Kanwar, Roop (c. 1969–1987)

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Kanwar, Roop (c. 1969–1987)

Young Indian woman whose death incited national controversy over the religious tradition of sati. Name variations: Roopwati Kunwar. Pronunciation: Kun-WAR. Born around 1969 (most sources cite her age upon death as 18) in the city of Jaipur in Rajasthan, India; burned to death on her husband's funeral pyre on September 4, 1987; passed India's tenth standard; married Maal Singh in February of 1987; no children.

Roop Kanwar had been married to her husband Maal Singh for eight months prior to his death from gastroenteritis. During the time of their marriage, she lived primarily with her parents in Jaipur, reportedly spending a total of 20 days with Singh as his wife. On September 4, 1987, in the village of Deorala in Rajasthan, the 18-year-old Kanwar mounted Singh's funeral pyre and burned to death in its flames. Thirteen days later, at the traditional chunari ceremony, a crowd of at least 250,000 gathered at the site of her death to worship her as a goddess. "Sati mata ki jai" was the oft-repeated cry; it is an invocation of the goddess, or "devi," that Kanwar was said to have become. Despite official warnings against such a ceremony, the small village was crowded with devotees bent on witnessing the miraculous disappearance of the chunari, or bridal finery, into heaven, and the spontaneous reignition of the funeral pyre. Some wished simply to pray to the blessed "sati."

Kanwar's death was considered by many to be a miracle, a blessing upon the village and its inhabitants, and especially upon her in-laws, whose family would, according to legend, "be blessed for seven generations before and after." To many others, her death was seen as a tragedy born of a culture in which a woman's life had no meaning after the death of her husband. Finally, there were those who believed that she had been coerced into the practice of sati by her in-laws, that she had been opiated before the ritual, and that upon trying to flee the flames she was repeatedly pushed back into the fire.

Although it remains unconfirmed whether Kanwar was forced to immolate herself or if the 18-year-old willingly accepted her fate by burning, the controversy around her death prompted strong outcry from sati supporters and from anti-sati activists, and debates still rage over the cultural and legal implications raised by her death and the deaths of other widows like her.

The practice of sati, or self-immolation of a widow upon her husband's funeral pyre, has had somewhat of a revival in a newly independent India. Although instances of sati have been only sporadically documented throughout India's history, at the height of the custom it was estimated that one widow among one thousand became a sati. At certain historical periods and in certain regions sati was deemed the custom of the regal and scores of women burned with one husband. At other times, the practice was seen as an outmoded custom of the poor, backward, rural illiterate to rid the dead husband's family of an economic liability. But whatever the circumstances sati has historically been defended as a sanctified religious ideal.

The word "sati" derives from the root "sat," or truth. The original sati was Dakshayani , wife of Lord Siva, in Hindu legend. When Dakshayani's father insulted Dakshayani and her husband in the sacrificial site in front of a crowd, she resolved to give up her body as protest. According to the Hindu text Bhagavata, she sat in deep meditation and burned her body to ashes in yognagni, the fire generated by yogic meditation. Sati as a practice of burning on a husband's funeral pyre, however, is explicitly enjoined in none of the Hindu scriptures with the exception of the Vishnu Dharma Sutras, according to Swami Harshananda in an article in The Hindu (October 1987). The most authoritative of the Hindu texts, the Vedas, makes no outright mention of widow-immolation. Yet the practice is forcefully argued for as a sacred Hindu religious rite by its supporters, who insist that Roop Kanwar's death was a miracle born of courage and supreme loyalty, which makes it worthy of celebration.

An account of the burning made by a member of her husband's family to a reporter for the Indian Express on September 17, 1987, recalled Kanwar's last moments in the following terms:

The girl spent time with her husband's body, without shedding a tear.… [S]he dressed herself in her bridal finery, helped by close relatives, and got on to the pyre where she sat serenely with her husband's head in her lap. Even after the pyre was lit she sat still, a beatific smile on her face. More than 2,000 revering people watched her burn herself.

Two days later, a reporter for the same newspaper said otherwise:

Roop Kanwar had been buried under a heavy load of firewood so that she could not escape. The fire was lit once and died out. Partially burnt, Roop Kanwar screamed and begged for mercy and help. Out of the 90 odd people who had gathered for Maal Singh's funeral, most did not know that they were going to witness a "sati." Those who could neither bear to see the pain of Roop Kanwar nor had the courage to help her quietly moved away in shame as the fire was cruelly relit by those determined to murder her.

