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Table of contents :
Table of Contents
List of figures
List of plates
A myth of dismemberment
Sati and her rise as a patriotic icon
The formation of Hindu identity: from cultural to revolutionary nationalism
Layout of the book
1 Kalighat souvenirs and the creation of Sati’s iconography
Sati’s place in the visual rhetoric of motherland
Sati’s portrayal in Kalighat pilgrimage souvenirs
The invocation and reinvention of Sati
The romanticisation of martyrdom
Subverting Christian iconography
Shiva, asceticism and Bengali masculinity
Sati, suttee and the story of Padmini
The enduring power of Sati
2 Kamakhya’s erotic-apotropaic potency and the forging of sacred geography
Martial and maternal: Kamakhya’s sculptures
The promotion of fertility and protection: Kamakhya’s female archer
Subversive sexuality: the reception of Kamakhya during the colonial period
Colonial mapping versus sacred geography
Bengal’s love affair with Kamakhya: pilgrimage as a nationalist device
3 Tantra’s revolutionary potential: Tarapith and Bamakhepa’s visualisation of Tara
Understanding Tantric ritual through Tara
Bamakhepa, Tantra and revolutionary potential
Terrifying and benevolent: visions of Tara
The sweetening of death
4 Contesting the colonial gaze: Image worship debates in nineteenth centuryBengal
Murtipuja, darshan and rituals of consecration
Ram Mohan Roy and the Brahmo Samaj movement
‘Inconsistent with the moral order of the universe’: the Reverend Hastie’s views on murtipuja
The backlash: Bengali responses to Hastie
The Saligram idol case: murti and artefact
The Attahas and Khirogram Pithas: the charisma of antique murtis
Reviving Sati’s corpse: Mother India tours and Hindutva in the twenty-first century
Pilgrimage and Politics in Colonial Bengal
From the late nineteenth century onwards the concept of Mother India assumed political significance in colonial Bengal. Reacting against British rule, Bengali writers and artists gendered the nation in literature and visual culture in order to inspire patriotism amongst the indigenous population. This book will examine the process by which the Hindu goddess Sati rose to sudden prominence as a personification of the subcontinent and an icon of heroic self-sacrifice. According to a myth of cosmic dismemberment, Sati’s body parts were scattered across South Asia and enshrined as Shakti Pithas, or Seats of Power. These sacred sites were re-imagined as the fragmented body of the motherland in crisis that could provide the basis for an emergent territorial consciousness. The most potent sites were located in eastern India, Kalighat and Tarapith in Bengal, and Kamakhya in Assam. By examining Bengali and colonial responses to these temples and the ritual traditions associated with them, including Tantra and image worship, this book will provide the first comprehensive study of this ancient network of pilgrimage sites in an art historical and political context. Imma Ramos is curator of the South Asia collections at the British Museum in London. Her research interests revolve around the relationship between religion, politics and gender in South Asian visual culture.
Pilgrimage and Politics in Colonial Bengal The Myth of the Goddess Sati
First published 2017 by Routledge 2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN and by Routledge 711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017 Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business © 2017 Imma Ramos The right of Imma Ramos to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. Trademark notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or registered trademarks, and are used only for identification and explanation without intent to infringe. British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data A catalog record for this book has been requested ISBN: 9781472489449 (hbk) ISBN: 9781315223148 (ebk) Typeset in Sabon by Saxon Graphics Ltd, Derby
Introduction A myth of dismemberment 1 Sati and her rise as a patriotic icon 4 The formation of Hindu identity: from cultural to revolutionary nationalism 6 Layout of the book 8 1
Kalighat souvenirs and the creation of Sati’s iconography Sati’s place in the visual rhetoric of motherland 15 Sati’s portrayal in Kalighat pilgrimage souvenirs 21 The invocation and reinvention of Sati 25 The romanticisation of martyrdom 26 Subverting Christian iconography 27 Shiva, asceticism and Bengali masculinity 29 Sati, suttee and the story of Padmini 34 The enduring power of Sati 37
Kamakhya’s erotic-apotropaic potency and the forging of sacred geography Martial and maternal: Kamakhya’s sculptures 46 The promotion of fertility and protection: Kamakhya’s female archer 52 Subversive sexuality: the reception of Kamakhya during the colonial period 56 Colonial mapping versus sacred geography 58 Bengal’s love affair with Kamakhya: pilgrimage as a nationalist device 59
Tantra’s revolutionary potential: Tarapith and Bamakhepa’s visualisation of Tara Understanding Tara 72 Understanding Tantric ritual through Tara 74 Bamakhepa, Tantra and revolutionary potential 76 Terrifying and benevolent: visions of Tara 79 The sweetening of death 80
Contesting the colonial gaze: Image worship debates in nineteenthcentury Bengal Murtipuja, darshan and rituals of consecration 88 Ram Mohan Roy and the Brahmo Samaj movement 90 ‘Inconsistent with the moral order of the universe’: the Reverend Hastie’s views on murtipuja 91 The backlash: Bengali responses to Hastie 92 The Saligram idol case: murti and artefact 96 The Attahas and Khirogram Pithas: the charisma of antique murtis 98
Conclusion Reviving Sati’s corpse: Mother India tours and Hindutva in the twenty-first century 104
List of figures
I.1 I.2 I.3
1.1 1.2 1.3
1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 1.10 1.11 1.12
Relief sculpture of Shiva carrying Sati at Nalhati temple in Birbhum (Bengal), late twentieth century, author’s photograph (2012). Gate at Fullara Attahas temple in Birbhum (Bengal) representing Sati and Shiva, 2001, author’s photograph (2012). Plaque adorning the 2001 gate at Fullara Attahas temple identifying Sati’s body parts and their locations: tongue (Jawalamukhi, Himachal Pradesh); nose (Sugandha, Bangladesh); right breast (Chitrakoot, Uttar Pradesh), author’s photograph (2012). Shiva and Sati, watercolour on paper, c.1885, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Chore Bagan Art Studio, Shiva and Sati, hand-coloured lithograph, c.1880s, © The Trustees of the British Museum, London. P.S. Ramachandra Rao, The Splendour That Is India, chromolithograph, P. Ethirajiah and Sons, Madras (printer), c.1947, Priya Paul Collection of Popular Art. Calcutta Art Studio, Bharat Bhiksha, lithograph, late 1870s, photo: courtesy Christopher Pinney. Abanindranath Tagore, Bharat Mata, watercolour, 1905, by kind permission of the Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata. Kali murti, watercolour on paper, c.1865, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Calcutta Art Studio, Portrait of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, lithograph, c.1880, photo: courtesy Christopher Pinney. Marcantonio Raimondi (after Michelangelo), Pietà, print on paper, c.1547. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Nandalal Bose, Shiva Drinking the World’s Poison, c.1910–15, watercolour, National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. Babu, watercolour on paper, 1870–85, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. A Man Wrestling a Tiger, watercolour on paper, c.1830–50, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. ‘When my life is gone, every drop of my blood will strengthen the nation’, election hoarding, Hyderabad, 1984, © Raghu Rai/Magnum Photos. Kamakhya Pradarshani, Kamakhya temple pilgrimage poster, 2004, © The Trustees of the British Museum, London.
4 16 17
18 19 20 22 24 29 31 31 33
viii 2.2 2.3 2.4
2.5 2.6 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 4.1 4.2
List of figures Kamakhya temple, author’s photograph (2012). Mother and child stone relief, Kamakhya temple, western gate, tenth–twelfth century, author’s photograph (2012). Lajja Gauri stone sculpture, site unknown, central India, eighth century, Archaeological Museum, Mathura, photo: Carol Radcliffe Bolon. Archer stone relief, Kamakhya temple, interior, c.1565, author’s photograph (2012). Sabara huntress stone relief, Srisailam temple, Andhra Pradesh, early sixteenth century, photo courtesy: Robert Linrothe. Tarapith temple, author’s photograph (2012). Calcutta Art Studio, Kali, lithograph, c.1890, © The Trustees of the British Museum, London. Tara Appearing to Bamakhepa, illustration from a Bengali comic about Bamakhepa sold at Tarapith, author’s photograph (2012). Tara Breastfeeding Shiva, contemporary print, author’s photograph (2012). Bamakhepa and Tara, contemporary pilgrim souvenir sold at Tarapith temple, author’s photograph (2012). Chamunda stone sculpture, tenth century, Bangiya Sahitya Parishad Museum, Kolkata, author’s photograph (2012). Mahishamardini stone sculpture, date unknown, Khirogram temple in Bardhaman (Bengal), author’s photograph (2012).
51 53 54 70 78 81 81 83 99 100
List of plates
Sati, Shiva and the murtis of Tarapith and Kalighat, print, c.2000, Priya Paul Collection of Popular Art. Plate 2 Shiva and Sati, watercolour on paper, c.1890, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Plate 3 Shiva and Sati, watercolour on paper, c.1880, © The Trustees of the British Museum, London. Plate 4 Calcutta Art Studio, Shiva and Sati, hand-coloured lithograph, 1883, Collection of Mark Baron and Elise Boisanté. Plate 5 Shiva Carrying the Corpse of Sati on His Trident, watercolour and gold on paper, c.1800, Himachal Pradesh (Kangra), Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), © Photo: SCALA, Florence. Plate 6 Calcutta Art Studio, Sarojini, lithograph with hand-colouring, 1883, Boston Museum of Fine Art, © Photo: SCALA, Florence. Plate 7 Nandalal Bose, Sati, wash and tempera on paper (1943 copy of 1907 original), National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. Plate 8 Lajja Gauri stone relief, Kamakhya temple, temple exterior, tenth–twelfth century, author’s photograph (2012). Plate 9 Murti of Tara in the inner sanctum of Tarapith temple, author’s photograph (2012). Plate 10 Calcutta Art Studio, Tara (detail), lithograph, c.1885, Collection of Mark Baron and Elise Boisanté.
I would like to thank the following people for their guidance, advice and support: Professor Jean Michel Massing, Alex Wolfers, Professor Deborah Howard, Dr Sona Datta, Atish and Koel Chakraborty, Debarati Basu, Saurav Banerjee, Soumi Dutta, Anya Rai Sharma, Manas Barua and family, Hemen Sharma, Jon Mogul, Maria Zarzycka, Professor Hugh Urban, Professor Susan Huntington, Dr Annamaria Motrescu-Mayes, Professor Julius Lipner, Professor Christopher Pinney, Shubhojit Biswas, Mark Baron and Elise Boisanté, Lynne Taggart, Guillem Ramos-Poqui, Nicolas Maclean, Qamar Maclean, Dr David Oldfield, Professor Christiane Brosius, Professor Sukanya Sharma and Niharika Dinkar. I am also extremely grateful to the following funding bodies: the Cambridge Home and European Union Scholarship Scheme (CHESS), the Pembroke College Scholarship Trust Fund, the Kettle’s Yard Travel Fund and the British Museum Scholarly Publications Fund. This book is the product of research carried out for a doctorate thesis at the University of Cambridge, funded by CHESS. Earlier versions of Chapters 1–4 have been published previously as follows: ‘The Fragmentation of Sati: Constructing Hindu Identity through Nationalistic Pilgrimage Souvenirs,’ Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts, vol.27 (Special Issue: (eds) Mogul, J. and Zarzycka, M. ‘Souvenirs and Objects of Remembrance’), 2015, pp.12–35; ‘The Visual Politics of Menstruation, Birth and Devotion at Kamakhya Temple in Assam,’ in Motrescu-Mayes, A. and Banks, M. (eds) Visual Histories of India (Delhi, 2017); ‘Impurity, Auspiciousness and Power: The Tantric Transformations of Lajja Gauri at Kamakhya,’ Abraxas: The International Journal of Esoteric Studies (Fulgur Special Issue: (eds) Zamani, D. and Oakley-Harrington, C. ‘Occultism, Magic and the History of Art. Selected Papers from the University of Cambridge Conference’), 2013, pp.19–29; ‘The Sweetening of Death: Bamakhepa’s Visualisation of Tara at Bengal’s Tarapith Temple,’ Journal of the LUCAS Graduate Conference, vol.2 (Special Issue: ‘Death: The Cultural Meaning of the End of Life. Selected Papers from the Leiden University Centre for the Arts Conference’), 2014, pp.127–46; and ‘Contesting the Colonial Gaze: Image Worship Debates in Nineteenth-Century Bengal,’ Journal of South Asian Studies, vol.31, no.2 (Special Issue: ‘Divine Intervention: The Role of Religion and Ritual in South Asian Visual Culture. Proceedings from the 40th AAH Conference’), 2015, pp.237–46.
A myth of dismemberment There are many variants of the story of the Hindu goddess Sati, who immolated herself and was dismembered as her grief-stricken husband Shiva embarked on a frenzied dance of destruction.1 According to versions of the story in the Kalika and Devibhagavata Puranas (religious texts devoted to the veneration of the divine feminine, or Shakti, dated to around the tenth and eleventh centuries respectively), Sati’s father, King Daksha, did not invite Shiva to his yajna, a ceremonial sacrifice during which oblations are poured into a ritual fire. Humiliated by this act of disrespect towards her husband, Sati performed self-immolation. The distraught Shiva retrieved her body, and began to dance with it in his arms across the cosmos. His grief risked the destruction of the world, so Vishnu, god of preservation, threw his discus and cut Sati’s body into pieces, which were scattered across the Indian subcontinent. Each place where one of her body parts fell was sacralised and temples, which became known as Shakti Pithas or Seats of Power, were built to enshrine each piece.2 These shrines dated from at least the seventh century onwards, and many were originally associated with non-Vedic, tribal goddesses. The Shakti Pitha sites extend all over South Asia, animated by Sati’s presence. Abul Fazl (1551–1602), the court historian of the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556– 1605), wrote an informative account of the Pithas in his Ain-i-Akbari (Constitution of Akbar), indicating how important they were considered by the sixteenth century, acknowledged even by the Mughal powers.3 Today it is commonly accepted that there are fifty-one Pithas, as listed in the Mahapithanirupana (1690–1720), all of which form a powerful pilgrimage network that affirms the notion that the subcontinent itself is a goddess.4 Forty-one are believed to be in India, four in Bangladesh, three in Nepal, one in Pakistan, one in Sri Lanka and one in Tibet. However, there have been discrepancies regarding the number and the names of the Pithas.5 Not all of these places are identifiable with certainty today, and there is disagreement on exact locations; some name a river or a region, while others are temples which no longer exist or have diminished in importance. The goddess at the Pithas was and still is approached for the granting of health, procreation, longevity and protection from danger, as well as enlightenment. The sites, however, are dedicated not only to Sati’s relics, but to local goddesses as well. Hindu deities can be simultaneously conceived as merging into one absolute deity, as well as assuming the forms of numerous minor deities, a paradox resulting from the belief that deities are both formless (cosmic and unified) and form-bound (in local
manifestations). The Shakti Pithas articulate this paradox, since the goddess is presented to pilgrims as both individually manifested (as a specific temple deity) and as the one overarching goddess (Sati) that unifies the disparate temples.6 Indeed, the idea of the Pithas may have originally been conceived as a way to legitimise and integrate shrines and temples dedicated to various tribal, rural and non-Vedic goddesses into the Brahmanical (orthodox Hindu) pantheon.7 This attempt to affirm the unity of all the Pithas was made by adding the episode about dismemberment to the Sati myth, bringing together shrines dedicated to a multitude of goddesses under the same umbrella.8 There is evidence to suggest that active shrines existed prior to being associated with the network of Pithas.9 For example, it is believed that long before its association with Sati, a mother goddess was worshipped at the Kamakhya Pitha in Assam by tribal communities such as the Khasis and the Garos.10 Although the myth describes the dismemberment of Sati’s corpse, the emphasis at the sites is not on the worship of Sati’s relics but on the worship of living goddesses, who are all understood as manifestations of Shakti.11 Since Sati’s ‘relics’ are often either concealed from view or else take the form of a rough, uncarved stone, devotees often focus their devotion on the murti (divinely embodied icon) of the local goddess. A contemporary print includes the murtis of Kali and Tara, who are the local goddesses at the temples of Kalighat and Tarapith in Bengal (Plate 1), two principal case studies of this book. While Kalighat houses Sati’s right toes, Tarapith enshrines her third eye. The print reveals the prioritisation of these two sites as major Pithas in Bengal: their anthropomorphic murtis are shown beside the central figures of Sati and Shiva. At many of these sites, particularly those in Bengal, the representation of Shiva carrying Sati functions as a visual reminder of their dedication to Sati’s relics, as at Nalhati, home of the goddess Kalika and Sati’s vocal pipe (Figure I.1). Before devotees reach the Fullara Attahas temple in Birbhum a gate, commissioned in 2001, welcomes them; at the top is a statue of Shiva carrying the corpse of Sati, while fifty-one panels all around classify each body part (Figure I.2–I.3). There are believed to be twenty-three Pithas in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent, which account for more than forty-five per cent of the total in South Asia. One explanation for this high concentration is the prevalence of Shaktism (goddess worship) in the area, especially Bengal.12 Bengal and Assam were and are the homeland of Shaktism, with three of their most famous temples at Kalighat,Tarapith and Kamakhya. During a period of doctoral field work (2012) I visited all fourteen sites currently regarded as Shakti Pithas across Bengal, as well as the major Pitha shrine of Kamakhya in Assam. Many of the sites in Bengal are located in rural areas difficult to access by public transport, and therefore visited primarily by locals. Indeed, today the most popular Pithas are those which are easily accessible. In Bengal these are Kalighat (located in the state capital, Kolkata) and Tarapith in the district of Birbhum (which can be easily reached via the aptly named Maa Tara Express from Kolkata). I was accompanied by Atish Chakraborty from Kolkata, a former engineer who is spending his retirement visiting all fifty-one Pithas; when I met him he had already visited forty-two. His motivations for embarking on such a pilgrimage circuit are not only religious; he is also interested in the cultural, historical nature of the sites. When asked about the role and importance of the Pithas today he replied: ‘all fifty-one Pithas are equally important because devotees believe in their miraculous power and that they will grant all their wishes’.13 Exploration of the Kamakhya temple in Gauhati (the largest city in Assam) required several days; it is the most historically well preserved of the Pithas, dating back to before the tenth century.
Relief sculpture of Shiva carrying Sati at Nalhati temple in Birbhum (Bengal), late twentieth century
Author’s photograph (2012)
Gate at Fullara Attahas temple in Birbhum (Bengal) representing Sati and Shiva, 2001
Author’s photograph (2012)
Plaque adorning the 2001 gate at Fullara Attahas temple identifying Sati’s body parts and their locations: tongue (Jawalamukhi, Himachal Pradesh); nose (Sugandha, Bangladesh); right breast (Chitrakoot, Uttar Pradesh)
Author’s photographs (2012)
Manas Barua, a local resident who lives near the temple, and Hemen Sharma, one of the pujaris or priests, accompanied me around the sprawling site. Kamakhya enshrines Sati’s yoni or vulva, which is located in the inner sanctum of the temple. The inner sanctum is the garbhagriha or ‘womb-chamber’ – an apt name, as one descends into a dark and cave-like space.
Sati and her rise as a patriotic icon This book will explore how, from the late nineteenth century onwards, the myth of Sati assumed sudden political significance. It will examine the process by which the goddess rose to prominence during this time as a personification of the subcontinent and an icon of heroic self-sacrifice. This occurred in colonial Bengal, where the British imperial capital of Calcutta became the centre of revolutionary struggle amongst Bengali nationalists fighting for Swaraj or self-rule.14 The Sati myth had a particularly profound resonance amongst the Western-educated Bengali middle classes, or bhadralok, as part of the broader development of cultural nationalism in the region.15 My analysis of the reception of the Shakti Pithas by the bhadralok, including writers and artists, will shed light on the ways in which they inspired the strengthening of Hindu cultural and later national identity in reaction to colonial encounters with British officials, Christian missionaries and Orientalist scholars. This political harnessing of the Pithas was achieved by patriotically re-imagining them as the fragmented body of the motherland in crisis that could provide the basis for an emergent territorial consciousness. The deification of
the earth is ancient and pervasive in the Hindu tradition: Prithvi Mata (Earth Mother) is the primordial goddess of the Rgveda (a collection of Vedic Sanskrit verse, composed roughly between 1700 and 1100 bce), while Bhudevi (Mother Earth) appears in the Vishnu Purana (a sacred text dedicated to the god Vishnu, dated approximately to the fifth century ce). As we will see, Sati, an Earth Mother for the modern period, was used to shape collective memory, imagination and identity. While originally the conflation of Sati and India was intended to unify temples dedicated to various tribal deities, this network would in turn contribute towards a sense of territorial identity during the nineteenth century, when the idea of Sati as India was explicitly pointed out by Bengali writers. The myth of Sati’s dismemberment and the distribution of her body parts across the subcontinent lent itself to this conflation. During the nineteenth century, the mythicised maternalisation of the land was adopted by Bengali revolutionaries influenced by the predominance of Shaktism. According to British official records, in mid-nineteenth-century Bengal at least three-quarters of the population belonged to a Shakta cult.16 By this time, the Pithas had assumed a political dimension. According to Hindu belief, the Shakti (power) in Sati’s dismembered body was distributed across the subcontinent, stressing her relationship to the earth. Bengali writers and artists responded to the myth by re-formulating and resurrecting Sati into a more powerful body: India itself. The nineteenth-century increase in the story’s popularity suggested to some nationalists that the concept of the subcontinent representing the body of the goddess was a manifestation of a historical sense of nationhood that pre-dated colonial times. The notion that the subcontinent (and by extension mother goddess) was enslaved by the British thus proved profoundly resonant. The invocation and reinterpretation of the Sati myth created the conviction of a collective identity. In the process of reinventing mythological memory, the ancient Pitha sites and their significance were used to nurture modern nation-formation. The quest for an empowered identity led to reflections on territorial fragmentation and, through mythology, Bengali writers endeavoured to forge unities. For example, Bhudev Mukhopadhyay (1827–94) said that when at school a European teacher had told him that ‘patriotism was unknown to the Hindus, for no Indian language had any word to express the idea’.17 However, Bhudev later recalled the Sati myth: I knew then (…) the mythical account of (…) Sati’s death, but that knowledge did not help me refute the teacher’s statement or console myself. Now I know that to the descendants of the Aryans the entire motherland with its 52 places of pilgrimage is in truth the person of the Deity.18 Bhudev’s teacher’s claim that Hindus had no understanding of national pride had also been asserted by Sir John Strachey in 1888: ‘This is the first and most essential thing to learn about India – that there is not, and never was an India.’19 There was some truth in the notion that patriotism did not exist prior to British rule, since India had been ruled by a diversity of competing states.20 As David Kinsley points out, ‘the sacrality of the land itself, rather than a unified political tradition (…) cultivated (…) [a] strong sense of Mother India’.21 Indian nationalism, and the idea of India as a ‘nation’, arose as a result of a collective resistance against centralised British rule.22 Colonial allegations that patriotism did not exist in India prompted writers like Bhudev to encourage a reinvention of the indigenous, and the fostering of an empowered identity. According to him, the Shakti Pithas were an ideological network of sites that transformed each individual act
of devotion into a collective, unified reverence for India itself. Bhudev infused this myth with new meaning that informed his vision of the subcontinent as the goddess’s body and sacred motherland. By the late nineteenth century the patriotic fervour felt by many of the bhadralok inspired the marriage of religious myth and politics as they drew from their own wellspring of indigenous culture. It is revealing to contrast Bhudev’s interpretation of the Sati myth with that of Charles Eliot (a colonial administrator), writing later in 1921: [In] the Mahanirvana Tantra (…) there is a legend which relates how the body of the Sakti was cut into pieces and scattered over Assam and Bengal. This story has an uncouth and barbarous air and seems out of place even in Puranic mythology. It recalls the tales told of Osiris, Orpheus and Halfdan the Black and may be ultimately traceable to the idea that the dismemberment of a deity or a human representative ensures fertility. Until recently the Khonds of Bengal used to hack human victims in pieces as a sacrifice to the Earth Goddess and throw the shreds of flesh on the fields to secure a good harvest.23 Eliot’s account of the myth attempts to rationalise its context and ground it in historical tradition, not to mention the fact he links it to human sacrifice, one of the many accusations of barbarism used to demonise Indian culture by colonial officials and missionaries at the time.24 In contrast, the myth itself is prioritised by Bhudev because he believed it revealed a fundamental truth about what it meant to be Indian in a way that historical facts never could. Many Bengali writers absorbed the colonial attempt to rationalise and historicise. In 1901 A.K. Ray wrote A Short History of Calcutta and interpreted the Sati myth thus: If the allegory be understood to describe an historical fact, we may read in it the story of the dismemberment of a kingdom. Daksha is called ‘Prajapati’, the preserver of his subjects. Sati, otherwise called ‘Sakti’, is the power born of his loins. By his own hauteur while ‘drunk with power’, he sets the powerful destroyer [Shiva] against himself, and his power disappears. Destruction threatens everywhere; anarchy reigns supreme. At this stage the preserver [Vishnu] appears and parcels out into various sections the kingdom which now lies a helpless corpse. He replaces anarchy by order, confusion by organization, lifelessness by energetic vitality, and plants the seeds of new life in spots that lie far apart, so that each spot may become a centre of independent growth. Thus interpreted, the legend may be taken to refer to the emigration of the Aryans from Daksha’s country and their colonisation of different parts of India.25 Here the author interprets the distribution of Sati’s body parts as an allegory of the migration of Indo-Aryan people from the Central Asian steppes into South Asia during the second millennium bce, a theory first hypothesised in the eighteenth century following the discovery of the Indo-European language family.
The formation of Hindu identity: from cultural to revolutionary nationalism During the nineteenth century self-reflective questions were asked about what it meant to be Hindu.26 Such questions were influenced and conditioned by colonial definitions of
Hinduism, and were often embellished with Orientalist notions of paganism, idolatry and anarchy. This book will explore the Bengali response to this, which focused on a desire to foster a modern Hindu identity, protect traditional and cultural practices, and valorise Shaktism. Nationalism arose as sections of the population began to challenge the colonial authority of the British. In the late nineteenth century, during a period known as the Bengal Renaissance, many authors began to use patriotic language, which gradually led to organised political violence during the early twentieth century.27 The ideology of anti-colonialism began amongst the urban intelligentsia.28 Bengal (and its capital Calcutta in particular) was the centre for revolutionary struggle as it was the headquarters of the British government in India until 1911 (when the capital moved to Delhi).29 Many Western-educated Bengali revolutionaries sought to promote spiritual identity by taking pride in indigenous culture. Their identification of the subcontinent with the goddess through religious symbolism defined the late nineteenthcentury concept of a nation. This book will thus argue that during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the fragmented motherland was re-imagined by many as one unified subcontinent through the empowerment of Shaktism and the rhetoric of the goddess as bio-territory. It will explore the active role of myth in the articulation of anti-imperialist struggle during this period of revival and reaction by examining the politicisation of Sati and the Shakti Pithas, a topic that has so far been neglected in studies of modern Bengal. The years 1882 and 1883 will be particularly significant for this study: in 1882 there was a controversial public debate concerning the role of image worship, while in 1883 the story of Sati was staged in Calcutta to great critical acclaim, and a popular print visually recorded its most dramatic scene. The Sati myth in particular helped overcome boundaries and forge unities between Bengal and the rest of India, beginning with neighbouring territories including Assam. It was re-envisioned as a politically potent myth during a period of conflict, encouraging Hindus to restore the past glory of the motherland by uniting to defend her against the British threat. The Bengali scholar Haraprasad Shastri (1853–1931), for example, insisted on the need to reconstruct the past: We have to rewrite our history. We cannot continue to read history in the way we have read it so far. We had no history, and Europeans have taught us history. But we cannot listen to them anymore. They do not know all about our country, they have not read all our ancient texts, or mingled with the people of this country.30 Likewise Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali polymath (1861–1941), believed that: ‘The history that we read is like an unhappy dream in India’s night of gloom (…) We have to discover real India, an India outside the textbooks popularised by the Raj.’31 This ‘real India’ was conceived as a mother goddess, the ultimate territorial symbol. As Colin Williams notes, ‘the designation of communal sites, memorials, monuments (…) remind[s] us we have a common origin, predicament and destiny inexorably tied to the homeland’,32 and the Pithas were no exception. These types of symbols were used to illustrate ‘an India outside the textbooks’.33 Later, in 1911, Bipin Chandra Pal described his own religio-political approach to Hindu myth, which he believed could inspire nationalist action: ‘All of these old and traditional gods and goddesses who had lost their hold upon the modern mind have been re-installed with new historic and nationalist interpretations in the mind and the soul of the people.’34 Pal believed that
the notion of a mother goddess could be harnessed for its political and rhetorical potential in the service of the subcontinent. He wrote: This Mother is the Spirit of India. This geographical habitat of ours is only the outer body of our Mother. The earth we tread on is not a mere bit of geological structure. It is the physical embodiment of the Mother. (…) Our history is the sacred biography of the mother.35 The dismemberment of Sati was further politicised when the revolutionary philosophies of the anti-colonial Swadeshi (‘self-sufficiency’) movement made their presence felt during the 1905 Partition of Bengal. This partition of the province of Bengal – West Bengal (with Bihar and Orissa) from East Bengal and Assam – was ordered by Lord Curzon, the Viceroy and Governor-General (1899–1905), and was supposedly carried out for administrative efficiency.36 The partition infuriated the Bengali intelligentsia, who believed it was a deliberate ploy to break up the Swadeshi movement in Bengal. This literal dismemberment or fragmentation of the subcontinent led to even greater need for a unified social body. Some of the initial steps to organize the revolutionaries were taken by the freedom fighter Aurobindo Ghose (1872–1950), whose ‘writing and political activism heralded the transition from cultural to political nationalism, from cultural self-definition to national revolution’.37 In a 1908 article for Bande Mataram, ‘The Parable of Sati’, Aurobindo reinterpreted the story in terms of the contemporary political struggle in India. To him, Sati was India, and Shiva was India’s Destiny. For the time, of course, their union had been frustrated: Sati had left her old body and men said she was dead. But she was not dead, only withdrawn from the eyes of men, and the gods clove the body of Sati into pieces so that it was scattered all over India (…). For Sati will be born again, on the high mountains of mighty endeavour, colossal aspiration, unparalleled self-sacrifice she will be born again, in a better and more beautiful body, and by terrible tapasya [asceticism] she will meet Mahadeva [Shiva] once more and be wedded to him in nobler fashion, with kinder auguries, for a happier and greater future (…). Sati shall wed Mahadeva, [so] that the national life of India shall meet and possess its divine and mighty destiny.38 The power of myth was harnessed for the purpose of national regeneration, and mythological characters came to symbolise socio-political realities. In the case of the modern interpretation of the Sati myth, the goddess came to represent a land in need of saving, while Shiva represented its citizens (or India’s destiny) and the alluded-to Pithas symbolised the subcontinent’s fragments.39 As Aurobindo had argued the year before in 1907, it was only when ‘the Mother had revealed herself’ that ‘the patriotism that work[ed] miracles and save[d] a doomed nation [wa]s born’.40
Layout of the book By focusing on three Shakti Pithas (Kalighat, Tarapith and Kamakhya) as case studies, this book will reveal the various ways in which Bengali nationalism was manifested in the cultural and religious sphere. Combining visual analysis, cultural history and political theology, it will establish an interdisciplinary model in which to study the role of religion
in the emergence of nationalism. This book will also look at the way the bhadralok reclaimed and refashioned traditional Hindu practices by drawing on a previously unstudied range of religious and political primary sources, including pilgrimage souvenirs, temple sculptures, devotional poetry, biographies of local saints, district gazetteers, travel narratives, colonial records and cultural debates in popular periodicals. Chapter 1 will investigate the significance of Hindu pilgrimage souvenirs which circulated in Bengal during the late nineteenth-century colonial period. These were produced in Calcutta in the form of watercolour paintings and lithographs. One of the most popular subjects of these souvenirs was the story of Sati. While many scholars have so far focused on Bharat Mata (Mother India), the goddess ‘invented’ as the symbol of nationalism, little attention has been paid to these depictions of Sati and the political resonance of her myth which represented an important contemporary parallel. The chapter will explore the reasons why the subject was chosen for illustration during the British occupation, and will argue that the rhetoric of sacrifice for the motherland was rendered through remarkably consistent iconography: Sati’s husband, the god Shiva, is always shown carrying her corpse. The concept of the subcontinent representing the body of the goddess herself helped forge national unity, challenging the British assumption that ‘patriotism was unknown to the Hindus’.41 The figure of Sati was also directly associated with the practice of widow immolation (sati), banned by the British in 1829. Like image worship and Tantra, sati as an indigenous practice was re-imagined by many as a revolutionary act of resistance during the late nineteenth century. Likewise, the figure of Shiva, famous for his ascetic celibacy, was lauded as a symbol of indigenous masculinity by nationalists such as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838–94) and Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902), who promoted a revolutionary asceticism to counter British allegations of Bengali effeminacy. Chapter 2 will explore Kamakhya as a Pitha ‘prototype’ which inspired the promotion of Pithas across Bengal. The Tantric iconography of the temple’s sculptures and their reception during the pre-colonial and colonial periods will be examined. Initially some of the sculptures, including an image of a goddess displaying her vulva (Lajja Gauri), served an apotropaic function to keep away intruders while simultaneously promoting fertility amongst its subjects. During the colonial period such sculptures were described as ‘lascivious’ and ‘obscene’ by writers seeking to justify colonial rule. Like Kamakhya, Kalighat and Tarapith were and are also associated with Tantric practice which is significant for this period, since Tantra was not regarded as a singular movement or tradition until the nineteenth century when colonial writers sought to categorise it, and certain members of the Bengali intelligentsia sought to promote it as an intrinsic part of Hindu identity.42 This leads us to an examination of the Bengali reception of Kamakhya. The British had created a divide between Assam and Bengal through their political mapping, which led to many Bengali writers promoting the unity of those regions through pilgrimage sites (particularly the Shakti Pithas). This was a way of ‘re-mapping’ the subcontinent through sacred geography. Chapters 3 and 4 will look closely at the state of popular religion in Bengal at the end of the nineteenth century, and the Bengali literati’s nostalgic attraction to certain indigenous practices (as a reaction to colonial rule and a desire to reclaim identity), including image worship and Tantra. Tarapith in West Bengal is regarded as one of the most powerful holy places in India. Chapter 3 will explore the ways in which the many facets of death have been articulated and conceptualised in Tantric ritual through an analysis of its local goddess, Tara. At each of the Shakti Pithas, the imagery
and symbolism of the goddess are exhibited to the pilgrims through murtis, and Tara is presented as the murti of this specific temple. In particular the chapter will examine the relationship between this deity and the site’s most famous Tantric practitioner, Bamakhepa (1837–1911). This will reveal a major development in late nineteenthcentury understandings of Tara, as he fundamentally ‘sweetened’ this once terrifying goddess through his interactions with and visualisations of her. Her re-imagined role as a fierce mother would appeal to many Bengali nationalists who hailed India as Bharat Mata and, as her sons, were willing to sacrifice their lives to obtain her freedom from British rule. An examination of Bamakhepa’s relationship to the Tara murti also provides a starting point for exploring image worship debates during the late nineteenth century, which will be the focus of the next chapter. Chapter 4 will closely examine the role of murtipuja (image worship) in Bengal during the nineteenth century. The worship of murtis was central to Hindus across the subcontinent, but assumed particular political significance in Bengal. Condemned by colonial officials and Christian missionaries as irrational and blasphemous, murtipuja became a contested practice, compelling the Bengali literati to debate and question its validity and place in Hindu culture. Torn between exposure to critical Western influence and a need to reconnect with their indigenous traditions, the literati deliberated on the most authentic mode of worship – whether of a personal god through murtipuja or of an impersonal, Absolute God without form. A further dimension to the discourse was added by the colonial tendency to treat murtis as though they were art historical artefacts devoid of sacred value. This chapter will analyse the polemical nature of the debates during this key time in the formation of modern Hinduism, and will also address theological concepts such as darshan (sacred vision) in order to elucidate the historical discussion. The Shakti Pithas still form a significant part of the cultural and ideological fabric of the subcontinent. The book ends with a conclusion examining the contemporary significance of the Pithas in light of the rise of Hindu right-wing politics: 2014 witnessed a surge of interest in promoting the sites as symbols of Bharat Mata, coinciding with the political climate under the impact of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Specifically, this concluding section will analyse the Shakti Pithas in relation to a new religio-cultural initiative: Narendra Modi’s project to establish a fifty-one Pitha ‘tour’. Under a £6 million government venture, life-size replicas of the sites have been built around Gabbar Hill in Gujarat. I will argue that the replicas utilise visual rhetoric in their invocation and reinterpretation of the original Pithas. The mythological idea that the undivided subcontinent was made up of the body of Sati has resulted in the appropriation of Sati as a Hindutva icon.
Dinesh Chandra Sircar and Wendy Doniger seek to trace the origin of the myth to the Rgveda (Sircar, D.C. ‘The Sakta Pithas’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, vol.14, 1948, pp.1–108; Doniger, W. Other People’s Myths: The Cave of Echoes (New York, 1988), p.98). It is expanded and altered into its most developed form in the Kalika Purana (dated to around the tenth century), Devibhagavata Purana (around the eleventh century) and Mahapithanirupana (1690–1720). Different versions of the myth can also be found in the Mahabharata, Brahma Purana, Matsya Purana, Padma Purana, Kurma Purana, Brahmanda Purana, Kumarasambhava Purana, Siva Purana, and Brhaddharma Purana.
