In the popular mind, sati was one of the ills of Hindu society that was abolished by the colonial Government on persistent pressure from British Baptist missionaries. It is not sufficiently recognized that sati was a rare act, performed by a very small number of Hindu widows over the centuries.
It enjoyed no religious sanction. In the nineteenth century British Evangelicals and Baptist missionaries grossly exaggerated the occurrence of sati for two reasons.
Firstly, they wanted to secure permission of the British Parliament to proselytize in the East India Company’s territories in India, which was denied to them till 1813. Secondly, to justify British presence in the country, they presented remarkable accounts of what they described as the evils of Hindu society, topmost among them widow immolation.
Surprisingly, several Left-feminist scholars seem to have adhered to the motivated missionary representations on sati. Missionaries stand accused of profusely overstating instances of widow immolations in Bengal, a region not traditionally associated with the rite.
Likewise, while independent India has witnessed forty-odd cases of widow-immolation, the works of Left-feminist writers create a vision of enormity. The “feigned panic and the hyperbole” that ensued in the wake of Roop Kanwar’s immolation in 1987, ignored the fact that instances of sati post- independence have mostly been confined to one state, and within it, to one region.
Missionaries presented sati as murder or suicide, and Left-feminists attribute continuance of the practice to patriarchy and the general subordination of women. There is a common subtext implicating Hinduism.
Additionally, both missionaries and Left-feminist critics wholly ignore pre-nineteenth century foreign accounts which typically described sati as an act of voluntary martyrdom, though some instances of compulsion were also reported. In earlier accounts, anguish at the physical suffering of the widow was offset by regard for her chastity and bravery.
Baptist missionaries insisted sati was almost always due to the forcible exertions of relatives and ravenous Brahmins. Left-feminists attribute incidents of sati to an alliance of religion, patriarchy, and commerce.
Some recorded instances of sati
The Baptist presentation of sati marked a radical departure from earlier foreign accounts of the rite, beginning with that of Diodorus of Sicily as far back as the first century BCE. These accounts mostly resonated with awe and incredulity and speculated on the possible reasons for the custom. They also revealed how limited the practice actually was.
Diodorus described an incident that had occurred in 316 BCE at Gabiene in Asia following the death of Alexander on his return journey. The commander of an Indian contingent, Ceteus (Shashi Gupt?) was killed in the conflict. The assembled troops looked on in amazement as his two widows argued among themselves over who had the right to immolate with the body.
The next irrefutable evidence of sati comes several centuries later, in CE 510. The Eran Stone Pillar Inscription in Sagar district, Madhya Pradesh, recorded that a chieftain, Goparaja was killed while accompanying king Bhanugupta, and commemorated the self-immolation of his widow.
About a century later, in CE 606 Queen Yasomati, the mother of Harsha and wife of King Prabhakaravardhana of Thanesar, predeceased her sick husband by consigning herself to flames when it became apparent that he had little chances of survival.
Though Harsha could not deter his mother, he did succeed in persuading his sister, Rajyasri, the widowed queen of King Grahavarman of the Maukhari family, from immolating herself.
More than six centuries later, the Moroccan traveller, Ibn Battuta who visited India between CE 1333 and 1347, observed the immolation of three women near Dhar, Madhya Pradesh, whose husbands had died fighting the Sumras of Sind.
The Belaturu Inscription of Saka 979, of the time of Rajendra Chola, referred to the immolation of a Sudra woman, Dekabbe, whose husband had been killed in battle against a Ganga king. Dekabbe immolated herself despite the strong opposition of her parents. These instances of sati, all documented, do not indicate commonness of the practice, nor do they point to the use of force on an unwilling victim.
In the period CE 700-1100, sati became more frequent in northern India and among the royal families of Kashmir. Kalhana in his Rajatarangini, written in CE 1148-49, referred to cases from the tenth to twelfth centuries.
