The sati hands riveted my attention wherever I went. It was the guide at the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur who drew my attention to them first.

“Look at these hands,” he said, pointing to some vermilion-coloured palm prints to the left of Loha Pol, also known as the ‘Iron Gate’. There were 15 of them. All quite small and engraved in stone. “They are known as sati hands. They were made by queens and other women who committed sati in this fort.”

Sati hands at Junagarh fort, Bikaner by Gita Aravamudan

Sati hands at Junagarh fort, Bikaner by Gita Aravamudan

I was transfixed as I imagined the women dressed in all their wedding finery, carrying diyas, and pressing their vermilion-covered hands against the wall before they walked towards their fiery death.

Who were these women? What was going on in their minds? Were they wives? Concubines? Slaves? Did they go willingly or were they pushed? Was it mass hysteria?

The set of hand prints the guide had pointed out was made by the wives of Maharaja Man Singh who died in 1853. But there were more. The palms were small. Were women smaller in those days? Were they child brides? Or were the hands just symbolic reminders of the women who committed sati, akin to tombstones?

The many hand prints on the wall bore testimony to the number of women who jumped into funeral pyres from each fort.

The sati hands began to haunt me. I looked for them at every fort we visited over the next couple of days. And they were always there, silent witnesses and reminders of the women who had been burnt to death. They also brought alive to me, each time, the sheer irony of their lives. The insides of the forts and palaces were opulent with intricately decorated walls, gilded beds and zenanas with swimming pools and fountains. But, ultimately, the women were the raja’s possessions, kept cloistered away from male gaze and made available only for his use whenever he so desired.

rani was usually just one of the maharaja’s many wives. He could have a dozen wives or hundreds. Or a woman could even be a concubine with no official position. What connect would such a woman have with her man? Why would a woman who had barely seen him a couple of times in her life want to end her life on his funeral pyre?

In 1987,18-year-old Roop Kanwar committed sati. She had been married for less than a year. Sati was banned in India in 1829, more than 150 years before this happened. But after this incident, the Sati Prevention Act was passed, further criminalising any type of aiding, abetting, and glorifying of this practice.

Our taxi driver was a smooth-talking tourist-savvy man. He told me that sati was a “purana zamana” custom, and women voluntarily walked into the pyres to protect themselves from enemies. We got to talking about the ban on Padmaavat. Why were there protests, I asked him; after all, the film showed the Rajputs in a good light.

“Because Queen Padmavati was shown dancing,” he replied, impassively.

“That’s all?” I asked startled. “Nothing more?”

“Our queens didn’t dance,” he retorted. “They had dasis who would dance. Our queen Padmavati whom we all worship was shown in a bad light, dancing.”

“You mean they would not dance even in the privacy of the zenana?” I asked.

He shook his head firmly.

I was still pondering over this when I came across some girls and women who did dance. In the middle of the sand dunes near Jaisalmer, our jeep stopped for a few minutes, and out of nowhere emerged a group of young girls. The smallest was around eight years old and the oldest in her late teens. They were all plastered with makeup and lipstick, wore plastic jewelry and were dressed in dusty, everyday clothes.

Didi, didi,” the youngest one called out, trying to pull my young niece’s hand, “Come dance with us.”

Even as we still sat in the jeep, they started swirling and singing with the adult women standing around them clapping their hands to keep the rhythm. This performance by the graceful little dancers in the middle of the sand dunes lasted all of two minutes. Then they got down to business.

Didi, didi, paisa. Chocolates, please didi. Lipstick?”

They grabbed the money we offered them and ran off to catch the next set of tourists. The sun was setting when we returned and we found the girls still working the tourists. This time when they saw us, they asked for a lift.

The kids were bubbling with laughter and music. No, they didn’t know how old they were. They had never been to school. In fact, they had not been out of their patch of desert. Ironically, as we spoke to them, the country’s largest literary festival was taking place in Jaipur, the capital city of Rajasthan. Men and women of letters had come from all over the world to discuss esoteric subjects far away from this little patch of Rajasthani desert where there was no school.

We dropped the girls off near a camp of motley tents made of rags and plastic sheets. “This is home,” the girls said cheerfully, and waved goodbye. They had told us their parents earned a living by dancing and singing in the many tented tourist camps which dotted the dunes. They too, knew no other life.

“Oh, they earn good money from their dancing now,” said the manager of the tented camp which was less than a kilometre away. “There are so many resorts and camps now, and all of them employ these people. Just wait a while and you will see them come dressed in all their finery.”

Rajasthan, which is the second largest state in India, is full of such complexities. Tourism has given it a kind of sheen which hides the darker side. The opulent, well-preserved forts, palaces and havelis have been turned into luxury hotels. The old cities which form the heart of the various tourist destinations remain cluttered and uncared for.

The largest number of child marriages still take place in this state, and at the other end of the spectrum, the palaces turned into hotels are the most sought after locations for high-end destination weddings. And it was also here in Rajasthan that Bhanwari Devi, a social worker from Bhateri, was allegedly gang raped in 1992 by upper caste men when she tried to prevent a child marriage in their family. Arguing that it was her work which earned the ire of the rapists, lawyers and activists filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court, under the collective platform of Vishakha. This resulted in the Vishakha Guidelines which provide the basic definitions of sexual harassment at the workplace.

After returning home, I went to see Padmaavat. Everything was quiet and the theatre was half empty. There were no protests in this part of the country. To the audiences here, Padmaavatwas just another opulent, semi-mythological drama which provided them with a couple of hours of time-pass.