In the Kalika Purana, Sati immolated herself by generating her own inner yogic fire. Vishnu entered Sati’s body and dismembered it into six pieces which became Shakti Pithas. The myth stresses the centrality of Sati as a Hindu deity and also serves to incorporate various local goddess shrines into the body of the one goddess (Sircar (1948), p.6). In the Devibhagavata Purana, Sati’s limbs fell to the earth in 108 pieces, creating the 108 Pithas. According to the Mahabhagavata Purana (c.950), Sati generated ten terrifying forms of herself, the ten Mahavidya goddesses. After her dismemberment, Shiva chose to live in the Pithas in the form of rocks (lingas). For short summaries of the story see Eck, D. India: A Sacred Geography (New York, 2012), Kinsley, D. Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition (London, 1986) and McDaniel, J. ‘Sacred Space in the Temples of West Bengal: Folk, Bhakti, and Tantric Origins’, Pacific World Journal, vol.3, no.8, 2006, pp.73-88. Abul Fazl’s account of the Pithas in his Ain-i-Akbari reads: ‘In the Hindu mythology Mahamaya [Sati] is said to be the wife of Mahadeva [Shiva], and the learned of this creed represent by this name the energising power of the deity. It is said that on beholding the disrespect [shown to herself and her husband Shiva] she cut herself to pieces and her body fell into four places: her head and some of her limbs in the northern mountains of Kashmir near Kamraj and these relics are called Sarada; other parts fell near Bijapur in the Deccan and are known as Tulja [Turja Bhavani]. Such portions as reached in the eastern quarter near Kamarupa are called Kamakhya and the remnant that kept its place is celebrated as Jalandhari which is this particular spot. In the vicinity, torch-like flames issue from the ground in some places, and others resemble the blaze of lamps. There is a concourse of pilgrims and various things are cast into the flames with the expectation of obtaining temporal blessings. Over them a domed temple has been erected and an astonishing crowd assembles therein. The vulgar impute to miraculous agency what is simply a mine of brimstone.’ (Fazl, A. The Ain-i-Akbari (Calcutta, 1891), pp.312–14; quoted in Sircar (1948), p.14). Fazl also wrote the preface to a Persian translation of the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, entitled the Razmnama (Book of War), reflecting Akbar’s interest in Hindu religion and culture. Three major illustrated manuscripts of the Razmnama are known, which are dated to 1598–1600, 1605 and 1616–17. An early folio at the Asia Museum in San Francisco depicts Shiva’s destruction of Daksha’s yajna; he decapitates Daksha while his accomplices break vessels and attack guests. This idiom of ‘body-cosmos’, as articulated by Diana Eck, has another precedent – Sati’s sacrifice echoes the sacrifice of the cosmic giant Purusha in the Rgveda (Eck, D.L. ‘The Imagined Landscape: Patterns in the Construction of Hindu Sacred Geography’, Contributions to Indian Sociology, vol.32, no.2, 1998, p.176). According to the myth, Purusha was dismembered into the various parts of the cosmos: his mind is the moon, his eyes are the sun and his breath is the wind. The Mahabharata equates tirthas (pilgrimage sites) with the body: ‘Just as certain parts of the body are called pure, so are certain parts of the earth and certain waters called holy’ (quoted in Eck (1998), p.175). The most extensive work on the Shakti Pithas has been done by Sircar (1948) in a short but comprehensive overview of the varying listings of Pithas (whether four, fifty-one or 108) as found in a selection of Tantric texts. The earliest reference to the Pithas is in the Hevajra Tantra (seventh century), which lists four: Jalandhara in the Punjab Hills, Uddiyana in the Swat Valley, Purnagiri (location unknown) and Kamarupa in Assam. A system of four Pithas is common to both Hindu and Buddhist Tantric texts and may have some connection with legends that the Buddha’s body was divided at his death and enshrined in stupas (Sircar (1948), p.14). The Kalika Purana describes seven Pithas, the Rudrayamalatantra mentions ten, the Jnanarnavatantra lists eight, and the Kularnavatantra refers to eighteen. The Kubjikatantra lists forty-two, while the Matsya Purana mentions 108. However, the number of Pithas accepted by the majority at present is fifty-one: those listed in the Mahapithanirupana. The Tantrasara, a compendium of Tantric philosophy and rituals compiled by Krishnananda Agamavagisha in the sixteenth century, is the first Tantric text in Bengal to mention the number fifty-one. Pratapaditya Pal believes that, although the majority of the names of the Pithas in Tantric literature are those of real pilgrimage centres, the act of pilgrimage or tirthayatra had nothing to do with the Pitha concept: ‘rarely does a Tantric text recommend a visit to a Pitha to be as effective spiritually as the Puranas do
8 9 10 11
15 16 17 18
Introduction with the tirthas. Rather, the Pithas are repeatedly said to be located within the sadhaka’s (spiritual adept’s) body and in general they symbolise the entire universe’. (Pal, P. ‘The Fifty-One Shakta Pithas’ in Pal, P. (ed.) Durga: The Power and the Glory (Delhi, 2010), p.183). Indeed, some listings include Pithas which are not places, such as in the Devibhagavata Purana, which mentions light in the solar orb, strength in living beings and also aspects of the mind of the goddess. Pithas can include ‘concepts’ as well as shrines (Sircar (1948), pp.28, 35). Tracy Pintchman examines this idea of the goddess as one and many in Seeking Mahadevi: Constructing the Identities of the Hindu Great Goddess (Oxford, 2001), while John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff examine the concept of Devi, the great goddess and the ways various Hindu goddesses are related to her (Devi: Goddesses of India (Berkeley, 1996)). According to Kunal Chakrabarti’s study on the subject, from the sixth century onwards, the Puranas began a conscious process of integrating non-Vedic goddesses into the Brahmanical pantheon (Chakrabarti, K. Religious Process: The Puranas and the Making of a Regional Tradition (Oxford, 2001), p.172). Sircar (1948), p.46. Morinis, E. Pilgrimage in the Hindu Tradition: A Case Study of West Bengal (Oxford, 1984), pp.20–21. Bareh, H. The History and Culture of the Khasi People (Guwahati, 1985), pp.18, 37; Bhattacharya, N.N. The Indian Mother Goddess (Columbia, 1975), p.54; Goswami, K.P. Kamakhya Temple: Past and Present (New Delhi, 1998), p.27. Kinsley (1986), p.187. In the case of the Kalighat, Tarapith and Kamakhya Pithas, the goddesses worshipped are Kali, Tara and Kamakhya respectively. Although each has her own individual characteristics and iconographies, according to the Yogini Tantra (c.1350): ‘Tara is the same as Kali, the embodiment of supreme love; so also is Kamakhya’, linking all three goddesses inseparably (quoted in Bhattacharya (1975), p.67). As Sircar points out, another reason for the high number of Pithas located in Bengal may be the tendency of Bengali writers including Mukundaramna (a sixteenth-century poet) to elevate local temples to the status of a Pitha ‘merely because the poet was originally an inhabitant of the village of Damunya in the Burdwan District’ (Sircar (1948), p.34). Indeed, as Eck states, ‘the system is open to a multitude of subscribers who would identify their local goddess with the Great Goddess through the body-cosmos of the Shakti Pithas, creating as many Hindu claimants to the body of Sati as claimants to fragments of the true cross in medieval Europe.’ (Eck (1998), p.176). Interview with Atish Chakraborty (August 2012). Established as a commercial interest in 1600, the British East India Company had become a military force on the subcontinent by the eighteenth. Resistance against the British in India led to the 1857 Indian Rebellion, after which power was transferred from the East India Company to the British monarchy, which assumed direct control of the subcontinent, officially making it a colony of the British Empire in 1858. The Bengali bhadralok, literally ‘gentlemen’, were a largely Western-educated middle class that arose during the colonial period (approximately 1757 to 1947). From the 1850s onwards, their typical occupations lay in colonial government service. Banerjee, S. Logic in a Popular Form: Essays on popular religion in Bengal (London, 2010), p.54. Quoted in Raychaudhuri, T. Europe Reconsidered: Perceptions of the West in NineteenthCentury Bengal (Oxford, 2002), p.39. Raychaudhuri (2002), p.39. Note that Bhudev mentions fifty-two and not fifty-one Pithas. This is because there have been discrepancies regarding the number and the names of the Pithas, whether four, fifty-one or even 108, and other variations besides, including fiftytwo (as pointed out in the Brihad-Nila Tantra). In Sanskrit, arya means ‘one who does noble deeds; a noble one’. Amongst writers such as Bhudev, Aryan signified Indian/Hindu people. See Thapar, R. ‘The Theory of Aryan Race and India: History and Politics’, Social Scientist, vol.24, no.1/3, 1996, pp.3–29; and Leopold, J. ‘British Applications of the Aryan Theory of Race to India, 1850–1870’, English Historical Review, vol.89, no.352, 1974, pp.578–603.
19 Strachey, J. India (London, 1888), pp.5–8. Colonial writers such as William Wilson Hunter believed that lack of unity amongst Bengalis had prevented them from becoming a nation in the political sense (see Hunter, W.W. Annals of Rural Bengal, 7th edition (London, 1868), pp. 86–87). Later in 1910, the British diplomat Valentine Chirol stated in relation to Bengal specifically: ‘Except as a geographical expression, Bengal is practically a creation of British rule and of Western education. The claim of the modern Bengalees to be regarded as a “nation” has no historical basis.’ (Chirol, V. Indian Unrest (London, 1910), p.73). 20 Prior to the arrival of the British in South Asia, most people lived in areas under the control of regional rulers, either Maharajas of princely states or Muslim leaders affiliated with the Mughal Empire (see Bayly, C.A. Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion 1770–1870 (Cambridge, 1983). 21 Kinsley (1986), p.185. 22 See Ren, C. ‘Religion and Nationhood in late Colonial India’, Constructing the Past, vol. 12, no.1, 2011, pp.2–8. See also Chatterjee, P. The Nation and Its Fragments (Princeton, 1993) and Gupta, S. Notions of Nationhood in Bengal: Perspectives on Samaj, c.1867– 1905 (Leiden, 2009). 23 Eliot, C. Hinduism and Buddhism (London, 1921), p.285. 24 The Khonds that Eliot refers to were an indigenous tribal community based in central and eastern India. They came to the attention of colonial officials during the nineteenth century when they resisted the payment of land tax to the British. Rumours circulated about the practice of human sacrifice amongst the Khonds, known as meriah, which was believed to maintain the fertility of the earth (Bates, C. Beyond Representations: Colonial and Postcolonial Constructions of Indian Identity (Delhi, 2006), p.19). Interestingly, Eliot also states that Sati’s body parts only fell in Assam and Bengal, probably because the highest concentration of Pithas are located in the northeast as a result of the prevalence of Shaktism there. 25 Ray, A.K. A Short History of Calcutta (Calcutta, 1982), p.12. 26 As Zo Newell argues, ‘Modern Hinduism is best understood as a religious identity which was constructed by Hindus in response to Western colonialism’ (Newell, Z. Picturing the Goddess: Bazaar Images and the Imagination of Modern Hindu Religious Identity (PhD thesis, Vanderbilt University, 2011), p.43). Victor van Biljert notes: ‘In the beginning of the nineteenth century “Hindu” did not exclusively designate a particular religious community but still had the meaning of “that which belongs to the old ways and traditions of India.” Sometimes it was simply used as a synonym of “Indian.” (…) at present the term is and should be used to designate in a loose sense that which belongs to the traditions, culture, civilisation and religions of the pre-Islamic period’ (Van Biljert, V. ‘Nationalism and Violence in Colonial India’, in Houben, J. and Van Kooij, K. (eds) Violence Denied: Violence, Non-Violence and the Rationalization of Violence in South Asian Cultural History (Leiden, 1999), p.319). 27 The association between political violence and Hinduism had its roots in the Indian Rebellion of 1857 when the Bengal Army revolted against its British East India Company officers. There were many triggers, but one significant one was allegedly the rumour that beef and pig fat were being used in gun cartridges, which offended both Hindu and Muslim religious sensibilities (Urban, H. Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics and Power in the Study of Religion (London, 2003), p.75; Van der Veer, P. Imperial Encounters: Religion and Modernity in India and Britain (Princeton, 2001), p.59). 28 While the bhadralok were influenced by the British, they were also the people who reacted most strongly against the British. As Victor van Biljert points out, ‘Initially this nationalism consisted in a complex process of cultural self-definition. (…) Bengali was among the first Indian vernaculars to benefit from the emerging print-capitalism. Rapid dissemination of printed materials created an indigenous public sphere in which debates on political and social issues in the modern sense became possible. In other words, the Indian intelligentsia created its own indigenous modernity’ (van Biljert (1999), p.318). 29 Calcutta was established in 1690 by Job Charnock of the East India Company. From the early nineteenth century, when it was the capital of the Indian Empire as envisaged by Lord Wellesley, ‘Calcutta gradually became the most important city of the Raj’ (McDermott, R. and Kripal, J. (eds) Encountering Kali: In the Margins, at the Centre, in the West (Berkeley,
30 31 32 33 34 35 36
Introduction 2003), p.60). Many influential writers, as well as religious and political leaders, were based there. In 1867, the Hindu Mela (Fair) was started in Calcutta to give organised expression to cultural nationhood and to ‘promote the national feeling (…) among the Hindus’. (Gupta (2009), p.21). Shastri, H. Rachanabali, Vol. 1 (Calcutta, undated), p.547. Quoted in Gupta (2009), p.102. Tagore, R. Itihas (Calcutta, 1955), p.1. Williams, C.H. Called unto Liberty! On Language and Nationalism (London, 1994), p.71. Tagore (1955), p.1. Pal, B.C. The Soul of India: A Constructive Study of Indian Thoughts and Ideals (Calcutta, 1911), p.187. Pal (1911), pp.187–8, 134. The British argued that the partition was necessary for administrative efficiency, but it was evident that weakening the growing nationalist movement in Calcutta was of equal importance. As the colonial administrator Herbert Hope Risley wrote in 1904, ‘Bengal united is a power; Bengal divided will pull in different ways’ (quoted in Sarkar, S. Modern India 1885–1947 (London, 1989), p.107). Van Biljert (1999), p.320. As Hugh Urban explains, ‘The origins of the Bengali nationalist movement lie in the more moderate ideals of the Indian National Congress of the last quarter of the nineteenth century. However, its second and most volatile period began in 1904, with the Swadeshi movement’s more direct challenge to the legitimacy of British rule. Finally, in 1905, it burst into open conflagration with the British partition (…). In the period after 1907, the Swadeshi movement began to assume a more violent and extremist form, abandoning the earlier doctrines of passive resistance or boycott in favor of the tactics of revolutionary terrorism’ (Urban (2003), p.90). See also Mukherjee, H. and Mukherjee, U. India’s Fight for Freedom, or the Swadeshi Movement (Calcutta, 1958); Tripathi, A. The Extremist Challenge: India between 1905 and 1910 (Calcutta, 1967); Sarkar, S. The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal, 1903–8 (Delhi, 1973). Ghose, A. ‘The Parable of Sati (April 29, 1908)’, in Bande Mataram: Early Political Writings (Pondicherry, 1973), p.895. As Aurobindo Ghose declared in 1905, ‘What is a nation? What is our mother country? It is not a piece of earth, nor a figure of speech, nor a fiction of the mind. It is a mighty Shakti, composed of the Shaktis of all the millions of units that make up the nation’ (Ghose (1973), p.920). In 1905 he published a widely read pamphlet, Bhawani Mandir (The Temple of the Goddess), in which he described his vision of a group of politically active ascetics dedicated to liberating the motherland. Aurobindo believed in Swaraj (self-rule). Aurobindo credited Bankim Chandra Chatterjee with having predicted this through his popular poem Bande Mataram (Hail, Mother), composed in 1882: ‘It was thirty-two years ago that Bankim wrote his great song and few listened; but in a sudden moment of awakening from long delusions the people of Bengal looked round for the truth and in a fated moment somebody sang Bande Mataram. The mantra had been given.’ (Ghose, A. ‘Rishi Bankim Chandra (April 16, 1907)’ in Ghose (1973), p.319). Quoted in Raychaudhuri (2002), p.39. It was the Sanskritist Monier Monier-Williams who was the first to employ the term ‘Tantrism’ in the singular, which he identified with ‘Saktism’, and which he believed had corrupted ancient Vedic Hinduism: ‘Tantrism is Hinduism arrived at its last and worst stage of medieval development. (…) [The Vedas] in the Tantras [had become] exaggerated and perverted’ through ‘sanguinary sacrifices and orgies with wine and women.’ (MonierWilliams, M. Hinduism (London, 1894) pp.116, 122–3, 130). Earlier, in 1874, James Talboys Wheeler spoke of the ‘so-called Tantric religion’, in which ‘nudity is worshipped in Bacchanalian orgies which cannot be described’ (Wheeler, J.T. The History of India from the Earliest Age (London, 1874), p.364).
Kalighat souvenirs and the creation of Sati’s iconography
From the late nineteenth century, images of Shiva carrying Sati began proliferating in Calcutta. They were to be found specifically near Kalighat temple, in the form of popular, affordable pilgrimage souvenirs made by Kalighat patuas (village artists) and later by lithographic presses (see Plates 2– 4, Figure 1.1–1.2). As mentioned in the introduction, the earliest known depictions of Shiva carrying Sati date from the nineteenth century onwards. Across these pilgrimage souvenirs the martyr-goddess Sati is shown as vulnerable and lifeless, her corpse carried by her grieving husband Shiva. This chapter will explore why and how this became a popular subject in the visual arts, and will claim that it was appropriated for nationalist discourse. It seems probable that it was not depicted earlier because, as a narrative image, it portrays an iconography of suffering which is not usually present in Hindu devotional iconography. As I will argue, just as Bharat Mata (Mother India) was invented as a new deity for a new crisis, Kalighat paintings and lithographic prints of this image of pathos contributed to resurrecting the myth of Sati’s fragmented body as an icon of cultural crisis and national consciousness by visually articulating the rhetoric of sacrifice for one’s motherland.1
Sati’s place in the visual rhetoric of motherland Shaktism was dominant in Bengal, and the notion of a mother goddess subjugated by foreign rule proved resonant amongst many Bengali nationalists.2 In order to inspire patriotic and anti-colonial sentiment amongst the indigenous population, many represented the subcontinent as female in literature and visual culture in order to encourage citizens to adopt the role of her loyal children. This led not only to the reinterpretation of the Sati myth but also to the conjuring of a new deity to personify and publicise their political cause: Bharat Mata.3 The identity of the subcontinent was subsequently often expressed and represented in terms of devotion to this new goddess. Bharat Mata is usually portrayed as a woman dressed in a traditional sari, either wielding a flag of India or directly superimposed upon a cartographic outline of the country (see Figure 1.3). She was invoked in an 1868 poem by Jyotirindranath Tagore (1849–1925) – ‘Rise! O rise! Children of Bharat’ – and ‘invented’ as a character in the form of a dispossessed mother in a play by Kiran Chandra Bandyopadhyay (1873) in which her condition under foreign domination was described as bare, deprived and unkempt.4 As Tanika Sarkar points out, the play’s particular innovation lay in representing Mother India as an embodied female form who suffered at the hands of foreigners determined to abuse her and rob her of her bounty.5 Meanwhile her ‘children’ lay still.
Figure 1.1 Shiva and Sati, watercolour on paper, c.1885 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Figure 1.2 Chore Bagan Art Studio, Shiva and Sati, hand-coloured lithograph, c.1880s © The Trustees of the British Museum, London
Kalighat souvenirs and Sati’s iconography
Figure 1.3 P.S. Ramachandra Rao, The Splendour That Is India, chromolithograph, P. Ethirajiah and Sons, Madras (printer), c.1947 Priya Paul Collection of Popular Art
This vision of Mother India as impoverished was visualised during the 1870s by the Calcutta Art Studio printmakers as Bharat Bhiksha, or India Begging (Figure 1.4). In the print she appears as an elderly and haggard woman, her poverty indicated by her tattered widow’s sari.6 Her expression is aggrieved, with furrowed brows and downturned mouth, and she holds prayer beads to her chest in an act of begging. Looting foreigners have robbed her of her former glory and she needs rescuing, apparently not by her own citizens but by Queen Victoria to her right, the embodiment of Britannia and harbinger of Western progress in the eyes of many of the Bengali bhadralok at the time. She offers Victoria a child, a symbol of India’s future. This is an ambiguous image of crisis reflecting the bhadralok’s own predicament as torn between Mother India and Mother Victoria.7 The ambiguity was due to the fact that, during this early period of cultural nationalism, the impact and embrace of Western influence tempered pride in indigenous culture. Well into the 1870s, writers often celebrated the fact that India was part of the British Empire, stressing the need for collaborative reforms.8 This generation of nationalist proponents of the concept of Bharat Mata juggled two mother goddesses in Bengali nationalist literature: Mother India and Queen Victoria. Writers called upon Mother India’s children to arise to rescue her and restore her to her former glory, and simultaneously appealed to Queen Victoria to come to her aid. For example, the song of the Hindu Mela, ‘Let us Unite,
Figure 1.4 Calcutta Art Studio, Bharat Bhiksha, lithograph, late 1870s Photo: courtesy Christopher Pinney
Kalighat souvenirs and Sati’s iconography
Children of Bharat’, composed by Satyendranath Tagore, is in fact preceded by a Bengali translation of ‘God Save the Queen’. From the 1890s onwards, however, as anti-British nationalism grew, a new generation of revolutionary Bengalis gave up the belief that an equal collaboration with the British could be achieved and, in response, invented a new iconography of Mother India to reflect their new stance. The image of Bharat Bhiksha alongside Victoria became a distant memory, replaced by a heroic Bharat Mata associated with India as map. In 1905 Abanindranath Tagore’s painting of Bharat Mata became a nationalist icon, representing a secular goddess wielding food, clothing, knowledge (symbolised by a scroll) and spiritual wisdom (symbolised by prayer beads) (Figure 1.5).9 Sister Nivedita (1867–1911), a Scots-Irish writer and disciple of the Hindu reformer and sannyasi (ascetic) Swami Vivekananda, described the painting thus: Bharat Mata stands on the green earth. (…) the four gifts of the motherland to her children, she offers in her four hands. What [Tagore] sees in Her is made clear to all of us. Spirit of the motherland, giver of all good, yet eternally virgin.10 It is from this moment on that Bharat Mata becomes the emblem of nationalism. Her symbolism was evoked in posters and propaganda to incite patriotic sentiment. The map of India began appearing in patriotic ‘bodyscapes’ of this secularised goddess from at least 1907, but especially after the 1930s when she was superimposed upon it (see Figure 1.3).11 The first temple to her, which opened in Banaras in 1936, even
Figure 1.5 Abanindranath Tagore, Bharat Mata, watercolour, 1905 By kind permission of the Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata
Kalighat souvenirs and Sati’s iconography
featured a giant marble relief map of India. Sumathi Ramaswamy comments that, ‘If it were not for the map, the nation’s geo-body would remain an abstraction, leaving its citizen-subjects without any material means to see the country to which they are expected to be attached.’13 I would argue that the image of Sati and Shiva pre-dating images of Bharat Mata already anticipates this notion of visualising and conceiving the nation as a single entity imagined as the goddess herself. Indeed, Sati’s place in this shifting context has so far been neglected. The image of Shiva carrying Sati represents a major transitional icon between Mother India imagined as impoverished and Mother India envisioned as heroic. Like the Calcutta Art Studio’s figure of Bharat Bhiksha, the image of Sati and Shiva published around a decade later is infused with pathos, but there is no sign of pro-British sentiment. Instead, it absorbs the flavour of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s nationalistic novel Anandamath (The Abbey of Bliss, 1882) by presenting India as a suffering goddess, here imagined as Sati, while calling on the subcontinent’s citizens (rather than Queen Victoria) to protect and restore her.14 Again, the myth of Sati’s dismemberment and distribution of her body parts across the subcontinent lent itself to the conflation of Sati and Mother India. The emphasis on Sati’s vulnerability was a response by souvenir artists to a demand created by nationalist writers like Bankim to inspire men, who could identify with the heroic figure of Shiva portrayed as a sannyasi or ascetic, to protect the motherland.15
Sati’s portrayal in Kalighat pilgrimage souvenirs Kalighat watercolour paintings, or pats, and lithographic prints of Sati sold around Kalighat temple were powerful devotional artefacts. Kalighat was acknowledged as one of the sacred sites consecrated as a Pitha from at least the fifteenth century, when the ascetic Chowranga Giri received a vision of Kali telling him the toes of Sati were buried in that area.16 The present temple was built in 1809 and follows the atchala (eight-roof) hut pattern, a traditional Bengali design. The building consists of one large room, the inner sanctum, surrounded by an elevated, circumambulatory balcony. The Kali murti (Figure 1.6) is in full view as devotees circle around it. The murti was created in the nineteenth century and consists primarily of a face with a large golden tongue (held in place by an upper row of golden teeth), four hands and feet. The prominence of the latter is an apt reference to Sati’s toes, as well as an indication of the pilgrims’ desire to touch the feet of the goddess. Sati’s toes, in the form of a stone, are said to be kept inside a box below the murti. For pilgrims in the nineteenth century, souvenirs such as the paintings and prints of Sati sold at Kalighat extended and preserved the religious experience at Calcutta’s most famous temple. One could have the experience of darshan (sacred vision) not only of the temple murti but also of the souvenir itself, which retained the religious potency of the site and reminded devotees of its association with Sati. Christopher Pinney coined the term ‘corpothetics’ to denote this devotional aesthetic category in the case of Hindu popular prints in particular, entailing a religious ‘desire to fuse image and beholder’.17 Unlike the temple murti, which was formally installed in a fixed position and whose worship was mediated by pujaris (priests), these affordable, portable souvenirs could be placed anywhere, by anyone wishing to have direct contact with their chosen deity. Popular paintings and prints of Sati sold at Kalighat and taken home by pilgrims also
Kalighat souvenirs and Sati’s iconography
Figure 1.6 Kali murti, watercolour on paper, c.1865 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
functioned as talismanic reminders, pieces of visual memorabilia demonstrating a desire to extend and preserve the religious experience. Devotees took home such pilgrimage souvenirs so that the benefits of their visit could continue to be enjoyed and shared with those unable to make the journey in person. Indeed, as a result of the mobility of these images devotees did not need to visit the temple in order to experience darshan. Prints provided unprecedented access to deity worship regardless of caste or gender. Significantly, they offered a single collective image of a deity that was distributed across the subcontinent, enabling devotees to have darshan of the same icon wherever they were.18 Souvenirs of Sati thus offered pilgrims a way to extend, relive and remember their experience at the temples by bringing an image of Sati (India) back with them to their homes. Through souvenirs the network of physical sites became a network of printed and painted images that was broadly dispersed across Bengal and the rest of India. A souvenir of Sati sold at Kalighat was an image of remembrance, reminding devotees that the temple represented one piece of a vast network stretching across the country that made up the body of the goddess, and of the nation. The peak in popularity of Kalighat pats, executed on mill-made paper in a characteristic new style, lasted from the 1850s to the 1880s (see Plates 2–3; Figures 1.1, 1.6, 1.10–1.11).19 The artists behind these works were former village scroll painters who used to travel from place to place singing stories from the Hindu epics depicted on paintings during gatherings and festivals. Migration to Calcutta was
Kalighat souvenirs and Sati’s iconography
encouraged by the availability there of industrial products such as mill-made paper and watercolours, and by a high demand for souvenirs that came when the introduction of railways increased the flow of pilgrims (as well as traders and tourists).20 Indeed, the mass production of popular souvenirs, as well as the increase in pilgrimage itself, can be viewed as phenomena of modernity. By 1871, Calcutta had become connected with the national railway network linking it, among others, with Varanasi, Bombay (present-day Mumbai), Allahabad and Agra. Other minor lines connected the city with more rural areas of Bengal. The railways also carried bundles of two-dimensional souvenirs across the subcontinent speedily, inexpensively and efficiently.21 In 1932 Mukul Dey nostalgically described the souvenir trade around Kalighat temple during his ‘younger days’ two decades earlier: The lanes and bye-lanes leading to the temple courtyard were full of small shops dealing with everything interesting to the pilgrims. (…) There were (…) pictures in colours as well as in lines, hung up in almost all the shops. (…) The patuas would naturally sell a good lot of these pictures every year and I remember to have seen many in my younger days, at least 30 or 40 shops in those bye-lanes to deal exclusively in these pictures and I remember the patuas drawing the pictures in their ‘shop-studios’. (…) [They] would draw paintings and sell them before standing crowds of buyers.22 The patuas adapted their skills to provide cheap pictures for the pilgrims to Kalighat temple, rendering single iconic scenes or characters instead of the sequential narrative required of scroll paintings. Kalighat pats were affordable to people of all classes who wished to decorate the walls of their homes or places of work. Each painting measured about forty-five by twenty-eight centimetres and was inexpensive, costing one anna (one-sixteenth of a rupee). These shops offered watercolour souvenirs that portrayed a variety of subjects, including the temple’s Kali murti (see Figure 1.6); but one of the chief subjects of the Kalighat pats was the Sati myth (see Plates 2–3; Figure 1.1). The requirement that the paintings be made quickly to cater to this high demand was undoubtedly a crucial determinant of the Kalighat style, with its vigour and bold simplicity. The resulting basic pictorial vocabulary focused on key narrative elements, stripping the story down to its bare essentials. For example, in the case of the Sati myth, the key element apart from the figures of Shiva and Sati is often Vishnu’s chakra (discus) hovering beside or above them, poised as if about to dismember Sati’s corpse (as seen in Figure 1.1). The discus functions as a reminder that Sati’s body was distributed across the country, crucial to the story in the context of the larger network of pilgrimage sites. Usually the pilgrimage souvenirs would adorn the household prayer room or drawing room. Dey, writing about Kalighat paintings, noted that: As pilgrims know no caste or difference in wealth, naturally these pictures would be taken, liked and hung by peoples of all classes and communities from the big Rajas and zamindars down to the most ordinary villagers and children (…). They would brighten up – some of them – the drawing-rooms of people of all sorts; they would add a touch of colour and joy in the humble hut of the tiller of the soil; and the village grocer or the ‘panwalla’ round the corner of a city street would find no better and no cheaper decoration than these pictures.23
Kalighat souvenirs and Sati’s iconography
Although they remained popular until the early twentieth century, by the 1880s Kalighat pats were superseded as pilgrimage souvenirs by the introduction of modern printing technology imported into Calcutta by the British.24 The first prints were woodcuts, followed by metal engravings. However, it was lithography that provided subtle gradations of shading.25 Lithographic prints became popular from the 1870s, and were produced famously by the Calcutta Art Studio, established in 1878 by Ananda Prasad Bagchi along with four students who took over a year later when he became headmaster of the Government School of Art in 1879.26 Their prints were both cheaper than Kalighat pats and easier to mass produce. The Studio began by producing monochrome lithographic portraits of major cultural nationalists, including Bankim, reflecting the patriotic spirit of the time (Figure 1.7).27 The turning point in the production of popular prints came during the 1880s with the development of chromolithographs, providing a bright range of colours. The Studio’s most successful prints subsequently became chromolithographs of Hindu deities and mythological scenes. Originally the Studio issued these prints in portfolios, a European convention aimed at connoisseurs. In 1879 they claimed their goal was to work ‘for the convenience of the Gentry and the Nobility’, but soon they began to work primarily for the mass market, including a clientele consisting of pilgrims seeking affordable mythological images for domestic ritual.28 This in turn demanded a change in the Studio’s production, and they began to instead focus on single prints designed to be used for worship.29
Figure 1.7 Calcutta Art Studio, Portrait of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, lithograph, c.1880 Photo: courtesy Christopher Pinney
Kalighat souvenirs and Sati’s iconography
Mukul Dey was critical of popular prints, comparing them unfavourably to the pats: ‘In place of these hand-drawn and hand-painted pictures, garish and evil-smelling lithographs (…) – quite appalling in their hideousness – have come. The old art is gone forever.’30 Though Calcutta Art Studio prints may have used the modern technology of chromolithography, they did not necessarily represent the decline of an artistic tradition or signify a commercialisation and secularisation of religious values. Their universal availability, in fact, signalled the democratisation of religious practice, since everyone was able to have darshan of the readily available two-dimensional devotional images. They became a form of mass communication, regardless of caste, leading to a feeling of unity. As Partha Mitter comments, ‘Mechanical reproduction, with endless repeatability as its chief characteristic, turned India into an “iconic society.” It affected the elite as much as the underclass, by creating a common visual culture’, an ‘imagined community’ to borrow Benedict Anderson’s expression.31 The Calcutta Art Studio’s 1883 hand-coloured lithograph of Shiva and Sati (Plate 4) reinforced and refreshed collective memory of the sacred Shakti Pitha sites and their association with the motherland. This collectively shared interpretation of a mythological past helped cement nationalist sentiment and identity. The creation and proliferation of these souvenirs (both paintings and prints), with their consistent and mass-produced religious iconography, contributed to the shaping of visual imagination on a national scale. The Calcutta Art Studio was not the only lithographic press to produce prints of Sati; the Chore Bagan Art Studio, based in Bhoobun Banerjee’s Lane in Calcutta and active during the 1880s, produced an almost identical version (see Figure 1.2). Here the composition is reversed and hand-painted in a quick and simple style.
The invocation and reinvention of Sati The creators of these souvenirs were responding to a demand triggered by patriotic writers and intellectuals at the time, including the playwright Girischandra Ghosh, who staged the story of Sati in the same year the Calcutta Art Studio print was published (1883). The play was called Dakshayajna and it inaugurated the Calcutta Star Theatre Company, founded by Girischandra.32 Binodini Dasi, a huge star at the time, played Sati. In her memoirs she noted: It is beyond my powers to describe the crowds of people on the first day or express how our hearts trembled with fear at the sight of people hanging from the shutters and sitting atop the walls so that they might glimpse our play.33 The Calcutta Art Studio immediately responded to the success of the play by rendering one of its key scenes in print. Specifically this was Act IV Scene 2, when Shiva entered Daksha’s sacrificial area to claim the lifeless body of Sati, breaking into a long speech. Binodini described it thus: ‘There was probably not a soul in the audience who did not start in fear when [Shiva] came on stage crying out furiously, “Who’s there! Give me, give me my Sati.”’34 According to one estimate, the audience comprised around 1,500 spectators.35 Clearly the subject matter of this play had a profound resonance with Bengali audiences at that time. This was the same year that the India Association, founded by Surendranath Banerjee (1848–1925), organised the first All-India National Conference (AINC) in Calcutta with representatives from across the subcontinent. By this time Surendranath was recognised as one of the primary Indian spokesmen for the
Kalighat souvenirs and Sati’s iconography
nationalist movement. The AINC was the first nationwide political congress, marking a new stage in the history of nationalism in India, swiftly followed by the establishment of the Indian National Congress (INC) in 1885.36 Given the context surrounding it, there is no doubting the patriotic undertones of Girischandra’s Dakshayajna. During the late nineteenth century Bengali theatre had become a powerful medium for conveying veiled anti-colonial messages. It reached great heights of popularity during its emergence in the 1860s and 1870s and, within less than a decade, had attracted British censorship.37 In Girischandra’s 1884 play Sribatsa-Chinta he used mythology to tell the story of the French Revolution, veiled by the story of a king who had displeased Saturn, the god of misfortune.38 Likewise, Chando, first produced in 1890 and promptly banned by the British, was only vaguely based on Rajasthani history and was actually Girischandra’s manifesto of violent political revolution.39 His Siraj-ud-Daula (premiered 1905) was based on Siraj ud-Daulah, the last independent nawab (governor) of Bengal. Siraj resisted the British military presence in the region until he was eventually defeated at the Battle of Plassey in 1757, marking the start of British East India Company rule in Bengal and later across the subcontinent. In Girischandra’s play the character of Siraj declared: ‘Do not yield an inch of ground to the feringee [foreigner] (…) children of Bengal, Hindus and Muslims, fight for Bengal, so that your offspring do not become slaves of the English.’40 The political reinterpretation and adaptation of the Sati myth that emerged in the late nineteenth century made it suitable for nationalist, anti-colonial discourse, thus fostering modern nation-formation in India. Bruce Lincoln’s theory of myth is useful in this context; to him, myth is a narrative device that serves to resolve anxieties in a changing or threatened world.41 Under conditions of political fragmentation and colonial rule, Bengali nationalists sought an empowered identity by forging a remembered national unity through mythology. Applying Walter Benjamin’s concept, one could say that the representation of Shiva carrying Sati is an example of a ‘dialectical image’, one that synthesises contemporary politics and religious myth.42 As a dialectical image, the myth assumed revolutionary potential by appealing to indigenous tradition: ‘[The] shock of this recognition [can] jolt the dreaming collective into a political awakening. The presentation of the historical object within a charged force field of past and present, which produces political electricity (…) is the dialectical image.’43 While the image of Sati was not a ‘historical object’ but a devotional one, the appeal to tradition still applied. A pilgrimage souvenir depicting Shiva carrying the body of Sati functioned as a metaphor for the need to protect and fight for Mother India during the troubling colonial period. This ‘political electricity’ was visually articulated by invoking pathos, mourning and sacrifice.
The romanticisation of martyrdom There is one case of a painting of Shiva carrying Sati pre-dating the previous examples. This is the earliest known depiction, made around 1800 in Kangra in the Punjab Hills (Plate 5). Despite her status as a goddess, Sati’s body is represented as mortal in its vulnerability: held aloft by Shiva’s trident, she is charred and burnt after immolation. In contrast to the Kangra painting, by the late nineteenth century Sati was deliberately and ideologically idealised and immaculate. Her traditional Bengali sari and numerous ornaments in the Kalighat pats, for example, are untarnished; her long black hair cascades elegantly across Shiva’s figure, and her unblemished face often reveals a
Kalighat souvenirs and Sati’s iconography
half-smile (Plate 2). One might even describe her ‘martyrdom’ as somewhat eroticised, and a comparison in this regard can be made with Raja Ravi Varma’s nearcontemporary paintings of captive goddesses that were ‘allegories for national servitude’.44 In Jatayuvadh (1895) and The Triumph of Indrajit (1905), to name two, goddesses kidnapped by demons deliberately provoked public outrage. In both cases, a goddess meant to personify India is shown to be imprisoned by a demon, an allusion to colonial subjugation which is directly compared to a ‘sexual assault on the nation’, as pointed out by Niharika Dinkar.45 In the case of the nineteenth-century images of Sati, her idealised appearance represents hope and the notion that she is reformulated into a more powerful body, resurrected as Mother India. In the context of the colonial period and the re-envisioning of Sati as nationalist icon, there is a strong suggestion that her martyred body appears not to suffer at all, but instead willingly sacrifices itself to the subcontinent. This reading of the souvenir images was not, of course, part of the original myth, which described her sacrifice as one she performed for her husband. However, by the nineteenth century writers such as Bhudev Mukhopadhyay and Aurobindo Ghose had taken inspiration from the narrative and lent it contemporary relevance by interpreting the distribution of Sati’s body across the country as a sacrifice for India. As Sadhan Jha points out, ‘there has always been a celebration of the nation’s female body – and of her citizens’ male gaze’.46 In the case of the image of Sati and Shiva, she is consistently held up for display as a passive goddess for visual consumption, in contrast with the active figure of Shiva. As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has pointed out in her account of the myth, ‘a transaction between great male gods fulfils the destruction of the female body and thus inscribes the earth as sacred geography (…) There is no space from which the sexed subaltern can speak.’47 During the late nineteenth century the Mother as Sati, however, was no mere victim, but also an embodiment of strength and sacrifice, an icon of patriotism and an ethical ideal to be imitated rather than merely an object to be saved.
