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Managing Sectarian Diversity in the Colonial World : Indo-Persian Visual Handbooks on Ascetics and Their Sectarian Marks (1790-1860)


· Jean Arzoumanov Université Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris 3 (Paris, France)


07/28 | 16:30-16:50 UTC+2/CEST


At the turn of the 19th century, British colonial officers developed a marked interest in sectarian divisions among North Indian sects. In Calcutta, Benares and Delhi, several officers commissioned Hindu authors to write classificatory accounts of sectarian groups. Written in Persian, these texts were illustrated and contained precise depictions of sectarian marks and more specifically of tilakas worn by devotees. Tilakas had been historically translated in Persian with the derogatory term qašqa, literally “the marking on an animal’s forehead”. Tilakas, clothing and accessories were provided as clues enabling observers to formally identify a member of a given community. Strangely enough these texts do not seem to have had any predecessor, both in terms of classification patterns and in terms of the emphasis given give on the actual details of the tilakas. If sectarian marks had been a feature of some sectarian treatises, they had indeed never been presented in a systematic way. The production of these texts was a consequence of the new emphasis given by colonial officers on the understanding and management of ascetic groups. The Hindu writers of these texts did not write from a sectarian point of view, but they contributed to the development of a whole new genre. Indeed these texts circulated both in manuscripts and prints and had a significant if underestimated influence on ethnographic literature on religious groups in Northern India throughout the 19th century.