updated 10/14/2008 11:38:39 AM ET 2008-10-14T15:38:39

Police have arrested seven relatives of a 75-year-old widow for doing nothing to prevent the woman from killing herself by jumping into her husband's funeral pyre, officials said Tuesday.

Lalmati Verma's three sons, their wives and her daughter were arrested Monday following the her death this weekend in a village in Chattisgarh state in central India, said senior police official Amit Kumar.

The practice of sati, in which a woman burns herself to death on her husband's pyre, began in medieval times when Hindu women chose to kill themselves after their husbands died in battle rather than be taken prisoner by invaders.

Sati was banned by British colonial authorities in 1829 but persists in rural areas, where it is common to find people who revere the practice as the ultimate demonstration of female honor, devotion and piety.

The seven were arrested under the Prevention of Sati Act and face possible capital punishment or life in prison, Kumar said.

Under the law, authorities can punish anyone who promises financial or spiritual benefits to a woman's family for committing sati. Even standing aside as a woman throws herself onto a funeral pyre can draw a life sentence.

Police said that after Verma's husband fell sick last week, she told her family she would burn herself to death on his funeral pyre.

"The sons never informed the police about their mother's wish and they appear to have done nothing to stop her from ending her life," senior police official Y.K.S. Thakur said Monday.

'No one forced her'
But Bharat Ram, the eldest son, told reporters his mother's decision was her own.

"No one forced her or incited her to commit sati," the Hindustan Times newspaper quoted him as saying.

It was not immediately possible to contact her sons or any witnesses.

Thousands of sati temples, which honor those who have taken their lives, have been erected over the centuries in India. Many are carefully preserved and worshippers still pray at them.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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