Subverting Christian iconography The artists behind the Calcutta Art Studio’s images were trained at the Calcutta School of Art in a Western style of painting through the study of classical and Renaissance imagery, accessible through European prints. In terms of idealised figures that may have inspired the Shiva and Sati print (Plate 4), possible classical or Renaissance iconographic precedents might have included Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Pluto and Persephone (1621–22), his Aeneas and Anchises (1618–19), or even the ancient Roman image of Atlas carrying the Earth (second century ce). By the mid-nineteenth century, the British had established art schools in Calcutta, where plaster casts of antique originals were used as teaching aids. In the case of the Shiva and Sati print attention must also be drawn to Christian precedents. Indeed, one American traveller, Moncure Daniel Conway, compared the image of Shiva carrying Sati with the image of St Christopher, the giant who is often represented carrying Christ as a child across a dangerous river. The Calcutta Art Studio print of Sati is probably the very image he saw on a trip to Calcutta in 1884: I gathered from the print-shops of Calcutta several popular pictures (…) [Shiva] bearing Sati on his shoulder, – a giant with flowing beard and hair, toiling, staff in hand, between steep and rugged cliffs, – is a fair image of St. Christopher.48
Kalighat souvenirs and Sati’s iconography
According to the thirteenth-century Golden Legend, Christ as a child tells St Christopher: ‘You were not only carrying the whole world, you had him who created the world upon your shoulders. I am Christ your king, to whom you render service by doing the work you do here.’49 The notion of Christ as ‘the whole world’ makes for an interesting body-cosmos parallel with Sati. There is an inscription at the bottom of the Studio print of Sati in Bengali that reads: ‘Mahadev [Shiva] is carrying the body of Sati on his shoulders while dancing. Vishnu cuts her up with his chakra.’ As described in Puranic texts,50 Shiva’s dance is a dance of destruction, and Shiva is often represented in this guise as Nataraja (the Lord of Dance), surrounded by flames. However, the Calcutta Art Studio’s image of Shiva with Sati (like the pat watercolours) does not depict this dynamic, destructive Shiva. Instead, we are presented with an image of suffering, a veritable Pietà or Lamentation of Christ (Figure 1.8). In the case of the Studio’s print in particular, Shiva is shown as Virgin-like in his grief-stricken carrying of Sati. Not only does the print show stylistic resonance with European Pietà images, but in terms of content it also absorbs the pathos of sacrifice for the greater good, directed toward nationalist ends. The Pietà print is an image of remembrance in its appeal to the faithful to recall Christ’s sacrifice for humanity, while the Sati print accomplishes the same petition in its evocation of the deity’s sacrifice for the nation through her corporeal relics. Sati has sacrificed her body, as Christ did; and, like him, she is resurrected and reborn into a more powerful body – in her case, the subcontinent itself. Both the Pietà and Sati images are icons of commemoration taking inspiration and strength from this pathos of sacrifice. The Church Missionary Society collected Calcutta Art Studio lithographs for use in loan exhibitions in England. One anonymous missionary noted that they were modelled on Christian prototypes, and argued that this emulation anticipated the death of Hinduism: ‘As authentic representations of their gods by Hindus they mark a fast fading phase in the religious history of the country – the period when by adopting Christian tactics – the people are trying to bolster up their own tottering faiths.’51 As Christopher Pinney points out, he could hardly have been more wrong: ‘lithography was to play a key role in the reconstruction and “syndication” of a new and powerful form of Hinduism’.52 Not only that: the influence of Christian iconography in fact nurtured Hindu nationalistic sentiment rather than weakened it. Astrid Erll’s discussion of migrating images as vehicles of ‘transcultural memory’ seems apt in this context. She defines the term as ‘the incessant wandering of carriers, media, contents, forms, and practices of memory’, and notes ‘their continual “travels” and ongoing transformations through time and space, across social, linguistic and political borders’.53 As Partha Mitter notes, art historians have often viewed migrations or ‘artistic borrowings’ of visual motifs, styles and symbols across cultures ‘in terms of power relations between the coloniser and the colonised’.54 For example, Indian artists’ use of European iconography is often reductively described as an inferior form of copying. However, as Mitter points out, the introduction of European art into India – and the true nature of how it was received and translated by Indian artists (i.e. the details of this transmission) – was far more complex and demands closer investigation.55 As an archetypal image of sacrifice and grief, the iconography of the Pietà was disseminated through print to Bengal, a ‘carrier of memory’ that had a strong influence on Kalighat pats and lithographic prints alike, and was subversively infused with indigenous and patriotic meaning.
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Figure 1.8 Marcantonio Raimondi (after Michelangelo), Pietà, print on paper, c.1547 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Shiva, asceticism and Bengali masculinity Another facet of Christ-like self-sacrifice is articulated through the figure of Shiva in images of the goddess Sati. Shiva has renounced the material world and is portrayed as a wandering ascetic or sannyasi (Plate 4). This reflects the intimate relationship between Christian suffering and a muscular sannyasi aesthetic advocated a few years later by Swami Vivekananda, consisting in the idea that through suffering and selfsacrifice one became stronger.56 This is significant because Vivekananda, another major nationalist figure portrayed by the Calcutta Art Studio, translated the Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis in 1889.57 The year before he spent time as a wandering monk, and his sole possessions included a copy of this fifteenth-century text along with the Bhagavad Gita. As the title suggests, à Kempis’s text is about identifying with Christ and following his example. Chapter headings include: ‘That we should bear our hardships patiently after Christ’s example’ and ‘Of Christ’s offering on the cross, and our own self-surrender’.58 In his preface Vivekananda noted: We happen to be the subjects of a Christian government now. Through its favour it has been our lot to meet Christians of so many sects (…) how startling the divergence between their profession and practice! (…) glibly talking of the glorious sacrifice and burning renunciation of the Master, but in practice going about like
Kalighat souvenirs and Sati’s iconography a gay bridegroom fully enjoying all the comforts the world can bestow! Look where we may, a true Christian nowhere do we see (…) the reader, while reading the book, will hear the echo of the Bhagavad Gita over and over again. Like the Bhagavad Gita, it says ‘give up all the Dharmas and follow Me’.59
This would reinforce Vivekananda’s own conception of masculinity, embodied in the figure of the sannyasi, who he believed possessed the attributes of renunciation and pure virility: ‘The national ideals of India are renunciation and service. Intensify her in those channels and the rest will take care of itself.’60 Vivekananda exhorted his followers: ‘I want strength, manhood, kshatravirya, or the virility of a warrior, and brahma-teja, or the radiance of a Brahmin.’61 Again, Christian iconography and symbolism were arguably being subverted for patriotic purposes in souvenirs of Shiva carrying Sati. Vivekananda’s ideal of the warrior-ascetic represented a response to a crisis in masculinity in Bengali culture at the time. According to him, the celibacy of an ascetic was a sign of his strength, explicitly challenging stereotypical, colonial conceptions of ‘superior’ machismo. Vivekananda believed his own celibacy and his control of the dhatu (semen) was the source of his physical and mental stamina.62 The sannyasi was also a figure who represented endurance and sacrifice, resonating attractively with revolutionaries determined to challenge the accusations of Bengalis as effeminate and weak. The ideal of the sannyasi was also envisioned through Bankim’s own revolutionary ascetics in Anandamath who perceived their task in terms of sacrifice and rigorous spiritual discipline that would eventually free the enslaved motherland. As the ‘children’ dedicated to her service and liberation, they took a vow of celibacy or brahmacharya until their object was attained.63 The belief that one should remain celibate until the motherland achieved independence from the British was popular during the colonial period, and was considered a form of sacrifice to Bharat Mata and a sign of pure devotion. The numerous secret revolutionary societies inspired by Aurobindo’s vision of Swaraj adhered to this.64 According to the myth of Sati, Shiva takes a vow of celibacy after his wife’s immolation and becomes a wandering ascetic until she is later reborn as another goddess, Parvati. Indeed, Shiva is the perfect illustration of the relationship between asceticism and virility.65 Sometime between 1910 and 1915 the Bengali artist Nandalal Bose (1882–1966) explored the ascetic ideal as a symbol for masculine strength in Shiva Drinking the World’s Poison (Figure 1.9). According to myth, Shiva saved the world by swallowing a deadly poison. His heroic act is depicted by Bose, the suggestion of a blue mark on his throat indicating where the poison lingers. As Niharika Dinkar points out, his body is not exaggeratedly muscular but soft and almost feminine. This alternative ascetic masculinity deliberately appropriated colonial claims of unmanliness and suggested empowering potential.66 As a renouncer of all things worldly, the ascetic had mastered his body and mind and was thus liberated, a slave to no one, a powerful revolutionary symbol at the time. In contrast with Bose’s depiction of Shiva, Kalighat pats and lithographic prints of the god carrying Sati emphasise his virility by means of the tiger skin around his waist, a phallic tail hanging suggestively below his torso. This image of an ascetic yet very masculine Shiva was in marked contrast with the contemporaneous stereotype of the bhadralok babu, a submissive Bengali servant of the British colonial administration – also a subject for depiction in pats (Figure 1.10). The babus in the colonial as well as
Figure 1.9 Nandalal Bose, Shiva Drinking the World’s Poison, c.1910–15, watercolour National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi
Figure 1.10 Babu, watercolour on paper, 1870–85 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
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indigenous imagination were emasculated dandies who led extravagant, corrupted lifestyles, prioritising superficial appearance over social responsibility. Their submissiveness was illustrated by showing them falling at women’s feet, a critique of Bengali passivity more generally. As Mukul Dey commented, ‘These “shop-studios” in those days were more or less news bureaus of the country, where not only the pictures of mythological subjects were drawn but caricatures and satirical sketches would be drawn dealing with the topics of the day.’67 Indeed, in the case of Kalighat pats, this popular medium often served as a vehicle for social commentary and satire. In response to the babu stereotype, images of Shiva as an ascetic carrying Sati urged inner strength and a new ascetic form of masculinity. It was believed that Bengali men were too physically feeble to defend their homeland from the strength of the British.68 The British critique equated the Bengali’s weak physique with his submissiveness: ‘The Bengali’s leg is either skin and bones (…) with round thighs like a woman’s. The Bengali’s leg is the leg of a slave.’69 The historian Thomas Macaulay expressed a similar sentiment in 1843: The physical organization of the Bengali is feeble even to effeminacy. He lives in a constant vapour bath. His pursuits are sedentary, his limbs delicate, his movements languid. During many ages he has been trampled upon by men of bolder and more hardy breeds. Courage, independence, veracity, are qualities to which his constitution and his situation are equally unfavourable. His mind bears a singular analogy to his body. It is weak even to helplessness for purposes of manly resistance.70 Bengalis themselves absorbed such charges of effeminacy to the extent that they articulated their frustration at their inability to retrieve the country from the hands of a foreign power.71 The Hitavadi, a Bengali daily, lamented in 1905: ‘We are degenerated creatures devoid of manliness. That is why Lord Curzon’s despotism is flowing on in an uninterrupted discourse.’72 And in 1883 the Bengali writer Shib Chunder Bose stated in his publication, The Hindoos As They Are: The Bengalis are not a warlike race. Their traditional habits and usages, – their physique, – their diet and dress, – their natural tendency to slothfulness and effeminacy, – their proverbial quietude, – their general want of pluck and manly spirit, – their ascetic composure, placing the chief joys of life in rest and competency, – all indicate an unwarlike temperament.73 Many Bengali writers, leaders and intellectuals, including Bankim and Vivekananda, satirised the weakness of their fellow elite citizens, who they accused of aspiring to British manners and behaviour. The figure of the effeminate babu in the colonial as well as the indigenous mind was the emasculated servant of the British.74 Shib Chunder Bose even described the babu as ‘denationalized’: As a man of fashion the Babu cuts a burlesque figure, by adopting a dress, partly Mussalman and partly European, and by imitating the European style of living, as if modern civilization could be brought about by wearing tight pantaloons, tight shirts, and black coats of alpaca or broadcloth. (…). He eats mutton chops and fowl-curry, drinks Brandy-panee or Old Tom, and smokes Manilla or Burmah
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cigars. Certainly these things are proscribed in the Hindoo Shastra, and an honest avowal of their use will sooner or later expose a man to public derision, and estrange him from the hearts of the orthodox Hindoo. A wise European, who has the real welfare of the people at heart, will never encourage such an objectionable line of conduct, because it is calculated to denationalize them.75 During the late nineteenth century several akharas or gymnasia were built in Calcutta, reflecting a desire to promote physical strength and bodily discipline. Between 1867 and 1880, members of the Tagore family began the Hindu Mela, an annual fair which aimed to encourage not only cultural pride but also physical, muscular activity amongst Bengalis.76 A wrestler named Shyama Kantha Banerjee (1858–1925) became famous for wrestling with tigers while performing in European-style circuses around Calcutta during the 1890s. He was a popular star in his lifetime and glorified in Kalighat pats (Figure 1.11). Wrestlers during the period were said to be celibate, and again celibacy was regarded as the reason for their power, the retention of semen being the source of their strength. It was thought that through the disciplines of celibacy and wrestling, men acquired self-control.77 In Kalighat representations of Shiva he is often shown with the features of a wrestler, including a moustache and side locks.
Figure 1.11 A Man Wrestling a Tiger, watercolour on paper, c.1830–50 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
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Sati, suttee and the story of Padmini Sati’s sacrifice assumed further symbolic meaning during the nineteenth century. The ritual of widow immolation, during which the widow sacrificed herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, was named after her (sati or suttee as the British spelled it).78 The practice was chiefly carried out by upper-caste Hindu women, and the earliest known mention of the practice in India dates to the fourth century bce, by the ancient Greek writer Diodorus. Bengal had been a centre for this practice and, after it was banned by the British in 1829, it came to be nostalgically and symbolically associated with patriotic sentiments by several nineteenth-century Bengali writers.79 For the British, the ritual was a sign of Indian depravity, and was used to justify colonial rule.80 Governor-General William Bentinck abolished the practice in 1829. A statue of Bentinck, erected in 1835, depicts a sati scene under his stern figure; an inscription at the rear of its base records that Britain was now committed to ‘elevate the moral and intellectual character’ of its Indian subjects. The new law he instated was called ‘Regulation XVIII of 1829: A Regulation Declaring the Practice of Suttee or Burning/ Burying Alive of Hindoo Widows Illegal and Punishable by Criminal Courts’.81 Many Hindu reformers encouraged the 1829 reform. They included members of a socio-religious reform movement, the Brahmo Sabha (later the Brahmo Samaj), founded in 1828 by Debendranath Tagore and Ram Mohan Roy. They began the so-called ‘Bengal Renaissance’ of the nineteenth century, pioneering religious, social and educational reforms within the Hindu community (including the emancipation of women and abolition of the caste system and the dowry system). When he put together a case against the practice of sati in the early nineteenth century, Ram Mohan Roy called it the ‘burning alive of the Hindoo widow’, emphasising the unpleasant reality of the ritual.82 In 1883 Shib Chunder Bose also called the practice into question: Hearing from my mother that my aunt was ‘going as a Sati’ (…) I asked my mother for an explanation; she, with tears in her eyes, told me that my aunt (living in the next house) was ‘going to eat fire.’ (…) This rite was the severest reflection on the satanic character of a religion that ignores the first principle of divine law. Women are of an impressionable nature; their enthusiasm is easily fanned into a flame, and superstition and priestcraft took advantage of it.83 Others were concerned about the wider implications of the colonial threat to indigenous culture.84 The British authority’s reforming legislations, which interfered with matters of ritual practice, such as the abolition of sati, were not popular with everyone; and the suggestion that by extension Hindu society was barbaric and irrational was resented by many. For example, the aim of the Dharma Sabha (a Hindu organisation founded in 1830 to rival that of Ram Mohan Roy) was to oppose Bentinck’s sati legislation, prevent government interference in religion and protect the so-called Sanatana Dharma (‘Eternal Religion’). The Dharma Sabha rallied Hindus to maintain their ‘traditional’ way of life and protect it against governmental regulation.85 The following petition of 1830 was addressed to Bentinck in response to the ban: My Lord: We, the undersigned, beg leave respectfully to submit the following petition to your Lordship in Council, in consequence of having heard that certain persons, taking upon themselves to represent the opinions and feelings of the
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Hindoo inhabitants of Calcutta, have misrepresented those opinions and feelings, and that your Lordship in Council is about to pass a resolution, founded on such erroneous statements, to put a stop to the practice of performing suttees, an interference with the religion and customs of the Hindoos, which we must earnestly deprecate, and cannot view without the most serious alarm (…). Under the sanction of immemorial usage as well as precept, Hindoo widows perform, of their own accord and pleasure, and for the benefit of their husbands’ souls and for their own, the sacrifice of self-immolation called suttee, which is not merely a sacred duty but a high privilege to her who sincerely believes in the doctrines of their religion; and we humbly submit that any interference with a persuasion of so high and self-annihilating a nature, is not only an unjust and intolerant dictation in matters of conscience, but is likely wholly to fail in procuring the end proposed. (…) The fact was, that the number of suttees in Bengal considerably increased in consequence within a short time. 86 For decades after its abolition, sati remained a potent symbol of the Hindu woman’s devotion to her husband; Bengali writers reinterpreted and romanticised the ritual as representative of pure love and noble self-sacrifice.87 The philosopher and historian Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877–1947) described it as a sacred custom reflecting the noble superiority of Hindu women. He explicitly compared a widow’s sacrifice for her husband to a patriot’s sacrifice for his country: The criticism we make on the institution of Sati and woman’s blind devotion is similar to the final judgment we are about to pass on patriotism. We do not, as pragmatists may, resent the denial of the ego for the sake of an absolute, or attach an undue importance to mere life; on the contrary, we see clearly that the reckless and useless sacrifice of the ‘suttee’ and the patriot is spiritually significant. And what remains perpetually clear is the superiority of the reckless sacrifice to the calculating assertions of rights.88 Significantly, it was believed that the practice of sati deified women. The flames were said to cleanse the widow’s soul, and the notions of purity and sacrifice proved attractive to many patriotic Hindus.89 The ritual of sati thus assumed a symbolic role; anti-imperialists borrowed the rhetoric of self-sacrifice associated with the widow’s immolation and linked it to the sacrifice for one’s country. For them she represented a heroic icon of resistance to the coloniser’s authority to intervene and initiate reform. Many Bengali nationalist writers invoked an idealised golden past before colonial rule. For them, reclaiming this past meant overcoming British control, and they often referred to historical (and mythological) figures for inspiration. The Calcutta Art Studio not only produced mythological religious pictures, but also ones of a more secular nature, including patriotic legends. Revealing is the choice of a particular scene printed in 1883, the same year as the Sati print (Plate 6): in the centre the fictional, heroic Rajput princess Sarojini is shown about to mount a funeral pyre, refusing to enter the harem of the conquering Sultan of Delhi, Alauddin Khilji, shown on the left. Sarojini was a character invoked in tales of Queen Padmini of Chittor.90 According to legend, Padmini committed sati in 1303 after her husband was defeated by Alauddin’s army, and this tale of bravery became a veiled metaphor for anti-imperialist defiance by the time this print was made.
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As pointed out by several scholars, the Bengali literati’s romanticised retellings of Rajput displays of valour served to inspire patriotic spirit and were often explicitly anti-colonial.91 Padmini and Sarojini became symbolic of the motherland, inviting others to rise up and protect its honour. The legend was revived for Bengali readers by the poet Rangalal Bandyopadhyay in his Padmini-Upakhyan (1858). Many writers retold her story, including Jyotirindranath Tagore, whose play Sarojini ba Chitor Akraman (1875) sought to instil patriotism in audiences. One particularly memorable scene involved a group of Rajput queens who sang just before committing sati to avoid capture: ‘Flames, burn high, blaze forth: the Rajput beauty is about to court death.’92 When Alauddin enters the fort, he thinks he sees Padmini about to mount a funeral pyre and pleads with her to stop – this is the scene shown in the Studio print, indicating that the play was its inspiration. The woman is in fact Sarojini, who tells Alauddin that Padmini has already sacrificed herself before jumping into the flames herself. As Ramya Sreenivasan points out in relation to Tagore’s play, their sacrifice reflected devotion not only to their husbands but also to their homeland, rendering them veritable goddesses in the eyes of nationalists.93 Binodini also starred in the play, and described the mass immolation scene, noting the audience’s powerful sympathetic responses: There’s a scene (…) where the Rajput women circle the pyre, singing all the while. This scene with pyres burning furiously in three or four spots and the flames, ferocious and devouring, rising several feet high seemed to madden the spectators. We had no electricity those days; sheets of tin, about four or five feet long, would be spread on the stage and thin sticks of wood would be laid on them and then set aflame. Dressed in red saris came groups of Rajput women, some decked in flower ornaments, some with garlands in their hands (…) singing (…) they circled the fire and then suddenly, one by one, they threw themselves into the flames (…) the flames would rise and somebody’s hair would be burnt, some others’ clothes would catch fire, but no one cared.94 To many Bengali writers, the custom of sati came to symbolise the protection of women’s purity against foreign rule. During the period of colonial crisis, glorified precolonial figures like Padmini and Sarojini were lauded as inspirational role models representing honour and bravery. Abanindranath Tagore’s Rajkahini (1904) consisted of a series of stories (including the story of Padmini) glorifying Rajput heroism, a virtue that the Bengali male had been accused of lacking.95 Tagore’s stories were designed to conjure the past in order to inspire the present. Bankim was another Bengali author drawn to Rajput history and the symbolism of sati. In his Mrinalini (1869), Nabadwip, the centre of Bengali power, was captured by Turkish troops. Bankim invoked the image of a young woman peacefully lying at the feet of her deceased husband before lighting a pyre and performing sati. In his Kamalakanter Daptar (1875) the protagonist, Kamalakanta, contemplates India’s once magnificent but now ravaged land and compares it to a murti of a goddess about to be immersed forever. His grief mounts as he fears Mother India will never be reborn, until the image of a woman committing sati comes to his mind: I can see the funeral pyre alight, the chaste wife sitting at the heart of the blazing flames, clasping the feet of her husband lovingly to her breasts. Slowly the fire spreads, destroying one part of the body and entering another (…) her face is
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joyful (…) life departs and the body is reduced to ashes (…) when I remember that only some time ago (…) our women could die like that, then new hope arises in me and I have faith that we, too, have the seeds of greatness within us (…) Women of Bengal! You are the jewels of this country.96 Bankim linked the ritual with national regeneration and, as Tanika Sarkar points out, ‘the self-immolating woman became the repository, no longer so much of sacred power, but of national greatness and heroic resistance against colonization’.97 In this vein, Nandalal Bose’s watercolour painting, Sati (1907), was quickly celebrated as an icon of heroic self-sacrifice two years after the Partition of Bengal (Plate 7).98 The painting represents the moment of her immolation, and the focus is on the apparent mystical nature of this sacrifice through the rendering of fire as a shimmering haze enveloping the peaceful figure. Between 1905 and 1910, Bose associated himself with the Swadeshi movement which responded to the Partition by encouraging anti-colonial action.99 Sister Nivedita lauded his painting as a glorious symbol of Hindu womanhood in 1908: The spire-like flames leap up. She kneels throned on a summit of fire. Yet there is no fear. (…) Her mind is quiet, flooded with peace. (…) In this perfect fearlessness, this absence of any self- consciousness, what a witness we find to the Indian Conception of the Glory of Woman!100 Ultimately sati was fetishised in both colonial and anti-imperialist rhetoric in which the ‘widow-martyr’ was projected as an idealised fantasy, often with erotic undertones, representing the obedient and pure Hindu woman. Such a woman was deemed to require authoritative protection, whether by colonial authorities or anti-imperialists. This fight over the body of the Indian woman naturally assumed a territorial dimension as both sides fought over the gendered body of the subcontinent.
The enduring power of Sati The enduring appeal of the Sati and Shiva image of pathos displayed in the Kalighat souvenirs would lead to its iconographic consistency right up until the present day in the form of contemporary prints, monuments, sculptures and even film.101 It is evident in an extraordinary example of propaganda that places the Sati image of pathos in an overtly political context – an election billboard in Hyderabad from December 1984, the year of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination (Figure 1.12). The billboard was one of many street hoardings set up by Indira’s Congress Party to promote her son Rajiv as the next leader. It shows her dead body across an anthropomorphised map of India, which appears to be holding her the way Shiva holds Sati. Blood from her wounds drips down the map while tears flow from the map’s face. Inscribed across these hoardings are words from her last speech: ‘When my life is gone, every drop of my blood will strengthen the nation’, suggesting that, like Sati, Indira will be reconstituted into the more powerful body of the nation itself. The scholar Sumathi Ramaswamy writes that the image represents the potential demise of Mother India after Indira’s death.102 Instead, if we see in the map of India the figure of Shiva, it is rather India’s grief that threatens a kind of apocalypse, just as Shiva’s own grief threatened the destruction of the world, and the martyrdom of Indira is equated with Sati’s own martyrdom.
Figure 1.12 ‘When my life is gone, every drop of my blood will strengthen the nation’, election hoarding, Hyderabad, 1984 © Raghu Rai/Magnum Photos
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In late nineteenth-century Bengal, nationalists harnessed the power of myth for the purpose of national regeneration, and made mythological characters symbols of sociopolitical realities. Souvenirs of Sati offered pilgrims a way to extend, relive and remember their experience at the Kalighat temple by bringing an image of Sati (India) back with them to their homes. Through souvenirs, the network of physical sites became a network of printed and painted images that were broadly dispersed across Bengal and the rest of India. Sati came to represent a nation in need of saving, while Shiva represented its citizens (or India’s destiny) and the Pithas symbolised the nation’s fragments. This chapter has explored why the Sati myth (which dated back to before the tenth century) was only illustrated from the nineteenth century onwards, arguing that it was reinterpreted as a nationalist symbol. Just as Bharat Mata was conceived as a new deity during a period of crisis, Kalighat paintings and lithographic prints of Sati visually articulated the rhetoric of sacrifice for the motherland. This chapter has also argued that Sati represented a fundamental transitional symbol of propaganda between Mother India imagined as impoverished and Mother India envisioned as heroic. A souvenir of Sati sold at Kalighat reminded devotees that the temple represented one element of a powerful network that made up the goddess’s body. The figure of Sati was also directly associated with the practice of widow immolation. Sati as a Hindu practice was re-envisioned as an act of resistance against colonial attempts to initiate reform. Anti-imperialists paralleled the sacrifice for one’s country with the widow’s immolation. The Calcutta Art Studio’s 1883 print of Sarojini articulated a tale of courage in the face of foreign rule, reflecting the rise of nationalism and increased opposition to the British by the time it was published.
Sumathi Ramaswamy has analysed the cultural and visual phenomenon of Bharat Mata in The Goddess and the Nation: Mapping Mother India (Durham, NC, 2010) and her articles ‘Maps and Mother Goddesses in Modern India’ (Imago Mundi, vol.53, 2001, pp.97–114) and ‘Visualising India’s Geo-Body’ (Contributions to Indian Sociology, vol.36, no.1–2, 2002, pp.151–89). See Sarkar, T. Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Community, Religion and Cultural Nationalism (New Delhi, 2001). The modern nation has often been gendered as feminine in the formation of nationalist rhetoric. Apart from Ramaswamy, see also Gupta, C. ‘The Icon of Mother in Late Colonial North India: “Bharat Mata”, “Matri Bhasha” and “Gau Mata”’, Economic and Political Weekly, vol.36, no.45, 2001, pp.291–299. Sadan Jha traces the figure of Bharat Mata to a satirical piece entitled Unabimsa Purana (The Nineteenth Purana) by Bhudev Mukhopadhyay, first published anonymously in 1866 (Jha, S. ‘The Life and Times of Bharat Mata: Nationalism as Invented Religion’, Manushi, vol.142, 2004), p.35. Sarkar, T. Rebels, Wives, Saints: Designing Selves and Nations in Colonial Times (Ranikhet, 2009), p.180. In an 1873 Bengali narrative entitled Dasamahavidya (Ten Aspects of the Goddess), India assumes the characteristics of Bharat Bhiksha: ‘Bharat Mata is now Dhumabati – the widow. In her state of widowhood, she lacks food to nourish her body and clothes to cover herself. Her hair is rough from the lack of oil and unkempt. She has lost her teeth and suffering has made her gaze intense and piercing.’ (Quoted in Ramaswamy (2010), p.81.) Sumathi Ramaswamy (2010) and Christopher Pinney (Photos of the Gods: The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India (London, 2004) have briefly discussed this image. As Indira Chowdhury has suggested in her analysis of Bengali songs and plays of this period
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Kalighat souvenirs and Sati’s iconography by the bhadralok, Queen Victoria appears as a rival mother capable of rescuing the nation: The Frail Hero and Virile History: Gender and the Politics of Culture in Colonial Bengal (Oxford, 1998). Raychaudhuri (2002), p.3. Tagore had originally conceived his image as Bangamata (Mother Bengal) and only later decided to re-title it Bharat Mata as a gesture of allegiance to the cause of Indian nationalism. (Guha-Thakurta, T. The Making of a New ‘Indian’ Art: Artists, Aesthetics and Nationalism in Bengal c.1850–1920 (Cambridge, 1992), p.255; Bose, S. and Jalal, A. Nationalism, Democracy and Development: State and Politics in India (Delhi, 1997), pp.53, 68). Nivedita, S. The Complete Works of Sister Nivedita, Vol. 3 (Calcutta, 1967), p.58. Ramaswamy (2002), p.164. Inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi, the temple does not contain an image of a deity, only a map of India set in marble relief. Ramaswamy (2002), p.152. Set in the context of the late eighteenth-century Sannyasi Rebellion, Anandamath became synonymous with the fight for Indian independence. For an English translation, with a critical introduction, see Chatterjee, B. Anandamath, or the Sacred Brotherhood, trans. by Julius J. Lipner (Oxford, 2005). Shiva is described as a powerful sannyasi and yogi in Hindu mythological texts. The ideal of the sannyasi was envisioned through Bankim’s own revolutionary ascetics in Anandamath. Kalighat only achieved its status as a famous pilgrimage site around the middle of the eighteenth century. Pinney (2004), p.194. See Mitter, P. ‘Mechanical Reproduction and the World of the Colonial Artist’, Contributions to Indian Sociology, vol.36 no.1–2, 2002, pp.1–32; and Babb, L.A. and Wadley, S.S. (eds) Media and the Transformation of Religion in South Asia (Philadelphia, 1995). It was only after 1925 that art critics and historians began to take Kalighat painting as an art form seriously, beginning with Ajit Ghose’s 1926 critical essay ‘Old Bengal Paintings’, in Rupam 27 and 28 (1926). Since then the most substantial contributions to the subject have been written by William George Archer: Kalighat Paintings: A Catalogue and Introduction (London, 1971); and, most recently, by Jyotindra Jain: Kalighat Painting: Images from a Changing World (Ahmedabad, 1999). Kalighat pats were painted on unprimed and unglued machine-made paper that had begun to be manufactured in local paper-mills in the early nineteenth century. Translucent watercolours, which arrived around the same time in Calcutta, were used (Jain (1999), p.40). Jain (1999), p.40. Dey, M. ‘Drawings and Paintings of Kalighat’, Advance, Calcutta (1932). Dey (1932). Printing was first introduced by the Portuguese in Goa in 1556 to enable missionary activity (Kesavan, B.S. History of Printing and Publishing in India (New Delhi, 1985), p.97). The efforts to train Bengalis in this new art became institutionalised in the form of the Calcutta School of Industrial Art (established in 1854), where engraving and woodcut were special fields of training. In 1864 it became the Government School of Art. Lithography, or multiple prints made from designs incised on plain-surfaced stone, is based on chemicals that create ink-accepting and ink-rejecting areas. Christopher Pinney’s Photos of the Gods (2004) stands as a foundational work in establishing the social, religious and political importance of such popular prints. Partha Mitter (2002) provides a crucial introduction to the Calcutta Art Studio. The Calcutta Art Studio produced portrait prints of the following personalities: Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Keshub Chandra Sen, Dwarkanath Tagore, Bankim and Surendranath Banerjee. Some were sketched from personal sittings or based on photographs. The Studio photographed Swami Vivekananda in 1897 during a private sitting. Guha-Thakurta (1992), p.82.
Kalighat souvenirs and Sati’s iconography
29 Guha-Thakurta (1992), p.82. Various terms have been employed to refer to mechanically reproduced Hindu mythological images. Kajri Jain favours ‘bazaar art’ (with its connotations of commodification) (Jain, K. Gods in the Bazaar: The Economies of Indian Calendar Art (Durham, NC, 2007)). Pinney (2004) refers to mass-produced images as ‘photos of the gods’, while H. Daniel Smith uses the term ‘god posters’ (Daniel Smith, H. ‘Impact of God Posters on Hindus and their Devotional Traditions’ in Babb and Wadley (1995)). Stephen R. Inglis favours ‘framing pictures’ (Inglis, S.R. ‘Suitable for Framing: The Work of a Modern Master’ in Babb and Wadley (1995)). 30 Dey (1932). 31 Mitter (2002), p.1; Anderson, B. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London, 1991). 32 The Star Theatre was located on 68 Beadon Street. It was inaugurated on July 21, 1883 with Girischandra’s Dakshayajna (Dasi, B. My Story and My Life as an Actress (New Delhi, 1998), p.173); Mukhopadhyay, S. The Story of the Calcutta Theatres, 1753–1980 (Calcutta, 1982), p.64). Manomohan Basu’s Sati Natak (1873) was on the same theme; during and after Girischandra’s version, the story became very popular in jatras, a popular form of Bengali folk theatre. 33 Dasi (1998), p.91. 34 Dasi (1998), p.91. Utpal Dutt notes: ‘We know that Girish came directly from the robust world of the yatra to the theatre and was therefore aware of the power of mythological subjects to draw and hold an Indian audience. Now that he was constructing a theatre for the masses it was natural he would repeatedly fall back on mythology. But what is remarkable is the way he reinterpreted the ancient fables for a modern audience, wanting to rouse its critical faculties. (…) In his essays he repeatedly wrote of mythology being a story of men, not gods, of human society and its struggles for self expression.’ (Dutt, U. Girish Chandra Ghosh (New Delhi, 1992), pp.78, 81). 35 Dasi (1998), pp.123–4. In 1883 Shib Chunder Bose pointed out: ‘Theatrical performances (…) contribute largely to the amusement of the people (…). Daksha Yajna, and others of a similar character, are still relished by pleasure-seekers and holiday-makers.’ (Bose, S.C. The Hindoos As They Are: A Description of the Manners, Customs, and Inner Life of Hindoo Society in Bengal (Calcutta, 1883), p.iii). The Bengali theatre was originally confined to an elite few, and performances were commissioned by wealthy patrons and staged in their homes. It was only from the 1860s/70s that public theatres flourished in Calcutta and the affordability of tickets spanned social classes and genders (Sarkar, S. Writing Social History (Oxford, 1997), p.192). 36 Raychaudhuri (2002), p.14. 37 In 1876 the British government passed the Dramatic Performances Act to prevent its increasingly troubling politicisation of the Bengali theatre. Tanika Sarkar notes that: ‘In between, there were police interruptions of plays, the seizure of stage properties, and arrests of actors, managers, and directors – and the ensuing court cases’ (Sarkar (2009), p.158). 38 Dutt (1992), p.81. 39 Dutt (1992), p.61. The following plays by him were also proscribed by the British: Sirajud-Daula, Mir Kasim and Chhatrapati Shivaji (Dutt (1992), p.14). 40 Dutt (1992), p.66. 41 See Lincoln, B. Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship (Chicago, 1999). 42 Hugh Urban discusses the dialectical image in relation to the Tantric goddess Kali, whom he describes as being transformed into a ‘source of anticolonial struggle’ during the nineteenth century (Urban (2003), p.87). 43 Buck-Morss, S. The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA, 1989), p.219. 44 Dinkar, N. ‘Masculine Regeneration and the Attenuated Body in the Early Works of Nandalal Bose’, Oxford Art Journal, vol.33, no.2, 2010, p. 175. As Wendy Doniger points out, Sati is the subject of a Liebestod or erotic death. The myth of Sati is derived in part from the cycle of myths of the castration of Shiva: when she is mutilated (as he is) it is sometimes stated that Shiva takes the form of a linga (phallus) to remain with each part of her body, particularly with the yoni that falls on the Kamakhya site (Doniger, W. Hindu
45 46 47 48 49 50
51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62
66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73
Kalighat souvenirs and Sati’s iconography Myths: A Sourcebook, Translated from the Sanskrit (Harmondsworth, 1975), pp.249–51). Dinkar (2010), p.175. Varma’s Jatayuvadh is at the Sri Chitra Art Gallery in Thiruvananthapuram, and his The Triumph of Indrajit is at the Sri Jayachama Rajendra Art Gallery in Mysore. Jha (2004), p.36. Spivak, G. ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in Nelson, C. and Grossberg, L. (eds) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Urbana, 1988), p.307. Conway is describing a visit to Calcutta in 1884 (Conway, M.D. My Pilgrimage to the Wise Men of the East (London, 1906), p.255). Also quoted in Pinney (2004), p.25. Voragine, J. The Golden Legend (Princeton, 2012), p.398. Including the Kalika and Devibhagavata Puranas. For English translations, see Van Kooij, K.R. Worship of the Goddess According to the Kalikapurana (Leiden, 1972); and Vijayanad, S. and Balakrishnan, N. Srimad-Devibhagavatam: Text with English Translation (Delhi, 2008). Quoted in Pinney (2004), p.30. Pinney (2004), p.30. Erll, A. ‘Travelling Memory’, Parallax, vol.17, no.4 (2011), p.11. Mitter (1994), p.6. Mitter (1994), p.6. See Chowdhury (1998). Vivekananda frequently pointed out the affinities between Hinduism and Christianity (Raychaudhuri (2002), p.246). à Kempis, T. The Imitation of Christ (London, 1924). Vivekananda, S. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol. VIII (Calcutta, 1989), p.160. Vivekananda (1989), p.228. Nikhilananda, S. Vivekananda: A Biography (Calcutta, 1975), p. 197. As Chowdhury points out, ‘The loss of semen was perceived in Ayurveda to be enervating and weakening. According to prevalent Hindu belief, biryapat or ejaculation actually weakened the male unless it impregnated the female and the containment of birya or semen produced strength.’ (Chowdhury (1998), p.130). See Chatterjee (2005). On the importance of ascetic self-fashioning and the ‘revolutionary sannyasi’ icon for the emergence of radical politics during the Swadeshi movement (1905–08), see Wolfers, A. ‘Born Like Krishna in the Prison-House: Revolutionary Asceticism in the Political Ashram of Aurobindo Ghose’, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, vol.39, no.3, 2016, pp.525–45. Wendy Doniger notes: ‘The contrast between the erotic and ascetic tradition in the character of Siva is not the “conjunction of opposites” with which it has so often been confused. Tapas (asceticism) and kama (desire) are not diametrically opposed like black and white, or heat and cold, where the complete presence of one automatically implies the absence of the other. They are in fact two forms of heat, tapas being the potentially destructive or creative fire that the ascetic generates within himself, kama the heat of desire.’ (Doniger, W. Siva: The Erotic Ascetic (New York, 1973), p.35. Dinkar (2010), pp.186–7. Dey (1932). Dinkar (2010), p.174. This topic is taken up in Ashis Nandy’s Intimate Enemy (Oxford, 1998), Mrnalini Sinha’s Colonial Masculinity (Manchester, 1995) and Chowdhury (1998). Steevens, G.W. In India (New York, 1899), p. 73. See also Streets, H. Martial Races: The Military, Race and Masculinity in British Imperial Culture (Manchester, 2004). Macaulay, T.B. Critical, Historical and Miscellaneous Essays and Poems, Vol. 2 (Boston, 1890) p.566. See Urban (2003), Dinkar (2010) and Chowdhury (1998). Author unknown, Hitavadi (July 28, 1905) in Reports of the Native Newspapers, Bengal, no.31, 1905, p.751. Quoted in Dinkar (2010), p.174. Bose (1883), p.208.
