Here is additional background info prepared for my picture book Savitri: A Tale of Ancient India.—Aaron
The story of the princess Savitri is one of the best-known and best-loved tales of India. Traditionally, Hindu women celebrate an annual festival in Savitri’s honor to secure a long and happy married life.
The story is found in the Mahabharata (“MAH‑hah-BAR‑a‑ta”), one of the two great ancient epics of India’s Hindus. It appears in Book 3, “The Book of the Forest,” where it is related as an instructive tale to Yudhisthira, one of the epic’s heroes, by the wise hermit Markandeya. It is one of many such independent tales woven into the epic.
The Mahabharata achieved final written form around the time of Christ—but having originated in the oral tradition, it was by then already centuries old. The story of Savitri itself most likely started out as a folktale before its insertion in the epic. Along with the rest of the epic, it then underwent a number of changes and additions over the centuries.
In its final version, the story shows vestiges of a number of historical periods with very different cultures. Major story elements, though, tend to place it in the Brahmanic period of the late Vedic Age. As a focal point for my retelling, I’ve narrowed this to a rough date of 800 B.C.
The Mahabharata places the story in “the kingdom of the Madras,” the region between the present‑day rivers Chenab and Ravi, tributaries of the Indus. It is today situated mostly in northeast Pakistan, and partly in the Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir. In the Brahmanic period, the capital of this kingdom was Sakala—near the modern Pakistani city of Sialkot, in the foothills of the Himalayas. I’ve set my retelling there in Sakala and in the foothills just north of it.
The story’s meaning itself seems to have shifted over the centuries. In its final written form in the Mahabharata, it emphasized the devotion and submission of the ideal wife to her husband and his family. This reflected the attitude of Hindu authorities by this later period.
Still, beneath the theologic tampering, a storyteller’s eye discerns clearly the tale of a strong, remarkably independent woman—a trickster tale, in fact, in which a woman dares oppose even a god. And women were indeed treated much more equally in the period when this story likely originated. Being a storyteller myself—and an aspiring friend of women—I’ve adopted the folkloric emphasis rather than the traditional religious.
In other ways too, the culture of the Brahmanic period was very different from the classical Hindu culture more familiar to us. The following will help in understanding various aspects of the story.
Race. Savitri’s people were Aryans, part of the conquering tribes that had come over the Himalayas starting in 1500 B.C. They were not a blond‑haired Germanic master race but Caucasians of various ethnic origins, probably originating in central Asia. Since they had not yet fully integrated with the natives of India, they were lighter-skinned than today.
Worship. The Aryans worshipped the Sun and Fire, as well as Brahma and other gods. The “sacred fire” was set on a brick altar, probably constructed to standard dimensions. Rituals were performed at this altar at sunrise and sunset.
Religious practice was based largely on “sacrifice.” This was meant, however, in the broader sense of consecration. In a typical sacrifice, for instance, food would be set on the altar and “offered” to a god. After a suitable period, the food would be removed and eaten.
In the wedding ceremony, the bride and groom walked together around the altar. Here is a detailed description from the Grihya Sutras:
Having placed to the west of the fire a millstone, to the northeast a water pot, he should sacrifice, while she takes hold of him. Standing with his face turned to the west, he should seize her hand with the formula, “I seize thy hand for the sake of happiness.” . . .
Leading her three times around the fire and the water pot, so that their right sides are turned towards the fire, he says, “This am I, that are thou. Come! Let us here marry. Let us beget offspring. Loving, bright, with genial mind, may we live a hundred autumns.” Each time after he has led her so round, he makes her tread on the stone with the words, “Tread on this stone; like a stone be firm. Overcome enemies; tread foes underfoot.”
Having first poured melted butter over her hands, her brother pours fried grain twice over the wife’s joined hands. He pours again melted butter over what has been left of the sacrificed food, and over what has been cut off. She should sacrifice the fried grain without opening her joined hands. Without that leading round the fire, she sacrifices grain with the neb of the basket towards herself.
He then loosens her two locks of hair, if they are made [i.e. if two tufts of wool are bound round her hair on the two sides]. He then causes her to step forward in a northeastern direction seven steps with the words, “For sap with one step, for juice with two steps, for thriving with five steps, for the seasons with six steps. Be friend, with seven steps. So be thou devoted to me. Let us acquire many sons who may reach old age!”