Clusters of memorial stones found in various places reveal that from the end of the first millennium CE, at least in some regions, immolation was no longer confined to the upper castes. Some stones found between the Narmada and Tapti dated to the thirteenth-fourteenth centuries CE, commemorated Bhil chiefs and their satis.
Sati appeared to have originally been a Kshatriya custom; a heroic female complement to the warrior’s death in battle. The Padmapurana explicitly prohibited it for Brahmins. However, around CE 1000, the practice began to be observed among some Brahmins.
Sati in Vijayanagara
The number of cases of widow immolation actually witnessed by foreign travellers over the centuries seems to have been minuscule. Three foreign visitors to Vijayanagara – Nicolo Conti, Duarte Barbosa, and Fernao Nuniz – wrote in a general manner that hundreds immolated on the death of a King.
They appear not to have in fact witnessed any such incident. Furthermore, three other visitors to the city, Abdur Razzak, Ludovico di Varthema, and Domingo Paes – did not refer to sati at all in their accounts of the kingdom. The queens of Krishnadeva Raya did not immolate themselves on his death, nor did the widows of his successor.
Suddenly, in the opening decades of the nineteenth century, Evangelicals and Baptist missionaries produced appalling figures of thousands of widows being burnt on the pyres of their husbands. They also presented vivid accounts of other practices they deemed “sinful.”
Early British appreciation of Indian civilization
The Evangelical-missionary portrayal of India was a considerable departure from the views of early officials of the East India Company, who wrote appreciatively of Indian civilization. Among them may be mentioned John Grose (a writer in the East India Company and author of A Voyage to the East Indies); Luke Scrafton (the Resident at Murshidabad); John Z. Holwell (who served as temporary Governor of Bengal); Alexander Dow (Lt-Colonel in the Company’s military service); and George Forster (a Company employee).
Under Warren Hastings, the first Governor General, individual efforts to acquire knowledge of Indian traditions were replaced by the systematic endeavours of a number of Company officials. Hastings wanted to create an Orientalized service elite proficient in the Indian languages and sensitive to Indian traditions.
The select group that gathered around him included Charles Wilkins, Nathaniel Halhed, Jonathan Duncan, and William Jones. Together with H.T. Colebrooke, H. H. Wilson, and James Prinsep, they made notable contributions in the fields of Indian religion, philology, philosophy, archeology, and history.
But their view of India and Indian civilization was challenged by Baptist missionaries who began arriving in India towards the close of the eighteenth century.
The Baptist missionaries
The three early Baptist missionaries – William Carey, William Ward, and Joshua Marshman – first settled in the town of Serampore, near Calcutta. Two developments favorable to them occurred in quick succession.
In 1800, the Governor-General, Lord Wellesley who had started College of Fort William for training Company officials in India, invited William Carey to serve as Professor of Bengali. And in 1813, the British Parliament granted missionaries the right to proselytize in Company territory in India.
Missionaries condemn Hindu practices
From the moment of their arrival, the Baptists censured Hindu practices. William Carey’s journal abounds with entries indicating extreme prejudice. He wrote at one place,
“I told them (the natives) that their books were like a loaf of bread, in which was a considerable quantity of good flour, but also a little very malignant poison, which made the whole so poisonous that whoever should eat of it would die… .”
Image-worship was an anathema for the missionaries. William Carey noted in his journal in August 1794,
“…I took the opportunity of remonstrating with them upon the wickedness and folly of idolatry, and set my face as much as possible against their making any offering at all, and told them that I would rather lose my life than sacrifice to their idol; that God was much displeased with them for their idolatry, and exhorted them to leave it and turn to the true God … .”
Eustace Carey, nephew of William Carey, listed the malevolent consequences of image-worship,
“… in all countries in which idolatry exerts its influence, it produces, in the human mind, cruelty, lust, hatred to God and Divine things, which completely justifies the description given us of the heathen character in the Word of God … We have begun a warfare with the empire of Satan in this country, which we hope not to relinquish till death, nor till some signal success shall have been granted …”
William Ward, in his book History, Literature, And Mythology of the Hindoos, referred to people “frequently offer(ing) their children to the goddess Gunga,” and to a custom of sacrificing female children.