Kalighat souvenirs and Sati’s iconography 74 75 76 77
80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97
Urban (2003), p.96. Bose (1883), p.196. Dinkar (2010), p.174. As Heehs notes, akharas were designed to train young men for revolutionary action (Heehs, P. The Bomb in Bengal: The Rise of Revolutionary Terrorism in India (Delhi, 1993), pp.259–60). Valentine Chirol expressed his alarm in 1910: ‘[Nationalist] spirit had spread like wildfire not only among the students but among the teachers, and the schools of physical training to which young Bengal had taken, partly under the influence of our British love of sports and partly from a legitimate desire to remove from their ‘nation’ the stigma of unmanliness, were rapidly transforming themselves into political societies.’ (Chirol (1910), p.79). To mention just a few examples of studies on sati: Datta, V.N. Sati: A Historical, Social and Philosophical Enquiry into the Hindu Rite of Widow Burning (Delhi, 1988); Major, A. Pious Flames: European Encounters with Sati, 1500–1830 (Oxford, 2006); Mani, L. Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India (Berkeley, 1998); Ray, A.K. Widows Are Not for Burning (New Delhi, 1985); Narasimhan, S. Sati: A Study of Widow Burning in India (New Delhi, 1990); and Nandy, A. At the Edge of Psychology (Oxford, 1980). Detailed district-wise statistics on sati are given in Collet, S.D. The Life and Letters of Raja Rammohun Roy (London, 1900). Including Jyotirindranath Tagore (Sarojini ba Chitor Akraman, 1875) and Upendranath Das (Sarat-sarojini (1874) and Surendrabinodini (1875)). In Bankim’s Kamalakanter Daptar and Mrinalini of the 1870s the widow is a symbol of Bengali national greatness (see Sarkar (2009), pp.51, 158). Ashis Nandy points out that: ‘It was only towards the end of the 18th century and in Bengal that the rite suddenly came to acquire the popularity of a legitimate orgy. (…) the rite was becoming popular not among the rural poor or the small peasantry, but amongst the urban nouveaux riches who had lost part of their allegiance to older norms and had no alternative commitments with which to fill the void’ (Nandy (1980), pp.3–5). Van der Veer (2001), p.43. Author unknown, ‘Regulation XVIII of the Bengal Code’, National Archives of India, December 4, 1829. Sarkar (2009), p.14. Bose (1883), pp.279–80. As Gayatri Spivak and other scholars have noted, sati was used to justify colonial rule, while for many Hindus it became symbolic of national identity and tradition, threatened by foreign rule. See Spivak (1988), pp.66–111 and Sarkar (2009), p.51. Chatak, K.K. Hindu Revivalism in Bengal (Calcutta, 1991), p.30. It ends: ‘(Signed) Maharajah Sree Grischunder Bahadur and 800 other signatures.’ (Majumdar, J.K. (ed.) Raja Rammohun Roy and the Progressive Movements in India (Calcutta, 1941), pp.174, 156). See Sreenivasan, R. The Many Lives of a Rajput Queen (Ranikhet, 2007). Coomaraswamy, A. The Dance of Siva (New York, 1985), p.127. See Nandy, A. The Savage Freud (New Delhi, 1995). For more information on Padmini and the impact of her story throughout South Asian history, see Sreenivasan (2007). Mitter (2002), p.20; Sreenivasan (2007), pp.162, 166, 185; Gupta (2009), pp.41, 337. Jyotirindranath, T. Jyotirindranather Natyasangraha (Kolkata, 1969), p.654. Sreenivasan (2007), p.189. Dasi (1998), p.153. It was a retelling of Tod’s Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan (1829), and was a book meant for children. Bagal, J.C. (ed.) Bankim Rachanabali, Vol. 1 (Calcutta, 1966), p.73. Quoted in Ray, S. En-gendering India: Woman and Nation in Colonial and Postcolonial Narratives (Durham, NC, 2000), p.49. Sarkar (2009), p.51. Swati Chattopadhyay comments: ‘Bankim’s slow-panning over the image of the sati’s burning body simultaneously reiterates the architecture of sexual desire and dismisses it in proclaiming the triumph of the spirit over the body.’ (Chattopadhyay,
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Kalighat souvenirs and Sati’s iconography S. Representing Calcutta: Modernity, Nationalism, and the Colonial Uncanny (London, 2005), p.246). The original version of the painting was lost during World War II; a 1943 copy by Nandalal Bose survives. Dinkar (2010), p.176. Nivedita (1967), p.66. Notably the hugely successful television series, Devon Ke Dev Mahadev (2011). Ramaswamy, S. ‘Maps, Mother/Goddesses, and Martyrdom in Modern India’, Journal of Asian Studies, vol.67, no.3, 2008, p.846.
Kamakhya’s erotic-apotropaic potency and the forging of sacred geography
Bengali writers like Bhudev Mukhopadhyay invoked sacred sites including the Shakti Pithas for a new purpose during the colonial period. Bhudev identified the country as the motherland, the deity ‘who always provided her children with nourishment and water to drink’.1 He was one of the first to conceive India in the image of a goddess in his Pushpanjali (Offering of Flowers) in 1876.2 In this text British rule in India is thus described: They did not merely unify the country under one rule, but proceeded to bind it up with [chains of] iron. They made no willing attempts to unify the people. But what they did in pursuit of self-interest, helped in the process of unification. They are totally selfish, but far-sighted; they are drunk with arrogance (…). In the temple of the great goddess [i.e. India] not one of them has a seat of honour.3 It was the temple of Kamakhya in Kamarupa (or Kamrup, present-day Assam) in particular that was regarded as the most important of the Pithas, singled out by Bhudev.4 The site lies near present-day Guwahati on the bank of the Brahmaputra river in northeast India. Early sources state that Kamarupa (literally the ‘form’ or ‘body of desire’) was one of the oldest and most revered of the early seats of goddess worship and Tantric practice, dating back to at least the seventh century.5 The Bengali writer Kshitish Chandra Chakravarti explained in 1893: It would be hazarding conjecture, were I to tell you that [the Tantras] originated in Kamrup. I have looked into one or two Kamrup Tantras, and from the similarity of subjects and from bolder and ampler deliniations [sic] of matters, I am inclined to hold that opinion. (…) And as the shrine at Kamrup is the oldest on record, it is not improbable that they originated there, and gradually spread over the eastern portion of India.6 In Pushpanjali Bhudev presented the land as Mother by exploring its sacred geography through his two pilgrim-protagonists, the sages Markandeya and Vyasa, who visit religious sites across the subcontinent. According to the characters, it is said that only those who are of the highest spiritual ability can go to Kamakhya, which is described as the supreme shrine because of its associations with the earth, with Shakti and with creation itself. Sati’s yoni or vulva is located in the inner sanctum or garbhagriha of Kamakhya temple. It takes the form of a fissure in a large rock, often filled with water from an
Kamakhya’s power and sacred geography
underground spring, and worshipped as the goddess in her manifestation as Kamakhya. The Kalika Purana, a work composed in Assam to glorify Kamakhya, provides a description of the cave and yoni, indicating its presence from as early as the tenth to the twelfth century: On the stone is the female organ, in the form of a stone and very lovely, twelve angulas [finger breadths] wide and twenty-one angulas long, gradually sloping (…) it is reddish like vermilion or safran, giving all objects of desire.7 Kamakhya was regarded as the most sacred site by Bhudev because, as the seat of the goddess’s yoni, it was widely believed to be the most powerful of the Pithas. Significantly, the yoni’s power was articulated by the temple’s sculptures which emphasised the female body and its reproductive powers. By extension, India as motherland was envisioned as a female corporeal entity which would have resonated with Bhudev. The Devibhagavata Purana stated that, ‘though the wise persons have identified the entire world with the body of the goddess, the said Kamakhyayonimandala has no second in reflecting her real glory’.8 Likewise, the Kulacudamani Tantra stated that: ‘of all pithas, the supreme pitha is Kamarupa. It bears great fruit, even if worship is done there only once.’9 And the Kalika Purana affirmed: ‘Among the (…) renowned pithas, the Nilacala is said to be the most sacred place. Thus it is called mahapitha, in which the fundamental form of the goddess resides.’10 Originally there was no figurative image of the goddess Kamakhya; however, recently a popular print was installed near the yoni chamber to give pilgrims a more complete image of the goddess before encountering the aniconic yoni. The Mahabhagavata Purana describes Kamakhya iconographically as a young virgin seated on a lotus which is resting on a lion supported by the trinity of gods: Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. Kamakhya was the key site mentioned in the majority of texts dedicated to the Pithas. Pilgrimage prints of the site are popular today (Figure 2.1), acquired by devotees as a memento of their visit to the temple to be treasured at home. They represent not only the goddess Kamakhya, as well as Shiva carrying Sati, but also depict the temple itself. Such prints were probably circulating as early as the beginning of the twentieth century according to Charles Eliot, who mentioned that prints of Sati were popular in Assam by the time he was writing in 1921.11
Martial and maternal: Kamakhya’s sculptures The site formed a key religious and political centre for several of Assam’s ancient and medieval dynasties, notably during the Pala (tenth to twelfth centuries), Koch (sixteenth to seventeenth centuries) and Ahom periods (seventeenth to eighteenth centuries). The yoni is enshrined within a temple dating back to the sixteenth-century Koch period (Figure 2.2). From an inscription preserved just outside the inner sanctum, it is revealed that the Koch king, Naranarayana, and his brother, General Chilarai, erected this temple in 1565.12 Scattered stone sculptures, many of which are from the Pala era, the height of sculpture in Assam, indicate that they built it on the ruins of an older temple also dedicated to Kamakhya. Much of the sculpture has baffled scholars, who have considered its elements somewhat mismatched, or in some cases have ignored their underlying significance by dismissing some, for example, as references to ‘folk life’
© The Trustees of the British Museum, London
Figure 2.1 Kamakhya Pradarshani, Kamakhya temple pilgrimage poster, 2004
Kamakhya’s power and sacred geography
Figure 2.2 Kamakhya temple Author’s photograph (2012)
(Figure 2.3): ‘The domestic scenes give an overtone of simple folk life and it seems, the pitha’s location in the tribal area is responsible for it.’13 However, a close examination of Kamakhya’s socio-religious context during the Pala and Koch periods in particular reveals a coherence and interaction between sculptures, articulating the significance of the aniconic yoni, shedding light on later nineteenth- and twentieth-century understandings of the site in the context of the nationalist reinterpretation of the Sati myth. This coherence is tied to the harnessing of Tantric power through fertility (as recourse for sonless couples) and apotropaic symbolism (i.e. magico-protective imagery to ward off malignant forces). Both are united in their activation of the temple’s potency, and the combination of maternal and martial goddess properties would have appealed to a revolutionary audience. As mentioned, Kamakhya is one of the oldest centres of Tantric practice, and the site at which some of the earliest Tantric texts were written, including the Kalika Purana. These texts have relatively little to say about sexual intercourse, contrary to recent popular belief in the West which has redefined Tantra to mean sexual ecstasy. Tantra is a body of beliefs and practices that can be defined as a practical means of attaining supernatural powers, worldly benefits and eventually liberation. It is a form of corporeal spirituality: an affirmation of the visceral qualities of existence, and a vision of the world as energy or Shakti which is inherently feminine and can be mediated through the body itself.14 The power of the goddess is therefore central to Tantra and, as we will see with the examples of Pala and Koch patronage at
Kamakhya’s power and sacred geography
Figure 2.3 Mother and child stone relief, Kamakhya temple, western gate, tenth–twelfth century Author’s photograph (2012)
Kamakhya, it could be politically harnessed through esoteric ritual involving potent and transgressive substances such as menstrual blood. This is most viscerally presented to us today through a particular sculpture to be examined, depicting a squatting female figure displaying her vulva (Plate 8). The sculpture has been cemented onto the sixteenth-century edifice, and it seems likely that it is older than the present temple – probably dating from the tenth to the twelfth century, and commissioned under Pala patronage.15 Furthermore, the Kalika Purana of the same period is a key text in establishing Kamakhya as the seat of the yoni, and the sculpture would thus have been considered an appropriate visual articulation of this role.16 Surprisingly, the figure has so far not been included in studies of Kamakhya temple.17 Hugh Urban, along with the priests or pujaris at the temple, refer to the sculpture as a ‘menstruating figure’ because her pudendum is anointed by devotees with red pigment or sindoor.18 Although this is an accurate description today, it also reduces a whole history of meaning and iconography behind the figure which stretches back to at least the third century if not much earlier. The figure can be indisputably identified as Lajja Gauri and not, as others have assumed, Kamakhya herself.19 Indeed, her iconography conforms to images of this little-known goddess who, in states such as Gujarat and Karnataka, was not conceived of as menstruating but was instead meant to suggest birth and divine creation.
Kamakhya’s power and sacred geography
Such an apparent change in meaning raises important questions about the development of its interpretation by devotees and their relationship to and interaction with it. Lajja Gauri provoked a predictable reaction from several nineteenth-century British surveyors for the Archaeological Survey of India (in Karnataka). John Faithful Fleet’s reaction to such a figure at Mahakuta was published in 1881: ‘there is a somewhat notorious and very indecent headless stone figure of the goddess Parvati under the name Lajja Gauri’.20 E.W. West also recorded that ‘Yellamma or Ellamma [i.e. Lajja Gauri] is a very favourite goddess in the Canarese country [Karnataka] and judging from the company she keeps, or rather from the classes that worship her, she is not a very reputable one’.21 The best-known images of this goddess have a female torso and a lotus flower in place of a head. Her legs are bent up at the knees and drawn up to each side in a pose described as one of ‘giving birth’.22 The word ‘Lajja’ translates as ‘modesty’, while ‘Gauri’ refers to a form of the goddess Parvati. Lajja Gauri is the embodiment of fertility and creative power, and was approached by devotees for the granting of fortune and prosperity. Though the focus is on the exposure of the yoni and not the presentation of a sexual act, the pose is intentionally ambiguous and both a sexual and birth-giving pose would have been considered to enable fertility. Carol Bolon conducted a study of Lajja Gauri in 1992 and identified four stages in her iconographic development: from aniconic pot, to lotus-headed figure without arms, to lotus-headed figure with arms and breasts, and finally, and most relevant to this study, to an anthropomorphic figure.23 The latter persisted throughout Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra during the sixth and seventh centuries, and Bolon, who was not aware of the Kamakhya Lajja Gauri, recorded the oldest known anthropomorphic version to be from eighth-century central India (Figure 2.4). This would make the Kamakhya version the latest anthropomorphic type, since all other known Lajja Gauris from the tenth to the twelfth centuries are of the headless type.24 This figure draws attention to the female body as a vessel and icon of reproductive power. Stella Kramrisch, in her study of an eleventh-century Alampur Museum Lajja Gauri, identified the figure with Aditi, the great goddess of the Vedic pantheon who in the Rgveda is described as Uttanapad or ‘one whose legs are extended in partition’, representing the great womb from which the entire universe was born.25 Describing the figure of Lajja Gauri at Kamakhya as evocative of this symbolism is certainly appropriate for the site, which essentially enshrines the vulva of a goddess whose body is associated with the earth itself.26 It is persuasive to assume that the Pala dynasty considered it a suitable visual manifestation of the aniconic yoni. Could it have been installed near the yoni chamber to give a fuller, clearer and more complete image of the goddess? The royal patronage of Lajja Gauri by the Chalukya dynasty, who ruled large parts of southern and central India between the sixth and the twelfth centuries, may provide some clues about the function of such an image under the Pala kings. As Bolon records, the Chalukya rulers’ motivation for worshipping Lajja Gauri can arguably be illustrated by a stone inscription discovered at Belligamve (Karnataka), ‘where an eighth-century Lajja Gauri image is still worshipped by the side of the Kedaresvara temple, recording that Early Chalukya King Vinayaditya (r. 681–96) imposed a tax on sonless couples’.27 This could indicate that King Vinayaditya required soldiers for his military campaigns, and may have found it necessary to provide the temple with an image of Lajja Gauri to promote fertility amongst his subjects. The Chalukya
Kamakhya’s power and sacred geography
Figure 2.4 Lajja Gauri stone sculpture, site unknown, central India, eighth century, Archaeological Museum, Mathura Photo: Carol Radcliffe Bolon
seventh-century Lakulisa temple at Siddhanakolla (Karnataka) retains an image of the goddess, still in worship and in its original location. While at Kamakhya devotees apply sindoor to the figure’s yoni, at Lakulisa worship of Lajja Gauri is performed by ablutions of ghee or clarified butter applied to the pudendum.28 The use of ghee probably dates back to the figure’s original conception, since the substance was equated with semen according to early Vedic texts and therefore would have emphasised Lajja Gauri’s procreative powers. Lajja Gauri’s reproductive capacity was highlighted even more so at Kamakhya by multiple mother and child carvings that probably also date from the tenth to the twelfth century (see Figure 2.3). Revealingly, the Kalika Purana devotes its final chapters to governance and military tactics. Needing soldiers, the Pala rulers may have found it necessary to provide Kamakhya with such imagery, just as the Chalukyas had. One could argue that the mother and child carvings function as visually manifested wish-fulfilments. However, while at other sites the Lajja Gauri figures are auspicious images imparting blessing, rather than explicitly erotic or apotropaic, I would argue that this is not the case at Kamakhya. In fact, her significance here changes from a goddess of fortune and fertility to a Tantric goddess of menstruation, where ghee symbolising sperm is replaced with sindoor symbolising menstrual blood. Crucially, though, in this Assamese context pregnancy and menstruation were not considered
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mutually exclusive. According to the Kalika Purana, the god Vishnu united with the goddess Earth during her menstrual period, resulting in the birth of Naraka, who became king of Kamarupa and a devotee of Kamakhya.29 The Devibhagavata Purana describes an annual festival that is the after-effect of the union between the divine lovers.30 This is the Ambuvaci Mela, which today marks the goddess Kamakhya’s annual menstruation during the summer month of Asadha (June–July).31 Its symbolism and rituals provide vital clues to understanding the figure of Lajja Gauri at Kamakhya, and also suggest that from its very conception sindoor was the substance of choice for anointing Lajja Gauri’s yoni. The festival is closely connected to the agricultural cycle. During this time of the year the water is said to run red with iron-oxide, trickling over the yoni in the inner sanctum so it appears as if the goddess is menstruating. During the festival, a reddened cloth wrapped around the yoni is sought after by pilgrims and prized for its talismanic protective properties. In order to understand the underlying significance of this festival, as well as the Lajja Gauri figure, it is necessary to address the symbolic meaning of menstruation in Hindu culture and ritual, which carries further implications for late nineteenth-century colonial and Bengali conceptions of India as a feminised corporeal entity. Menstrual blood is considered to be powerfully potent but also highly polluting. According to the Dharmasutras, menstruating women are considered dangerously taboo and threatening.32 As Madhu Khanna notes, ‘Whereas the Brahmanical [orthodox] ideology links menstruation to sin, guilt, punishment and fear, and (…) regards a woman’s body, senses and sexuality as dangerous and threatening, the Sakta Tantras (…) invert the orthodox values to their advantage.’33 The Tantric ritual use of such impure substances, which are converted from contaminated fluid to sacred energy, is closely linked to power.34 This is particularly apparent according to the royal patronage and worship at Kamakhya. The commissioning of an image like Lajja Gauri could arguably represent another means of strengthening and protecting the Pala kingdom. As George Michell points out, among the motifs that provide protection in temples are erotic female images and ‘the displayed female yoni’.35 The Kalika Purana emphatically relates goddess worship to worldly power: ‘One who performs worship of the goddess (…) at Kamakhya attains all his desires here on earth (…) He becomes invincible in battle.’36 Copper plate inscriptions from the region praise the Pala kings as ferocious warriors. King Ratnapala (c.920–60) is described as a destroyer of demons who wears a garland made of heads of ‘kings defeated in battle’,37 while his son Indrapala (c.960–90) is praised as a supreme warrior: ‘he vanquished the enemy by dint of his might.’38 King Dharmapala (1035–60) was praised as equally ferocious: ‘in the battlefield, decorated with flowerlike petals, struck from the heads of elephants killed by the blows of his sword, that king alone remained victorious.’39 As a territorial icon, Kamakhya gave power to the king who was also her consort.40 In such a context, Lajja Gauri’s political status is without question.
The promotion of fertility and protection: Kamakhya’s female archer With the fall of the Pala dynasty in the twelfth century, the sculptural tradition in Assam lost its momentum. Assam’s political history became fragmented, and the former Kamakhya temple itself was destroyed sometime between the twelfth and the
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sixteenth century. Vishva Singha (c.1515–40), the founder of Koch political power, and his sons, Naranarayana and Chilarai, rebuilt the temple in 1565,41 a date corroborated by the wall inscription. Two stone figures in the antechamber directly facing the yoni represent the brothers.42 It is difficult to ascertain whether Lajja Gauri was placed in its current location on the temple’s exterior during the Koch period or whether it was positioned elsewhere, but it seems clear that this Pala image was preserved under Koch rule and incorporated into their own worship. As Urban has pointed out, the Koch kings were non-Hindu tribal rulers who were seeking to legitimise their power.43 The reconstruction of the temple and preservation of sculpture from the Pala period suggests the major role of a local goddess cult in giving credence to this political authority.44 The sixteenth-century Yogini Tantra, the second most important Tantric text composed in Assam after the Kalika Purana, described the conflicts between Koch, Ahom and Mughal rulers, leading to the increasing emphasis on the ‘martial character’ of the goddess.45 The text also advised on the best ritual and spiritual means to conquer one's enemies and achieve political power. During the Koch period Lajja Gauri’s protective or apotropaic function was emphasised through the commissioning of several carvings of archers dating to the sixteenth century. Of particular interest is the one that directly faces the inner sanctum and which can be arguably identified as female (Figure 2.5).46 The portrayal of female
Figure 2.5 Archer stone relief, Kamakhya temple, interior, c.1565 Author’s photograph (2012)
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archers is rare in Indian sculpture and could have a range of symbolic implications. The Kamakhya archer appears to be a pregnant warrior kneeling, bow in one hand and quiver with arrows in the other. This unstudied figure is unique and there appears to be no known iconographic precedent. Its prominent location opposite the yoni and beside the sculpted portrait of the Koch king emphasises the importance of the figure and demands further analysis. According to the Kalika Purana and the Yogini Tantra, Assam is said to have originally been the home of a group called the Kiratas, a non-Hindu tribal group who were based in the northeast hills. The texts state that Kirata rituals involved sexual practices and the consumption of intoxicants and impure animals, including boars and tortoises. According to the Kalika Purana, they were said to be ‘shaven-headed and addicted to wine and meat’; and, more importantly, the Yogini Tantra states that they were amongst the first worshippers of Kamakhya: ‘in the greatest of all [Pithas] (…) the religion is considered to be that of the Kiratas’.47 The question is, then, what is the relation between the Kiratas and the archer at Kamakhya? Sculptures at the Shakti Pitha temple of Srisailam in Andhra Pradesh, which enshrines Sati’s right anklet, reveal iconographic similarities and may help answer this question. They are almost contemporary with the archer figures at Kamakhya, dated to the sixteenth century and made under Hoysala patronage. Several
Figure 2.6 Sabara huntress stone relief, Srisailam temple, Andhra Pradesh, early sixteenth century Photo courtesy: Rob Linrothe
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young female archers are depicted on the walls of the temple, who Robert Linrothe believes represent Sabara huntresses (Figure 2.6).48 The Sabaras were a mountainous hill tribe who are often identified with the Kiratas.49 The Kalika Purana describes the wild agricultural celebration of the Sabarotsava or festival of the Sabara peoples, which climaxes with music, dance and orgiastic chaos.50 Another Bengali text of the seventeenth century, the Brhaddharma Purana, also notes that the names of sexual organs were called out by Shakta worshippers during the festival, adding that lewd words pleased the goddess.51 An alarmed Reverend William Robinson (missionary and later headmaster of the Government School in Gauhati) reported on this festival in 1841: Some of the formulas used at the festival in honor of this goddess, relate to things which can never become the subject of description. (…) As soon as the wellknown sound of the drum is heard, calling the people to the midnight orgies, the dance and the song, whole multitudes assemble, and the crowd becomes dense. The women employed to dance and sing on these occasions are those consecrated to the temple, of whom it is reputed there are no less than five hundred. Their presence, together with their filthy songs, and more obscene dances, form the chief attractions. A song is scarcely tolerated which does not contain the most marked allusions to unchastity; while those which are so abominable, that no person could repeat them out of the temple, receive in general the loudest plaudits. All this is done in the very face of the idol.52 As Linrothe points out, Sabara women are well known in Tantric literature as consorts of Tantric adherents and as practitioners themselves. The sixteenth-century poet, Pingali Suranna, associated the Sabara ascetics of Srisailam with ‘lion-riding, snakegirdled siddhas and the magical powers of flight’, so they were clearly considered very powerful beings capable of protecting a temple.53 The tribal, non-Hindu origins of the Kiratas or Sabaras may have appealed to the Koch rulers’ own sense of identity, and enabled them to identify with the original Kamakhya worshippers. It is also possible that Srisailam and Kamakhya were part of a circuit of holy places visited and inhabited by Tantric adherents, leading to iconographical influences.54 If the pregnant archer does not represent a Sabara huntress, perhaps she could represent a Tantric yogini huntress. The tenth-century yogini temple of Hirapur in Orissa represents such a figure, armed with bow and arrow. Little has been written on yogini archers because they are so rare, so their identity currently remains mysterious. What we do know is that the yoginis in general have a reputation for being frightening female figures who were fond of flesh and often associated with magical powers.55 The yoginis do indeed have a strong visual presence at Kamakhya, carved on the body of the temple around the same time as the archer. The daily worship of Kamakhya even includes the invocation of the yoginis, an indication that they were considered aspects of the goddess herself.56 However, given the fact that there seems to be no precedent for the representation of pregnant yoginis, it would be highly unusual if our pregnant archer at Kamakhya portrayed one. I would argue that the pregnant archer points to a mixed iconography that simultaneously promoted fertility and protection in the service of the Koch king, just as Lajja Gauri did for the Palas. Her positioning near Naranarayana is significant, not only in terms of proximity but also because of the emblem beside him, which alludes
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to a bow and arrow. Her role arguably lies in subduing the violent forces of the goddess Kamakhya, explaining her submissive, devotional stance directly in front of the inner sanctum. Indeed, the Koch kings called upon the Tantric powers of Kamakhya in the strengthening of the kingdom; but that power was inherently dangerous and great care had to be taken in her worship.57 According to widespread belief, Naranarayana crept into the inner sanctum one night to watch her in her beautiful, sensual manifestation as a young virgin dancing upon the yoni. When she caught him she immediately transformed into an image of her savage manifestation and blinded him.58 The goddess’s dual role as fertile earth mother and warrior-like protectress, articulated by Lajja Gauri and the pregnant archer, would have undoubtedly appealed to nationalist sentiment during the colonial period. Bankim’s Anandamath described ‘Mother India’ as both a nourishing and protective power: a ‘Mother rich in waters, rich in fruit (…) who saves and drives away the hostile hordes’.59
Subversive sexuality: the reception of Kamakhya during the colonial period In colonial Bengal rumours circulated about the sexual and magical powers of Assamese women. It was widely believed that they could even turn men into sheep (the term ‘Kamakhya’s sheep’ is still popular today).60 In the late nineteenth century a Christian missionary, Paul Olaf Bodding from Chota Nagpur (a recruiting area for Assam tea garden labourers at the time), stated: The traditional Kamru country is a country of strange people with strange powers; the inhabitants can at will turn a man into a dog or any other animal (…). All in all, Kamru country is a land full of magic and witchcraft; but the stories told seem to imply that it is the women who are so dangerous and powerful.61 The Kamakhya temple’s surrounding imagery had been misunderstood and misinterpreted by colonial officials and Christian missionaries as inspired by the dark arts, a means to legitimise their civilising mission.62 In 1841 the Reverend Robinson wrote that in Kamakhya ‘the most abominable rights are practised, and the most licentious scenes exhibited, which it is hardly possible to suppose the human mind, even when sunk to the very lowest depths of depravity, could be capable of devising.’63 And Charles Eliot, in his 1921 text Hinduism and Buddhism, wrote that: Anyone who visits (…) Kamakhya in Assam (…) must be struck with the total absence in the shrines of anything that can be called beautiful, solemn or even terrible. The general impression is of something diseased, unclean and undignified. (…) Kamakhya leave[s] a disagreeable impression – an impression of dark evil haunts of lust and bloodshed, akin to madness and unrelieved by any grace or vigour of art. (…) [The temple] testif[ies] to the atrophy and paralysis produced by erotic forms of religion.64 Eliot is probably referring not only to the figure of Lajja Gauri but also to a group of copulating figures now at the Guwahati State Museum but which originally adorned Kamakhya temple. One exhibits a seated male figure with his legs wrapped around a female, balancing his body with his hands behind him, while the latter raises both her legs and places them on the shoulders of the male. Another sculpture represents a
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female figure on the lap of a male. These erotic sculptural pieces echo the temple sculptures of Konarak (c.1250) and Khajuraho (c.950–1150). The tenth- to twelfthcentury Madan Kamdev temple – known today as the ‘Khajuraho of Assam’, which stands around twenty kilometres from Kamakhya – also displays scenes of an erotic nature from the Pala period, which now lie scattered. Urban notes that: The Yoni Tantra and other texts call not just for sexual union in the ordinary position of the male on top of female; rather they suggest the position known as viparita-rata, which Monier Monier-Williams translates as ‘inverted sexual intercourse’ with the female on top.65 This is a position depicted quite clearly and repeatedly at Madan Kamdev, as well as with the Kamakhya figures. As Urban points out, the aim of this inverted sexual union is not reproductive but the collecting together of male and female sexual fluids (yonitattva and kula dravya), which are regarded as both a source of power and a source of enlightenment, and are later consumed as part of the Tantric rite.66 A colonial official writing on Madan Kamdev commented: ‘The most remarkable [site] is still resorted to as a holy place. It is called Modon Kamdeo; the present objects of worship being two rude stone figures, villainously traducing the god of love and his mistress.’67 The fact that Kamarupa literally translated as ‘form of desire’ inspired the colonial imagination: in 1853 an article in the Calcutta Review referred to it as the ‘Land of Lust’,68 while in 1841 the Reverend Robinson described it as ‘the region of desire’.69 As early as 1837 John McCosh wrote in his Topography of Assam: Kamroop, as its name implied, was in ancient times a sort of Idalian Grove – a privileged region for mirth and dance and revelry and all manner of licentiousness. (…) The Assamese are by the inhabitants of most provinces looked upon as enchanters; and hence the universal dread they have at exposing themselves to be spellbound in the vale of the Brahmaputra. The women come in for a large share of suspicion; indeed they are believed to be all enchantresses, and the influences of their physical beauty is very unfairly attributed to their skill in the magic art.70 Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Assam was regarded as the centre of Tantric practice according to British accounts, a region which in itself was labelled as demonic and hyper-sexualised. Tantra informed the way colonial officials and missionaries imagined India. The earliest and most influential description of Tantra comes from the Reverend William Ward, a major representative of the Baptist Missionary Society in Bengal, and one of the first Western writers who attempted to study and categorise the many Hindu sects and castes. In 1817, he described Hinduism as ‘the most puerile, impure and bloody of any system of idolatry that was ever established on earth’, a religion of ‘idle, effeminate and dissolute people’ with ‘disordered imaginations who frequent their temples for the satisfaction of their licentious appetites’.71 He stressed that the ‘Tuntras’ represented the height of this corrupt faith.72 It was widely opined that Tantra had polluted Hinduism from within with its idolatry, black magic and obscene sexual rites. The ‘so-called Tantric religion’, as Talboys Wheeler put it in 1874, was a cult in which ‘nudity is worshipped in Bacchanalian orgies which cannot be described’.73 Kamakhya temple itself was considered the very heart of Tantra according to colonial reports.
