OFFTRACK: BARMER, RAJASTHAN
number of Jains are deciding when they want to die.
was almost as if death had no sting, no victory over life. The thousands
who followed the hearse of Jhumku Bai Modotar in Jassole, a village in
Barmer district of Rajasthan, weren't sad at her passing away. Her death
was a time for celebration. Jhumku Bai had lived on little other than
water for 58 days before dying. Widowed at the age of 16, she had vowed
not to live beyond 80. Sure enough, the day she turned octogenarian in
October last year, she got Jain sages to give her permission to undergo
santhara, a ritual in which a person starves to death. In death, Jhumku
Bai defeated mortality and won a new name for herself
as a universal mother: Meethi Maa.
|FINAL GESTURE: Meethi
Maa, seen here on the 30th day of the ritual starving, is now a heroine
Three hundred kilometres away in Sujangarh, a
prominent town in Churu, an emaciated 85-year-old Tikki Bai has also become
a mother figure as Roshanmati Mataji. Preparing for santhara, she is on
juice, banana and milk for the past four months. Suparshavmati Mataji,
a revered Jain saint and Pramilla Jain, a learned preacher, are readying
her for the last journey. "Do you feel the need to eat anything?''
Jain asks her. "No,'' Tikki Bai smiles, sitting on a bed of straw,
unfazed by the stream of genuflecting devotees. "Santhara has a power
of sorts,'' explains Jain. "Few in our society want to serve the
old but they have a lot of respect for a person once he or she opts for
Santhara, a centuries-old practice, continues
to thrive among the Jain community. It is the termination of living "when
all purposes of life have been served or the body becomes unable to serve
any purpose''. It is not to be adopted in the hope of acquiring either
fame, a position in society, divine status or to get rid of physical pains.
Bhandari Sardar Chand Jain, 70, has been keeping a track of santharas
in Sri Jan Rattan Hiteshi Shravak Sangh in Jodhpur for 50 years. "I
can confirm that a growing number of people are opting for santhara,''
he says and estimates that the annual figure of those undergoing the ritual
is 100. It is believed that the incidence of santhara among Jains and
some other communities run into four figures across the country.
In plain terms, santhara can be construed as
an illegal practice. However, Jains are at pains to explain how the concept
of santhara is different from suicide and sati. In contrast to suicide,
which Pramilla Jain explains is an impulsive act that can be prevented,
santhara is a rite that takes place in public and is sanctioned amidst
The period of the fast that leads to death varies.
Harchand Surana of Sardarsahar in Bikaner starved himself for 103 days
before breathing his last and Surajkanwar of Ajmer did not drink even
water during the last 11 days of her life. And it is not only the aged
who go for it. The youngest reported case in recent times was of Kiran,
20, for whom death came 38 days after beginning her fast. When her body
was subsequently tied to a pillar, devotees thronged the small town of
Ladnu to pay their respects.
Preventing santhara invites social ostracism.
As happened with Ishwar Chand Vohra, a cloth merchant in Jodhpur who tried
to prevent his mother Jatan Kanwar, 85, from undergoing the process. The
fast was into its fourth day when Vohra brought in the police. His stand
led to social condemnation. "A voluntary santhara is correct,'' he
argues, "but forcing it on someone, as was done in my mother's case,
is wrong. It implies an attempt to get rid of an old person.''
While people deify those undertaking santhara,
there is a debate on. Says a police officer: "The police must intervene
if someone tries to end his life or if someone is encouraging him do it.''
Lalit Kothari, secretary of the state Human Rights Commission, feels it
does not fall under his purview. "We deal with complaints of harassment
and voluntary santhara does not fall in this category,'' he says. However,
Colonel Sona Ram Chaudhary, MP, emphasises, "It does amount to suicide
and should be discouraged.'' There are many who feel that santhara, like
sati, is not really a voluntary act because the person is only acting
in accordance with social and religious conditioning. It is a debate that
could go on forever, for it involves a rite that blunts even death's fearsome