Pompa Banerjee. Burning Women: Widows, Witches, and Early Modern European Travelers in India. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. xviii+278pp. ISBN 1 40396 018 6.

M. G. Aune
 North Dakota State University

Aune, M. G."Review of Pompa Banerjee, Burning Women: Widows, Witches, and Early Modern European Travelers in India". Early Modern Literary Studies 10.1 (May, 2004) 10.1-8 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/10-1/revbane.html>.

  1. In her first book, Pompa Banerjee pursues answers to a sort of question that, once articulated, seems so important and meaningful that one wonders how it escaped being asked for so long.  Put simply, Banerjee enquires why early modern European travellers who made written accounts of sati, the practice of Hindu widow burning, never made a connection to European practices of witch burning. [1]  In her investigation, Banerjee finds illuminating articulations between the two practices and at the same time generates valuable insights into European conceptions of gender, forms of literary representation, and questions of the development of colonialism.

  2. Professor Banerjee's first chapter begins with a historiographical investigation designed to help answer her foundational question, why did European travel writers not compare the Hindu practice of sati to the European practice of witch-burning?  No conclusive answer can be found, but the investigation helps to illuminate more subtle discursive connections.  While these travel writers may not have personally witnessed the burning of a witch, the ubiquity of printed works concerning witches and witch burning makes it unlikely that they were completely ignorant of the practice.  Depictions of witch- burning and sati are then discursively connected by virtue of their shared public and gendered nature and by the shared notions that sati and witches possessed a death-wish and did not feel pain.  So rather than a literal link between depictions of these two practices, Banerjee engages in a psychoanalytic analysis of the travel writers' erasures and repressions of witch-burning, and finds "literary hauntings and cultural derangements" (55). In general, Hindu practices, and sati in particular, are repeatedly characterized as demonic in a manner similar to European witchcraft.  Although not explicitly acknowledged, when describing sati travel writers repeatedly use rhetorical devices and literary tropes similar to those of writers depicting witch- burnings.  These devices, for Banerjee, allow travelers to make the foreign alien knowable by using language similar to that used to make the domestic alien (the witch) knowable.  The chapter concludes by extending the verbal comparison to include the visual.  Banerjee presents a series of images of witch-burnings and sati that further demonstrate how similar the two practices appeared to European readers.  This similarity, however, creates a dangerous proposition.  On the one hand, the witch is always a destructive alien element in society and burning eliminates this element.  On the other hand, the sati is a positive element, a faithful wife, so her burning can only be barbaric and heathenish.  Thus, it is the very similarities between the practices that lead Banerjee to conclude that "explicit comparisons between widowburning and witchburning may have amounted to self-condemnation" (71).  In order to construct the foreign space as barbaric and the home as civilized, the travel writer avoided outright comparisons.

  3. With the figure of the literary haunting established, the second chapter turns to an analysis of the variety of European representations of sati over time.  Banerjee begins by asking why the trope of the discovery of sati persisted in European travel writing for so long.  Even after a century of accounts, travel writers continued to depict sati as if it had never been witnessed by European eyes.  Pursuing an answer to this question leads Banerjee to an examination of the rhetorical strategies travel writers used to establish and maintain their authority. The continued use of the discovery trope evolves, Banerjee argues, into a trope of "anti-discovery" in the late seventeenth century wherein the travel writer is not so much depicting something new, as affirming the veracity of previous travel writers.  In so doing, the writer affirms his own truthfulness because he has seen what is expected.  A second aspect of the shifting depictions of sati is the means by which visual representations can be read to demonstrate various distancing strategies used by the Europeans to present sati as persistently other.  Through a careful comparison of woodcuts and engravings of sati and witch-burning in pamphlets and other printed works from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, Banerjee shows how classical framing devices, anonymity, and erotic constructions were used by Europeans to depict their witch- burning as civilized because of its distinction from the barbaric Hindu practice of sati.

  4. The third and perhaps strongest chapter returns to the hauntings of public burnings of women to investigate European discourses of the obedient wife and the lustful widow.  The connections here are between the European good wife and the Hindu widow who voluntarily immolates herself, and the widow who refuses to burn herself and the unruly European widow.  Examining sermons, homilies, pamphlets, ballads, and conduct books along with descriptions of Hindu women, the chapter shows how similar and unstable ideologies of womanhood could be.  The sati is the epitome of the obedient wife, but her burning is irredeemably barbaric.  Similarly, the Hindu widow who refuses to become a sati rejects the barbarous practice, but in so doing also becomes unruly.  The second part of the chapter continues the investigation of those Hindu women who did not immolate themselves, and compares the accounts of their behaviour with the prescribed behaviour of European widows, and perhaps witches. Like the construction of the lustful, dangerous and ostracized European widow, European travelers tend to find the Hindu widow shameful and marginalized and therefore a potential site of instability.