Another purported eyewitness claimed that Kanwar tried three times to escape the flames and each time was pushed back. A fact-finding team of the Women and Media Cell of the Bombay Union of Journalists found that Kanwar had hidden in a barn when she heard of the sati preparations, and others found that she had been opiated prior to being "pushed onto the sacrificial altar." An article in the Times of India on September 13, 1987, reported that it was unlikely that Kanwar had been forcibly burned or coerced because she had brought with her into marriage a "sizable dowry of 25 tolas of gold, TV, radio, fans and a refrigerator." Kanwar's brother told the Sunday Observer that she had always been very religious and may actually have suggested the sati herself.

Roop Kanwar was neither poor, illiterate, nor on bad terms with her husband's family. She was an educated woman from an affluent family that owned a transport business in the city. Her in-laws too were well-educated, and her husband had planned to attend medical school. These factors led to many questions about the motivations behind her burning, regardless if the act was voluntary or coerced. Women's organizations argued that her death was forced—if not physically than through societal indoctrination that subordinates a woman's existence to that of a man's. Increased instances of infanticide and dowry-deaths in India during recent years also point to a larger cultural bias against women. "She had no life to look forward to.… The so ciety treats a widow as a 'kulachani' (an evil omen).… She has to remain barefoot, sleep on the floor and not venture out of the house. She is slandered if seen talking to any male. It was better that she died, than lead such a life," said a teacher in Deorala to a reporter for the Times of India at Kanwar's chunari ceremony. "We are not like Western women who dance when their husbands die. Our lives are over when we are widowed," was the sentiment expressed by a group of women to Shiraz Sidhva of the Sunday Observer at the same ceremony.

The practice of sati has been outlawed in India since 1829, and in 1958 the Rajasthan High Court ruled that even those participating in a sati procession would be considered abettors to suicide. Yet the custom persisted, and Rajasthan alone has had at least 30 sati incidents since independence, with no ensuing convictions. Roop Kanwar's death in 1987 sparked the controversy that would call into question the meaning for such a trend.

On September 6, two days after her death, women activists demanding prosecution were turned down in their attempt to meet with Chief Minister Harideo Joshi. On September 9, Maal Singh's 15-year-old brother, Pushpendra Singh, who had lit the pyre, was arrested. While women's groups continued to exert pressure, young girls in Deorala looked at Roop Kanwar as a heroine, and photos of her wearing a glowing expression while sitting on the funeral pyre were sold to eager customers. Sumer Singh, Kanwar's father-in-law, was arrested on September 19, as was the priest who had performed the last rites, Babu Lall. The arrests came only in the wake of highly publicized protests by scores of Indian women's groups condemning the government's complacency in the matter. Another result of this furor was the inception of the Rajasthan Sati (Prevention) Ordinance in October of 1987, under which an attempted sati could be punished with one to five years of imprisonment and a fine. Those convicted of abetting a sati, either directly, or indirectly (through glorification of sati), could face the death penalty. The ordinance received criticism by many of the same women's groups for punishing the widow through imprisonment, as well as legislating a distinction between sati and murder, in effect glorifying it once again. These protests went unheeded.

Writing in Manushi (November–December 1994), Madhu Kishwar remarked on the conflict: "Instead of a dialogue, there was only a confrontation between the villagers and the activists, leading to a hardening of positions on both the sides, thus defeating the very purpose for which the campaign was launched. While the progressive outsiders continued to condemn sati, Rajput women joined their men in sati's defence."

In 1996, nearly ten years after Roop Kanwar's immolation, all 32 people eventually accused as abettors to her death were acquitted by the Supreme Court due to a lack of evidence. Bystanders had refused to depose against the accused. Religious ceremonies are still regularly held inside the temple erected for this "Sati Mata," or Mother Sati.


Kishwar, Madhu. "A Code for Self: Some Thoughts on Activism," in Manushi. November–December 1994.

Mangalwadi, Vishal. "Making a Carnival of Murder," in Indian Express. September 19, 1987.

Narasimhan, Sakuntala, Sati: Widow Burning in India. NY: Doubleday, 1990.

Sidhva, Shiraz. "Sati: Who's Guilty?" in Sunday Observer. September 20, 1987.

Swami Harshananda, "A formidable challenge that can be met," in The Hindu. October 27, 1987.

Kathy Rubino , freelance writer, Boston, Massachusetts