Presentation Title

Orientalism and Modern Varanasi

Faculty Mentor

Harini Narayanan

Start Date

18-11-2017 1:45 PM

End Date

18-11-2017 2:00 PM

Location

15-1814

Session

Social Science 4

Type of Presentation

Oral Talk

Subject Area

behavioral_social_sciences

Abstract

India's rich culture and tradition date back thousands of years, but the British colonial period from the seventeenth to twentieth centuries sought to separate Indians from their rich history. Although India has now been independent for over seventy years, the role of colonialism has still proven significant in the development of modern Indian institutions and identity. This paper seeks to analyze the British colonial period and the centuries leading up to it by looking at the historical influence of Orientalism on western perceptions. Edward Said's book 'Orientalism' provides a significant framework for this paper, as does work on colonial Indian identity by Rabindranath Tagore and post-colonial Indian identity by Amartya Sen. While the development of orientalist thought coincided with early considerations of India as exotic, such a perception of India has continued to strengthen and has influenced the shape of modern India. This comes to the fore in Varanasi, a cultural hub of South Asia and one of the longest continually-inhabited cities in the world. While Indian culture is characterized by a multiplicity of traditions, beliefs, and practices, a select few are chosen for display in the nightly ceremonies along the Ganges River. By tracing Orientalism and its relationship with India through recent millennia, this paper seeks to understand both the external and internal factors that define Indian culture as demonstrated in Varanasi. Further, by drawing on data from interviews with foreign and domestic tourists and Varanasi residents, this paper seeks to contextualize the intersections of these three distinct groups within the increasing development of the city's tourism industry.

Summary of research results to be presented

Foreign attempts to understand India have frequently focused on the exotic element of the country, dating back to centuries BCE. Early Greek travelers to India described fantastical encounters in their writing, which then spurred the European association of exotic imagination and India. This continued to exert influence in Rome in the early centuries AD, as noted by Apollonius as his travel to India was motivated by a search for things out of the ordinary. This intersection of European imagination and India's reality continued to expand and played a notable role in the British colonization of India. In 1817, James Mill authored a book titled "The History of British India," which became the standard reference book on the topic. In it, Mill reduced much of Indian society and tradition to an inferior status, seemingly justifying the expanding British presence in India. However, Mill himself had not been trained in Indian affairs. Many of his claims lacked a historical basis and rather played into an exoticist interpretation of India which was widely (and uncritically) accepted throughout much of Europe. As of 2017, India has been independent of British rule for seventy years, but orientalist thought continues to have a presence. In Varanasi, local residents have conflicting opinions regarding "artis," or religious ceremonies on the ghats. Many artis have departed from their traditional ceremonies to include more color and flash, catering to the imaginations of western tourists. While this boosts Varanasi's economy, many residents feel a loss in their connection to arti ceremony.

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Nov 18th, 1:45 PM Nov 18th, 2:00 PM

Orientalism and Modern Varanasi

15-1814

India's rich culture and tradition date back thousands of years, but the British colonial period from the seventeenth to twentieth centuries sought to separate Indians from their rich history. Although India has now been independent for over seventy years, the role of colonialism has still proven significant in the development of modern Indian institutions and identity. This paper seeks to analyze the British colonial period and the centuries leading up to it by looking at the historical influence of Orientalism on western perceptions. Edward Said's book 'Orientalism' provides a significant framework for this paper, as does work on colonial Indian identity by Rabindranath Tagore and post-colonial Indian identity by Amartya Sen. While the development of orientalist thought coincided with early considerations of India as exotic, such a perception of India has continued to strengthen and has influenced the shape of modern India. This comes to the fore in Varanasi, a cultural hub of South Asia and one of the longest continually-inhabited cities in the world. While Indian culture is characterized by a multiplicity of traditions, beliefs, and practices, a select few are chosen for display in the nightly ceremonies along the Ganges River. By tracing Orientalism and its relationship with India through recent millennia, this paper seeks to understand both the external and internal factors that define Indian culture as demonstrated in Varanasi. Further, by drawing on data from interviews with foreign and domestic tourists and Varanasi residents, this paper seeks to contextualize the intersections of these three distinct groups within the increasing development of the city's tourism industry.