Joining together their two heads, the bridegroom sprinkles them with water from the water pot.
Savitri (the goddess). As told in the story, the princess Savitri was named after the goddess Savitri, who announced the coming birth. This goddess was the daughter of Savitar, the Sun, who was worshiped at that time. She was also the personification of the Savitri Mantra (also called Gayatri Mantra), the prayer to the Sun that the princess’s father repeated for years to attain children.
The Savitri Mantra is found in the Rig Veda and is considered the most sacred passage in all the Vedas. One translation of the prayer is, “We desire that covetable gift of the god Savitar, who must impel our thoughts.” It was to be recited at dawn while standing and facing east, and at sunset while sitting and facing west.
Yama. Though the image of Yama and his realm became more sinister and terrifying over the centuries, in much of the Vedic period he was seen as relatively beneficent. His earliest role was merely to reign over the virtuous in the land of the dead, supplying them with food and shelter—much like the Norse god Odin in Valhalla. Later, the job of harvesting souls was added.
Yama’s realm was often said to be in the south. For the Aryans, who had invaded from the north, this was a convenient direction for the unknown and mythical, as the territory to the south was still unexplored.
Cities. The cities were really forts—square or rectangular, surrounded by walls and then a moat. If located on the plain, they were built of wood; if on higher ground, of mud and brick. Stone was not yet in use. The palace was generally an enclosed courtyard or courtyards with a number of buildings.
Hermitages. The hermitage, or ashram (“OSH‑rom”), served as a center for those who wished to devote themselves to a more intense religious regimen. Besides providing homes for monks, the ashrams were retreat centers for city-dwellers, and men often took up residence there after retiring from public life. Some hermitages were also boarding schools for the young.
The ashram would consist of scattered huts and cottages, plus a common hall for worship and sacrifice. Ashram residents devoted themselves to contemplation, scripture study, and ritual. Celibacy was not required, and men often brought their families along to live there. They didn’t grow or cook food, but instead ate fruit, herbs, and roots gathered from the wild.
Natural setting. The region where the story is set has been described as “a delightful country, a paradise of rivers and mountains and woods.”
In Indian literature, hermitages are described as being in “the forest,” “the jungle,” or “the wilderness.” But these are Indian terms for anything other than a settlement or farmland. Even a desert could be called a jungle. Typically, an ashram was located on a major highway where it crossed a river. Most were easily accessible.
In my retelling, I’ve used the term forest only when it really means forest. This is not at all a tropical jungle. The weather in the western Himalayas is relatively temperate and dry, the forest cover is relatively thin, and the trees are mostly conifers.
The “tall sharp grass” by the river is kusa—apparently a kind of saw grass.
Dress. In the cities, women wore brilliant, fine clothes, with many gold ornaments and gems. Hermitage residents wore simple saffron-colored robes. For warmth, they could wear outer coverings of matted bark. These were made by pounding bark into separate fibers, then felting them—as done also by some native American tribes.
Travel. For their journey, Savitri and her party probably traveled on horseback and in horse-drawn carriages. Savitri may well have held the reins herself in a kind of four-wheeled chariot. Elephants were not used for transport at that time.
Women. Women and men in this period were not treated as entirely equal, but much closer than under classical Hinduism. Women were educated and not secluded. They could perform rituals, though this would not be encouraged. Women often chose their own husbands. Though Savitri was no doubt a teenager, women at that time weren’t married off right at puberty. She was likely around 16.
I first heard this tale from a storyteller and dear friend, the late Will Perry. For my own retelling, however, I worked solely with the Mahabharata, as translated by J. A. B. van Buitenen, Vol. 2, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1975. Sources for background information included:
The History and Culture of the Indian People, edited by R. C. Majumdar, Vol. 1, The Vedic Age, Allen & Unwin, London, 1951; and Vol. 2, The Age of Imperial Unity, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 1951.
The Cultural Heritage of India, edited by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Vol. 1, The Early Phase, Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Calcutta, 1958.
Righteous Rama: The Evolution of an Epic, by J. L. Brockington, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1984.