The essays collected in this book are based on field research carried out over an extended period in several villages in the Bengali-speaking area of South Asia. The center of attention is the religious life of ordinary people in rural Bengal. They cover a broad spectrum, including the Bengali attachment to goddesses, the religious treatment of the calamities that befall poor people, and the analysis of myths, both historically and structurally. A long essay examines the rise of Sitala, goddess of disease, in south-western Bengal in the nineteenth century. It is accompanied by English translations of two versions of the Bengali Sitala narrative from that period. The Sanskrit Candi, or Sri Sri Durga Saptasati, which is the authority for the ever more popular annual Durga puja, is analyzed in relation to the worship of which it is an integral part. Also examined are the structure of the annual cycle of religious observances and the social organization of Vaisnava and Islamic religious groups.
Through detailed analysis of the religious acts of ordinary people, including their rituals, the author builds up a uniquely complex picture of the world in its totality implicit in the culture of the villages of the Bengal delta.
About the Author
Ralph W. Nicholas is William Rainey Harper Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. He began anthropological research in Bengal villages in 1960 and this field remains his foremost intellectual concern. He served as Chairman of the Department of Anthropology. Dean of the College, Director of the Center for International Studies, and President of the International House at the University of Chicago before returning more directly to his research in Bengal. He has long been active in the American Institute of Indian Studies, and in 2002 became its President. His studies combine detailed fieldwork with overarching concerns of Anthropology and South Asian Studies.
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