The legend of Kasu Ma sati in Pakistan’s Sindh

Kasu Ma is said to have immolated herself in the 18th century, after her son died in battle. She took on what was traditionally a wife’s duty because her daughter-in-law refused to die on the pyre – a bad omen which Kasu Ma hoped to negate with her own death

Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro

An elderly woman leaned against the pillar of Kasu Ma sati, her head bowed down in prayer, oblivious to her surroundings. As I approached her, thinking to ask about the sati, she turned around and signalled for me to sit down. Her name was Shani Bai, she told me, and she was a member of the Meghwar community and a devout devotee of Kasu Ma sati. She had come to the shrine, in Sindh’s Mithi district, from the nearby town of Chelhar to pay homage.

Sati is a funeral rite, practiced by some Hindus, in which a recent widow immolates herself on her late husband’s funeral pyre; the term can also refer to the widow herself. The ritual is named after the goddess Sati, who, according to Hindu mythology, burned herself to death after her father insulted her husband, the god Shiva. Although strict proscriptions against the rite now exist, sati dates as far back as the fifth century, if not earlier, and was practiced regularly in parts of India until the 20th century. Even today, sati veneration is widespread throughout the Sindhi district of Tharparkar, where nearly every village has a memorial stone commemorating a sati.

As she sat in front of the shrine, Shani Bai told me she paid her respects to Kasu Ma whenever there was a problem in the family – and she is hardly alone. Many women of her community visit the shrine of Kasu Ma regularly in hopes of finding solutions to their worries and travails. During the annual mela, almost every caste of Hindus swarm to the shrine, where Maganhars, who have traditionally provided musical services, sing bhajan (devotional songs) and chhands (folk poetry) in honour of the sati.

Kasu Ma is said to have immolated herself in the 18th century when her son, Harnath Dohat Rathor Rajput, died in battle. That she became sati with her son’s death is, of course, unusual. It was custom among Rajputs that wives commit sati as a trial by fire; much like the witch trials of medieval Europe, where a woman proved her innocence by drowning to death, these soon-to-be satis proved their satitva, or “sati-hood,” and commitment to truth, by showing no physical pain during their fiery deaths. Harnath’s wife, who belonged to a different lineage of Rajputs, however, refused to become a sati. Because the refusal of a wife to commit sati was considered a bad omen, Kasu Ma, Harnath’s mother, decided to cremate herself instead.

According to Hari Singh Dohat Rathor, two daughters of Kasu Ma, Chanda Bai and Phul Bai, also became satis. Chanda Bai was married to Sobha Singh Nara Sodh, who died while warding off cattle rustlers. She is said to have taken her deceased husband in her lap and immolated the two of them together. The descendents of Sobha Singh Naro Sodho reside in the Pabuhar area of Mithi district, home to Chanda Bai’s sati stone. Phul Bai, on the other hand, became a sati after her husband was killed by relatives. Her memorial stone is located in the old Mondaro village in Nagarparkar.

The Dohat Rathor Rajputs have perhaps had more than their share of satis; in addition to Kasu Ma and her two daughters, five other women from the lineage also became satis. One of them, Jhuma sati, of the Charan community, immolated herself in an attempt to stop the raids of neighbouring Balochis, who frequently plundered her village. Her memorial pillar is located in Mithario Charan, in the Mithi district, and she is worshipped by the Hindu Charans of Tharparkar. Apart from the Charans, many other Hindu castes – notably Sodha Rajputs, Chauhan Rajputs Menghwars, Rebaris or Raika, Bhils, Suthahars, Sonaras and Rajputs – worship Jhuma sati for her sacrifice. Some of her descendants migrated to Barmer, in Rajasthan, and her cult is widespread there as well.

Nevertheless, Kasu Ma remains unsurpassed in terms of veneration, and she is visited by devotees seeking her blessings in times of marriage, childbirth, name-giving and other significant rites of passage. Dohat Rathors have constructed a canopy over her memorial stone, which shows an image of both Kasu Ma and her son, whom she died for. The linga , the phallic emblem associated with Shiva, is carved on top of the stone, indicating that the deceased was a devotee of the Lord Shiva. On some memorial stones, the sati’s hand is carved, raised above her. On others, satis are shown in a namaskar pose, holding their palms together. A popular motif that can be found on many memorial stones and pillars across Tharparkar is that of a woman holding her deceased husband (or in Kasu Ma’s case, son) either in her arms or in her lap. One need only look to find them.

Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro is an anthropologist at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics in Islamabad. This article is a result of his original research and was first published in The Friday TImes, Pakistan

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