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As Ronald Inden has argued, India came to be regarded as an immoral, irrational and erotic country in contrast with Europe’s apparent scientific and rational spirit of progress.74 Often these two worlds were gendered in colonial as well as indigenous writings at the time – the West representing masculinity, India representing femininity. In British writings this femininity was seen as a sign of weakness and even hysteria. There was already an older tradition (evident in Western philosophy) of gendering the Orient as feminine. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), for example, believed that Hindus lacked masculine order, and were feminised and emasculated by their misguided irrational imaginations, which depended on idolatry.75 In contrast, the British Empire was projected as distinctly male and often symbolised as a lion. In the second half of the nineteenth century, as Peter van der Veer observes, ‘Britain, as a Christian nation, also came to be characterised by a muscular Christianity, based on a gendered notion of racial superiority.’76 Critics of Orientalism such as Edward Said note the consistently ‘gendered’ quality of imperialism whereby the colonial West is perceived as the male, rational, ‘penetrative’ force ruling the female, irrational and submissive Orient.77 For Said, ‘Orientalism takes perverse shape as a male powerfantasy that sexualises a feminised Orient for Western power and possession.’78 British critiques of India as simultaneously weak, erotic, violent and feminine were often influenced by colonial experiences of Tantra in Assam, as with Eliot’s designation of Kamakhya as a temple of perverse black magic. As the centre of goddess worship, Assam and the rest of the northeast region represented the heart of this gendered territory. Accordingly, it required redemption, regulation and ‘muscular rule’.79 In contrast, and in reaction to this, Bengali nationalists valorised the feminine. The fame of Kamakhya as a pilgrimage site is testament to this, an affirmation of the ultimate symbol of womanhood (the yoni) which would have been shocking to Victorian tastes. In 1895 Swami Vivekananda predicted the revival of the Mother as a feminine force: ‘one vision I see clear as life before me, that the ancient Mother has awakened once more, sitting on her throne rejuvenated, more glorious than ever. Proclaim her to all the world with the voice of peace and benediction.’80
Colonial mapping versus sacred geography British colonial officials attempted to lend their rule of the northeast legitimacy by pointing out the barbarity of Tantra as a cult and Assam as a dangerous region full of tribes who conducted human sacrifices (including the sacrifice of British subjects).81 Kamakhya had been singled out as the most depraved site, to be made an example of as justification for colonial rule. From 1838 until 1874 the British ruled Assam as part of Bengal for the convenience of administration. During these decades Assam was essentially ruled as an ‘appendage of the unwieldy province of Bengal’, as Sir Edward Albert Gait put it in 1905.82 However, the Government of India and the Secretary of State expressed misgivings as early as 1868, and, in 1874, Assam was separated and placed under a Chief Commissioner. This was due to a growing concern about the spread of nationalism, which was pulsating across Bengal and into Assam. To the colonial powers which occupied India the subcontinent was a political territory, and its cartographic mapping was a crucial part of the symbolic and ideological demarcation of the Empire’s territorial possessions.83 In the middle of the nineteenth century, the introduction of political and administrative borders distinguished Bengal from neighbouring territories
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(subsequently reflected in cartography). Such borders simultaneously divided and excluded, particularly evident in the isolation of Assam from Bengal and the northeast from the rest of India.84 This segregation led to reactive moves amongst the indigenous population, particularly amongst the Bengali literati, who challenged colonial mapping by promoting the notion of collective cultural territory through sacred geography. The renewed interest in the Shakti Pithas as symbolic of the motherland was a clear reaction against the colonial fragmenting of territory. Such reactions and responses to colonial mapping have remained relatively unexplored.85 Establishing a relationship between Bengal and Assam (and the rest of India) was crucial to the Bengali literati’s anti-imperialist discourse. They sought to transcend the cartographic boundaries imposed by the British by uniting these fragmented but neighbouring territories, emphasising their shared culture, especially through pilgrimage sites. This enabled connections between Bengal and neighbouring regions, contributing to the formation of India as a living landscape, unified through emotional attachment. As Swarupa Gupta notes, the notion of a greater Bengal encompassing the whole of eastern India drew on ancient and mythological ideals of ‘cultural unity’ and fuelled late nineteenthcentury anti-imperialist desires to transcend colonial political and administrative borders.86 Sacred geography functioned as a symbolic cultural and spiritual exploration of Indian nationhood and identity.87
Bengal’s love affair with Kamakhya: pilgrimage as a nationalist device The Bengali literati incorporated Assam into a broader cultural conception of Bengal, and Kamakhya was significant in this context. In 1855 Captain Taite Dalton described Kamakhya’s impact as a pilgrimage site: Within the old walls of Gowhatty is the temple of Kamikhya, which is known wherever the Hindu religion prevails, and is resorted to by pilgrims from all parts of India. (…) [It] has doubtless, from its lofty, commanding and romantic position, always held a high place amongst the holy places of the land.88 The Reverend Robinson stated: ‘This fine [temple] is one of great celebrity, and is frequented by a vast number of pilgrims from all parts of India.’89 And, as Sir Charles James Lyall wrote in his report on ‘The Province of Assam’ for the British Journal of the Society of the Arts in 1903, Bengalis in particular were attracted to the site: The celebrity of the temple of Kamakhya at Gauhati, and its importance as a centre of that bloody and sensual form of worship of Siva and his Consort called Tantrik, are beyond question. The renown of this Tirtha is spread not only throughout Assam but also in Bengal and the chief scriptures in the latter province reckon Kamakhya in Kamrup as their most notable holy place.90 Likewise, Eliot noted that: The chief sanctuary of Saktism is at Kamakhya (…). The spot attracts a considerable number of pilgrims from Bengal, and a wealthy devotee has built a villa on the hill and pays visits to it for the purpose of taking part in the rites.91
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It was chiefly from the nineteenth century onwards that Kamakhya acquired its celebrity amongst Bengalis. As Jayeeta Sharma points out, ‘Although late medieval Sanskrit texts such as the Kalika Purana had stressed Kamakhya’s importance, its remote location removed the shrine from most pilgrim itineraries.’92 In response to this, an Assamese official who worked for the colonial administration, Haliram Dhekial Phukan (1802–32) wrote and published Kamakhya Yatra Paddhati (Ways to Go to Kamakhya) in Bengali and distributed it freely in 1830. Earlier, when he published his Asam Buranji in Calcutta in 1829 (considered the first modern account of Assam’s history), he outlined his motivations: ‘Many are vaguely aware that there is a country called Assam Kamarupa etc. But leave alone proper information or news, the people from other countries hardly know how that country is or even where it is located.’93 Haliram felt strongly that Bengalis needed to be educated about Assam’s history and geography.94 His ambition was to raise awareness of and shed light on the site: Kamakhya or Kamarupa is famous in all countries. But nobody actually possesses any proper knowledge of it. Everywhere there exist numerous stories about making trees walk and turning males into sheep, casting magic charms, etc. That is why persons willing to visit Kamakhya shy away.95 For the Bengali-reading public Haliram’s text was certainly written with a view to encourage pilgrimage to the site by appealing to devotees and job-seekers alike. The migration of people from Bengal to Assam began during the early period of colonial rule. English-educated Bengali clerks were often sent as representatives of the colonial regime, due to the lack of British officials stationed there. While Bengal had experienced over fifty years of colonial rule, Assam had remained unaffected up until 1826 when the British began to rule the area. Because of this Bengali presence, a local writer observed, ‘even if it was British rule, ordinary people called it rather the time of the Bangals’.96 Travel networks, railways, and employment connections also encouraged Bengalis to embark on pilgrimages to Kamakhya. As Sister Nivedita pointed out, ‘railways have in modern times opened up the country, and created the possibility of a geographical sense amongst classes who in older days could not have aspired to travel far or often’.97 By the 1870s, communication and travel between Gauhati and Calcutta was particularly facilitated when Gauhati became the capital of Assam in 1874 (replacing Shillong) through steamer ferries, telegraph lines and railways. During the 1880s railways from Calcutta enabled passengers to reach Upper Assam speedily and efficiently.98 By 1899 two routes were open for pilgrims to Kamakhya temple from Calcutta: one was from Sealdah to Goalundo by rail and from Goalundo to Gauhati by steamer; the other was from Sealdah to Jatrapur by rail and from Jatrapur to Gauhati by steamer. The large number of vernacular travelogues published in the early twentieth century indicates that by this time travel to the site had grown in popularity. Many Bengali pilgrims were thus able to challenge common misconceptions surrounding the site, including Anukulchandra Bhattacharya (a pilgrim from Rajshahi in East Bengal, now Bangladesh) in 1899: Hardly anybody from our country visits Kamakhya. As a result, no true account thereof is available in any book or oral report. Even when ordinary people come
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across the very few travellers who have indeed visited the place, they feel quite discouraged after hearing some baseless and exaggerated descriptions instead of authentic information. [The stories are] that men in particular lose their potency in Kamakhya at the roar of lions, that the women there are very beautiful and the men few and ugly; therefore the Kamakhya women cast their magic charms on male visitors, turn them into sheep, and do not allow them to return to their own country. Most people suffer from this illusion and do not dare visit the residence of the Mother [Kamakhya].99 In 1885 an article in Asam Bandhu (a monthly journal in Assamese) echoed the same idea: ‘the reason why in Bengal the proverb of Kamarupa being a land of lion-riding witches is popular is lack of communications.’100 In 1887 an article in Mau similarly argued: Till now, the belief was current in Bengal that the Bengalis turn into goats and sheep when they come to Assam. The belief might be true or false, but it is ingrained in the mind of the Bengalis that Assam is an out-of-the-way place.101 One famous Bengali writer who had visited Kamakhya much earlier in 1849, Debendranath Tagore, vividly described his pilgrimage in his autobiography: In the year  (…) I set out towards Assam. I went by steamer to Dacca, and thence crossing the Meghna reached Gauhati by the Brahmaputra. (…) In my eagerness to go and see this temple of Kamakhya I was up and ready by four o’clock in the morning (…) I walked six miles till I arrived at the foot of the Kamakhya hill, and without stopping to take rest began to climb it. The hill pathway was paved with stone. On either side of the road was a thick jungle, which the eye could not penetrate. The path led straight up. Alone I continued to ascend that solitary forest track; it was then shortly before sunrise. There was a slight drizzle, but I climbed on unheeding. I had got up about three-quarters of the way when my legs began to give way and refused to do my bidding. Tired and worn out, I sat down upon a high stone. I remained sitting alone in that jungle, soaked within by the sweat of exertion, and without by the rain – afraid lest tigers, bears, or what not, should come out from the jungle. (…) I had then partly recovered my strength and regained the control of my limbs; so I began to climb the hill again (…) I entered the Kamakhya temple; it is not a temple but a cave in the rocks, in which there was no image, only a yonimudra. After seeing this, and exhausted with walking, I came back and refreshed myself by bathing in the Brahmaputra. Its cool waters instilled fresh vigour into my body.102 Tagore’s tale of endurance reflects the ascetic rigour of pilgrimage, during which time the pilgrim’s caste and status become irrelevant. In his Pushpanjali, Bhudev discusses the principle of unity in diversity in this context by noting pilgrims’ social, geographical, religious and physical differences, all united through a shared aim. As Bhudev wrote: ‘People of various parts of India can travel to distant provinces without taking any money with them, because they will always receive help and hospitality.’103 Abstract geographical boundaries could be dissolved in the imagination of many Bengali writers, who romanticised and idealised neighbouring territories. The writer
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of Asam Bhraman, a Bengali traveller in Assam, described his position as symbolically straddling the two regions, and imagined this border to be a heavenly realm: on the one hand the Brahmaputra river seductively tempted him into the magical Assamese region, while on the other his own motherland, Bengal, called maternally for his return.104 Pilgrimages embarked on by religious leaders also played a significant role in connecting Assam and Bengal. Towards the end of his life Swami Vivekananda’s only wish was to take his mother to major holy sites, and he chose Kamakhya in 1901 because, as he said, ‘sannyasins are duty-bound to visit places of pilgrimage, that is why I have come to (…) Kamakhya’.105 The hundreds of pilgrimage sites across the subcontinent, including the Shakti Pithas, created a network that was hugely significant in the creation of a sense of territorial and cultural identity, not in the modern nation-state sense but as a living, communal landscape. As Sister Nivedita pointed out in ‘An Indian Pilgrimage’ (1904): The old roads of Asia are the footways of the world’s ideas (…) all over India, away from her ancient high roads, and thrown like a network across her proudest Himalayas, are little thread-like paths like this – ways made indeed by the feet of men, but worn far deeper by the weight of impelling ideas than by the footprints of the toil-stained crowds. (…) Behind the sanctity of pilgrimage lies admiration of place, of art, even of geographical significance. (…) Assuredly, a deep and conscious love of place pervades the whole of the Indian scheme. It has never been called patriotism, only because it has never been defined by boundaries of contrast; but the home, the village, the soil, and, in a larger sense, the rivers, the mountains, and the country as a whole, are the objects of an almost passionate adoration. (…) In its essence, the institution [of pilgrimage] is so entirely an expression of love for the Motherland.106 Nivedita even singled out the Pithas as a profoundly resonant network of sites: In the story of Sati, the perfect wife, who can miss the significance of the fifty-two places in which fragments of the smitten body fell? (…) No foreigner can understand the crowding of associations into these few sentences. (…) Nor is the historic element lacking, in this unconscious worship of country.107 As Diana Eck has pointed out, ‘Recognition of India as a sacred landscape, woven together north and south, east and west, by the paths of pilgrims, has created a powerful sense of India as Bharat Mata – Mother India.’108 This conception of India is made even more explicit by the Pithas that enshrine Sati’s remnants. As Sati’s fragmented body is multiplied and distributed across the subcontinent, so is her power. The Sanskrit word for a place of pilgrimage is tirtha, which derives from the root tr, to ‘cross over’.109 The term tirtha implies the transition from the earthly and profane to the divine – pilgrimage sites mark this point between the human world and the realm of the gods. However, the sites dedicated to Sati’s remains are known as Pithas or ‘seats’, and not tirthas, stressing the ‘rootedness’ of the goddess whose power is ‘firmly grounded in the earth itself’.110 The act of pilgrimage (yatra) united people across regions through the affirmation of religious community long before the arrival of the British, and later became a powerful way of articulating a patriotic love for the motherland.111 The social
Sati, Shiva and the murtis of Tarapith and Kalighat, print, c.2000
Priya Paul Collection of Popular Art
Shiva and Sati, watercolour on paper, c.1890
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Shiva and Sati, watercolour on paper, c.1880
© The Trustees of the British Museum, London
Calcutta Art Studio, Shiva and Sati, hand-coloured lithograph, 1883
Collection of Mark Baron and Elise Boisanté
Shiva Carrying the Corpse of Sati on His Trident, watercolour and gold on paper, c.1800, Himachal Pradesh (Kangra), Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)
© Photo: SCALA, Florence
Calcutta Art Studio, Sarojini, lithograph with hand-colouring, 1883, Boston Museum of Fine Art
© Photo: SCALA, Florence
Nandalal Bose, Sati, wash and tempera on paper (1943 copy of 1907 original)
National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi
Lajja Gauri stone relief, Kamakhya temple, temple exterior, tenth–twelfth century
Author’s photograph (2012)
Murti of Tara in the inner sanctum of Tarapith temple
Author’s photograph (2012)
Calcutta Art Studio, Tara (detail), lithograph, c.1885
Collection of Mark and Elise Boisanté
Kamakhya’s power and sacred geography
dimension of pilgrimage was also significant in nationalist discourse. Victor Turner’s interpretation of pilgrimage in terms of communitas is relevant here; according to him, pilgrimage could dissolve social hierarchies and, in the case of Hindu pilgrimage, caste divisions could be temporarily overcome through a sense of community belonging. Turner suggests that pilgrimages are ‘both instruments and indicators of a sort of mystical regionalism as well as of a mystical nationalism’112 As Sister Nivedita pointed out: ‘the Sakta Pithas not only make a cultural impact but also a social impact’, referring to their accessibility regardless of caste, creed and sex.113 She continues in ‘An Indian Pilgrimage’: Scarcely in any two tents do they understand each other’s language (…) Could incongruity and disunion be more strongly illustrated? (…) Yet it was unity and not disunity that impressed us as we looked. From one end of the camp to the other the same simple way of life (…) and, above all, one great common scheme of thought and purpose.114 The Pithas in particular, which linked all corners of the subcontinent, expressed a worldview in which the earth was itself considered sacred and the goddess embodied herself in earthly form. This chapter began by exploring the ways in which the aniconic yoni within Kamakhya temple’s inner sanctum was articulated through an unstudied series of sculptures which emphasised the female body and its reproductive powers. Such imagery was misunderstood much earlier on as inspired by the dark arts, conforming to Assam’s reputation as a land of black magic. However, a close examination of Kamakhya’s socio-religious context during the Pala and Koch periods revealed a coherence and interaction between sculptures, articulating the significance of the yoni. This coherence was tied to the harnessing of Tantric power through fertility and apotropaic symbolism. During the late nineteenth century Kamakhya assumed a further politically charged dimension, fuelled by colonial rule. The chapter proceeded to explore the rise of Kamakhya’s fame amongst Bengalis, due in part to improved communication and travel between Gauhati and Calcutta. To reach Kamakhya temple, pilgrims once had to endure a long climb up Nilacala Hill. Pilgrimage was done primarily on foot, with parties singing devotional songs along the route. Today there are motorable roads, and buses have become the primary means of transportation, eliminating and anaesthetising some of the rigour and asceticism once required. My selection of case studies has been in fact limited by these modern developments as, naturally, today the most popular sites are those capable of attracting people from a distance. Kamakhya was regarded as the most holy temple by writers including Bhudev because, as the site of Sati’s yoni, it was popularly believed to be the most powerful of all the Pithas. Significantly, the yoni’s power was represented by the temple’s sculptures, which emphasised female corporeality and reproduction. By extension, the subcontinent was imagined as possessing bodily form which would have resonated with Bengali nationalists. The envisioning of the subcontinent as a female corporeal entity and the valorisation of a sacred site emphasising the female body was significant at a time when many colonial officials described the Indian subcontinent as an emasculated, effeminate and irrational territory.115 This critique was subverted by writers like Bhudev who expressed devotion to the divine feminine. Establishing a relationship between Bengal and Assam (and the rest of India) was also
Kamakhya’s power and sacred geography
crucial to the Bengali literati’s anti-imperialist discourse. They sought to transcend the cartographic boundaries imposed by the British by uniting these fragmented but neighbouring territories and emphasising their shared culture, especially through pilgrimage sites. Travel networks, railways and employment connections also encouraged Bengalis to embark on pilgrimages to Kamakhya. The visual politics of menstruation, birth and devotion at the temple have been appropriated, interpreted and invested with new significance throughout its history, whether by the Pala or Koch dynasties or by those under colonial rule. The layers of meaning and of sculpture dating from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries have resulted in the creation of a site that is a veritable palimpsest. Exploring these multiple layers reveals that the relationship between fertility and the apotropaic as expressed by the sculptures, and the power that comes from this potent combination, has remained consistent and ensured its perennial attraction. Above all, Kamakhya is still approached by pilgrims as the granter of desires; indeed, her very name is associated with kama (literally ‘desire’). Many female devotees struggling to conceive visit the temple in the hope that the goddess will enable a successful pregnancy. Kamakhya has largely become a devotional centre of popular worship rather than a site of transgressive rites, partly as a result of no longer being tied to royal patronage. Tantric practice has since survived on the margins, often in rural areas and remote tribal communities. The reasons for this decline began before the arrival of British colonial authorities: during the sixteenth century itself, the neo-Vaishnava reform movement led by Shankaradeva preached devotional love for Krishna exclusively through chanting and prayer, and was equally critical of Tantra.116 Nevertheless, Tantra was a vital part of the site’s identity during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when its subversive qualities were charged with revolutionary potential. Significantly, despite the displacement of Tantric practice, the figure of Lajja Gauri has continued to be revered as a menstruating goddess in spite of its explicit iconography. Along with other sculptures, including the pregnant archer, it is a reminder of the temple’s magico-religious, Tantric past.
Notes 1 2 3 4
Mukhopadhyay, B. ‘Pushpanjali’ (1876), in Bishi, P.N. (ed.) Bhudev Rachana Sambhar (Calcutta, 1962), p.89. Bishi (1962), p.vi. Bishi (1962), p.22–3. There are several legends relating to the origins of the temple. According to one, the goddess Kamakhya agreed to marry king Naraka if he constructed a temple to her, with four gates on four sides of the hill with roads leading to the temple, all in a day. He succeeded, but Kamakhya made a cock crow early to signal the beginning of the next day in order to avoid marriage (Kinsley (1986), p.186). The earliest textual reference to Kamakhya as a Pitha comes from the Hevajra Tantra, composed in probably the seventh century. This would support Ronald Bernier’s belief that some parts of the temple date to this period (Bernier, R. Himalayan Architecture (London, 1997), p.23). The most comprehensive studies on Kamakhya include the following: Bhuyan, G.N. and Nayak, S. Heritage of Kamakhya (Guwahati, 2010); Urban, H. Power of Tantra: Religion, Sexuality, and the Politics of South Asian Studies (London, 2010); Mishra, N.R. Kamakhya: A Socio-Cultural Study (New Delhi, 2004); Goswami (1998); Kakati, B. The Mother Goddess Kamakhya, or, Studies in the Fusion of Aryan and Primitive Beliefs of Assam (Gauhati, 1952); and Shin, J. ‘Yoni, Yoginis and Mahavidyas: Feminine Divinities from Early Medieval Kamarupa to Medieval Koch Behar’, Studies in History, vol.26, no.1, 2010, pp.1–29.
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5 Urban (2010), p.32. See also Joshi, M.C. ‘Historical and Iconographic Aspects of Sakta Tantrism’, in Harper, K.A. and Brown, R.L. (eds) The Roots of Tantra (Albany, 2002), p.47. 6 Chakravarti, K. Lectures on Hindu Religion, Philosophy and Yoga (Calcutta, 1893), p.66. 7 Van Kooij (1972), p.138. The Kalika Purana was probably composed for either King Ratnapala (920–60) or King Dharmapala (1035–60). 8 Vijayanad and Balakrishnan (2008), p.78. 9 Avalon, A. (ed.) Kulacudamani Tantra (Madras, 1956), 5.36–40. 10 Shastri, B.N. The Kalikapurana, Translation (New Delhi, 2008), 18.58. 11 Eliot (1921), p.285. 12 Indeed, when it comes to any of the more prominent Shakti Pitha temples, each prospered under the patronage of local rulers and landlords seeking to legitimise their authority. 13 Bagchi, S. Eminent Indian Sakta Centres in Eastern India: An Interdisciplinary Study in the Background of the Pithas of Kalighata, Vakresvara and Kamakhya (Calcutta, 1980), p.159. 14 Particularly penetrative definitions of Tantra, which is famously difficult to define or categorise, have been suggested by Hugh Urban (2003) and David Gordon White (ed.) Tantra in Practice (Princeton, 2000). Hindu Tantrism by Sanjukta Gupta, Dirk Jan Hoens and Teun Goudriaan (Leiden, 1979) also provides an excellent introduction to the subject. 15 It was common practice to decorate temple walls and other edifices with the discarded sculptures of earlier temples. Captain Taite Dalton (principal assistant of the commissioner of Assam), writing as a Baptist missionary in 1856, noted: ‘Of the religious edifices constructed within the walls, nothing but fragments remain. The Hindus have appropriated many of the most picturesque sites, and built brick temples, surrounded by the carefully dispersed stones. In some instances they have clumsily used the old materials.’ (Dalton, T. ‘Notes on Assam Temple Ruins’, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal , vol.24, no.1, 1855, p.3). 16 This sculpture has never been formally dated or studied before, and I would like to thank Professor Hugh Urban and Professor Susan Huntington for helping me date it. 17 Including Kakati (1952); Goswami (1998); Ahmed, K. The Art and Architecture of Assam (Guwahati, 1994); and Dutta, M. Sculpture of Assam (Delhi, 1990). 18 Urban (2010), p.52. 19 Urban (2010) and Pal (2010) both refer to this sculpture as Kamakhya. 20 Fleet, J.F. ‘Sanskrit and Old Canarese Inscriptions’, Indian Antiquary, vol.10, 1881, p.103. 21 West, E.W. ‘The Divine Mothers or Local Goddesses of India’, Indian Antiquary, vol.10, 1881, pp.245–6. 22 As Carol Bolon points out, Lajja Gauri is not mentioned in canonical Hindu texts; however, she must have had a cult of her own judging by her presence throughout India. Her image was especially common in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, with concentration in and around the towns of Nagpur, Ter, Kondapur, Kausambi and Bhita (Bolon, C.R. Forms of the Goddess Lajja Gauri in Indian Art (University Park, PA, 1992), p. 5). 23 See Bolon (1992). 24 Images of Lajja Gauri were rarely made after the eighth century, and apparently were not made later than the twelfth century (Bolon (1992), p. 33). 25 Kramrisch, S. Exploring India’s Sacred Art: Selected Writings of Stella Kramrisch (New Delhi, 1994), p.148. 26 The majority of surviving Lajja Gauri images depict her lying on her back, supine, in a birth pose – a metaphor for creation. The upright position of the Kamakhya figure could be a response to the limitations of carving on a vertical wall, resulting in a ‘squatting’ position. 27 Bolon (1992), p.32. 28 Bolon (1992), p.25. 29 Shastri (2008), 36.7. 30 Devibhagavata Purana of Ksemaraja Sri Krsnadasa (Delhi, 1986), 9.9.35–7. See Urban (2010), pp.53–4. 31 The Ambuvaci Mela has been explored from a feminist angle by Brenda Dobia, ‘Approaching the Hindu Goddess of Desire’, Feminist Theology, vol.16, no.1, 2007, pp.61–78.
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32 See Olivelle, P. Dharmasutras: The Law Codes of Apastamba, Gautama, Baudhayana, and Vasistha (Delhi, 2000). 33 Khanna, M. ‘The goddess-woman equation in Shakta Tantras’ in Ahmed, D.S. (ed.) Gendering the Spirit: Women, Religion and the Post-Colonial Response (New York, 2002), p.51. 34 Douglas, M. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London, 2002), p.161. See Marglin, F.A. and Carman, J.B. (eds) Purity and Auspiciousness in Indian Society (Leiden, 1985) and Urban (2010) for more information on the role of menstruation in Tantra as auspicious, and therefore powerful. 35 See Michell, G. The Hindu Temple: An Introduction to its Meaning and Forms (London, 1977), p.76. From a cross-cultural perspective Lajja Gauri may also inevitably remind one of Sheela-na-gigs, often found positioned over doors or windows on churches and castles throughout Europe, and especially in Ireland. Scholars believe they could have been intended to ward off death and evil spirits. (See Dexter, M.R and Mair, V.H. Sacred Display: Divine and Magical Female Figures of Eurasia (New York, 2010); Goode, S. ‘Sheela Na Gig: Dark Goddess of Europe’ in Monaghan, P. (ed.) Goddesses in World Culture, Vol. 2 (Santa Barbara, 2011); and Dexter, M.R and Mair, V.H. ‘The Sheela Na Gigs, Sexuality, and the Goddess in Ancient Ireland’, Irish Journal of Feminist Studies, vol.4, no.2, 2002, pp.50–75). There does seem to be a shared meaning in terms of apotropaic magic intended to turn away harm and misfortune. 36 Shastri (2008), 8.40–42. 37 Sharma, M.M. Inscriptions of Ancient Assam (Gauhati, 1978), pp.226–7. 38 Sharma (1978), p.231. 39 Sharma (1978), p.231. 40 For more on the relationship between Assamese Tantra and kingship see Urban (2010). 41 Barpujari, H.K. (ed.) The Comprehensive History of Assam, Vol. 2 (Guwahati, 1985), p.73. 42 The inscription can be found inside Kamakhya temple: ‘Glory to the king Malladeva [Naranarayana], who by virtue of his mercy is kind to the people; who in archery is like Arjuna, and in charity like Dadhichi and Karna; he is like an ocean of all goodness, and he is versed in many Sastras; his character is excellent, in beauty he is as bright as Kandarpa; he is a worshipper of Kamakhya. His younger brother Sukladeva [Chilarai] built this temple of bright stone on the Nila Hillock, for the worship of the Goddess Durga, in 1487 Saka [1565 ce].’ (Quoted in Acharyya, N.N. The History of Medieval Assam from the Thirteenth to the Seventeenth Century (Gauhati, 1966), p.34). 43 Urban (2010), p.78. 44 Shin (2010), p.21. As Banikanta Kakati notes: ‘the cult of Kamakhya belonged to matriarchal tribes like the Khasis and Garos. To win their allegiance (…) royal patronage was extended to the local cult of Kamakhya.’ (Kakati (1952), p.16). 45 Shastri, B.N. (ed.) Yogini Tantra (Delhi, 1982), 1.13–14. See also Urban (2010), p.74. 46 The fact that it is embedded in the inner wall of the temple and positioned prominently beside the sculpture of the Koch king and his brother indicates it was probably executed after 1565. Dr Sukanya Sharma also feels strongly that the archers were included in the sixteenth-century Koch reconstruction phase (personal correspondence, 2012). 47 Shastri (2008), 38.100–103 and Shastri (1982), 1.9.13–16. Quoted in Urban (2010), pp.44–45. 48 Linrothe, R. Holy Madness: Portraits of Tantric Siddhas (Chicago, 2006), p.137. 49 Monier-Williams, M. A Sanskrit–English Dictionary (Oxford, 1956), p.209. 50 See van Kooij (1972), p.121: ‘on the tenth day in Sravana one should dismiss [the goddess] with Sabara-festivals (…) people should be engaged in amorous play with single women, young girls, courtesans and dancers, amidst the sounds of horns and instruments, and with drums and kettle-drums, with flags and various sorts of cloths covered with a miscellany of parched grain and flowers; by throwing dust and mud; with auspicious ceremonies for fun; by mentioning the female and male organs, with songs on the male and female organs, and with words for the female and male organs, until they have enough of it. If one is not derided by others, if one does not deride others, the goddess will be angry with him and utter a very dreadful curse.’
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51 Sastri, H. (ed.) Brhaddharma Puranam (Varanasi, 1974), 3.6, 81–3. 52 Robinson, W. A Descriptive Account of Assam (1841), p.154. 53 Quoted in Linrothe (2006), p.126. See Suranna, P. The Sounds of the Kiss, or the Story That Must Never Be Told: Pingali Suranna’s Kalapurnodayamu (New York, 2002), p.xvi. 54 As Rob Linrothe notes, ‘Although the extent to which there were direct connections between the Himalayan and South Indian siddhas remains debatable, it cannot be denied that there was a shared vocabulary of gestures, postures, hair, bodily types, behaviour and accoutrements.’ (Linrothe (2006), p.142). 55 For more information on the yoginis see Dehejia, V. Yogini Cult and Temples: A Tantric tradition (Delhi, 1986), p.191 and White, G. Kiss of the Yogini: ‘Tantric Sex’ in Its South Asian Contexts (Chicago, 2003). 56 See Dehejia (1986), p.191. 57 Urban points out that Kamakhya appears as an ambivalent goddess, with two different sides to her – a shanta or peaceful side and an ugra or terrifying side (Urban (2010), pp.47–8). As the Kalika Purana describes her, ‘when it is the time for love, she abandons her sword and adorns herself with a garland. When she is no longer in a loving mood, she holds a sword. When it is time for love, she is seated on a red lotus placed on the body of Siva. But when she is no longer in a loving mood, she is seated on a white corpse.’ (Shastri (2008), 58.57–8). 58 Sarma, G. Kamarupa Kamakhya (Guwahati, 2003), p.20. 59 Chatterjee (2005), p.145. 60 Aquil, R. and Chatterjee, P. History in the Vernacular (Ranikhet, 2008), p.288. In some Kalighat paintings a woman leads a sheep with a man’s head. 61 Bodding, P.O. Studies in Santal Medicine and Connected Folklore (Calcutta, 1986), p.126. 62 This conformed to Assam’s reputation as a land of black magic. According to a Tibetan author of the seventeenth century, ‘There are so many witches and various kinds of demons and devils there.’ (van Kooij (1972), p.35). 63 Robinson (1841), p.275. 64 Eliot (1921), pp.xxxviii, 290. 65 Urban (2010), p.34. 66 Urban (2010), pp.12, 32. 67 Dalton (1855), p.7. 68 Author unknown, ‘Assam since the expulsion of the Burmese’, Calcutta Review, vol.19, January–June 1853, p.436. 69 Robinson (1841), p.147. 70 McCosh, J. Topography of Assam (Calcutta, 1837; reprint Delhi, 1975), pp.23, 84. 71 Ward, W. A View of the History, Literature and Religion of the Hindoos, Vol. 2 (London, 1817), pp.lxxvii, lix, xiii. 72 Ward (1817), p.xxii. 73 Wheeler (1874), p.364. 74 See Inden, R.B. Imagining India (Oxford, 1990). 75 Hegel, G.W.F. The Philosophy of History (New York, 1956), p.149. 76 Van der Veer (2001), p.59. 77 Said, E. Orientalism (London, 1985 ), p.23. See also McClintock, A. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Context (New York, 1995), p.13. As the British historian Robert Orme described ‘the Indian’ in 1782, ‘Breathing in the softest climates, having few wants and receiving the luxuries of other nations with little labour (…) the Indian must have become the most effeminate inhabitant of the globe.’ (Orme, R. Historical Fragments of the Moghul Empire (New Delhi, 1782), p. 306). 78 Said (1985), p.6. 79 Urban (2003), p.185. 80 Vivekananda, S. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol. IV (Calcutta, 1992), p.353. 81 In 1873, Thomas Thornville Cooper criticised the Assamese as immoral, requiring British rule: ‘I earnestly hope the day may soon arrive when the Government, having gained complete control and supervision of the people, may be able by some means to stamp out the vice.’ (Cooper, T.T. The Mishmee Hills: An Account of a Journey Made in an Attempt
84 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96
Kamakhya’s power and sacred geography to Penetrate Thibet from Assam to Open New Routes for Commerce (London, 1873), p.106). Likewise, writing after the British had taken control of the region, Sir Edward Gait praised the Empire as the region’s saviour: ‘The history of the Ahoms shows how a brave and vigorous race may decay in the “sleepy hollow” of the Brahmaputra valley; and it was only the intervention of the British that prevented them from being blotted out by fresh hordes of invaders.’ (Gait, E.A. A History of Assam (Calcutta, 1906), p.7). Sir Charles James Lyall wrote in a report on Assam in 1903: ‘Human sacrifice was common’, leading to the British government confiscating areas of the northeast. In 1832 two British men were reportedly kidnapped in Sylhet by Jaintias and sacrificed to Kali. (Lyall, C.J. ‘The Province of Assam’, Journal of the Society of Arts, June 1903, p.619). Gait, E. ‘Census Report of 1891’ in Census of India (Calcutta, 1921), p.39. Sanjib Baruah notes: ‘Given the circumstances of the formation of the British province of Assam, the boundaries obviously do not coincide with those of precolonial Assam in a political, cultural, or economic sense. Certain areas that were not historically part of Assam became part of colonial Assam, while other areas that were a part of Assam did not.’ (Baruah, S. India Against Itself: Assam and the Politics of Nationality (Philadelphia, 1999), p.27. District gazetteers’ accounts also categorised and distinguished regions according to the local language, geography, religion, etc. See for example Allen, B.C. Assam District Gazetteers: Kamrup Vol. 4 (Calcutta, 1905). Knowledge about the Orient, Edward Said has argued, enabled Europeans to define, classify, dominate, and restructure – to thus have authority over – the Orient (Said (1985), p.3). Gupta (2009), p.225. An exception to this is Gupta (2009). Most scholarly works have focused on colonial cartography. Gupta, S. ‘Samaj, Jati and Desh: Reflections on Nationhood in Late Colonial Bengal’, Studies in History, vol.23, no.2, 2007, p.198. Peter van der Veer argues that pilgrimage, as a ‘ritual of the larger community’, is ‘easily incorporated into religious nationalism’ (Van der Veer, P. Religious Nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in India (Berkeley, 1994), p.xii). Dalton (1855), p.3. Robinson (1841), p.257. Lyall (1903), p.619. Eliot (1921), pp.288–9. Sharma, J. Empire’s Garden: Assam and the Making of India (Ranikhet, 2011), p.182. Phukan, H.D. Asam Buranji (Guwahati, 1962 ), p.1. Aquil and Chatterjee (2008), p.146. Phukan (1829/1962), p.79. Author unknown, ‘Bongali’, Asam Bandhu, 1885, p.95. Quoted in Sharma (2011), p.96. Until 1873 Bengali as a language was enforced as a state measure in government offices and schools, encouraging the influx into Assam of Bengali-speaking settlers (Sharma (2011), p.98). Myron Weiner notes: ‘Since the Bengali and Assamese languages and the scripts are similar, the Bengalees were able to persuade the British government that Assamese was only a corrupt and vulgar dialect of Bengali’ (Weiner, M. When Migrants Succeed and Natives Fail (Cambridge, MA, 1975), p.20). Nivedita, S. The Web of Indian Life (London, 1904), p.241. Several missionaries described the journeys, including the Reverend Ira Stoddard: ‘A railroad from Calcutta has been finished and cars running 110 miles towards Assam, shortening the distance, in time, one-half to Gowahati.’ (Stoddard to Warren, letter correspondence, May 28, 1867; quoted in Barpujari, H.K. The American Missionaries and North-East India (Guwahati, 1986), p.89). Another anonymous missionary stated in 1886: ‘when the Missionaries first came to Assam, they were three months coming up the river from Calcutta in native boats. Now two lines of steamers run weekly from Calcutta carrying freight and passengers, etc.’ (American Baptist Mission Society, The Assam Mission of the American Baptist Missionary Union: Papers and Discussions of the Jubilee Conference Held in Nowgong, December 18–29, 1886 (Calcutta, 1887); quoted in Barpujari (1986), p.90). Bhattacharya, A. Kamakhya Bhraman (Calcutta, 1899), p.1.
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100 A.B. ‘Amar Manuha’, Asam Bandhu, vol.1, no.4, 1885, p.131. 101 Author unknown, ‘Ucca Sikkha’, Mau, vol.2, January 1887, p.54. 102 Tagore, D. The Autobiography of Maharshi Devendranath Tagore (London, 1914), pp.180, 183. 103 Bishi (1962), p.7. 104 Anonymous, Asam Bhraman (Calcutta, 1890), p.16; cited in Gupta (2009), p.269. 105 Vivekananda also took his mother to Kalighat in Calcutta (Samkara, The Monk as Man (Delhi, 2011), pp.79, 86). 106 Nivedita (1904), pp.215, 262. 107 Nivedita (1904), p.239. 108 Eck, D.L. ‘India’s “Tirthas”: “Crossings” in Sacred Geography’, History of Religions, vol.20, no.4, 1981, p.336. 109 The importance of pilgrimage to sacred sites (tirtha-yatra) is already stressed in the Rgveda: ‘Flower-like the heels of the wanderer,/ His body grows and is fruitful;/ All his sins disappear,/ Slain by the toil of his journeying.’ (Bhardwaj, S.M. Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in India: A Study in Cultural Geography (Berkeley, 1973), p.3). 110 Kinsley (1986), p.186. 111 As Jaffrelot notes: ‘The traditional Hindu pilgrimage lent itself to political uses for two reasons: because of its territorial dimension which could be reinterpreted in ethnonationalist terms in the case of pan-Indian yatras (pilgrimages) and because of its egalitarian quality.’ (Jaffrelot, C. ‘The Hindu Nationalist Reinterpretation of Pilgrimage in India: The Limits of Yatra Politics’, Journal of Transformative Education, vol.15, no.1, 2009, p.2). 112 Turner, V. Dramas, Fields and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (New York, 1974), p.212. 113 Quoted in Datta, P.K. Tantra: Its Relevance to Modern Times (Kolkata, 2009), p.6. 114 Nivedita (1904), p.251. 115 Mill, J. History of India, Vol. 2 (London, 1895), p.15; Steevens (1899), p.73; Macaulay (1890), p.566. See also Streets (2004). 116 Urban (2010), p.148.
Tantra’s revolutionary potential Tarapith and Bamakhepa’s visualisation of Tara
Kamakhya was not the only Shakti Pitha famed for its Tantric associations. Tarapith in West Bengal was regarded as one of the most powerful holy places in India.1 A plaque inside Tarapith temple explains that it was constructed by a businessman, Jagannatha Ray, and completed by 1818. The original was, however, much older – its foundations are believed to date back to the ninth century.2 The temple consists of red brick walls embellished with mythological scenes (Figure 3.1). Its central relief depicts the goddess Durga slaying the buffalo demon Mahishasura. The temple is capped by a curved roof called a do-chala, with a prominent pinnacle and spire known as a shikhara. There are evident similarities between the architectural style of Tarapith
Figure 3.1 Tarapith temple Author’s photograph (2012)
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and that of Kalighat – in terms of structural design both hark back to the simple architecture of the traditional Bengali hut, with its four mud walls and thatched roof. Despite its status, there has not yet been an adequately comprehensive study of Tarapith apart from informative introductions by Alan Morinis, Bipula Kumara Gangopadhyay and Sumanta Banerjee.3 Referring to Tarapith, the author of the District Gazetteer of Birbhum, Lewis Sydney Steward O’Malley, explained in 1910: It is said to be so called because the eyeballs (tara) of Sati fell here. Others say that Tarapur is not a pith, but that the place owes its sanctity to the fact that the sage Basistha here worshipped the goddess Sati in the form of Tara. The common local opinion, however, is that it is really a pith and that Basistha selected this place for worshipping Sati because it was a pith. The village contains a temple dedicated to Tara.4 The direct connection between the fame of Pithas and the fame of ascetics is apparent from several narratives of the origins of Pithas collected in West Bengal. Mircea Eliade notes that many shrines listed as Pithas ‘had acquired their rank as holy places from the fact that yogins and ascetics had meditated and obtained siddhis (powers) there’.5 Tarapith is widely regarded as a ‘siddhi-yielding’ site.6 It is one of the Pithas considered particularly effective for the acquisition of spiritual power, because it is where visionary saints and pilgrims achieved salvation.7 It is at Tarapith that Sati’s third eye is said to have fallen and turned to stone, and there are different stories about its discovery. According to one, the legendary saint Vasistha (or Basistha, son of the god Brahma) had been trying to achieve siddhis in his worship of Tara in Kamakhya, but, having failed to do so, was advised to seek the Buddha’s counsel in China. The Buddha advised him to follow Tantric practices involving the consumption of wine and meat, and sexual intercourse. He had a mystical vision of Tarapith as a sacred Pitha, and directed Vasistha towards it. Returning to India, Tara finally appeared to Vasistha and her manifestation turned to stone, creating the image which is believed to remain at Tarapith inside an anthropomorphic icon that functions as a metal covering. This stone or adi-rup is simultaneously believed to be the eye of Sati which fell at Tarapith. The story of Vasistha associates the temple with Tantric worship, the foundation of Tara worship.8 Tarapith’s fame today can be largely credited to the charisma and popularity of Bamakhepa (1837–1911), a Tantric practitioner or sadhaka who became a pujari (priest) there during the late nineteenth century and gave the site its spiritually powerful reputation. After practising in Kamakhya, and in the cremation ground in Bakreshwar (another Shakti Pitha in Bengal), he settled at Tarapith.9 Bamakhepa flourished in a religious environment deeply affected by the British colonial presence in Bengal. Sumit Sarkar has pointed out how, by the late nineteenth century, the Bengali bhadralok had begun to react against the fact they were not benefitting from the colonial regime. Their career options were limited to menial clerical work, involving long hours for little reward. As a result, many of them felt nostalgically drawn to traditional village life and religious ritual.10 Bamakhepa and the site of Tarapith embodied the ideals of rural religious practice and tradition. This Pitha also formed a crucial part of the devotional life of the surrounding community. Biographers of Bamakhepa stress his intimate relationship with the temple’s resident deity: the inner sanctum enshrines a three-foot tall metal murti of Tara, a
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fierce goddess closely associated with mortality and destruction (Plate 9).11 However, scholars have largely overlooked the complexity of this relationship, and its accompanying Tantric rituals.12 Bamakhepa’s esoteric practices included meditation on corpses and skulls in cremation grounds, symbols of mortality which accompany images of Tara. Such rituals were deliberately shrouded in secrecy and often misunderstood by Orientalist scholars and colonial missionaries. One late nineteenthcentury writer commented: [Tantric] worship assumes wild, extravagant forms, generally obscene, sometimes bloody. It is saddening to think that such abominations are committed; it is still more saddening that they are performed as part of divine worship. Conscience, however, is so far alive that these detestable rites are practised only in secret.13 This chapter will demonstrate that an examination of the indigenous reception of Tantra, alongside an analysis of the iconography of Tara in late nineteenth-century Bengal, reveals and illuminates the ‘secret’, cryptic meanings behind these rituals which were so closely tied to emancipatory death. Focusing on this tumultuous period of colonial rule in Bengal will also uncover the nationalistic sentiments which the English-educated bhadralok would attach nostalgically to indigenous practices, including Tantra, guru and image worship. Bamakhepa related to Tara as a son would to his mother, subsequently ‘sweetening’ and popularising the fierce aspect of her character, which appealed to a widespread desire to promote India as Mother (Bharat Mata) in response to British rule.
Understanding Tara Tarapith is a centre of Tantra, a body of beliefs and practices that aims to sublimate material reality. This includes an affirmation of and confrontation with death itself, since material reality is characterised by transience and decay. All phenomena are considered to be the concrete manifestation of divine feminine energy, which sadhakas seek to ritually channel through various practices or sadhanas, including the invocation of deities such as Tara through rituals of visualisation. Through this unity with the divine they strive to attain moksha (liberation). In Tantric terms, this liberating union represents the ‘ecstasy of death’ of the self or the ‘I’. As June McDaniel states, ‘there seem to be two forms [of ecstasy] (…). One is the realization of radical detachment from the world (…). The other form is the realization of total dependence on the Mother.’14 When this union is achieved all desire vanishes and the cycle of endless rebirths (according to the dominant Hindu belief in reincarnation) comes to an end. According to the Gupta-Chinachara Tantra: ‘Death in Tarapith immediately grants moksha. Even gods wish to die in Tarapith. Thus, go to Tara (…) with deep devotion and respect.’15 Tara is often referred to as the cheater of death; since Yama, the god of death, is believed to preside over the gates of mortality in the south, the Tara murti deliberately faces north, protecting her devotees from demise and granting the blessing of a long life.16 Tara’s iconography exhibits her paradoxical nature, however, and highlights the notion that she is not only the protectress against death, but is also simultaneously death itself, just as a tenth-century Tantric text reveals that Tara is both ‘frightening and removes fear’.17 The murti is adorned with a silver necklace of human heads. Her
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unbound, wild hair suggests dissolution and chaos, in contrast with the hair of other goddesses which is often braided, tied or neatly presented, symbolic of cosmic order.18 This is typical of representations of Tara (and also Kali) and is meant to indicate her socially outcast status.19 She wears a large, ornate crown which depicts a third eye, a reference to the stone image within. Her mouth is smeared with red sindoor, resembling blood, and she has a long protruding tongue. In the tenth-century Mundamala Tantra she is called ‘She Who is Smeared with Blood’ and ‘She Who Enjoys Blood Sacrifice’.20 To meditate on Tara is thus to meditate on death itself. Through this meditation the sadhaka directly confronts his fear of impermanence, and thus overcomes it. Tara’s macabre iconography reveals a fundamental truth behind Tantric ritual: the universal and inclusive nature of death breaks down conventional social differences between Tantric practitioners, a sentiment that would acquire political relevance during the colonial period when Bengali writers stressed the need to unite a country fragmented by caste division.21 According to a practitioner who was a contemporary of Bamakhepa (living a few miles away from Tarapith): ‘In Tantrik philosophy, there is no difference between castes, communities, religions, etc. (…) In this sense, [Tantra] is a protest against the Vedic and Brahmanical religion.’22 In 1883 the Bengali writer Shib Chunder Bose emphasised the evils of the caste system: The effects of caste distinctions are (…) mischievous. Far from promoting a spirit of benevolence and good fellowship between man and man, caste has a natural tendency to engender hostile feelings, which cannot fail to militate against the best interests of humanity. Should a Hindoo of superior caste happen to be touched by one of inferior caste while he is cooking or eating, he must throw away everything as defiled (…). There are also instances on record in which two Hindoos of the same caste refuse to eat together merely because they belong to two different dalls, or parties.23 In contrast, as the scholar Siba Pada Sen suggests: The caste system has no place in Tantricism (…). Tantra (…) stood for the oppressed peoples, symbolising all the liberating potentialities in the class-divided, patriarchal and authoritarian social set up of India (…). There is evidence to show that the followers of Tantricism were really persecuted for their radicalism, and attempts were constantly made from different corners to blacken their ideals.24 Narendra Nath Bhattacharyya refers to Tantra as the ‘religion of the oppressed’, charged with revolutionary force in its embrace of the masses regardless of class or gender: The conception of the country in the form of the Divine Mother was of a general character acceptable to all irrespective of caste and creed, and it (…) enhanced the patriotic feeling of the Indians (…). Secret societies were started in order to propagate revolutionary ideas, collect arms and rise in rebellion.25 Late nineteenth-century lithographs of Tara which were produced in nearby Calcutta and subsequently circulated around Bengal and the rest of India provide a more complete iconography of the goddess (Plate 10), as so much of the murti is obscured
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beneath marigold garlands and the sari she is wearing. The blue lotus she holds in one of her right hands represents her creative aspect, while the left hands, holding a bloodied sword and a knife, represent her destructive aspect.26 She thus embodies the inherent rhythm of the cosmos, which is created then destroyed, only to be recreated, according to the Hindu concept of time as cyclical. Sadhakas approach her to gain access to this immeasurable power. The origin of Tara’s iconography lies in the dhyanas or icon descriptions which describe her physical form in detail for the purpose of visualisation rituals. They stress her fierce, often horrifying appearance, inviting submissive surrender by the devotee. The dhyana mantra from the sixteenth-century Mantra-mahodadhi states that: In her left hands she holds a knife and a skull and, in her right hands, a sword and a blue lotus. Her complexion is blue, and she is bedecked with ornaments (…). Her tongue is always moving, and her teeth and mouth appear terrible. She is wearing a tiger skin around her waist, and her forehead is decorated with ornaments of white bone (…). She is seated on the heart of a corpse, and her breasts are hard. Thus should one meditate on Tara.27 Dhyanas were written for the mental contemplation of gods by sadhakas to evoke and invoke their presence by filling his or her mind with this description of the goddess while ritually approaching her. The aim of Tantric practice is total union or identification with the deity, or to be granted a vision of the deity, and the dhyanas are meant to help achieve this. In the case of Tarapith, Bamakhepa famously achieved both, and his vision granted him moksha. The combination of written dhyanas and the murti of Tara shaped his vision. Such rituals of visualisation are insufficiently treated in the sphere of visual studies considering they form such an important part of Hindu iconography and image devotion.28 Most significant for this case study is the way in which Bamakhepa’s relationship with and visualisation of Tara shaped his followers’ attitudes towards her. For example, his union with Tara led to him consuming offerings left for Tara’s murti himself, before passing them on to her. This was a subversive act that not only articulated the intimacy of their relationship as Divine Mother and adoring son, but also represented the domestication of this fierce goddess.
