Hundreds of thousands of Indians defied a government ban today to honor an 18-year-old bride who burned to death on her husband's funeral pyre while calmly holding his head in her lap.
Roop Kanwar, a bride of eight months dressed in her brocaded wedding sari, sat on the blazing pyre to commit sati, the self-immolation seen as the ultimate act of fidelity in ancient India but outlawed for centuries.
The young bride's action--following the death Sept. 4 of her husband, Man Singh, from gastroenteritis--made this sandy desert village in the western state of Rajasthan a place of pilgrimage.
Horrified government officials banned ceremonies at the site, barred transportation to the village and arrested the bride's brother-in-law, who had lighted the pyre as thousands of villagers watched.
But hundreds of thousands ignored the ban, traveling across the desert on foot or riding camels to join Hindu priests at the site covered by a canopy and perfumed by incense and flowers for the closing of the 13-day mourning period.
"She had an aura about her. She was calm as the flames enveloped her," said Rajinder Singh, a 20-year-old student who was one of the few to admit he saw the sati.
"When I arrived, half her body had burned. She sat on the funeral pyre with folded hands. There was no sign of panic on her face. She was chanting mantras," he told reporters.