Rev. Claudius Buchanan, Vice-Provost and Professor of Classics at Fort William College, also stated that women who had no children “vow to sacrifice their first-born to the goddess Gunga.” William Carey urged the British government to immediate stop the practice.
A regulation was accordingly enacted in August 1802. This was the first instance of British intervention in the customs of the Hindus, and to the surprise of “the whole body of Christian alarmists,” it created no rebellion.
The obvious explanation would be that incidents of child sacrifice were not routine. The issue appeared part of a missionary campaign to impress the British public on the reforming role of a Christian state and prepare the ground for proselytization.
The assertions of Carey and his friends were, in fact, challenged by H. H. Wilson, among the greatest Sanskrit scholars of his time and Secretary of the Asiatic Society. In a letter to Military Secretary to the Government, Wilson said the sacrifice of infants at Sagor was neither countenanced by the religious orders nor the people at large.
It was, moreover, “of rare and restricted occurrence.” The practice of female infanticide, too, was a “very limited observance, being confined to a few castes in one or two districts.”
Earlier, the Orientalist, Sir William Jones had regarded infanticide and sacrifices to Kali as unrepresentative of Hinduism, “comparable to the claims that the Virgin Mary had appeared in Italy in 1294, which did not invalidate Christianity.”
Deaths caused by pilgrimages
The Baptists expressed indignation at the number of deaths purportedly caused by Hinduism. In a note to a friend in 1812, William Carey stated,
“Idolatry destroys more than the sword. The numbers who die in their long pilgrimages, either through want, or fatigue, or from dysenteries, and fevers, caught by lying out, and want of accommodation, is incredible.” He conservatively estimated the mortality caused by pilgrimage to the Jagannath temple alone at an astonishing 120,000 a year.
William Ward also made a rough calculation of the number of Hindus who perished annually as “the victims of superstition.” He claimed that those who had seen these figures felt they fell “far below the real fact.”
They nevertheless presented “a horrible view… of the effects of superstition.” It was these few missionaries in India backed by a handful of Evangelicals in England who orchestrated the campaign on Sati.
Missionaries and Sati
Till the year 1812, there had been little official notice of sati by Company officials in India, except for brief reports in the years 1793, 1797, and 1805. Why did sati not figure in British Parliamentary debates of 1793 when the renewal of the Company Charter was under scrutiny? Was that because many of the missionaries arrived in India only after that date? If sati was rampant, why did earlier Englishmen in Calcutta fail to condemn it?
It is also important that the first two accounts of sati by Baptist missionaries (by John Thomas in 1789 and William Carey in 1799) had stated that the incidents were voluntary, and despite their best efforts, they could not dissuade the widows from immolating themselves.
The Evangelical-missionary campaign on sati falls into two phases — the first, from 1803 to 1813 when the case was prepared; the second, from 1813 to1829 when awesome figures were presented to demonstrate that it was a raging practice. The sati issue was the most forceful invented by the Evangelical-Utilitarian alliance to validate British rule in India.
The campaign against sati – first phase
In 1803, William Carey with his colleagues at Serampore and Fort William College attempted to collect data on the frequency of sati. They employed ten people to record all cases that occurred within 30 miles of Calcutta in the previous twelve months.
Unreliable results of missionary survey
Citing the results of the survey, Rev. Claudius Buchanan in his Christian Researches In Asia, stated that 275 cases were recorded in 1803; between 15th April and 15th October 1804, there were 115 cases. Buchanan explained these figures,
“…no account was taken of burnings in a district to the west of Calcutta, nor further than twenty miles in some other directions; so that the whole number of burnings within thirty miles round Calcutta must have been considerably greater than is here stated.”
