In the medieval times, “jauhar” was a collective suicide, women belonging to the Rajput clans did ( Rajput are the princes and warriors class in the Indian state of Rajasthan) to protect their code of honour, of duty and of sacrifice.
Indeed, when muslim invaders coming from the Middle-East and Afghanistan, attacked western India, Rajput women and children, when they knew the battle was lost, sacrificed their life by burning themselves alive in a funeral pyre instead of surrendering to the enemy. They did it sometimes by hundreds, sometimes by thousands. Then, men could go to the battlefield, saffron dressed ( Saffron is the colour of renunciation in hinduism, the colour that indicates you have no attachment towards life and anything material.), fighting till they die. Forts like Chittor and Jaisalmer are locally famous for such acts of heroism led by the Rajput womenfolk.
Fed by these stories that exalt the contempt of death, the selflessness to attain glory, urged by the whole society and the fear to deprive shamefully, the widows had adopted an awful custom : they burnt themselves alive on the funeral pyre of their deceased husband. This tradition is called “sati”. This an ancient tradition already known at the time of Alexander the great when he reached the Indus river (4° century BC). It is justified by the hindu mythology : Sati, the first wife of Shiva, the hindu god of destruction and reconstruction, immolated herself because she disapproved the way her father was treating her husband.
This tradition was mostly followed among the Rajput women, because this community gave so much importance to their honour code. Women who became “sati” ( virtuous) were well considered and could hope of a better next life ( it was better than being a widow, rejected by her family, condemned to live an austere life till her death !). Dressed in festive cloths, purified by a bath and may be drugged, they left on a wall their handprints.Then we went ceremoniously to the wood-shed…
After being burnt, an altar sometimes a temple was built to worship them. In Rajasthan, 200 sanctuaries would commemorate a “sati” ! And their family, because after such an act of virtuousness, the whole family was respected ! This custom has been prohibited by the English in 1829. Nevertheless, the last royal “sati” happened in 1953 when a member of the royal family of Jodhpur ( the second largest town in Rajasthan) died. Nowadays, it still exists ( but it’s uncommon !). Here is one example that happened 10 years ago.
Kattubai, a 60 year-old woman from a village in the state of Madhya Pradesh voluntarily jumped into the pyre where her deceased husband was being cremated. They were in bad relations since two decades, each one living in a different house but relatives claimed that when Mallu ( the husband) died after a long illness, Kattubai was struck by terrible remorse. She was sad not being able to serve him while he was still alive. So, when the funeral procession started, she emerged dressed up as a bride and when the procession reached the cremation ground near a hillock, she revealed that she had decided to commit “sati”. She said she wanted to leave with her Ram, her god. Her family and the villagers did nothing to prevent her : “They were afraid that something bad might happen if they restrained her.” Kattubai walked to the pyre and sat on the lap of her dead husband. As the flames enveloped her, they threw coconuts into the pyre ( Coconuts are used as offerings to the gods in hindu temples.). When the flames subsided, they took the ashes and rubbed them on their foreheads ( Hindus do that to show their devotion.). Alerted by a phone call, policemen of a neighbour village reached the spot when the pyre was being lit but could do nothing. The furious mob prevented them by stoning them. The next day, hundreds of villagers arrived at the site to worship the “sati”. The police arrested 15 person, including Kattubai sons on charges of murder and conspiracy. For their defense, villagers said they were unaware committing “sati” was illegal. They thought that the “sati” would rescue them from drought. However, the Chief Minister of the state has said the village would have to pay a heavy penalty for not preventing the burning act.