Understanding Tantric ritual through Tara In order to fully identify with Tara, Bamakhepa, like other sadhakas, partook in certain Tantric rituals associated with her. The iconography of Tara informs and reinforces Tantric ritual focusing on death – i.e. the setting, which is the cremation ground, and the ritual instruments, which include skulls, weapons and corpses. Sadhakas at Tarapith frequently seat themselves on or near five human and animal skulls in the cremation ground in order to access the power of the goddess (panchamundi-asana). This sadhana, along with shava-sadhana (meditation while seated on a corpse), is considered an ego-transcending spiritual practice. In depictions of the goddess, cremation fires are visible in the background, which represent another aspect of her character: she is recognised as the cremation fire itself, enabling the cathartic transition from life to death.29
Tarapith's revolutionary potential
According to Hindu belief, cremation is the final rite in the course of an individual’s existence, and it ceremoniously affirms non-attachment to the body. As a threshold where transition from life to death regularly takes place, it is a numinous space offering unparalleled access to the spirit world and the beings that inhabit it. Sadhakas often attempt to make contact with this spirit world in order to gain supernatural powers, particularly through the practice of shava-sadhana. Initiation into Tantric rites is carried out in this setting, involving the symbolic death and rebirth of the practitioner.30 Appropriately then, the serpents adorning Tara are symbols of transformation, able to shed their skins and become new beings (Plate 10). The cremation ground also represents a ‘polluted’ space. Bamakhepa is said to have practised his meditation on the skulls of five unclean beings: a human who had died a violent, unnatural death, as well as the skulls of a monkey, snake, mongoose and vulture.31 This relates to the Tantric engagement with the impure which, for a sadhaka, can be used as an instrument of auspicious power.32 The affirmation that all is sacred in the material world, including those forbidden things rejected by society, ultimately liberates the sadhaka from the material world. Since death represents an aspect of the polluted, Tara herself is an emblem of the forbidden.33 During the ritual, the sadhaka boldly confronts Tara and thereby assimilates and overcomes her, transforming her into a vehicle of salvation. Members of the Bengali elite, coming from the increasingly urbanised environment of Calcutta, came to pay their respects to the famous Bamakhepa, including the following Hindu philosophers and reformers, driven by spiritual yearning: Debendranath Tagore (1817–1905), Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902) and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820–91).34 On a trip to the city during the 1890s Bamakhepa was also hosted by Jatindramohan Tagore (1831–1908).35 According to Panckori Bandyopadhyay in a 1913 article for Sahitya, ‘study of the Tantras was confined to a certain section of the educated in Bengal. Maharaja Sir Jatindra Mohan alone endeavoured to understand and appreciate men like Bama Khepa.’36 Sumit Sarkar comments, ‘Disreputable, yet often deeply attractive, Tantric (…) traditions have had a powerful appeal for lowcastes and women – while providing at the same time a kind of secret second life to many high-caste men’,37 including many of the Bengali bhadralok. Thus, during the late nineteenth century in particular, Bengali nationalism began to absorb certain Tantric principles. In 1893 the writer Kshitish Chandra Chakravarti, in his Lectures on Hindu Religion, Philosophy and Yoga, sought to revalorise Tantric ritual and philosophy in response to colonial critique: The principal object of Tantrik worship is the attainment of superhuman power through the medium of the spirits, and also the attainment of all wished-for objects through their help. The higher aspect of the Tantras is (…) namely the union with a spirit by meditation. (…) The early Tantriks (…) were much in advance of their time, both in learning and thought (…) Their secluded habits, their mysterious forms of worship, led men to distrust them and to look on them with awe. (…) Unfortunately (…) their intentions have been so grossly misrepresented in our days that the very name of Tantra sometimes shocks our nerves; yet the two-thirds of our religious rites are Tantrik (…). For public opinion [Tantriks] care not. Fear they have not. Uncleanliness and abominations, as understood by the Hindus, are not to be found in their dictionaries. (…) Wine they require in moderate quantity to control the images of their mind, and woman to draw out their best nature at the time of Sadhana.38
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Bamakhepa, Tantra and revolutionary potential Why were so many attracted to figures like Bamakhepa, subsequently popularising Tarapith as a pilgrimage site? To an extent this can be explained by his magnetic charisma. His controversial rejection of societal and religious norms attracted a fascinated audience.39 The ascetic’s power made him both fearsome and venerable. More pertinently, Bamakhepa’s popularisation of the Tantric goddess Tara also appealed to a wider revolutionary agenda. The goddess-devotee as mother–son relationship subsequently took on patriotic overtones. One of Bankim’s poems, Bande Mataram (Hail, Mother), which became the main slogan of the nationalist movement, begins by describing Bengal as a mother who nurtures the population as her children.40 Tantric goddesses also came to be identified with the land: Kali, for example, was regarded as Bengal personified. Bamakhepa’s maternal treatment of the goddess was informed, therefore, by the nationalist movement’s attempt to rally citizens together through this ‘maternalising’ of India. Simultaneously, Tara (like Kali) was a martial goddess who could be harnessed as a symbol of revolutionary violence, as articulated by the Bengali poet Mukunda Das (1878–1934): ‘Mother, come with your fierce aspect/ Come with your awful spirits/ Come and dance on this vast cremation ground/ Which is Bharat [India].’41 In this context she could thus be envisioned as a fierce warrior and enslaved victim, both aspects inspiring maternal devotion. There is no explicit evidence of Bamakhepa’s defiance of colonial rule, but there is certainly a clear rejection of nineteenth-century Western values. The transgressive nature of Tantra challenged Brahmanical orthodoxy as well as colonial oppression, and its marginal practices could pass under the radar of surveillance. Sumit Sarkar notes that many of the Bengali literati began to idealise the irresponsibility and defiantly unmanly characteristics of the holy fool (pagal).42 This was an alternative form of masculinity to challenge the Victorian model. As he points out, figures like Bamakhepa and the famous mystic Ramakrishna (1836–86), who acquired a large following amongst the bhadralok while he served as the pujari at Dakshineshwar Kali temple near Calcutta, ‘in effect subverted the distinctions between adult and child, male and female, work and play, which the “civilising” mission of the West was making more rigid in colonial Bengal’.43 Such subversion contrasted dramatically with the formality and rigid routines of urban employment, including colonial clerical work. Bamakhepa represented a rural ideal to which many of the urban bhadralok wished to reconnect. One major literary figure who was attracted to the ‘mad wisdom’ of the child-like pagal, and Ramakrishna in particular, was the playwright Girishchandra Ghosh, who staged Dakshayajna (discussed in Chapter 1) and had spent years as a clerk working for the British government. From the mid-1880s, Girischandra’s Calcutta plays began including characters modelled after Ramakrishna. In Bilvamangal (1886), Nasiram (1888) and Kalapahar (1896), he introduced the figure of the wandering pagal, an embodiment of divine wisdom that was clearly inspired by Ramakrishna.44 Though there is no evidence that Bamakhepa was involved in revolutionary politics, one of his principal followers certainly was. After Bamakhepa’s death, the position of the head-priest was inherited by his disciple, Tarapada Banerjee, who went on to become a Tantric saint known as Tarakhepa. Before coming to Tarapith, Tarapada had been a member of the Jugantar group of anti-British, armed revolutionaries in
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Bengal. According to some reports, he came to Tarapith in order to be initiated into Tantric practices.45 Condemned by the British, Tantric practices could be harnessed for their revolutionary potential. Bengal’s early revolutionary activities centred on a network of religio-political secret societies and underground movements, many based in Calcutta.46 These groups, whose members were often followers of Shakta Tantra, were inspired by Bankim’s descriptions of revolutionary sannyasis who devoted themselves to the Mother Goddess and pledged to overthrow foreign rule.47 By 1905 Swadeshi leaders were symbolically pledging allegiance and devotion to Kali at Kalighat, and many secret revolutionary societies, including the Dacca Anushilan Samiti, followed suit.48 Tantric rites deliberately subverted orthodox Brahmanical rules concerning caste and dichotomies between the pure and impure, and this radical transgression through sadhana attracted great power. Tantric practices also assumed revolutionary potential in their assertion of resistance and personal freedom. Bamakhepa’s own reputed divine madness (khepa literally translates as ‘mad’) added to his charisma and could also be interpreted as a sign of rebellion. In his writings and speeches of the mid-1870s, the Bengali social reformer Keshub Chandra Sen often spoke out against cold European reason, arguing instead for divine madness (he came under the influence of Ramakrishna from 1875 onwards): By madness I mean heavenly enthusiasm, the highest and most intense spirituality of character, in which faith rules supreme over all sentiments and faculties of the mind. (…) The question naturally suggests itself — why should not men be equally mad for God?49 Being ‘mad for God’ also involved a dissolution of the ego. As an enlightened ascetic or sannyasi, Bamakhepa had conquered the bondages of the ego, his own symbolic sacrificial ‘decapitation’ for Tara. Iconographically, Tara’s bloodied sword of knowledge symbolises the death of the ego, represented by her garland of severed heads, through the transformative destruction of ignorance.50 Decapitation during animal sacrifice was and still is common in the Tantric tradition, and at Tarapith it is a daily occurrence. The khadga ritual decapitation sword used at the temple has a curved blade commonly seen in images of the goddess (Plate 10). The Tantrasara stresses the importance of decapitation as the ideal form of sacrifice.51 Several goats are beheaded a day to satisfy Tara’s hunger. Goats are considered symbols of greed, passion and lust, so their sacrifice is a symbolic act. The head can be interpreted as a repository of the ego, which is then offered to the goddess to appease her.52 As Kshitish Chandra Chakravarti pointed out in 1893, ‘The evil propensities or passions are symbolised, such as anger is represented by a buffalo, covetousness by a sheep, another by a goat, but instead of slaying these passions, we now kill innocent live goats, buffaloes and sheep.’53 Tara’s sacrificial heads also assumed an alternative meaning during the colonial period. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, images of ferocious Tantric goddesses such as Tara and Kali were most popular in Bengal, including the popular prints circulated by the Calcutta Art Studio. The ethnographer and colonial administrator Herbert Hope Risley anxiously described a chromolithographic image of Kali produced by the Studio as garlanded with ‘seemingly European heads’ (Figure 3.2).54 These goddess images were appropriated by the nationalist movement as icons of revolutionary
Figure 3.2 Calcutta Art Studio, Kali, lithograph, c.1890 © The Trustees of the British Museum
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awakening, and envisioned as the supreme images of Mother India rising up against her colonisers. As a writer for Jugantar stated in 1905: The Mother asks for sacrificial offerings. What does the Mother want? (…) The fowl or a sheep or a buffalo? No. She wants many white Asuras [demons]. The Mother is thirsting after the blood of the Feringhees [foreigners] (…) with the close of a long era, the Feringhee Empire draws to an end, for behold! Kali rises in the East.55
Terrifying and benevolent: visions of Tara Calcutta Art Studio prints of Tara show her standing on the supine, corpse-like god Shiva, who is her husband (Plate 10). According to Shakta Tantric belief, reality is the result and expression of the interaction of male and female, spirit and matter, and Shiva and Shakti.56 In many Tantric texts, the supine figure below Tara’s feet is also described as a corpse.57 Fresh corpses are a powerful means of communing with the goddess and with the spirit world through shava-sadhana, during which the sadhaka sits on the corpse and meditates on Tara. The Mantra-mahodadhi states that such rituals will make a sadhaka ‘fearless and master of various siddhis [magical powers]’.58 Troubled spirits who have not yet reincarnated and linger on in the body are the most effective.59 Once pacified they can grant special powers, including miraculous healing abilities, which Bamakhepa himself attained.60 Throughout the nineteenth century, diseases such as cholera and malaria ravaged the Bengali countryside. Fear of disease and death, together with an overwhelming anxiety about the future, made Bamakhepa’s siddhis a popular attraction across the region.61 It was believed that Bamakhepa not only had miraculous healing powers but could even raise the dead. Sometime around 1890–91 he is said to have visited Calcutta to bring back to life the son of a famous musician, Shyamacharan Chakravarty. Western medical treatment had had no effect on him, and his revival by Bamakhepa was considered to represent the triumph of traditional and Tantric healing over Western medicine.62 Bamakhepa came to be regarded as a holy intercessor between devotees and Tara. Pilgrims approached the Tara murti to pay their respects, but many prioritised the sadhaka’s miraculous presence.63 Corpses and skulls, featuring prominently in Tara imagery, were not only instruments for meditating on mortality, but also instruments of power. Shava-sadhana deliberately invites extreme peril, including ghosts and demonic forces, in order to attract the attention of the goddess.64 Visionary experience is described most often in Tantric texts as occurring in the cremation ground at night, not only because it is Tara’s residence, but also because the proximity to death and primal fear encourage her maternal instincts to protect her devotee. Nigamananda Sarasvati took initiation from Bamakhepa, and he described this experience vividly.65 Bamakhepa left him in the cremation ground at midnight with three burned bodies, and instructed him to meditate on Tara. Demonic apparitions haunted and distracted him. Bamakhepa would cry ‘Tara! Tara!’ every time Sarasvati’s focus wavered. Eventually he felt his ego dissolve in a kind of ‘ecstasy of death’, achieving divine union with Tara through a vision of her as a beautiful woman. He requested a vision of her cosmic form, and she became vast, with thousands of heads, tongues, bodies, weapons, grinding teeth, and eyes emitting fire.
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Tara’s transition from beautiful woman to cosmic form in this case reflects the view that Hindu gods and goddesses can be simultaneously represented as converging into one absolute deity as well as manifesting as a multitude of minor deities. Each manifestation represents a rupa, or appearance, of the mula-shakti – the original, supreme goddess. As the Bengali writer Mutukumaraswamy Mudaliar put it in 1897, ‘The Personal-Impersonal God appears in His Personal Form as a loving mother to help us in our helplessness, and melts with us in course of time into the Impersonal Brahman, beyond the reach of all sense-vision.’66 Kshitish Chandra Chakravarti also described such a ritual in his 1893 study of Tantra cited earlier: At times their Sadhana flies off at a tangent, and partakes the character of Bir (heroic) worship. Alone then in the blackest part of a moonless night, in places of cremation, and over dead bodies of persons who have died from unnatural causes, they would sit for hours undaunted, taking wine at intervals and performing those rites which, according to their beliefs, are calculated to give them supernatural powers by supernatural means; or they would surround themselves with all the temptations of the flesh – the temptations of wine, of woman, well-dressed meat, sweet-scented flowers and fragrant perfumes, and in spite of them fix their mind on the objects of their worship, which in all such cases are the spirits.67 Tara’s transition from benevolent to terrifying also revealed her fundamentally ambiguous nature. For example, Ramakrishna once described a vision of the goddess in her capacity as creator and destroyer of the universe. He saw a beautiful woman emerge from the Ganges, give birth and begin to cradle her child. Then, assuming a terrifying form, she devoured the child and re-entered the water.68
The sweetening of death Despite her destructive aspect, Tara is often represented with large breasts and a swollen belly, suggesting her maternal and creative nature. In her Hymn of a Hundred Names she is called Jagaddhatri or Mother of the World. Tara is thus the very principle of life: she takes it, but also gives it in an endless cycle of creation and destruction. It is this image of Tara as mother that Bamakhepa promoted in his own vision of the goddess. It is said that in 1863 he was granted a vision of her in her capacity as ferocious destroyer and benign creator: dancing upon a burning corpse, he saw a ‘demoness’ with long teeth and fiery eyes, wearing a tiger skin and snake ornaments.69 This is popularly illustrated in contemporary comics about the life of Bamakhepa (Figure 3.3). Affectionately, she lifted him and took him on her lap, and he lost consciousness as she took him to her breast. He has consequently become the symbol of devotion for millions of Bengali Shaktas (followers of Shaktism), and his relationship with Tara had a profound impact on the sweetening of death at Tarapith. The vision of Bamakhepa being taken to her breast echoes another form of Tara presented to devotees at the temple: inside the fierce murti, which is hollow and open at the back, is a relic which is only brought out for viewing once a day. This is a rough, uncarved stone with no discernible features. It is now believed to represent Tara in the form of a mother, breastfeeding the god Shiva as an infant. Today it is depicted in popular prints sold to pilgrims as souvenirs (Figure 3.4). Originally, however, this relic had been conceived of as the dismembered third eye of Sati. It seems probable
Figure 3.3 Tara Appearing to Bamakhepa, illustration from a Bengali comic about Bamakhepa sold at Tarapith Author’s photograph (2012)
Figure 3.4 Tara Breastfeeding Shiva, contemporary print Author’s photograph (2012)
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that Bamakhepa’s famous vision of Tara as creator, and his child-like devotion to her maternal aspect, helped cement the relic’s identification with the former legend in the popular imagination. According to myth, Shiva drank poison from the churning of the cosmic oceans to save the universe, and Tara breastfed him to relieve his burning throat.70 The 1989 Bengali film Mahapith Tarapith includes a scene dedicated to this story: temple priests reveal the concealed image to devotees, cutting to a re-enactment in which Tara comes to Shiva’s aid. Shiva is simultaneously the goddess’s son and husband precisely because her role as creator implies that everyone is her child and devotee, including her own spouse. According to local tradition, Bamakhepa was believed to be an incarnation of Shiva, and his relationship with Tara expressed the same dynamic tension shared by the deities. Rachel McDermott argues that Tantric goddesses such as Tara were ‘domesticated’ during the nineteenth century, particularly through Bengali Shakta poetry.71 Bamakhepa was very much influenced by the early nineteenth-century Bengali poet Kamalakanta Bhattacharya (c.1769–1821), who was also a Tantric practitioner at Tarapith. Bamakhepa used to recite Kamalakanta’s poems, which included verses such as: ‘Who else but the Mother will bear the burden of Kamalakanta? Ma! Give me shelter at Your feet; take me home.’72 Kamalakanta was the product of a poetic literary movement in Bengal that described the goddess in devotional terms, beginning with Ramprasad Sen (c.1718–75) in the mid-eighteenth century. Both poets were influenced by Vaishnava bhakti poetry, which spread throughout India from the twelfth to the eighteenth century. Bhakti poetry expressed the love felt by the devotee towards a personal deity, usually associated with the god Krishna. Often that love was described in terms of pangs of separation and euphoric union, and this lover–beloved relationship was in turn articulated by poets like Kamalakanta in relation to Tara.73 It is likely that the ‘softening’ of the goddess was also for the benefit of Bengali religious sensibilities that had been influenced by colonial and Victorian tastes.74 Bengal was the ancient homeland of Shaktism, and the Tantric cult of the mother goddess remains popular to this day. In order to protect (as well as promote) Tantric beliefs and practices during the late nineteenth century, it proved beneficial to make Tantric deities such as Tara palatable to colonial tastes, not only amongst the British but also amongst many of the bhadralok. Bamakhepa was one of those who popularised Tantra and turned Tara from a terrifying esoteric symbol into a devotional goddess (Figure 3.5), making her more accessible to a larger audience. Her horrific side was softened and tamed, thereby making her easier for devotees to relate to. In this way one could argue that Bamakhepa contributed to the sweetening of death itself by transforming Tara into a maternal icon.75 Bamakhepa’s submission and child-like surrender to Tara is embodied in the form of the goddess’s sculpted, disembodied feet within the temple. They are ritually worshipped, functioning almost as symbolic traces of the goddess’s presence.76 Kamalakanta frequently alluded to the goddess’s feet in his poetry: ‘Ornament after ornament adorns Her beautiful feet, Her toenails shaming the moon by their mirrorlike gleam. Seeing such a sweet form Kamalakanta goes to [her] very spotless feet for refuge.’77 Today pilgrims can buy small replicas of Tara’s feet as souvenirs from stalls around the temple. Another pair of ‘feet’ come in the form of stone mounds, believed to be the tangible traces or footprints of Tara left behind after she appeared to Bamakhepa. These are located in a special shrine within the cremation ground, where
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Figure 3.5 Bamakhepa and Tara, contemporary pilgrim souvenir sold at Tarapith temple Author’s photograph (2012)
they are venerated as relics. The red dye (known as alta) which covers them is the same auspicious substance used to adorn married women’s feet in Bengal. Foot imagery associated with deities features prominently in Hindu spaces of worship, and touching such sacred feet is a gesture of humility, inviting the devotees’ submission in return for divine protection.78 In 2007 a Bengali television series about the life of Bamakhepa (Sadhok Bamakhyapa) became an instant hit and ran for 1,500 episodes, testifying to his lasting popularity and resonance. Tarapith’s cremation ground continues to be used by sadhakas today. As at Kamakhya, the temple has become a popular centre of devotional worship rather than a site of transgressive rites, which are largely practised on the margins. Devotees approach the Tara murti as a benign matriarch, offering her food, incense and, according to her Tantric nature, alcohol. To have darshan or ‘sacred vision’ of the murti is the ultimate incentive for pilgrimage, and pilgrims are referred to as darshaniyas – those who come to ‘see.’ Despite this, the significance of the macabre in Tara’s iconography as well as in contemporary Tantric practice continues to rest on the relationship between mortality and power, entailing the invocation of one’s greatest fear, that of death, in order to give one strength. This chapter has examined the role of popular religion in Bengal towards the end of the nineteenth century, including the Bengali intelligentsia’s yearning for certain traditional practices criticised by the colonial regime, such as Tantra and image
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worship. Many sought to protect these practices and valorise Shaktism, and were nostalgically drawn to sites such as Tarapith. This chapter has focused on an analysis of the iconography of Tara in late nineteenth-century popular prints produced by the same publishers behind the 1883 Sati print (Calcutta Art Studio) and the ways in which they uncovered hidden meanings behind Tantric ritual relating to emancipatory death. Tara’s (as well as Kali’s) role as the embodiment of death, simultaneously protecting devotees from it while urging them to confront it, became a significant source of empowerment for Bengalis struggling under the colonial regime. Tara’s macabre iconography also revealed a fundamental truth behind Tantric ritual: the universal and inclusive nature of death broke down conventional social differences between practitioners, a sentiment that would acquire political relevance during the colonial period when Bengali writers stressed the need to unite a country fragmented by caste division. Tantric rites deliberately rejected Brahmanical rules concerning caste and dichotomies between the pure and impure, and this radical transgression through sadhana attracted great power to the practitioner. These rites also assumed revolutionary potential in their assertion of resistance and personal freedom, making Tantra a veritable counterculture. This chapter proceeded to examine the relationship between Tara and Tarapith’s famous resident sadhaka, Bamakhepa, who ‘sweetened’ and maternalised this once frighteningly unapproachable goddess through intimate interaction and visualisation, influenced by bhakti poetry. Bamakhepa’s own reputed divine madness signified resistance against the established social and religious order. Through an analysis of the relationship between Tantric ritual and iconography in the worship of Tara, as well as the relationship between Bamakhepa and the temple’s murti, this chapter has sought to reveal late nineteenth-century perceptions of the goddess as both martial and maternal. Her new role as a powerful mother appealed to Bengali nationalists who envisioned India as Bharat Mata and, as her sons, were willing to sacrifice their lives for her. Bamakhepa’s relationship to the Tara murti also leads us to an exploration of image worship debates during the late nineteenth century, prompted by colonial rule, which is the focus of Chapter 4.
3 4 5
As mentioned, there are several different lists of Pithas in various Puranic and Tantric texts. Many sites claim to enshrine one of Sati’s relics. Tarapith is one of them, and many Shaktas accept it as a Pitha, or at least a Siddhapitha (a place where people have gained perfection or siddhi, literally ‘success’) (McDaniel (2006), p.88). Only one classical source – the Sivacarita – considers Tarapith a Mahapitha or Great Pitha (Sircar (1948), p.39). It was here, according to a mid-fourteenth-century legend, that the merchant Joychandra arrived with the embalmed body of his dead son, who was resurrected by the local goddess Tara. Joychandra became her devotee and built a temple to her there in homage. The temple was reconstructed and new shrines were added around 1740 by a local zamindar (landowner), Ramjeevan Sinha. Jagannatha Ray renovated the complex in 1813, and the construction of a new temple dedicated to Tara was completed by 1818. A tank in the middle is believed to be the legendary tank whose waters are said to have brought back to life Joychandra’s son (Banerjee (2010), p.157). Morinis (1984); Gangopadhyay, B.K. Mahapith Tarapith (Kolkata, 2010); and Banerjee (2010). O’Malley, L.S.S. West Bengal District Gazetteers: Birbhum (Calcutta, 1910), p.146. Eliade, M. Yoga (New York, 1958), p.347. The Kubjika Tantra, quoted by Sircar, lists forty-two Siddhapithas (Sircar (1948), p.19).
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Morinis (1984), p.21. 7 Kinsley, D. Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas (Berkeley, 1997), p.102. 8 Kinsley (1997), p.109. 9 Morinis (1984), pp.19–23. 10 Sarkar, S. ‘“Kaliyuga”, “Chakri” and “Bhakti”: Ramakrishna and his times’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol.27, No.29, 1992, pp.43–66. 11 According to the temple’s pujaris (priests), the murti dates to the early nineteenth century. Tara was one of the ten manifestations of Sati that appeared before Shiva, according to Puranic texts. 12 Surprisingly little has been written about Bamakhepa, despite his role as a major figure in modern Bengali history. The following authors discuss some of the more important events of his life: Morinis (1984); Banerjee (2010); Gangopadhyay (2010); McLean, M. ‘Eating Corpses and Raising the Dead: The Tantric Madness of Bamaksepa’ in Urban, H. (ed.) In the Flesh: Eros, Secrecy and Power in the Vernacular Tantric Traditions of India (forthcoming); and McDaniel, J. The Madness of the Saints: Ecstatic Religion in Bengal (Chicago, 1989). These are gathered from oral sources compiled by Bengali biographies including: Bandopadhyaya, S.K. Tarapith Bhairava (Calcutta, 1376 B.S. [Bengal era]); Cakravarti, G. Banglar Sadhaka (Calcutta, 1387 B.S.); and Banerjee, S.K. Sri Sri Bama Ksepa (Calcutta, 1971). 13 Mitchell, J.M. and Muir, W. Two Old Faiths: Essays on the Religions of the Hindus and the Mohammedans (Delhi, 1996 ), p.53. 14 McDaniel (1989), p.121. 15 Gangopadhyay (2010), p.110. 16 Gangopadhyay (2010), p.281. In her benevolent manifestation, Tara is also a Buddhist goddess and is regarded as a Tibetan national deity. She is generally understood to have become prominent in Indian Buddhism first, and then gained greater importance when introduced into Tibet. Her place in the Hindu pantheon is less central and she is usually associated with a group of nine other Tantric goddesses, the Mahavidyas. For references on the history of Tara in Tibet, see Beyer, S. The Cult of Tara: Magic and Ritual in Tibet (Berkeley, 1973); and for more on her role as a Mahavidya, Kinsley (1997). 17 Diksit, R. Tara Tantra Shastra (Agra, 1987), p.116. 18 Kinsley (1997), p.84. 19 Erndl, K.M. Victory to the Mother: The Hindu Goddess of Northwest India in Myth, Ritual and Symbol (Oxford, 1993), p.165. 20 Diksit (1987), p.117. 21 Gupta (2009), p.311. 22 Quoted in Chattopadhyay, P. Tantrabhilasir Sadhusanga (Calcutta, 1983), pp.192–3 and Banerjee (2010), p.166. 23 Bose (1883), p.168. 24 Sen, S.P. (ed.) Social and Religious Reform Movements in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Calcutta, 1979), p.45. 25 Bhattacharrya, N.N. History of the Sakta Religion (New Delhi, 1974), p.206. 26 Symbolic interpretations of her iconography here are based on interviews with informants carried out in and around Tarapith. The Iconography of Sakta Divinities by Harish Chandra Das (Delhi, 1997) is also a helpful source for understanding the iconographical implications of a multitude of Hindu goddesses. 27 Mahidhara, Mantra Mahodadhi: Vol. 1 (Varanasi, 1992), pp.179–80. Note that Tara’s iconography is not always entirely consistent, and there are occasionally variations. In contrast to this dhyana, for example, the Calcutta Art Studio prints represent her with knife and sword in her left hands, and lotus and skull in her right hands. 28 This point is made by Corinna Wessels-Mevissen in a special issue of Marg Magazine (vol.63, no.2, 2011) entitled ‘Visuality of Indian rituals’ in which the relationship between image and ritual as a subject of visual anthropology was introduced from a variety of perspectives. Wessels-Mevissen refers to such rituals as ‘mind objects’, suggesting their importance as iconographical ‘artefacts’ in their own right. 29 Kinsley (1997), p.103.
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30 Kinsley (1997), p.235. 31 This story was told to me by several informants at Tarapith (August 2012). See also McDaniel (1989), p.127. 32 See Urban (2003) for more on the relationship between ‘impurity’ and the ‘auspicious’ in Tantric philosophy and the role of transgression in the attainment of power. 33 Kinsley (1997), p.76. 34 Datta (2009), p.263. 35 Banerjee (2010), p.181. 36 Quoted in Woodroffe, J. Sakti and Sakta (Madras, 1965), p.19. 37 Sarkar (1992), p.53. 38 Chakravarti (1893), pp.16, 57, 60, 65, 70. 39 McLean notes: ‘Most of the time at Tarapith he wandered naked about the cremation ground. He was stoned on ganja all day and drunk wine from a human skull. The people called him Bama Mlecha because he had lost caste by eating food left by the dogs and jackals. He made no distinction between pure and impure foods, and broke caste rules with impunity. He would even take human flesh from the mouth of a dog in the cremation ground and fill his own mouth with it’ (forthcoming, p.8). Sources: Chakrabarti, G.C. Bamaksyapa: Banlar Sadhaka, Vol. 1 (Calcutta, 1379, B.S.), p.21 and Chattopadhyay (1983), p.341ff. 40 The first verse reads: ‘I bow to you, Mother,/ well-watered, well fruited,/ breeze cool, crop green,/ the Mother!/ Nights quivering with white moonlight,/ draped in lovely flowering trees,/ sweet of smile, honeyed speech,/ giver of bliss and boons, the Mother!/ Seven crore voices in your clamorous chant,/ twice seven crore hands holding aloft mighty scimitars,/ Who says, Mother, you are weak?/ Repository of many strengths,/ scourge of the enemy’s arms, the Mother!’ (translation by Ghose, A. Karmayogin, November 20, 1909). 41 Goswami, J. Charankavi Mukunda Das (Calcutta, 1972), p.218. 42 Sarkar (1992), p.48. 43 Sarkar (1992), p.48. Ramakrishna’s disciple, Saradananda, wrote a biography about his master and claimed that Ramakrishna’s mission was to save the bhadralok from Western influences that had allowed them to stray from their own spiritual and cultural identities (see Saradananda, S. Sri Ramakrishna: The Great Master, Vol. 1 (Madras, 1978), pp.1–5). 44 Sarkar (1992), p.58. 45 Banerjee (2010), p.157. 46 Urban (2003), p.91. 47 The Calcutta newspapers Bande Mataram and Jugantar voiced the political aspirations of these groups. Jugantar (founded by Aurobindo’s brother, Barin) was by far the most radical, encouraging violent revolution against the British (Urban (2003), p.92). As editor of Bande Mataram, Aurobindo regularly contributed to it; for him, nationalism was a divine mission: ‘Nationalism is a religion that has come from God.’ (Ghose (1973), p.652). 48 Sarkar (1973), pp.312–13. Recent research on Swadeshi political theology by Alex Wolfers demonstrates the extent to which Shakta Tantric symbolism, metaphysics and practice shaped the politics of revolutionary groups in Bengal: Wolfers. A. Aurobindo Ghose and the Rise of the Revolutionary Sannyasi (PhD thesis, University of Cambridge, forthcoming). 49 Sen, K.S. Lectures in India, Vol. 1 (London, 1901), p.286. 50 Interviews with informants (August 2012); see also Kinsley (1997), p.108. 51 Diksit (1987), pp.682–3. 52 Interview with an informant (Tarapith, August 2012). 53 Chakravarti (1893), p.17. 54 Pinney (2004), p.120; see also Bayly, C.A. (ed.) The Raj: India and the British, 1600–1947 (London, 1990), pp.340–41. In 1910 the Press Act was drafted, leading to the censorship of such imagery that was deemed subversive. 55 Cited in Chirol (1910), p.346. 56 As Shakti, or divine feminine energy, Tara is considered superior to Shiva, and Tantric texts assert that without her Shiva could not survive and the universe would perish. 57 Mahidhara (1992), pp.179–80; Diksit (1987), p.116. 58 Mahidhara (1992), p.214.
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71 72 73 74 75
76 77 78
Interview with an informant (August 2012). McDaniel (1989), p.133. McLean (forthcoming), p.16. Banerjee (2010), p.170. Banerjee (2010), pp.185, 153. The constant fear of death in Bengal caused people to question whether such problems were due to their own sins, a result of the belief that they were living during an era pre-ordained by the Hindu scriptures as Kaliyuga (‘Age of Vice’). Kaliyuga was regarded as the last of the four stages the world goes through as part of the cycle of yugas. McDaniel (1989), p.120. Saraswati, N. Mayer Kripa (Halisahar, 1382 B.S.), pp.3–13. Quoted in McDaniel (1989), pp.151–2. Mudaliar, M.V. Hindu Idolatry: Expounded and Defended (Madras, 1897), p.18. Chakravarti (1893), p.75. Nikhilananda, S. The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (New York, 1952), p.21. Banerjee (1971), p.36. This story was told to me by several informants at Tarapith (August 2012), as it was to Morinis (1987), p.167. Today Tara’s original stone form is available briefly for viewing when the temple first opens at four o’clock in the morning. This is the time of the early morning ritual known as the snana puja (snana meaning ‘bath’ in Bengali) when the stone form of Tara is bathed, and the water is then collected as prasad (religious offering). See McDermott (2001a). Quoted in McDermott (2001a), p.212. As a movement it was stimulated by the court poet Jayadeva’s twelfth-century Gita Govinda, a poetic text about the love between Krishna and the cowherdess Radha. As Urban suggests: ‘[The] sanitization of Tantra was tied to a specific political agenda: namely, the construction of a new Indian national and cultural identity in the face of two centuries of British colonialism.’ (Urban (2003), p.164). As Ramakrishna also stated: ‘I passed two years as the Mother’s “hand-maid” and “friend.” Mine, however, is the mood of the “child,” and to me the breasts of any women are like unto my mother’s.’ (Ramakrishna, S. Sayings of Sri Ramakrishna (Madras, 1949), p.441). Ramakrishna’s child-like surrender to the goddess turned him, in his own words, ‘into a five-year old boy’. The notion of traces left by the feet of a divine figure can be found elsewhere: the footprints of Vishnu and the Buddha, for example, are worshipped in shrines across India. Bandhopadhay, N. and Bhattacarya, B.T. Syama Sangit (Calcutta, 1925 ), p.209. Quoted in McDermott (2001a), p.36. Susan Wadley has pointed out the similar dynamic that exists between the powerful and their dependants in Hindu society. See Wadley, S. Shakti: Power in the Conceptual Structure of Karimpur Religion (Chicago, 1975).
Contesting the colonial gaze Image worship debates in nineteenthcentury Bengal
The worship of murtis or divinely embodied icons at each of the Shakti Pithas was significant during the late nineteenth-century colonial period, when the very act of image worship or murtipuja assumed political significance in Bengal. There were debates amongst the Bengali literati concerning its pros and cons, also reflected by Bamakhepa’s relationship to the murti at Tarapith. Bamakhepa famously urinated on the murti of Tara because he believed the goddess could not be contained within a sculpted image.1 According to one anecdote he once declared: I do not accept your idol-image, whose face is made of metal (…). Your garland of skulls which is made of metals I do not accept. That idol the pandas [priests] of the temple had accepted as their Goddess. To me ‘Akasa [formless] Tara’ is the real.2 Accordingly, he not only urinated on the Tara murti but also consumed devotees’ offerings to her.3 When the temple priests expressed their indignation for his desecrating of the murti, Bamakhepa reiterated that this was not the true Tara.4 During the nineteenth century the Bengali literati began to ask self-reflective questions about what it meant to be Hindu. Such questions were informed and conditioned by colonial understandings of Hinduism, which were often embellished with Orientalist notions of paganism and idolatry. Exposed to Western education, they were also the first to intellectually articulate resistance to colonial authority, fuelled by a desire to empower a modern Hindu identity and reinterpret indigenous traditions. During the latter half of the century they increasingly and self-consciously affirmed and reconstructed certain cultural practices that they had previously criticised under colonial influence. One of the most important of these contested practices was murtipuja. The worship of murtis was central to Hindus across the subcontinent, and many of the bhadralok – psychologically suspended between Western, ‘progressive’ influence and indigenous Hindu pride – recognised the need to patriotically reconnect with the popular forms of worship practised by their fellow countrymen. The very act of murtipuja assumed insurgent political overtones, particularly in response to colonial tendencies to ‘desacralise’ murtis by treating them as though they were art historical artefacts.
