Pilgrimage and Politics in Colonial Bengal : The Myth of the Goddess Sati book cover
1st Edition

Pilgrimage and Politics in Colonial Bengal
The Myth of the Goddess Sati

ISBN 9781472489449
Published March 6, 2017 by Routledge
138 Pages 10 Color & 28 B/W Illustrations

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Book Description

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.

Table of Contents



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

Chapter One

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

Chapter Two

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 archers

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

Chapter Three

Tantra’s revolutionary potential: Tarapith and Bamakhepa’s visualisation of Tara

Understanding Tara

Understanding Tantric ritual through Tara

Bamakhepa, Tantra and revolutionary potential

Terrifying and benevolent: Visions of Tara

The sweetening of death

Chapter Four

Contesting the colonial gaze: Image worship debates in nineteenth-century Bengal

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


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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.