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

History of a print

To feed public interest in India from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, American and European publishers and engravers copied and adapted original accounts about the country and its peoples. By tracing the history of these prints and reprints, we can see how knowledge of India formed and changed over the years.

One fascinating examination begins with the French gem merchant Jean-Baptiste Tavernier’s (1605–1689) illustration of temples and ascetics under a banyan tree in Surat, India. He originally published the scene in his book The Six Voyages in Paris in 1676. Tavernier paid particular attention to the “Faquirs, that do Penance” and numbered their intriguing austerities. It is not certain how many of these he truly witnessed, collected from previous texts, or imagined.

Click on details in this print and the ones following to learn more.

Detail: “Of the Faquirs … and of their Pennances.” Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution Libraries, DS411.5 .T23 E1678

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Tavernier focused on urdhvabahu, or those ascetics who maintain raised arms for long periods, seen on the left and right of the print. He described the two on the left as having the “postures of two doing Penance; who, as long as they live, carry their arms above their heads in that manner; which causes certain Carnosities to breed in the joynts, that they can never bring them down again. Their hair grows down to their waists, and their nails are as long as their fingers. Night and Day, Winter and Summer they go always stark naked in the same posture, expos’d to the heat and rain, and the stinging of the Flies; from which they have not the use of their hands to rid themselves ….”

Read Tavernier’s entire descriptive text in The Six Voyages (pp. 165–67).

Tavernier described this small rectangular brick structure or “Hut” as an abode for an ascetic’s fast, where “a Faquir makes his retirement several times a year, there being but one hole to let in the light. He stays there according to the height of his devotion, sometimes nine or ten days together, without either eating or drinking; a thing which I could not have believ’d, had I not seen it.”



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