Murtipuja, darshan and rituals of consecration Before addressing the intellectual debates surrounding murtipuja it is necessary to briefly introduce the role of murtis amongst Hindu devotees and their modes of
Image worship debates in Bengal
worship. Like the goddesses at other Pithas (as Sati and her local manifestation combined), the Tara murti, for example, was also (and still is) approached for the granting of health, protection and spiritual gains. The ultimate incentive was to have darshan, or ‘sacred vision’, of the murti, involving seeing and being seen by the deity in a reciprocal act of ‘visual communion’.5 This intimate transaction, which still takes place today, was made primarily through visual exchange. Sight in this case was not passive but an active form of sensual tactility – an imprint made by the eyes on to the object of worship. Indeed, the possibility of such a sight was lent so much importance that many non-figural murtis were endowed with eyes. The murti became ‘enlivened’ only when ritually venerated; the concurrence of form and divine presence occurred after rituals of consecration. In the context of a Brahmanical temple setting, for example, it was the pujaris that maintained the continuous presence of the deity, and functioned as the intermediaries between the murti and the devotee. They would typically perform daily pujas for it, usually privately, which included bathing, dressing and adorning it with flowers; offering it bhag (cooked food) twice or three times a day; performing aarti (offering of light); and putting it to sleep at night.6 Murtis invited active engagement from the devotee through touch. As mentioned in the previous chapter, touching the feet of a murti, for example, was a gesture of humility, offering the devotees’ submission in return for divine protection. The ancient association of royalty with the divine was evident, as the murti was treated like a royal guest, influencing not only the ceremonials but also the iconography. For example, murtis were often adorned with crowns, including the murti of Tara at Tarapith and almost all the anthropomorphic murtis at the Shakti Pithas, which also wore colourful saris and flower garlands that were changed by the pujari regularly. Though many Hindu devotees considered images to be symbols of a higher, formless reality, there was a general belief that a divine power was inherent in the image, if consecrated properly. In the case of the annual Durga Puja festival, for example, the ritual of bodhan (awakening) involved the enlivening of a once lifeless murti of the goddess Durga. The Bengali nationalist Bipin Chandra Pal (1858–1932) described his experiences of the ritual: Of course, we saw with our own eyes that the icon was made of clay and straw. But though we thought of it as a doll until the morning when the actual worship began [bodhan], thereafter we could no longer think of the idol as a mere image.7 Such sacred images were ‘lifeless’ until ceremonies were performed, which rendered them divine. Some Shakti Pitha murtis were regarded as ‘self-manifesting’, said to have appeared miraculously, and these were considered living relics of Sati (such as the third eye at Tarapith, the right toes at Kalighat and the yoni at Kamakhya). However, although they did not necessarily have to be ‘awoken’ because the deity was considered to always reside in them, it was still necessary for the pujari to perform formal rites. His duty was to accept pilgrims’ offerings to the murti, say the ardas (supplication) and preside over rituals.
Image worship debates in Bengal
Ram Mohan Roy and the Brahmo Samaj movement Condemned by colonial officials and Christian missionaries, murtipuja became a contested practice during the nineteenth century, compelling the Bengali literati to debate and question its validity and place in Hindu culture.8 One of its early and most virulent modern Hindu critics was Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833): The whole country, specially the province of Bengal, was steeped up in the most debasing form of idolatry. (…) Men were clinging to dead forms and trying to draw spiritual sustenance therefrom as children cling to the corpses of their dead mothers.9 Ram Mohan perceived murtipuja as irrational and regressive because of the popular belief that the divine could inhere in the murti itself. He had founded the Brahmo Sabha movement (later the Brahmo Samaj). The movement in part responded to Christian missionary critiques in its remodelling of Hinduism by recalling its ancient Vedic origins, characterised by anti-idolatrous monotheism.10 Its followers were proponents of Neo-Vedanta, a nineteenth-century interpretation of Vedanta that centred on the philosophy of the Upanishads. They preached the non-duality of Brahman, a conception of God as the Absolute formless spirit governing the universe.11 Many members of the movement were torn between a desire to modernise India by taking inspiration from the scientifically superior West and a wish to preserve their ancient traditions. Ram Mohan compared his own ambitions for Hindu reforms to Martin Luther’s Reformation in Europe which successfully ‘purified’ Christianity by dismissing unnecessary rituals: ‘I began to think that something similar might have taken place in India and similar results might follow from a reformation of popular idolatry.’12 According to him, murtipuja was the practice most in need of abolition. Brajamohan Debashya, an ‘intimate friend’ of Ram Mohan, wrote A Tract Against the Prevailing System of Hindoo Idolatry in 1820 in which he described ‘the invariable tendency of idolatry to plunge every succeeding age deeper in immorality’: Like children, [these ignorant persons] present flowers to a stone which cannot smell, in order to make it enjoy the smell of a fine flower. (…) Our system requires that we should consider the supreme God as one single omnipresent and omniscient being (…). You waste your time by expecting salvation from images, which cannot keep away the flies from their faces.13 Another Hindu reformer, Swami Dayananda Saraswati (1824-83), who founded the Arya Samaj in 1875 in Bombay, similarly denounced murtipuja as having no basis in the ancient Vedas. He recalled that his anti-idolatry stance began during childhood when he saw mice eating offerings made to a murti of Shiva: ‘God being Formless and Omnipresent cannot have an image.’14 Instead, he promoted aniconic worship based on the Vedic fire ceremony, agni hotra.
Image worship debates in Bengal
‘Inconsistent with the moral order of the universe’: the Reverend Hastie’s views on murtipuja By the late nineteenth century, many of the Bengali literati were beginning to oppose the views described above, and valorised murtipuja as the practice of a ‘real Hindu’.15 This became dramatically evident in 1882 when a vitriolic letter by the Protestant Reverend William Hastie (1842–1903) attacking the practice inspired an outpouring of defence of murtipuja by Bengali writers. The letter by Hastie (a Scottish clergyman and principal of the General Assembly Institution in Calcutta from 1878) was published in the English Calcutta daily newspaper, The Statesman. It addressed a group of English-educated Bengalis, and criticised them for attending ‘idolatrous’ ceremonies which were carried out after the death of the grandmother of the affluent Maharaja Harendra Krishna Deb of Sovabazar. The Sovabazar family idol mentioned by Hastie was a murti of the god Krishna, placed on a silver throne. As Hastie stated: If we did not know it from experience, it would sound utterly incredible to be told that these cultivated and accomplished gentlemen, some of them Fellows of the Calcutta University and Members of learned European Societies, were found in the centre of this vast crowd on Sunday morning last, whose central purpose was the worshipping of what they at least knew to be a gawky image gilded and adorned to attract the vulgar eye.16 Hastie insisted that these Western-educated Bengalis could not possibly take idolatry seriously, and that their presence at the ceremony was therefore not only hypocritical but also set a bad example. He went on to directly address the so-called ‘Enlightened Hindoo community’ directly: ‘It is YOU (…) that we may well turn with an Appeal for aid, in our warfare with the idolatry which is still degrading the mass of your countrymen.’17 It was as a ‘friend of Hindu society’ that Hastie launched his campaign against the ‘glaring evil of idolatry’ that could be redeemed through ‘our English enlightenment’: [Idolatry] has consecrated and encouraged every conceivable form of licentiousness, falsehood, injustice, cruelty, robbery, murder. (…) Idolatry is essentially inconsistent with the moral order of the Universe. (…) His own idolatry, and not foreign conquerors, has been the curse of [Hindu society’s] history.18 Hastie’s main arguments against murtipuja centred on the impossibility of representing God objectively, and the idea that the uneducated required a visual aid: [The Hindoo idolmaker’s] images can only at best represent his own subjective moods of feeling or aspiration, and not the known, transcendent, divine reality. (…) Let it not (…) be said that the [common and uneducated] Hindu is by inner nature so coarse and low, that he cannot think of God without the aid of an image manufactured by his own hands! (…) If all the vastness and wonder of the finite universe cannot satisfy the human yearning after a spiritual conception of God, how shall a paltry image made by an uninspired workman ever shew forth more clearly or fully His Eternal Power and Godhead?19
Image worship debates in Bengal
His assertion that a ‘paltry’ image or murti could never adequately represent ‘transcendent, divine reality’ (a common point of contention at the time) reveals the tension between the visible/knowable and invisible/unknowable that Diana Eck addresses in her study of darshan (1981). She seeks to understand the relationship between murti and deity, and the ability to truly ‘see’ the divine, by referring to the epic Hindu hero Arjuna, who is given the eyes with which to see Krishna as the supreme god Vishnu in the theophany described in Chapter 11 of the Bhagavad Gita.20 The myth illustrates the point that God is unrepresentable and beyond imagination, which is why Krishna in this cosmic form is so often represented in painting in a bizarre, almost monstrous composite form. This form is known as Navagunjara, depicted as a creature composed of nine different animals, which is considered to be the omnipresent or cosmic form of Vishnu. Importantly, through the character of Arjuna we learn that even though the truest manifestation of Vishnu is the supreme being, he is best understood in simpler terms: ‘But never canst thou see Me with this thy [natural] eye.’21 Overwhelmed and frightened by the form of Vishnu, Arjuna requests that he take the form of Krishna once again. The story can serve to illustrate the relationship that exists between the murti and the deity according to Hindu belief.
The backlash: Bengali responses to Hastie The Reverend Hastie reflected the views of many colonial officials, Christian missionaries and Hindu reformers in his assertion that ‘idolatrous worship’ was ‘sucking the life-blood out of the very hope of [the Indian] community’.22 His letter inspired a deluge of protests, which were published in The Statesman, from writers who valued image worship. Hastie eventually published the letters under a revealing title, English Enlightenment and Hindoo Idolatry. Letters were replete with the fear that the colonial presence represented a threat to India’s cultural integrity. One respondent, who proudly signed off as a ‘Brahmin’ (a reference to his priestly caste), criticised the colonial presence for ‘degrading’ Hindu culture,23 while another, Satya Nanda Sarma, accused Hastie of sounding ‘a crusade, bloody and terrible, against Bharat-barsha [India] (…). His obstreperous denunciations against Hindu idolatry have shaken the temples and shrines of India to their foundations.’24 A third respondent, Nundolal Dutta, asserted the importance of murtipuja. He described it as a powerful and valid means of accessing the divine through darshan: None can approach the unknown, unsearchable God, alone and without a director or something to direct them. Men must have something by which to worship the unknown God. Some employ symbols and others employ sounds. The difference is that in one case the tongue or power of speech is put in motion, and in the other case the power of sight is exercised.25 Mutukumaraswamy Mudaliar, in a belated response to Hastie published in 1897, pointed out that if Brahman or the Absolute God existed in all things then it must also exist in the murtis themselves: Nature is in God; and there exists not an atom outside Him. The idol is as much His Body, as the whole Universe is His Form. (…) It is therefore idle to speak of our symbolic worship, as ungodly, Idolatry. (…) Prayer itself to God becomes
Image worship debates in Bengal
formal, insipid, dry and mechanical, when the mind is barren of any image of the Deity.26 The protesters included Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, who wrote under the pseudonym of Ram Chandra (until his final letter, published on November 22 1882, when he revealed his own name). Bankim challenged Hastie’s right, as an outsider, to speak authoritatively on matters related to Hindu practice.27 His published letters to Hastie reveal his own strong opinions on murtipuja. He responded in support of it, stressing its importance as an intrinsic part of Hindu ritual and, by extension, identity: I can but too confidently appeal to the consciousness and belief of at least 200 million of idolaters in India against this iconoclast of all that is nearest and dearest to their faith. (…) [Hastie’s] arguments are simply contemptible (…) [he] attacks [Hindu] religion; [and] attacks the religion of the nation. And all this without the slightest provocation. (…) There is nothing I am more desirous to see than the most competent explanation and defence of Hinduism possible (…). Nothing is a more common subject of merriment among the natives of India than the Europeans’ ignorance of all that relates to India (…). The image is simply the visible and accessible medium through which I choose to send my homage to the throne of the Invisible and the Inaccessible.28 Bankim’s response was fuelled by a patriotic promotion of indigenous practice, in reaction to Hastie’s ‘civilising’ mission. Murtis, according to him, could be ideal receptacles for the divine, and a way of making the sacred more accessible in the earthly realm. He described murtipuja as a ‘homage’ to the ‘ideal of the Divine’ realised in a physical form: I must ask the student of Hinduism when he comes to study Hindu Idolatry, to forget the nonsense about dolls given to children (…). The true explanation consists in the ever true relations of the subjective Ideal to its objective Reality (…). The passionate yearnings of the heart for the Ideal in beauty, in power, and in purity, must find an expression in the world of the Real. Hence proceed all poetry and all art. Exactly in the same way the ideal of the Divine in man receives a form from him, and the form an image (…). The homage we owe to the ideal of the human realised in art is admiration. The homage we owe to the ideal of the Divine realised in idolatry is worship.29 Bankim stressed his belief that the murti was a temporary abode for the divine, incomplete and inadequate as a full expression of the divinity. He noted that ‘The image is holy (…) because [the devotee] has made a contract with his own heart for the sake of culture and discipline to treat it as God’s image.’30 In other words, it was the devotee who determined his or her own relationship with the object of their devotion. As he continued: Like other contracts, this one with the worshipper’s own heart he may terminate at his pleasure. When he terminates it, he ceases to worship the image and throws it away, as we have just thrown away by thousands the images of Durga. He could not do this if for a moment he believed it to be his God.31
Image worship debates in Bengal
This somewhat utilitarian conception of murtipuja and the affirmation of human agency in the creation of the divine (i.e. the notion that devotees project their notions of divinity onto murtis) reveal the influence of Auguste Comte’s Positivist philosophy on Bankim.32 Aside from Bankim’s rationalist reconstruction of murtipuja there are instances of highly emotive passages validating the aspects of Hinduism critiqued by Hastie. Apart from ‘its rites, its idolatry, its caste’ there was, he conceded, no Hinduism.33 The worship of a personal deity was, in his opinion, the highest form of religion: ‘A personal God alone realises the highest and most perfect ideal of the Good, the Beautiful and the True (…). If religion is culture, worship of such a perfect ideal is by far the most important means of culture.’34 While Hastie had stated that ‘the whole 330 millions of Gods in the Hindu Pantheon (…) “are such stuff as dreams are made of”’,35 Bankim contended that ‘A pure monotheism is not to be found among the most cultured nations of the earth’36 and used the term ‘polytheistic monotheism’ to describe Hinduism, asserting the idea that Hindu deities can be simultaneously represented as converging into a supreme God (Brahman) as well as splintering into innumerable minor deities (as envisaged through murtis). However, Bankim had not always held such positive views on murtipuja. Eight years earlier he had been inspired to write a piece for the journal Bhramar in response to an essay it had published entitled ‘The Worship of the Gods in Bengal’ by an author who signed the piece as ‘Sri’.37 In it, Bankim questioned Sri’s argument that ‘Prayers offered to a personal god endowed with some form leaves room for greater fervour or intensity than that offered to an impersonal, formless god’: Personally, I am inclined to believe that the delight or satisfaction that one may obtain through the worship of a personal god is in no way better than that obtained through the adoration of the impersonal god (…) who I do not behold but know to be present everywhere.38 He also questioned Sri’s assertion that murtipuja produced ‘social bonding’: If idol worship be the social thread that binds us together, let us promptly cut it down with the sharpest knife. Let a new community, founded on new principles and practices, take the place of the old. (…) The worship of idols is opposed to reason and science (…), by impeding the growth of knowledge and our mental faculties, idol worship prevents social growth and development.39 Bankim’s only positive remarks concerning murtipuja focused on its role in the creation of art: ‘Such worship (…) supports poetic feeling and the growth of crafts. (…) In Bengal itself, idol worship has encouraged the production of exquisite songs and the poetry of the Vaishnav poets.’40 By 1882 he had become decidedly more supportive of murtipuja as a popular form of worship, as equally valid as worship of an impersonal, formless God. This was no doubt partly due to his animosity towards those like Hastie and their attempts to dilute rich and complex Hindu traditions in favour of a ‘purified’ monotheistic, non-idolatrous form of Hinduism as promoted by reform movements such as the Brahmo Samaj, who Hastie referred to as an ‘enlightened band of native Reformers’.41 In response, Bankim claimed that Vedanta and Vedic
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culture were irrelevant to the modern Bengali, and expressed reluctance to accept the authority of the Vedas as the foundation of Hindu religious life. As he later noted: It is by no means necessary that we should revert, like the late Dayananda Saraswati, to old and archaic types. That which was suited to people who lived 3,000 years ago, may not be suited to the present and future generations.42 Indeed, as early as the 1870s there was already a steady decline in the popularity of the Brahmo Samaj due to its increasingly limited appeal amongst the Bengali population. Partha Chatterjee notes that during this decade there were only around a hundred Brahmo families in Calcutta, and less than 1,000 people in the city declared themselves as Brahmos in the 1881 census.43 As the colonial administrator Charles Eliot pointed out in 1921, looking back at the ‘previous decades’: The last half century has witnessed a remarkable revival of Hinduism. In the previous decades the most conspicuous force in India, although numerically weak, was the (…) Brahmo Samaj, founded by Ram Mohun Roy in 1828. But it was colourless and wanting in constructive power. (…) A conservative and nationalist movement [arose] which in all its varied phases gave support to Indian religion and was intolerant of European ideas. (…) No one who has known India during the last thirty years can have failed to notice how many new temples have been built and how many old ones repaired.44 The term ‘conservative’ is misleading here; the ‘movement’ was a more radically anticolonial one that sought a revival and re-evaluation of popular forms of Hindu worship. The politicisation of murtipuja in nationalist rhetoric was made evident in Bankim’s novel Anandamath, published in 1882 shortly before his debate with Hastie. Anandamath (set in the late eighteenth century) was the story of a group of revolutionary sannyasis attempting to overthrow Muslim rule in Bengal, a veiled metaphor for British rule. The most famous scene in the novel is set in a temple in which one of the protagonists encounters murtis of several goddesses which represent various ‘states’ of the motherland, including Kali (representing India’s current condition as oppressed, shrouded in darkness and poverty-stricken) and Durga (symbolising hope in her brandishing of weapons, an asura or demon trampled under her feet). In the novel, Kali and Durga are identified with the land, and are symbols of resistance to the coloniser’s authority to intervene and initiate reform. Fittingly, in the 1882 debate, Hastie had criticised murtipuja by referring specifically to his distaste for murtis of Kali: ‘The horrid and bloody Kali, with her protruding tongue, her necklace of skulls, and her girdle of giant hands, is fitted only to excite terror and despair.’45 Kali gripped the British psyche as the embodiment of India’s bloodiest depths and most degenerate impulses. The Reverend John Pool shuddered to imagine her in 1895: Truly this notorious idol is horrible to look upon, and to think about. To speak of her as ‘Mother’ seems blasphemy. The Hindu Scriptures tell some dreadful tales of her wicked doings; and if space permitted I might relate some sad stories of the infamous deeds of numbers of her worshippers, who have been robbers and murderers.46
Image worship debates in Bengal
Colonial suspicions of Kali murtis only encouraged their promotion as anti-colonial icons. Eliot described the murti of Kali at Kalighat in Calcutta and its explicit role as a nationalist emblem in 1921: [The murti of Kali is] adorned with skulls and horrid emblems of destruction. (…) So great is the crowd of enthusiastic suppliants that it is often hard to approach the shrine and the nationalist party in Bengal, who clamour for parliamentary institutions, are among the goddess’s devotees.47 Valentine Chirol fearfully confirmed: ‘The [anti-British Swadeshi] movement was placed under the special patronage of Kali and vows were administered to large crowds in the forecourts of her great temple at Calcutta and in her various shrines all over Bengal.’48 Wealthy members of the Calcutta elite made offerings to Kali at Kalighat temple during the nineteenth century.49 Jaynarayan Ghoshal of Bhukailas, for example, presented her with ‘four silver arms, two gold eyes and gold and silver ornaments’.50 The Kali murti has remained consistent in its appearance despite the many years of replenished ornamentation.51 The murti was created in the nineteenth century and was modelled on a benign iconographic type of Dakshina Kali. As described in Chapter 1, it primarily consists of a face, with prominent golden tongue (held in place with an upper row of golden teeth), four hands and feet. Her left upper arm bears the khadga (sword) in its hand. Her lower left hand holds aloft a severed demon’s head, often interpreted as the ego which Kali helps devotees to transcend. The goddess’s right side shows the upraised and lowered hand postures, or mudras, of abhaya (no fear) and varada (conferring of boons) respectively. Most devotees approach her as a motherfigure. Indeed, the murti essentially adopts a benevolent form – her wild, demonic iconography is toned down to emphasise her life-affirming aspect, for the benefit of Bengali religious sensibilities as discussed in Chapter 3.
The Saligram idol case: murti and artefact Concern over colonial attempts to ‘desacralise’ Hindu murtis found expression in the court case of Surendranath Banerjee versus the Chief Justice and Judges of the High Court at Fort William in Bengal (July 1883), which generated a great deal of controversy.52 Surendranath, a Bengali nationalist leader, was editor of the wellknown newspaper The Bengalee. He was found guilty of contempt of court for publishing an article criticising Justice Norris. The article questioned Norris’s actions when a case was tried before him concerning a Hindu murti (specifically a Saligram, which is an aniconic representation of the Hindu god Vishnu). The case concerned an argument over the murti’s ownership, and it was suggested that it be brought into the courtroom for identification. The notion of a murti acquiring the same status as a legal person was suggested by another British judge referring to a different law suit: ‘Nothing impossible or absurd in it (…) after all an idol is as much of a person as a corporation.’53 Correct ritual treatment of sacred images in secular environments was a matter for serious consideration; a courtroom’s space would require appropriate purification for example. In Norris’s case, it was eventually decided that the Saligram be brought into the corridor for inspection, as there was objection to it being brought into the courtroom. Surendranath’s article was published in the Bengalee on April 28, 1883 in response to this:
Image worship debates in Bengal
The presiding deity of a Hindu household has never before this had the honour of being dragged into Court. Our Calcutta Daniel looked at the idol, and said it could not be a hundred years old. So Mr Justice Norris is not only versed in law and medicine, but is also a connoisseur of Hindu idols (…). Whether the orthodox Hindus of Calcutta will tamely submit to their family idols being dragged into Court is a matter for them to decide, but it does seem to us that some public steps should be taken to put a quietus to the wild eccentricities of this young and raw dispenser of justice.54 Surendranath was subsequently imprisoned for his comments. Subrata Choudhary points out that his defence of the murti was considered heroic by many, inspiring pandits from Nadia to write Sanskrit verse in his honour,55 as well as support from the National Fund of Bengal.56 ‘The history of the case’, the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal reported, ‘is instructive and ludicrous’: It was a family quarrel about the idol. The elder brother had taken it from some temple (…). Then both parties (…) agreed to its production, and (…) brought from the temple (…) [it] was found to be not the real idol but a sham one!57 The tone of sarcasm in Surendranath’s line ‘Norris is (…) also a connoisseur of Hindu idols’ is significant. The colonial accumulation and consumption of religious ‘curiosities’ has been interpreted as a form of cultural mastery.58 From the seventeenth century onwards Indian objects had begun to attract the attention of Englishmen travelling there. Removed and transported abroad to be sold, given as gifts, kept in private collections or placed on display, in the case of religious objects these lost their function and identity as embodiments of the divine. Westerners variously saw them as curious, historical, exotic, idolatrous, bizarre or beautiful. In 1813, James Forbes (1749–1819), one of the first Europeans to acquire a collection of Indian objects, referred to them as ‘specimens of oriental sculpture.’59 The Welsh travel writer Fanny Parkes (1794–1875) owned a large collection of Hindu murtis, and during a trip to England she boasted: ‘Visited the British Museum (…). My collection of Hindoo idols is far superior to any in the Museum; and as for Ganesh, they never beheld such an one as mine, even in a dream!’60 Her acquisitive attitude to Hindu sacred objects is clearly demonstrated in the introduction of her book when she describes a murti of the god Ganesh (in her possession), illustrated in the frontispiece: This idol is made of solid white marble, and weighs three hundred weight and a quarter. It is painted and gilt, as in the Frontispiece. It was brought down from Jeypur to the sacred junction of the triple rivers at Prag, at which place it came into my possession. There he sits before me in all his Hindu state and peculiar style of beauty – my inspiration – my penates.61 Here Parkes focuses on the murti’s role as an artefact, held up for connoisseurship-like admiration and described as the equivalent of a Roman household god.62 In the case of the British Museum, much of its Indian sculpture comes from the original collection of Charles Stuart (1757/58–1828), an East India Company officer.63 Stuart was an unconventional military man; he became passionate about Indian culture, learnt local languages and in his published writings celebrated the country and its traditions.64 He
Image worship debates in Bengal
criticised Christian missionaries and the notion that the West was morally superior, and, in the Calcutta Telegraph, encouraged European women in India to wear saris.65 Such enthusiasm in adopting Indian customs (he was said to bathe in the Ganges every morning) led to him being called Charles ‘Hindoo’ Stuart. He was one of the first Europeans to take an active interest in collecting art from the subcontinent, and turned his house into a public museum in Calcutta, one of the first of its kind in India. He built a tomb in Calcutta’s South Park Street Cemetery, which was controversially in the style of a Hindu temple; several of the sculptures he had collected were incorporated into the tomb. Stuart collected sculptures (many dating from the Pala and Sena periods) and other artefacts including weaponry, costumes, prints and natural history specimens, mainly from Bengal, Orissa, Bihar and Central India.66 There was, however, a reportedly dubious side to his collecting, according to the Orientalist scholar and antiquary James Prinsep, who mentions two large inscribed slabs that Stuart gave as a gift to the Asiatic Society in Bengal in 1810. When it was discovered that they had been removed from temples in Bhubaneswar (Orissa), a Lieutenant Kittoe tried to return them to their original locations. Prinsep explained how the local priests ‘brought him a long list of purloined idols and impetuously urged him to procure their return as he had done that of the inscriptions’.68
The Attahas and Khirogram Pithas: the charisma of antique murtis Colonial judgements of murtis according to their artistic merit had an impact on how Bengalis at the time perceived their own sacred ‘artefacts’. Whereas in the past many of the Shakti Pithas acquired their fame and status because of the celebrity of local saints or the miraculous reputations of their murtis, by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the discovery of ‘antique’ sculptures (subsequently revered as murtis) could lend the sites importance, as if historical value could enhance their sacred value. In the case of two Pithas in West Bengal, Attahas in Birbhum and Khirogram in Bardhaman, two statues (one of the goddess Chamunda and another of the goddess Mahishamardini) were both reportedly recovered from lakes by the sites. The tenth-century Chamunda statue (Figure 4.1) is recorded as being worshipped at the temple until 1915 when the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad group (a literary society founded in 1893 by L. Leotard and Kshetrapal Chakraborty to promote Bengali culture) removed it because of its historical value and placed it in their museum in Calcutta, where it can still be viewed. Today this preoccupation with the idea that archaeological traces can enhance a site’s charisma and magnetism continues at Khirogram. At this site there are two small temples side by side: in the left temple a late nineteenth-century sculpture of Mahishamardini (showing the goddess Durga killing the demon Mahishasura) is kept under water, and today is only brought out and revealed for twenty-four hours once a year. This sculpture was carved in 1877 and is based on an original seventeenthcentury sculpture which had a damaged arm, an imperfection that rendered it unsuitable for worship. The seventeenth-century sculpture was then lost and believed to be somewhere in the nearby lake. The pujari today claims this sculpture was discovered a few years ago in the lake, complete with damaged arm, which they recently repaired for worship (Figure 4.2). It can be viewed all year round in the adjoining temple. More likely, however, it may be a contemporary replica made to attract pilgrims throughout the year who do not have a chance to see the other murti
Image worship debates in Bengal
Figure 4.1 Chamunda stone sculpture, tenth century, Bangiya Sahitya Parishad Museum, Kolkata Author’s photograph (2012)
which only reveals itself briefly once a year. The significant point here is not whether the sculpture is the original or a replica, but that the pujaris at the temple emphasise that it dates to the seventeenth century, demonstrating the value placed on art historical artefacts. This chapter has sought to address an under-researched subject of contention amongst colonial officials, Christian missionaries, Hindu reformers and Bengali nationalists in its exploration of image worship debates during the nineteenth century. Murtipuja was central to Hindus across the subcontinent, but it was in Bengal that it assumed particular political significance. Bankim articulated the need to defend murtipuja as an intrinsic part of Hinduism, and in his letters to Hastie he sought to reconcile the two main tensions that existed in intellectual debates concerning the ‘right’ way to direct one’s worship (whether to a personal god with form or to an Absolute God without form) by insisting both were equally valid. The court case of Surendranath Banerjee a year later in 1883 reflected the tension between murti and artefact. Many considered his defence of the Saligram murti heroic and the sarcastic tone of Surendranath’s line ‘Norris is (…) also a connoisseur of Hindu idols’ revealing. Attitudes to murtis of ‘art historical’ merit by Westerners such as Charles Stuart and Fanny Parkes influenced the way Bengalis related to their embodied deities. During this period of crisis, conflict and revival questions were raised about what it meant to be Hindu, the nature of the divine and the role of murtis and murtipuja.
Image worship debates in Bengal
Figure 4.2 Mahishamardini stone sculpture, date unknown, Khirogram temple in Bardhaman (Bengal) Author’s photograph (2012)
Notes 1 2 3 4
6 7 8 9
Banerjee (1971), p.53 and McLean (forthcoming), p.7. Banerjee (1971), p.53. Banerjee (1971), p.53. Chakrabarti (1379 B.S.), p.27; Bandopadhyay, S.K. Tarapith Bhairava (Calcutta, 1376 B.S.), p.80. According to anecdotes, as a child he would ask Tara, ‘Mother, can a clay image come to life?’ He began to make his own clay images of Tara, praying they would speak to him. He would decorate them with flowers, and feed them with pieces of guava. With tears in his eyes he would beg the goddess, ‘Speak to me. Eat this guava.’ (McLean (forthcoming), p.6). According to Diana Eck, the deity ‘gives’ darshan and the pilgrim ‘takes’ it in a generation of power facilitated by sight or touch (Eck, D.L. Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India (New York, 1981a), p.9. The concept of darshan has been discussed in detail by Eck and Lawrence A. Babb (‘Glancing: Visual Interaction in Hinduism’, Journal of Anthropological Research, vol.37, no.4, 1981, pp.387–401). Erndl (1993), p.36. Pal, B.C. Sattar Batsar: Atmajibani (Kolkata, 2005), p.113. Tapan Raychaudhuri points out that ‘in the 1870s and 1880s even Bengali school students used to debate whether the divine was with or without form.’ (Raychaudhuri (1988), p.236). Quoted in Sastri, S. History of the Brahmo Samaj, Vol. 1 (Calcutta, 1911), pp.2–3.
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10 Followers of Abrahamic faiths were highly critical of the worship of matter. The very use of the term ‘idolatry’ was charged with the accusation of ‘otherness’ (Halbertal, M. and Margalit, A. Idolatry (Cambridge, MA, 1992), pp.17, 236). 11 The Upanishads, dated to around 800–200 bce, discuss the ancient Vedas in mystical and monistic terms. The Vedas are a large body of scriptures and are among the oldest sacred texts (dating to between 1500 and 500–400 bce). 12 Collet (1900), p.280. 13 Debashya, B. A Tract Against the Prevailing System of Hindoo Idolatry (Calcutta, 1824), pp.7, 35, 44. 14 Dayananda, S. The Light of Truth (Allahabad, 1950), p.372. The Arya Samaj preached a doctrine of a Vedic golden age, opposing polytheism and ‘idol worship.’ Dayananda objected to image worship both as non-Vedic, and as placing a limit on an infinite God. He maintained that an omniscient, omnipresent God could not be contained. 15 The mystic and yogi Ramakrishna believed murtipuja could help grant enlightenment (Sarkar (1992), p.53). 16 Hastie, W. Hindu Idolatry and English Enlightenment: Six Letters Reprinted from The Statesman (Calcutta, 1882), pp.8–9. 17 Hastie (1882), p.75. 18 Hastie (1882), pp.33, 89, 32. 19 Hastie (1882), pp.17, 13–14. 20 Eck (1981a), p.6. 21 Goodall, D. (ed.) Hindu Scriptures (Berkeley, 1996), p.257. 22 Hastie (1882), p.10. 23 Hastie (1882), p.109. 24 Sarma, S. ‘The Modern Iconoclastes and Missionary Ignorance: A Reply to Mr Hastie’s Charges Against Hinduism’, The Theosophist, Calcutta, 1884, p.75. 25 Hastie (1882), p.114. 26 Mudaliar (1897), pp.13–14, 17. 27 For brief discussions of the debate between Bankim and Hastie see: Lipner, ‘Introduction’ in Chatterjee (2005); Sen, A.P. Hindu Revivalism in Bengal, 1872–1906 (Oxford, 1993); Sen, A.P. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay: An Intellectual Biography (Oxford, 2008); Sen, A.P. Explorations in Modern Bengal, c.1800–1900 (Delhi, 2010); Sen, A.P. Bankim’s Hinduism: An Autobiography of Writings by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (Telangana, 2011); Raychaudhuri (1988); Porter, A.N. (ed.) The Imperial Horizons of British Protestant Missions, 1880–1914 (Grand Rapids, MI, 2003); Sartori, A. Bengal in Global Concept History: Culturalism in the Age of Capital (Chicago, 2008); Nath, R.C. The New Hindu Movement (Calcutta, 1982). 28 Hastie (1882), pp.175, 126, 131, 133, 140, 149. 29 Hastie (1882), p.149. 30 Hastie (1882), p.149. 31 Hastie (1882), p.150. 32 Julius Lipner notes the Comtean provenance of the idea that a devotee can annul their contract with a murti (in Chatterjee (2005), p.98). 33 Hastie (1882), p.175. 34 Chatterjee, B.C. Letters on Hinduism (Calcutta, 1940), p.15. 35 Hastie (1882), p.29. 36 Chattopadhyay, S. (ed.), English Writings of Bankimchandra Chatterji (Kolkata, 2003), p.45. 37 Chatterjee, B. ‘Bonge Devpuja-Protibad’, Bhramar, 1281 B.S., November–December 1874, pp.181–7. Translated from Bengali into English in Sen (2011), p.129. 38 Chatterjee (1874); quoted in Sen (2011), p.129. 39 Chatterjee (1874); quoted in Sen (2011), p.129. 40 Chatterjee (1874); quoted in Sen (2011), p.129. 41 Hastie (1882), p.76. 42 Quoted in Sen, A.P. Social and Religious Reform: The Hindus of British India (Oxford, 2005), p.83. 43 Chatterjee (1993), p.95.
102 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52
53 54 55 56 57
58 59 60 61 62 63 64
Image worship debates in Bengal Eliot (1921), p.xlvii. Hastie (1882), p.12. Pool, J.J. The Land of Idols or Talks with Young People about India (London, 1895), p.18. Eliot (1921), p.287. Chirol (1910), p.83. Chatterji, S.A. The Goddess Kali of Kolkata (Delhi, 2006), p.79. Banerjee (2010), p.46. Banerjee (2010), p.32. See Choudhary, S. ‘Ten Celebrated Cases Tried by the Calcutta High Court’ in the High Court at Calcutta, Centenary Souvenir 1862–1962 (Calcutta, 1962), p.191; Banerjee, S. Studies in the Administrative History of Bengal (New Delhi, 1978), pp.151–5; cited in The Bengalee, April 26, 1873. Quoted in: Sarkar (1973), p.71. Author unknown, The Bengalee, April 28, 1883; quoted in Choudhary (1962), p.192. Author unknown, Indian Mirror, June 2, 1883. Choudhary (1962), p.193. Augustus Rivers Thompson (Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal) to George Frederick Samuel Robinson (1st Marquess of Ripon, Viceroy of India), May 16, 1883, RP, Add. MSS 43594; quoted in Seal, A. The Emergence of Indian Nationalism: Competition and Collaboration in the Later Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, 1968), p.261. See Clifford, J. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature and Art (Cambridge, MA, 1988). Forbes, J. Oriental Memoirs (London, 1835), p.341. Parkes, F. Begums, Thugs and Englishmen: The Journals of Fanny Parkes (New Delhi, 2003), p.334. Parkes (2003), p.xi. See also Suleri, S. The Rhetoric of English India (Chicago, 1992), p.86. See Fisch, J. ‘A Solitary Vindicator of the Hindus: The Life and Writings of General Charles Stuart’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. 117, no.1, 1985, pp.35–57. Also see Davis, R.H. Lives of Indian Images (Princeton, 1997), p.163. The Indian Gazette noted upon his death that Stuart had ‘studied the language, manners and customs of the natives of this country with so much enthusiasm that his intimacy with them and his toleration of, or rather apparent conformity to, their ideas and prejudices, obtained for him the name of Hindoo Stuart’ (reprinted in The Asiatic Journal, vol.26, 1828, p.606). Stuart described the attempt to convert Hindus as ‘impolitic, dangerous, unwise and insane’ and asked ‘if their religion is insulted what confidence can we repose in the fidelity of our Hindu soldiers?’ (Stuart, C. Vindication of the Hindoos by a Bengal Officer (London, 1808), p.9). Stuart’s will listed ‘Indian Statues of Stone, Alabaster, Copper, Brass etc., Indian Spears, Swords, Daggers, Picture of India and other Curiosities.’ His will was established in August 1828, and is in the India Office Library: Bengal Wills, 1828, Parts 3 and 4, pp.213–24. Prinsep, J. ‘Facsimiles of Ancient Inscriptions’, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, vol.6, 1837, p.558.
