle of traditions, laws, and beliefs in which clear explanations are anything but blatant. Because more than 175 years after India's former colonial rulers outlawed sati, an ancient Hindu practice whereby a widow burns herself alive on her husband's funeral pyre, it remains powerfully resonant in pockets of rural India -- and a profound embarrassment to the country's increasingly urbanized elite.

While sati cases remain rare , and India normally only has one every year or so, recent months have seen a surge: At least three widows have died on their husband's pyres since August, and another was stopped from burning herself to death when villagers intervened.

Specialists can find no explanation for the increase. It's possible that media reports and word-of-mouth lead to a copycat effect.

"India's modernization has not really reached out to our far-and-beyond villages. It's very urban, it's very metropolitan, it's very middle class," said Ranjana Kumari, a prominent women's-rights activist in New Delhi, the capital, about 400 miles to the north. "We are many cultural nations within one nation."

If this nation of more than a billion people appears increasingly modern, a country of software developers and outsourcing firms, the reality is different for most people. More than two-thirds of Indians still live in villages such as Baniyani, and most depend on agriculture.

To modern India, sati is a reminder of what it is trying to leave behind, and many reacted with scorn and shame to what happened in Baniyani.

In Baniyani, though, tales of sati have been passed down for generations, and the story of what happened here is told with reverence.

"I've heard that police say it was a murder, but that's not true," said Ram Bali, 51, a farmer walking into the village late one afternoon, exhausted from a day hacking needle-filled brush from nearby fields. "Kariya Bai has become a saint."

This much, at least, most everyone agrees on: A frail woman about 95 years old, Bai lived with her husband and sons in a mud-walled house barely 15 feet wide. In mid-September, Bai's husband died after a long illness. He had asked to be cremated on his own land. So his sons built a pyre of dried cow dung in the cornfield, and set his body on top of it.

That's where the disagreement starts.

Bai, her neighbors say, was a quiet, uneducated woman who had given birth to five sons, suffered through the death of one, and watched the others grow to be laborers or small-time farmers. For years, she had talked about how she did not expect to live long past her ailing husband.

No one in Baniyani will admit to having joined what became a parade to the funeral pyre, or to having seen Bai burn. They're too afraid of the police. But many say they listened to the crowds, and heard stories afterward from neighbors who watched.

"The minute she said she wanted to be a sati, everyone came from here and nearby villages," said Ram, the elderly villager.

Bai climbed onto the funeral pyre, took her husband's head in her lap, and went to her death. To some villagers, the act made her a saint, to others a goddess. Most everyone here worshipped what she had done.

But three hours away in Chhatarpur, the nearest large town, the police commander sits in his brightly lit office and dismisses talk of sainthood.

Shekhar is unsure of what happened, but knows a crime took place. He doubts Bai had the strength to climb on the pyre herself, but also doubts she was physically forced, as has happened in some other cases. He adds, though, that the villagers could have easily stopped Bai.

"It's absolute rubbish, these people who say it is voluntary," said Kumari, the rights activist. "It's always a question of family, of socialization, and economic circumstances."

But go to a place like Rampur, a village a few miles from Baniyani on twisting dirt roads, and they speak of the deaths of widows with an often unsettling joyousness. The village had a sati case about 60 years ago, and a temple, set on a shady hill outside the village, marks the spot where the woman died.

"People from far and wide still come to pray at our temple," said Bimla Shukla, 40. She smiled broadly when she talked about the woman who was burned alive, and the miracles that her death still brings. "Any wish you make there comes true."

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