  5. Chapter four takes up the anxiety over disobedient women outlined in chapter three and asks another intriguing question. Many European travellers in explaining the practice of sati claimed that it was instituted to punish Hindu wives for poisoning their husbands, and it thereby also acted as a deterrent to wives who might contemplate mariticide.  This explanation for sati, according to Banerjee, lacks local support and is absent from foreign, non-European accounts of sati.  The explanation of the anecdote's use begins with a return to the rhetoric of travel writing.  Because earlier travel narratives had used this anecdote, later writers felt compelled to include it, not because it was true, but because confuting it might bring one's own veracity into question.  Pursuing a richer explanation, the chapter analyzes the European discourses of poisoning, wives, witchcraft, and the popularity of accounts of wives who poisoned their husbands.  Banerjee finds convergences at several locations: the practice of burning widows for murdering their husbands (petty treason), the connection between poison and witchcraft, and a general criminalization of women from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries.  The chapter concludes with another turn to the visual and demonstrates how similar in appearance sati must have been to the burning of witches and murderous wives in Europe.  Thus, the anecdote of the mariticidal wife seems to have been a European construction projected onto Hindu culture in response to European anxieties about unruly women.

  6. The concluding chapter takes up questions of speech and silence in its contrast of practices of sati and European widow- burning.  Where the condemned husband-murderer is given the chance to testify publicly on the scaffold, the sati nearly always proceeds in silence.  The transgressive verbal woman uses her ability to speak one last time to acknowledge her wrongdoing and reify the authority of the church and state.  The unspeaking sati, reminiscent of native cultures lacking written language, becomes inferior to the culture that can write and can represent her.  On the rare occasion when the sati does speak, it is only through the European male travel writer that her words are communicated.  And even then, the question of translation cannot be addressed.  In concluding, Banerjee sees European depictions of sati and widow and witch burning as intersecting discourses, and in so doing help to expose some of the instabilities within European cultural ideologies in a time of discovery, expansion, and colonization.  Sati served as a means of identity stabilization: "Its rich, emblematic power probably enabled European writers to detach it from a dreadful, culturally sanctioned form of violence in their own countries" (210).

  7. Of the many things that this book does well, I would like to focus on three aspects in particular.  The first is the depth and range of research in secondary and primary materials.  Well- versed in contemporary early modern scholarship, Banerjee, in addition to forty-three travel narratives, consulted scores of printed and manuscript documents, both English and continental. This body of research enables her to locate the hauntings of sati and demonstrate their ubiquity in European discourse throughout the early modern period.  The second strength is the incorporation of travel writing as an important aspect of early modern European culture.  Banerjee cites other scholars who have done similar work, most notably Stephen Greenblatt, but Burning Women incorporates travel writing of India specifically and uses it in a valuable study of discourses of gender and power in early modern European culture.

  8. Though it is not one of the book's primary emphases, Banerjee also contributes importantly to the growing scholarship surrounding the development of European colonialism in India. Scholars like Shankar Raman and Jyotsna Singh seem to see early modern English travel writing of India as participating in the construction of a colonial imaginary, which, while it may not necessarily have a teleological relationship with later colonial discourses, nevertheless came to contribute to the colonial project. [2]  Banerjee is somewhat more circumspect, referring to representations of India as a "self-referential and 'precolonial' Renaissance imaginary, in which travel, border, nation and self meet" (8).  European discourses of an Indian other were thus crucial in the maintenance and reification of European cultural identity in the early modern period.  But it is perhaps too soon to say how or if these formations were complicit in later colonial expansion.


1.  The term sati may refer to the practice of widow burning or its subject.

2.   Shankar Raman, Framing "India" The Colonial Imaginary in Early Modern Culture, (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002).  Jyotsna G. Singh, Colonial Narratives/Cultural Dialogues: "Discoveries" of India in the Language of Colonialism, (London: Routledge, 1996).


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2004-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).