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Strange and Wondrous: Prints of India from the Robert J. Del Bontà Collection

"Sublime" Ceremonies


Detail: “The Burning System Illustrated”
Robert J. Del Bontà collection, E1052

Europeans were particularly intrigued by Indian ceremonies that included acts of self-mortification, such as swinging from hooks (charak puja), walking on hot coals, or being crushed under the wheels of the chariot carrying the god Jagannatha, a form of the god Vishnu. Such acts generally were aimed at gaining a deity's favor. Europeans, however, associated them with barbarity or Christian atonement for sins.

In the nineteenth century, British colonial officials were conflicted about how to legislate such ceremonies. After the Indian Rebellion of 1857—an uprising against British rule, particularly Christian proselytizing—the historian E. H. Nolan struggled between a Christian moral impulse to suppress "barbarous" ceremonies and a governmental one to respect Indian customs. An engraving of the "Swinging Ceremony" in his Illustrated History is eerily reminiscent of British executions of the Indian rebels. In a particularly articulate self-reflection on the simultaneous attraction and repulsion that many Europeans felt toward these acts, the travel writer Fanny Parks wrote that she "was much disgusted, but greatly interested" by the spectacle that she also depicted in her print of “The Charak Puja.”.

In Thomas Rowlandson's 1816 print of "The Burning System Illustrated," he depicted a woman joining her deceased husband on the funeral pyre known as sati; charak puja is seen in the background. Rowlandson viewed these acts as "savage," and condemned British officials for accepting bribes to allow such ceremonies to take place. Rowlandson opined:

"Here British mercy shuts her eyes,
Nor will she hear the victim's cries,
Because a fee, at any time,
Can make a sacrifice sublime!"

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