'The Rani of Sirmur' revisited: Sati and sovereignty in theory and practice

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In 'The Rani of Sirmur: An Essay in Reading the Archives', Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak offered a literary analysis of British records to demonstrate the inextricability of language from the colonial/imperial project's goal of world domination. Honing her arguments on the threat of a Himalayan queen (rani) to 'become sati' (i.e. immolate herself), Spivak interpreted the event as representative of the plight of subalterns and of 'third world women' in particular. However, a close reading of the records reveals profound discrepancies between Spivak's interpretation and conditions that existed in and around the kingdom at the time. This article contextualizes the rani's story by supplementing archival sources with folk traditions, local histories, and recent research on sati and Rajput women. It shows that the rani was actually an astute ruler, similar to her peers in the West Himalayan elite, and that her threat of suicide resulted from reasons that go beyond an alleged attempt at recovering agency from the dual oppressions of patriarchal indignity and an invasive superpower. The discourses about sati in contemporary texts are also investigated, revealing a considerable overlap in South Asian and European views of sati among Himalayan elites in turn-of-the-nineteenth-century northwest India.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)302-335
Number of pages34
JournalModern Asian Studies
Issue number2
StatePublished - 14 Mar 2015

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2014 Cambridge University Press.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science


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