Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad ibn Batutah, known as Ibn Battuta or sometimes Battuta, was born to a Berber family of Islamic legal scholars in Tangier, Morocco. He is known for the extent of his travels over 30 years, setting the record for distance journeyed by an individual until the advent of the Steam Age 450 years later. From the time he left to perform the hajj at age 21, Ibn Battuta’s travels took him through most of the Islamic world, North, West, and East Africa, and as far as South and Central Asia, including China in the east and Southern and Eastern Europe in the west.
Ibn Battuta returned to Morocco in 1354 and an oral account of his experience was collected by scholar Ibn Juzayy and adapted into a narrative entitled A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling, commonly known as the Rihla, meaning “journey.” The traditional rihla was centered around visits to the holy places of Arabia; only after, and due to Ibn Battuta’s travels, did “rihla” come to mean travels throughout the world.
Ibn Battuta describes in the Rihla that it was first from a passing man in Pakpattan, now in Pakistan, that he was first told of sati, the suicide of a Hindu widow on the pyre of her husband. Ibn Battuta describes noticing later processions of individual Hindu women on horseback, followed by “both Muslims and infidels” on the way to funerals. He wrote that the ritual was voluntary on the surface, but that a widow who declined would be “despised” and live on “with her own people in misery.” Ibn Battuta goes on to describe a sati ritual of three women that he himself witnessed, and relates that while the men preparing the ritual held a blanket in front of the fire so as not to frighten the approaching women, one of the women tore the blanket away and said, smiling, “Do you frighten me with the fire? I know that it is a fire, so let me alone.”
In analogy to sati, Ibn Battuta adds religious suicide in the Ganges and quotes a typical man preparing to enter the water: “Do not think that I drown myself for any worldly reason or through penury; my purpose is solely to seek approach to Kusay,” which Ibn Battuta cites as meaning God.
Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa, 1325-1354, tr. H.A.R. Gibb. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1929 (1983 reprint), pp. 190-193.
from RIHLA: ON SATI AND RELIGIOUS SUICIDE
The first town we reached after leaving Multan was Abuhar [Abohar], which is the first town in India proper, and thence we entered a plain extending for a day’s journey. On the borders of this plain are inaccessible mountains, inhabited by Hindu infidels; some of them are subjects under Muslim rule, and live in villages governed by a Muslim headman appointed by the governor in whose fief the village lies. Others of them are rebels and warriors, who maintain themselves in the fastnesses of the mountains and make plundering raids. On this road we fell in with a raiding party, this being the first engagement I witnessed in India. The main party had left Abuhar in the early morning, but I had stayed there with a small party of my companions until midday and when we left, numbering in all twenty-two horsemen, partly Arabs and partly Persians and Turks, we were attacked on this plain by eighty infidels on foot with two horsemen. My companions were men of courage and ability and we fought stoutly with them, killing one of the horsemen and about twelve of the footsoldiers. I was hit by an arrow and my horse by another, but God preserved me from them, for there is no force in their arrows. One of our party had his horse wounded, but we gave him in exchange the horse we had captured from the infidel, and killed the wounded horse, which was eaten by the Turks of our party. We carried the heads of the slain to the castle of Abu Bak’har, which we reached about midnight, and suspended them from the wall.
Two days later we reached Ajudahan [Pakpattan], a small town belonging to the pious Shaykh Farid ad-Din. As I returned to the camp after visiting this personage, I saw the people hurrying out, and some of our party along with them. I asked them what was happening and they told me that one of the Hindu infidels had died, that a fire had been kindled to burn him, and his wife would burn herself along with him. After the burning my companions came back and told me that she had embraced the dead man until she herself was burned with him. Later on I used often to see a Hindu woman, richly dressed, riding on horseback, followed by both Muslims and infidels and preceded by drums and trumpets; she was accompanied by Brahmans, who are the chiefs of the Hindus. In the sultan’s dominions they ask his permission to burn her, which he accords them. The burning of the wife after her husband’s death is regarded by them as a commendable act, but is not compulsory; only when a widow burns herself her family acquires a certain prestige by it and gain a reputation for fidelity. A widow who does not burn herself dresses in coarse garments and lives with her own people in misery, despised for her lack of fidelity, but she is not forced to burn herself. Once in the town of Amjari [Amjhera, near Dhar] I saw three women whose husbands had been killed in battle and who had agreed to burn themselves. Each one had a horse brought to her and mounted it, richly dressed and perfumed. In her right hand she held a coconut, with which she played, and in her left a mirror, in which she looked at her face. They were surrounded by Brahmans and their own relatives, and were preceded by drums, trumpets and bugles. Every one of the infidels said to them “Take greetings from me to my father, or brother or mother, or friend” and they would say “Yes” and smile at them. I rode out with my companions to see the way in which the burning was carried out. After three miles we came to a dark place with much water and shady trees, amongst which there were four pavilions, each containing a stone idol. Between the pavilions there was a basin of water over which a dense shade was cast by trees so thickly set that the sun could not penetrate them. The place looked like a spot in hell—God preserve us from it! On reaching these pavilions they descended to the pool, plunged into it and divested themselves of their clothes and ornaments, which they distributed as alms. Each one was then given an unsewn garment of coarse cotton and tied part of it round her waist and part over her head and shoulders. The fires had been lit near this basin in a low lying spot, and oil of sesame poured over them, so that the flames were increased. There were about fifteen men there with faggots of thin wood and about ten others with heavy pieces of wood, and the drummers and trumpeters were standing by waiting for the woman’s coming. The fire was screened off by a blanket held by some men, so that she should not be frightened by the sight of it. I saw one of them, on coming to the blanket, pull it violently out of the men’s hands, saying to them with a smile “Do you frighten me with the fire? I know that it is a fire, so let me alone.” Thereupon she joined her hands above her head in salutation to the fire and cast herself into it. At the same moment the drums, trumpets and bugles were sounded, the men threw their firewood on her and the others put the heavy wood on top of her to prevent her moving, cries were raised and there was a loud clamour. When I saw this I had all but fallen off my horse, if my companions had not quickly brought water to me and laved my face, after which I withdrew.
The Indians have a similar practice of drowning themselves and many of them do so in the river Ganges, the river to which they go on pilgrimage, and into which the ashes of those who are burned are cast. They say that it is a river of Paradise. When one of them comes to drown himself he says to those present with him, “Do not think that I drown myself for any worldly reason or through penury; my purpose is solely to seek approach to Kusay,” Kusay being the name of God in their language. He then drowns himself and when he is dead they take him out and burn him and cast his ashes into this river.