The myths surrounding the Shakti Pithas indicate that the identification of the body of the goddess with the land had roots going back to at least the seventh century. A long history of pilgrimage to the Pithas, many located in caves and mountains difficult to access, paved the way for the invocation of Mother India in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century anti-imperialist rhetoric. The Pithas form a network that articulates the notion that the subcontinent itself is a goddess, a sentiment which empowered the Bengali nationalist movement. This network contributed towards a sense of collective identity when the idea of Sati as India was explicitly pointed out by Bengali writers, leading to the popularisation and politicisation of the Pithas. This deification of the subcontinent would result in the invention of a new goddess during the colonial period: Bharat Mata, personifying the Indian nation. This book has sought to enrich and expand the cultural and visual phenomenon of Bharat Mata by linking the goddess directly to the network of Shakti Pithas. A new range of religio-political primary sources have been drawn upon, including pilgrimage souvenirs, temple sculptures, visual propaganda, devotional poetry, biographies of local saints, district gazetteers, colonial records and cultural debates in popular periodicals. The methodological approach of this book has been interdisciplinary, combining cultural history, political theology and visual analysis. The focus has rested on the literati’s revival and politicisation of Hindu myth and ritual in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Bengal. It has sought to explore certain nuances of this period through an investigation of Calcutta pilgrimage souvenirs representing Sati (Chapter 1); Kamakhya’s sculptures and the pre-colonial and colonial response to the site (Chapter 2); Tara’s Tantric iconography and Bamakhepa’s relationship with Tarapith’s murti (Chapter 3); and theoretical image worship debates addressing the nature of the divine and its materiality (Chapter 4). A series of revealing indigenous-colonial dichotomies have emerged throughout these chapters, including sati versus Sati; colonial mapping versus sacred geography; and idol versus murti. Such tensions led to concerns about the colonial threat to South Asian culture, including image worship and widow immolation. The Sati myth in particular contributed to forming unities between Bengal and the rest of India, beginning with neighbouring territories including Assam. It was reinterpreted as a patriotic myth during a period of crisis, inspiring Bengalis to protect the motherland from foreigners and restore her to her former glory. The reception of the Shakti Pithas by a Bengali audience in particular has shed light on the ways in which they inspired the personification of India as Mother (through the myth of Sati’s dismemberment); a new Bengali masculinity based on the asceticism of
Shiva promoted by writers including Bankim; the promotion of the ritual practice of sati on a symbolic, patriotic level; and pilgrimage and image worship. Bengali antiimperialists strived to protect and empower traditional and cultural practices and valorise Shaktism. The significance of Tantra and its relationship to the different Pithas during this period has also been addressed – its transformation, its sweetening and also its potential as a subversive political force. The different facets of Tantric power that resonated included the wisdom of the pagal or child-like holy fool as a response to colonial machismo, as well as its more active, violent and transgressive power as suggested by goddesses including Tara and Kali, harnessed by revolutionaries as a force against the British at the time. The ascetic sannyasi was also a figure who represented endurance and sacrifice, resonating attractively with nationalists determined to challenge accusations of Bengalis as ‘effeminate’ and weak. In response to the babu stereotype, images of Shiva as an ascetic carrying Sati encouraged inner strength. While Chapter 2 discussed the reception of Tantra in Assam by colonial officials, missionaries and Bengali writers in terms of sexuality, Chapter 3 examined another facet of Tantra concerned with mortality and sacrifice, through a study of Bamakhepa’s relationship with Tara in Bengal. Tantra broke down social boundaries, and could therefore be embraced as a powerfully inclusive ideology. Pilgrimage (as discussed in Chapter 2) and popular prints (Chapter 1) similarly invited this communal level of participation. In the case of the latter, their easy availability signalled the democratisation of religious practice, and they became a form of mass communication, transcending caste distinctions. The proliferation of these souvenirs, with their consistent iconography, contributed to the shaping of a collective visual imagination. As elaborated, not only did the image of Shiva carrying Sati show stylistic resonance with Pietà European images, but in terms of content it also borrowed from the rhetoric of sacrifice for the greater good, subverted for its own anti-imperialist ends. Collectively, these chapters are the first attempt to study the sites in an art historical and political context. It is a study of myth-making, the creation of cultural memory and the ways in which visual imagery, religious devotion and politics worked together in the creation of nationalist sentiment in late nineteenth-century colonial Bengal. Huge importance is still attached to the Shakti Pithas. In Devon ke Dev Mahadev, the TV series from 2011 (aired on India’s Life OK channel), Sati’s relationship to the Earth is stressed and given a dramatic, cosmic dimension: Shiva is shown carrying her, hovering above the planet; when Vishnu’s chakra strikes the goddess’s corpse, fiftyone fireballs (representing fifty-one elements of her body) hurtle towards different parts of the subcontinent, engendering the Shakti Pithas. The release of the Telugu film Shakti, in 2011, is also testament to the popularity of the sites. Its premise is based on the idea that there is one more secret Pitha unknown to anyone except a royal family who are its patrons. Crucially, the sentiment that this Pitha ‘protects’ the subcontinent and empowers its devotees is expressed throughout the film.
Reviving Sati’s corpse: Mother India tours and Hindutva in the twenty-first century Above all this book represents a timely cultural-historical study in the context of the current political landscape of twenty-first century India. The year 2014 witnessed a climactic surge of interest in promoting the Pithas as pilgrimage sites. This coincided with the political climate under the impact of Narendra Modi, former Chief Minister
of Gujarat and current Prime Minister of India after his landslide victory in the 2014 general elections. Modi established a major religio-cultural initiative: a fifty-one Pitha ‘tour’ in Gujarat with the Shri Arasuri Ambaji Mata Devasthan Trust (SAAMDT), which was inaugurated in February 2014.1 This is significant in light of the rise of Hindu right-wing politics – the site and its inauguration were a key part of Modi’s political campaign strategy in the run-up to the elections. With a reportedly £6 million governmental budget, life-size replicas of the fifty-one sites were built around Gabbar Hill in the temple town of Ambaji (north Gujarat). This particular site was chosen because of its proximity to the Ambaji Mata temple, a Pitha believed to enshrine Sati’s heart. Hindu devotees were told that there was no longer a need to visit the fifty-one sites individually when they could visit these reproductions during a three-kilometre circumambulation. The Prime Minister’s official website announced that: ‘This firstof-its-kind initiative, built under the vision of Shri Narendra Modi, will put forth a unique chance of visiting all the sacred 51 Shaktipeeths of the Indian subcontinent on the holy circuit created at (…) Gabbar Hill.’2 Modi is leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose aims include the protection of India’s ‘Hindu’ cultural identity and a commitment to Hindutva (‘Hindu-ness’) – an ideology of cultural nationalism that, over recent decades, has grown in force. He does not dispute his or the party’s links to the Hindu network known as the Sangh Parivar and its militant arm, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing organisation which currently has around forty million members.3 During the late nineteenth century conceptions of a deified India largely embraced all Indian citizens in a spirit of collective revolt against the foreign British threat. This is most strikingly articulated by the first temple dedicated to Bharat Mata, which opened in Banaras in 1936. The temple does not contain an image of a deity, only a giant map of India set in marble relief. Mahatma Gandhi, who inaugurated it, said: ‘I hope this temple, which will serve as a cosmopolitan platform for people of all religions, castes and creeds including Harijans, will go a great way in promoting religious unity, peace and love in the country.’4 In contrast, today many members and supporters of the BJP regard the threat as internal and specifically Muslim. The unveiling of fifty-one temple replicas may at first seem inconsequential. However, the bringing together of these Pithas in one location invariably homogenises the immensely nuanced diversity of each individual site, encouraging the establishment of a single, monolithic tradition that risks silencing religious minorities and local forms of religious syncretism. It is undoubtedly the Pithas’ association with Mother India that has made them so amenable to this form of political appropriation. The rhetoric of paralleling Mother and nation has proved strategically effective in encouraging Indian citizens to adopt the role of her loyal children since the late nineteenth century. Digitally animated films, which are walk-throughs of the Ambaji site inviting the viewer to undertake the pilgrimage virtually, are available to watch on YouTube and through the project’s website.5 As well as presenting a systematic walk-through of the temples, the animated films show spaces for tourist buses and cars, street lights, fountains and tree-lined and paved roads. We are presented with a commodified space that often resembles a shopping mall or luxury tourist destination rather than a traditional pilgrimage complex: there is a business lounge with men clad in suits; a cinema complete with seated spectators, and a ‘sunset point’. Modi’s campaign focused on promoting Gujarat as a heavenly realm of prosperity, using the aspirational slogan
‘Vibrant Gujarat’.6 To this end, the Shakti Pitha project in Ambaji has incorporated rest rooms, drinking water facilities, bridges and gardens around the hill. On the project’s home page a list of ‘attractions’ include ‘canteen/café’, ‘solar powered street lights’ and ‘toilet blocks’. In his inauguration speech Modi declared that the government had thus far ignored the development of pilgrimage sites in India as tourist destinations: ‘The pilgrimage – yatras – to religious places are very important for 1,250,000,000 Indians and thus, developing them as tourist spots could strengthen the Indian economy.’7 The Ambaji site is a revealingly hegemonic space and its function is inescapably ideological, impressing upon viewers the current government’s beliefs and values. The site is an institutional articulation of power through spectacle, regulated ritual and entertainment. The idea of the ‘exhibitionary complex’ is apt here; according to Tony Bennett, such a complex incorporates aspects of the Panopticon and the Panorama together, making the crowd the ultimate spectacle.8 In the case of the Ambaji project, the ‘spectacle’ is the Hindu public interiorising the ideal of a unified nation, symbolised by the temples. Like the Victorian Panorama, here is a promise to take the pilgrimtourist around the world in three kilometres.9 As the project’s mission statement declares: ‘The Shakti Peeths bestow holy achievements & spiritual welfare to its devotees. (…) [devotees] can have the good fortune of visiting all the 51 Shakti Peeth, At One Place and in One Life Time.’10 The very idea of gathering all fifty-one Pithas together in one central location goes against the spirit of the myth itself, which encourages a pan-Indian pilgrimage across the subcontinent. One is reminded of Gandhi’s critique of the British railways, which he believed eliminated and anaesthetised the rigour and asceticism of pilgrimage, thereby attracting money-minded materialists to India’s holiest sites: ‘The holy places of India have become unholy. Formerly, people went to these places with great difficulty. Generally, therefore, only the real devotees visited such places. Nowadays, rogues visit them in order to practice their roguery.’11 Visiting the fifty-one Pithas is a lifetime’s work. It fires the imagination in its promise of far-reaching travel and often treacherous journeys. Even today, many are not reachable via public transport; others are found in caves and on mountain tops, while some are abstract and intangible, such as the ‘mind’ of Sati at Bakreshwar temple in Birbhum (Bengal). At Biraja temple in Orissa, a deep well plunging into the earth represents her navel, while at Jawalamukhi in Kangra, a flame that is still visible today emerges from the earth and is said to be her tongue. The desire to embark on a pilgrimage to all fifty-one sites is a relatively recent phenomenon as a result of the growth and ease of pilgrimage-tourism. As mentioned in the introduction, while carrying out fieldwork at the Pithas across Bengal I was accompanied by a pilgrim from Kolkata, Atish Chakraborty, who is spending his retirement visiting the sites, motivated by their cultural and historical importance as well as their religious power. The Pithas conjure vast and seemingly endless territory, evoking the dimensions of the subcontinent as cosmic goddess. The Ambaji project packages this epic idea as a consumable good. The attempt to harness the sites’ collective power (a power that relies on their mystery and evocation of a ‘motherland’) is an attempt to claim authority over these sites. Modi’s project was an endeavour to further transform Gujarat into the ultimate power centre, on a religious as well as political scale, a strategy that succeeded in winning over voters. The contemporary political dangers in conceptions of Mother India have yet to be fully addressed by scholars, and Modi’s fifty-one Pitha project in particular can be
interpreted as a form of religio-nationalist propaganda in its uniting of Sati’s dismembered parts. One is reminded of the destruction by BJP members of the sixteenth-century Babri mosque in Ayodhya in 1992 because they believed its site to be the birthplace of the Hindu god Rama. From 1989 they had called upon Hindu citizens across India to collect and donate bricks (made of local earth and consecrated with an imprint of the name Rama) that would be used to construct a new Hindu temple in its place. As Norbert Peabody notes, ‘their centripetal transport to Ayodhya from all over India would give a concrete physicality to the larger Hindutva project of renewing national unity in a distinctly Hindu idiom’.12 The idea of bringing together bricks from all over India, sanctified by the sacred soil and considered all facets of Rama, to build the single Rama temple reflects the same rhetoric of uniting Sati’s body that we see with the Ambaji project. Through this venture the fragmented nation is again being re-imagined as one unified subcontinent through the Hindutva rhetoric of the goddess as bio-territory.13 This is also articulated through Modi’s ambition to build the world’s tallest statue through donations of iron from Hindus (particularly farmers) across the country, another aspect of his 2014 campaign strategy. The planned bronze statue will represent Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the first Home Minister of independent India and deputy of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. It will measure 182 metres, twice the height of New York’s Statue of Liberty – as newspapers such as The Times of India have repeatedly noted. Modi refers to it as the Statue of Unity, a reference to Patel’s post-colonial integration of over 500 princely states that had constituted British India. Hyderabad, whose ruler was Nizam Osman Ali Khan, was the largest of the states, and one of three that refused to be integrated. Patel emphasised a parallel between mother goddess and motherland, and his attempts to unify her by referring to Hyderabad as the ‘cancer in India’s belly’ that required surgical removal. Following military action by the Indian army, Hyderabad was secured into the Indian Union in 1948.14 As Christiane Brosius points out, ‘Patel wanted to realise his own visions of an “ancient” and “eternal” India, with an emphasis on the interests of the so-called “Hindu majority.”’15 The resurrection of Patel’s spirit by Modi as a symbol of ‘united India’ could not be more apt. Zo Newell describes the Sati myth as: an interesting example of the theme of multiplicity and power: through dismemberment, the Shakti in Sati’s body is multiplied; each piece, like a hologram, contains the power of the whole, and the power is distributed throughout the continent, imbuing the earth itself with divine power.16 Modi accorded himself this Sati-like power when he was able to appear in a hundred places at once, a flickering phantom who, like Sati, was scattered across the country, leading to a multiplicity of power. He achieved this through ‘3D Hologram Rallies’ – according to his website this new technology allowed him to appear in a hundred rallies simultaneously, resulting in the biggest mass outreach in India’s electoral history.17 The association between Modi and Sati or Mother India is by no means farfetched. In February 2015 a temple dedicated to Modi with a bust of the Prime Minister in the sanctum was inaugurated in Gujarat by more than 350 Hindus who wished to worship him as a deity. Modi immediately expressed his disapproval, and the murti of Modi was replaced with one of Mother India: ‘our belief will remain the same’, the head of the group that built the temple stressed.18
The construction of ‘exact replicas’ of the Pithas at the Ambaji site reveals the notion of multiplying sacred power according to the belief that each contemporary temple is capable of retaining the miraculous properties of the original prototype. This is also reflected through the notion of maintaining and replicating tradition through ritual. Under the guidance of the Gujarat government, the SAAMDT, which is maintaining the project, has appointed twenty-five Hindu priests and sent them to several Shakti Pithas to learn the rituals particular to each site ‘to get a complete training of rituals, methods of offering prayers and decoration of the goddess’ according to The Times of India. Trust Chairman J.G. Hingrajia noted, ‘This was done so that (…) originality of tradition is maintained. The Trust wants to replicate entire procedures at the 51 Shakti Pithas.’19 Hinduism is by its very nature polycentric and amenable to reproduction. For example, as Julius Lipner notes, the sacred River Ganges can be fully recreated by transporting a sample of it and mixing it into any other body of water: ‘in other words (…) one prototypical reality – a ford, the transcendent being (or indeed, a deity), a river – extends itself polycentrically, through a tracery of multiple and interactive selfreferencing presences.’20 However, in the context of the replication of the Pithas at Ambaji, the idea of staging authenticity demands critical scrutiny. To quote Walter Benjamin on the concept of authenticity in relation to reproduction: Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. (…) And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the original object.21 The level of diversity unique to each shrine is impossible to replicate. The Hinglaj Pitha temple in Balochistan (Pakistan), for example, is a space of syncretism in which Hindus and Muslims alike venerate the goddess Hinglaj Mata, and an annual fourday pilgrimage to the site is organised every April.22 As previously discussed, originally many of the sites were associated with non-Vedic goddesses, and it was only later that Hindu Puranic texts began the process of integrating them into the Brahmanical pantheon.23 Many were and are also associated with Tantra (including Tarapith and Kamakhya).24 It is in the process of homogenising and ‘sanitising’ the Shakti Pithas through their replication that they risk being ‘saffronised’ – a neologism used by critics to refer to Hindutva attempts to invoke a glorified, pristine and idealised Aryan past, to the detriment of other traditions and cultures within and outside Hinduism. The replicas at Ambaji were manufactured using sand-coloured stone. It may be more accurate to say they ‘echoed’ the forms of the original multi-hued sites. From the atchala pattern of a Bengali mud-hut style temple (in the case of the Kalighat and Tarapith temple replicas) to the beehive form of the Kamakhya temple replica, these twenty-first century copies were so fresh out of the stonecutter’s workshop that within days of the inauguration one of them had begun to fall apart.25 It would seem ironic that this was specifically the replica of the Sundri Devi temple located in Kashmir, a region involved in territorial disputes and several declared wars between Pakistan and India. In 1991 former BJP president Murli Manohar Joshi organised a 15,000 kilometre Ekta Yatra (Unity Pilgrimage), which began in Kanyakumari in the south and ended in Srinagar (Kashmir), where the Indian flag was symbolically and ceremoniously raised to ‘reclaim’ the region.26 As Brosius notes, ‘the demand was that
[India as a female body] must under no circumstances, be “decapitated.”’ Former RSS leader Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar even described the threat of geographical fragmentation as ‘the tearing away of the limbs of our mother’.28 Kashmir is still believed to be the main threat dividing the subcontinent. In this context the Ambaji project can be interpreted as an effective piece of visual rhetoric in its unification of a dispersed national body, a nod to the Hindutva ideal of Akhand Bharat or Greater India which many members of the BJP and especially the RSS wish to realise through the reunification of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh (according to pre-1947 borders). While the structural shells of the Ambaji site’s replicas may be weak, the force of their ideological foundations is not. In contrast with the aims of the Ambaji project, one of the stated missions of the Ashish Seva Yajna Trust (ASYT) is to facilitate pilgrimage to each individual Shakti Pitha in order to promote religious and racial tolerance between places where the sites are located and where conflicts exist between Hindus and Muslims, including Bangladesh and Pakistan. They are collaborating with the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), an economic and geopolitical organisation among several nations where Pithas are located (Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka). According to their website their mission is ‘to form a global Paripath [circuit] connecting all the 51 Shaktipeethas on Earth in order to proceed on the way to progress in tourism, cultural development, economic growth, communal harmony and peace thereby finishing terrorism and harmonizing foreign relations.’29 Rana Singh (Banaras Hindu University), a spokesperson for the Trust, believes that the Pithas reflect the notion that ‘the whole region is assumed as Mother’s body’.30 It has involved the establishment of a single temple in Lucknow with the sacred soil from each different Pitha, functioning as a signifier for all fifty-one sites rather than a substitute, described as an ‘archetypal representation of all the 51 Shaktipithas’ according to the Trust.31 However, given their desire to promote ‘active and constant communication and co-operation with [the] Govt. of India’, it remains to be seen exactly how far their motivations will differ from those of the present government. This book began by examining the Bengali reception of the Shakti Pithas and the process by which the ancient Sati myth rose to sudden prominence in the nineteenth century. The image of Shiva carrying Sati was one of pathos, reflecting the colonial exploitation of the motherland and a need for citizens to rescue her. Today the process of reinventing mythological memory has acquired new significance, and the ancient Pitha sites are being harnessed for Hindu right-wing political purposes. Through their replication they risk being promoted as homogenised and commodified embodiments of Hindu Aryan idealism, an agenda that would inevitably silence other cultural and religious voices. After the world’s biggest election (over 500 million citizens voted), 2014 witnessed the beginning of a new era for India. The success of Modi’s campaign lay partly in its harnessing of a powerful visual rhetoric that I have attempted to address and deconstruct in this conclusion. It was the visual that overcame social, geographic and linguistic barriers and proved powerfully persuasive. Under a new government that brands itself as Hindutva, self-reflective questions are arising about what it means to be a Hindu today.
Notes 1 2 3
4 5 6
9 10 11 12 13
14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22
Dave, K. ‘Three Day Cultural Festival to Mark Inauguration of Gabbar Parikrama Depicting 51 Shakti Peeths’, The Times of India, February 4, 2014. See www.narendramodi.in/watch-live-shri-narendra-modi-to-address-the-51-shaktipeeths -pran-pratishtha-mahotsav-at-ambaji-on-13th-february-2014. Modi’s record remains tainted by the deaths of up to 2,000 people during religious riots between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat (2002). Fundamentalism and its development in the subcontinent have been documented by social scientists and historians, including Brosius, C. Empowering Visions: The Politics of Representation in Hindu Nationalism (London, 2005) and Jaffrelot, C. The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics: 1925 to the 1990s (London, 1996). Quoted in McKean, L. ‘Bharat Mata: Mother India and Her Militant Matriots’, in Hawley and Wulff (1996), p.163. See www.51shaktipeethambaji.org. Even the actor Amitabh Bachchan has promoted Modi’s ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ – he was the face of an advertising campaign promoting the Ambaji temple for Gujarat Tourism. Imploring people to come to Gujarat, Ambaji was presented as a veritable holiday destination, an escape from reality tapping into a Bollywood aesthetic of fantasy. Author unknown, ‘Narendra Modi Accuses Centre of Ignoring Pilgrimages Places’, Deccan Chronicle, February 14, 2014. Bennett, T. The Birth of the Museum (London, 1995), p.68. To quote Bennett’s definition of the ‘exhibitionary complex’: ‘To identify with power, to see it as, if not directly theirs, then indirectly so, a force regulated and channelled by society’s ruling groups but for the good of all: this was the rhetoric of power embodied in the exhibitionary complex’ (Bennett (1995), p.67). During the nineteenth century painted illusionistic panoramas of landscapes and historical events became very popular amongst European audiences. These were 360-degree images that allowed the viewer to feel completely immersed and transported. See www.51shaktipeethambaji.org/About.aspx. Gandhi, M. Hind Swaraj (Cambridge, 2009), p.47. Peabody, N. ‘Disciplining the Body, Disciplining the Body-Politic: Physical Culture and Social Violence among North Indian Wrestlers’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol.51, no.2, 2009, p.381. In June 2015 it was announced that Modi’s government was planning to build a Rama museum as part of a proposed ‘Ramayana circuit’ to be modelled on the Swaminarayan Akshardham temple in Delhi. Like the tourist attractions at the Ambaji site, the Rama museum will feature a sound and light show and will house ‘archaeological material related to the deity’. (Vishnoi, B. ‘Modi Government Planning to Build Hi-Tech Ram Museum in Ayodhya to Promote Ramayana’, Economic Times, June 9, 2015). Purushotham, S. ‘Destroying Hyderabad and Making the Nation’, Economic and Political Weekly, vol.49, no.22, 2014, pp.29–33. Brosius (2005), p.157. Newell (2011), p.161. By the final day of the campaign (May 10, 2014) he had conducted 1,350 3D hologram rallies, in addition to travelling approximately 300,000 kilometres for 437 public meetings throughout India (according to statistics released by the BJP). Author unknown, ‘Temple to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi Scrapped’, BBC News India, February 12, 2015. Yagnik, B. ‘Three Day Fest to Mark Opening of Shakti Peeth Replicas at Ambaji’, The Times of India, February 11, 2014. Lipner, J. ‘Ancient Banyan: An Inquiry into the Meaning of “Hinduness”’, Religious Studies, vol.32, no.1, 1996, p.122. Benjamin, W. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (London, 2008), p.254. Hindutva rhetoric has found expression in feature films about the sites, including a Telugu thriller about the Hinglaj Pitha released in 2013 entitled Sahasam (Bravery). This
23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31
fundamentalist fantasy features a Hindu hero who travels to the site to successfully reclaim it from Muslim terrorists. Chakrabarti (2001), p.172. The colonial belief that Tantra had polluted Hinduism from within spilled into contemporary Hindutva beliefs. Author unknown, ‘Shaktipeeth Replica Shade Damaged in Ambaji’, The Times of India, February 20, 2014. Jaffrelot (2009), p.13. Brosius (2005), p.168. Golwalkar, M.S. Bunch of Thoughts (Bangalore, 1996), p.93. See www.51shaktipeethcircuit.com. Singh, R. Hindu Tradition of Pilgrimage: Sacred Space and System (Delhi, 2013), p.148. This temple was conceived by Raghuraj Dikshit ‘Manju’ through the ASYT in 1998, and the temple complex is in the process of construction under the supervision of Suresh Kumar Singh, an administrative officer. The ASYT aims to document the Pithas through architectural and ritual studies, the creation of a thorough directory of the temples, and the making of documentary films about the sites. They are also planning to form an association (the Association of Shakti Pitha Pilgrimages in South Asia or ASPSA) that will organise seminars and symposiums annually.
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Bold page numbers indicate figures. Plates are indicated by, for example, P9 for Plate 9. akharas in Calcutta 33, 43n77 All-India National Conference (AINC) 25–6 Ambuvaci Mela 52 Anandamath (Chatterjee) 21, 30, 40n14, 95 anti-colonialism: Bengal and Assam 63–4; Bharat Mata 15; idealised past, invocation of 35–6, P6; reinterpretation of Sati myth 26; response to attack on image worship 92–6; revolutionary potential of Tantric practices 76, 77; Sati myth 7–8; see also colonial period; nationalism archers, carvings of female, Kamakhya temple 53–6, 54 art schools in Calcutta 27; see also Calcutta Art Studio ascetics: Bamakhepa 76, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 83–4; fame of, and Pithas 71; masculinity 30–1, 31; Shiva 29–30, P4; see also Bamakhepa Ashish Seva Yajina Trust (ASYT) 109 Assam: and Bengal 63–4; colonial period, attitude towards during 58, 67n81; Gauhati 60; mapping of Bengal and 58–9; migration to from Bengal 60; romanticisation of 61; see also Kamakhya temple Attahas temple 98, 99 babus 30, 31, 32–3 Bamakhepa 71–2, 74, 75, 76, 77, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 83–4, 86n39, 88 Banerjee, Shyama Kantha 33 Banerjee, Surendranath 25–6, 96–7 Bengal: and Assam 63–4; Dramatic Performances Act 41n37; language 68n96; masculinity, crisis of 30; migration to Assam from 60; number of Pithas in 12n12; Partition of Bengal 1905 8, 14n36; Renaissance 34; romanticisation of 61;
Shakti Pithas in 2; theatre 25–6, 41n34, 41n35, 41n37 Benjamin, Walter 26, 108 bhadralok 12n15; Bamakhepa as rural ideal for 76; image worship, reaffirmation of 88; indigenous practices, attraction to 71; nationalism 13n28; Sati myth 4; as torn between Mother India/Mother Victoria 18, 20 bhakti poetry 82 Bharat Bhiksha 19 Bharat Mata: as impoverished 18, 19, 39n6; India as 62; Modi, association with 107; as nationalist emblem 20, 20–1; patriotism and anti-colonialism 15; portrayal of 15; temple in Banaras 105 Bharat Mata (Tagore) (watercolour) 20, 20 Bhattacharya, A. 60–1 Bhattacharya, K. 82 Bose, Nandalal 30, 37 Bose, S.C. 32–3, 34, 73 Brahmo Sabha (Samaj) movement 34, 90, 95 Brhaddharma Purana 55 Calcutta Art Studio 24, 24–5, 25, 27, 28, 35, 40n27; Bharat Bhiksha 19; Kali lithograph 77, 78, 79; Tara lithograph P10; Tara prints 79, P10 caste system 73 celibacy 30, 33 Chakravarti, K.C. 45, 75, 77, 80 Chalukya dynasty and Lajja Gauri 50–1 Chamunda statue 99 Chando (Ghosh) 26 Chatterjee, Bankim 14n40, 21, 30, 36–7, 40n14, 76, 93–5 Chirol, Valentine 43n77, 96 Chore Bagan Art Studio 17, 25
Index Christian iconography, subversion of 27–8, 29, 30 chromolithographs 24–5 colonial period: artistic borrowings 27–8; Assam, attitude towards 58, 67n81; Hastie’s attack on image worship 91–6; indigenous-colonial dichotomies 103; Kamakhya temple, reception of during 56–8; mapping of Bengal and Assam 58–9; migration to Assam from Bengal 60; patriotism as nonexistent prior to 5; rationalisation of myth 6; suttee 34–7, 43n79; Tantric practice, and imagining of India 57; Tara’s sacrificial heads 77, 78, 79; see also anticolonialism; nationalism commodification of Shakti Pithas 105–9 communitas and pilgrimage to Shakti Pithas 63 Conway, Moncure Daniel 27 Coomaraswamy, Ananda 35 Cooper, T.T. 67n81 corpses 79 cremation 74–5 Dakshayajna (Ghosh) 25, 26, 76 Dalton, Taite 59, 65n15 darshan 21, 22, 74, 88 Das, Mukunda 76 Dasi, Binodini 25, 36 Dayananda Saraswati, Swami 90 death: corpses 79; cremation 74–5; decapitation 77–8; sweetening of 80–3, 81, 83; Tantric practice 72–3 Debashya, Brajamohan 90 decapitation 77–8 deification of the earth 4–5 democratisation of religious practice 25 Devon ke Dev Mahadev (TV series) 104 Dey, Mukul 23, 25, 32 Dharma Sabha 34–5 dhyanas 74 dialectical images 26, 41n37 dismemberment myth of Sati 1–2, 3, 4, 4, 11n2 divine madness 77 Dramatic Performances Act 41n37 Durga Puja festival 89 Dutta, Nundolal 92 effeminacy, charges of 32–3 Eliot, Charles 6, 13n24, 56, 59, 95 Fazl, Abul 1, 11n3 femininity, India as representing 58, 63 fertility and Lajja Gauri 50–1, 55–6 Fleet, John Faithful 50
Forbes, James 97 Fullara Attahas temple, Bengal 3, 4 Gait, Edward 68n81, 68n82 gender and imperialism 58 geography, sacred 59, 62 Ghandi, Indira, assassination of 37, 38 Ghose, Aurobindo 8, 14n39, 30 Ghosh, Girischandra 25, 26, 76 gymnasia in Calcutta 33, 43n77 Hastie, William 91–2 Hegel, G.W.F. 58 Hindoos As They Are,The (Bose) 32–2 Hindu identity, formation of 6–8 Hinduism: as religious identity 13n26; and violence 13n27 Hinduism and Buddhism (Eliot) 56 Hirapur yogini temple 55 holy fool 76 iconography: Kalighat temple 21–5, 22, 40n20; subversion of Christian 27–8, 29; see also image worship; Kamakhya temple; Tara; Tarapith temple identity, territorial and cultural 62–3 image worship: antique murtis, value of 98–9; bhadralok reaffirmation of 88; Brahmo Sabha movement 90; critics of 90; daily rituals 89; deity and murti, relationship between 92; divine power of the images 89; Hastie’s attack on 91–2; politicisation of 95; removal of objects to England 97–8; Saligram case 96–7 Imitation of Christ (à Kempis) 29–30 India: as Bharat Mata 62; conflation with Sati 4–5; as the motherland 45; as representing femininity 58, 63; as sacred landscape 62 ‘Indian Pilgrimage, An’ (Nivedita) 62, 63 Indian Rebellion of 1857 13n27 indigenous-colonial dichotomies 103 indigenous practices: bhadralok, attraction to 71; indigenous-colonial dichotomies 103; suttee 34–7, 43n79 invisible/visible, tension between 92 Kali: dialectical images 41n37; Kali lithograph 77, 78, 79; murti 21, 22, 96 Kalighat temple: building 21; Kali murti 21, 22; as major Pitha 4; pilgrimage souvenirs 21–5, 22, 40n20 Kalika Purana 48, 49, 51, 52, 54, 55, 67n57 Kamakhya temple: challenges to misconceptions of 60–1; colonial period, reception of during 56–8; female archer
carvings 53, 53–6, 54; Lajja Gauri stone relief 49–50, 51–2, 52, P8; misunderstanding of imagery 56–7; as most sacred Pitha 45, 46, 63; multiple layers of 64; nationalism 59–63; origins 64n4; prints, pilgrimage 46, 47; as religious and political centre 46; sculptures 46, 48, 48, 49; as seat of the yoni 49; as Tantric practice centre 48–9; travel to 60, 68n98; valorisation of the feminine 58, 63; vulva, Sati’s 4 Kamakhya Yatra Paddhati (Phukan) 60 Kamalakanter Daptar (Chatterjee) 35–6 à Kempis, Thomas 29–30 Khajuraho of Assam 57 Khanna, Madhu 52 Khirogram temple 98–9, 100 Khonds 13n24 Kiratas 54 knowable/unknowable, tension between 92 Koch kings 53, 55, 56 Lajja Gauri: Ambuvaci Mela 52; continued reverence towards 64; and fertility 50–1, 55–6; political status 52; presence in India 65n22; stone relief at Kamakhya temple 49–50, 51–2, P8; stone sculpture 51 Lectures on Hindu Religion, Philosophy and Yoga (Chakravarti) 75 lithograph prints 17, 18, 19, 24, 24–5, 40n25; Kali lithograph 77, 78, 79; Tara 73–4, P10 Lyall, C.J. 59, 68n81 Macaulay, Thomas 32 Madan Kamdev temple 57 Mahishamardini sculpture 98–9, 100 mapping of Bengal and Assam 58–9 martyrdom: romanticisation of 26–7; sati/ suttee 34–7, 43n79 masculinity: ascetics 30–1, 31; Bengali 30; West as representing 58 mass communication, souvenirs as 25 McCosh, John 57 menstruation 49, 51–2 migration to Assam from Bengal 60 Modi, Narendra 104–5 Monier-Williams, Monier 14n42 Mother India: as impoverished 18, 19, 39n6; Modi, association with 107; patriotism and anti-colonialism 15; portrayal of 15; temple in Banaras 62 motherland: India as 45; visual rhetoric of 15–21, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 Mudaliar, M. 80, 92–3 Mukhopadhyay, B. 5–6, 45, 61 murtipuja see image worship
murtis: antique, value of 98–9; Chamunda statue 98, 99; Kali 21, 22, 96; Mahishamardini sculpture 98–9, 100; removal of to England 97–8; Tara 72–3, 80, 89, P9 myths: theatre 41n34; theory of 26; see also Sati Nalhati temple, Bengal, sculpture of Shiva carrying Sati 3 Naranarayana 56 nation-formation and Shakti Pithas 5 nationalism: bhadralok 13n28; bhadralok as torn between Mother India/Mother Victoria 18, 20; Bharat Mata as nationalist emblem 20, 20–1; Christian iconography as nurturing 28; idealised past, invocation of 35–6, P6; image worship, politicisation of 95; Kamakhya temple 59–63; origins 14n37; pilgrimage to Shakti Pithas 59–63; reinterpretation of Sati myth 26; Tantric ideals absorbed by 75; see also anti-colonialism Nivedita, S. 20, 37, 60, 62, 63 Orientalism 58 Padmini, Queen of Chittor 35–6 Pal, B.C. 7–8, 89 Parkes, Fanny 97 Partition of Bengal 1905 8, 14n36 patriotism: Bharat Mata 15; nonexistence prior to British rule 5; see also nationalism Phukan, H.D. 60 Pietà (Raimondi) 28, 29 pilgrimage to Shakti Pithas: Atish Chakraborty 2; communitas 63; fifty-one Pitha tour, Gujarat 105–9; and identity, territorial and cultural 62–3; Kamakhya temple 59–63; as nationalist device 59–63; social dimension 62–3; souvenirs at Kalighat temple 21–5, 22, 40n20; tirtha 62; travel to Kamakhya temple 60, 68n98; unity in diversity 61 Pithas see Shakti Pithas Pool, John 88, 95 power and menstruation 52 Prinsep, James 98 prints, pilgrimage: Kamakhya temple 46, 47; technology 24–5, 40n24 Purusha 11n4 Pushpanjali (Mukhopadhyay) 45, 61 railways 23, 60 Rajkahini (Tagore) 36 Rajput history 35–6
Index Ramakrishna 76, 86n43 Ratnapala, King 52 relics: Sati’s 2, 4; Tarapith temple 80, 82–3 revolutionary potential of Tantric practices 76, 77 Robinson, Reverend 56, 59 Robinson, William 55 romanticisation: of Bengal and Assam 61; of martyrdom 26–7 Roy, Ram Mohan 34, 90 Sabara huntress stone relief 54 Sabaras 55 Sabarotsava 55 sacred geography 59, 62 sacred vision 21, 22, 89 Saligram case 96–7 Sannyasi see ascetics Sarasvati, Nigamananda 79 Sarojini, Princess 35–6 Sarojini ba Chitor Akraman (Tagore) 36 Sati: anti-colonialism and myth of 7–8; bhadralok and Sati myth 4; conflation with India 4–5; dialectical image, myth of as 26; dismemberment myth 1–2, 3, 4, 4, 11n2, 11n3; enduring power of 37, 38, 39; erotic death 41n44; and Hindu identity, formation of 6–8; and Indira Ghandi’s assassination 37, 38; invocation and reinvention of 25–6; Kalighat pilgrimage souvenirs 21–5, 22, 40n20; martyrdom, romanticisation of 26–7; Modi, association with 107; nation-formation 5; political harnessing of myth 4–6, 8; third eye, at Tarapith temple 71; visual rhetoric of motherland 15–21, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20; yoni, at Kamakhya 45–6, 63 Sati (Bose) 37, P7 sati/suttee 34–7, 43n79 Seats of Power 1–2, 4 semen 30, 33, 42n62, 51 Sen, K.C. 77 Shakti Pithas 1–2, 3, 4, 4; commodification of 105–9; continued importance 104; and fame of ascetics 71; fifty-one Pitha tour, Gujarat 105–9; nation-formation 5; number in Bengal 12n12; number of 11n5, 12n18; political appropriation of 105–9; political harnessing of myth 4–6; Srisailam Pitha temple 54, 54–5; see also Kamakhya temple; Tarapith temple; Kalighat temple Shastri, H. 7 Shiva: as ascetic 29–30, P4; erotic/ascetic tradition, contrast of in 42n65; virility 30; see also Sati Shiva and Sati (lithograph) 17
Shiva and Sati (watercolour) 16 Shiva Drinking the World’s Poison (Bose) 30, 31 Short History of Calcutta, A (Ray) 6 Siraj-ud-Daula (Ghosh) 26 souvenirs: Kalighat temple 21–5, 22, 40n20; Tarapith temple 81, 82, 83 Sribatsa-Chinta (Ghosh) 26 Srisailam Pitha temple 54, 54–5 Strachey, John 5 Stuart, Charles 97 subversion of Christian iconography 27–8, 29 Suranna, P. 55 suttee 34–7, 43n79 Swadeshi movement 8, 14n37, 96 sweetening of death 80–3, 81, 83 Tagore, Abanindranath 20, 20, 36 Tagore, Debendranath 61 Tagore, Jyotirindranath 36 Tagore, Rabindranath 7 Tantric practices: Brhaddharma Purana 55; colonial imagining of India 57; corpses 79; death 72–3, 74–5; decapitation 77–8; decline of 64; dhyanas 74; first use of ‘Tantric’ 14n42; initiation into 75; Kalika Purana 48, 49, 51, 52, 54, 55, 67n57; Kamakhya temple 48–9; popularisation of 82; power and menstruation 52; revolutionary potential 77; Tara 74–5; Tarapith temple 72; yogini huntresses 55; Yogini Tantra 53, 54 Tara: as Buddhist goddess 85n16; Calcutta Art Studio prints 79, P10; death 74–5; decapitation 77–8; feet 82–3; lithographs of 73–4, P10; popularisation of 82; sacrificial heads 77, 78, 79; Tantric ritual 74–5; as terrifying and benevolent 79–80; variations in iconography 85 see also Tarapith temple Tarapada Banerjee 76–7 Tarapith temple 70; Bamakhepa 71–2, 74, 75; building 70–1; contemporary use 83; death 72–3, 74–5; as major Pitha 4; murti of Tara 71–3, 80, P9; origins 70, 84n2; relic at 80, 82–3; Sati’s third eye 71; souvenirs 81, 82, 83; study of 71; as Tantra centre 72 The Splendour That Is India (chromolithograph) 18 theatre in Bengal 25–6, 41n34, 41n35; Dakshayajna (Ghosh) 25, 26, 76; Dramatic Performances Act 41n37 tirtha 62 see also pilgrimage to Shakti Pithas unknowable/knowable, tension between 92
virility, Shiva’s 30 Vishva Singha 53 visible/invisible, tension between 92 visual rhetoric of motherland 15–21, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 visualisation rituals 21, 22, 74, 89 Vivekananda, Swami 29–30, 62 vulva: exposure of 50; Sati’s, at Kamakhya 45–6 Ward, William 57
watercolour paintings, Kalighat temple 21–4, 22 West, E.W. 50 women: gender and imperialism 58; suttee 34–7, 43n79 wrestling 33, 33 yogini huntresses 55 Yogini Tantra 53, 54 yoni: exposure of 50; Sati’s, at Kamakhya 45–6, 63