William Ward wrote, “From actual enquiry at all the villages & towns for 30 miles around Calcutta it appears that no less than 438 widows have been burnt with their husbands in this circuit during the last year.” This was the very area in which the Baptists lived and preached.
Appalling figures of widow immolation presented by missionaries
By applying their figures to the entire country, the missionaries claimed that several thousand widows were burnt every year. Claudius Buchanan in his Memoir of the Expediency of an Ecclesiastical Establishment for British India Memoir wrote, “… it was calculated … that the widows who perish by self-devotement in the northern provinces of Hindostan alone, are not less than ten thousand annually.”
William Carey, in 1812, cited similar figures, “… I calculate that 10,000 women annually burn with the bodies of their deceased husbands.”
William Ward asserted that “instances of children of eight or ten years of age thus devoting themselves are not uncommon.” Referring to the results of Carey’s initial survey, Ward concluded,
“If within so small a space several hundred widows were burnt alive in one year, how many thousands of these widows must be murdered in a year — in so extensive a country as Hindoost’han! So that, in fact, the funeral pile devours more than war itself!”
Ward calculated the total number of victims sacrificed annually to the altar of Hindu gods
- Widows burnt alive – 5000
- Pilgrims perishing on the roads and at sacred places – 4000
- Persons drowning themselves in the Ganges or buried or burnt alive – 500
- Children immolated, including the daughters of Rajputs – 500
- Sick persons whose death is hastened on the banks of the Ganges – 500
- Total – 10,500
Charles Grant, in his Observations on the State of Society among the Asiatic Subjects of Great Britain, particularly with respect to Morals; and on the means of improving it, theoretically placed the number of widow immolations in Hindustan annually at around 33,000 and added, “… let the proportion be reduced to the lowest probable scale, the annual immolation of human victims to a dire superstition, will appear an enormity under which language must sink.”
The figures collected by the missionaries on satis in Bengal in 1803 and 1804 were cited by Claudius Buchanan in his widely read Christian Researches in Asia.
In 1813, he informed the Court of Directors that on the basis of further data supplied by the Serampore missionaries and official estimates of the population of India, he had calculated that about 10,000 satis took place annually.
The figure appeared a colossal overstatement. But there was no one sufficiently informed to contradict it, and it served to create an impression of enormity. Further publicity was given to the Baptists’ figures in the House of Commons in 1813, when William Wilberforce included them in his speech on the renewal of the Company Charter.
The missionaries further publicized their data through missionary publications. The Missionary Register and the Missionary Papers circulated accounts of satis sent by missionaries in India.
The objective was to raise funds for missionary work through consistent “exposes” of Hindu superstitions and to convince British readers of the enormity of, and necessity for, evangelical work. Appeals were particularly directed towards women.
Fifteen per cent of the subscribers of the Baptist Missionary Society in 1800 were females. The figure rose to seventeen per cent in 1825. In the Church Missionary Society, the proportion was twelve per cent in 1801 and twenty-nine percent in 1823.
Registration by the Government — 1815-1828
In 1815, the Government began to register cases of sati which continued till 1828. The survey covered the three Presidencies of Bengal, Bombay, and Madras. The data collected by the Government revealed a curious picture.
In the ten years between 1815 and 1824, 6,632 cases were reported for the three Presidencies. Of these, an astonishing 5,997 (90.4 per cent) occurred in Bengal. In the Madras and Bombay Presidencies, during the years 1815 and 1820, the average number of satis recorded was below fifty. This raises the question whether the allegedly high incidence of satis in Bengal was a missionary manufacture.
Noted historian, Christopher Bayly has observed that Government figures revealed “how limited the number of satis were.” Between 1817 and 1827, 4,323 cases were reported for a population of about 160 million for the whole of British India. The practice was mostly restricted to Bengal, particularly the environs of Calcutta.
Yet, the British obsession with sati “was boundless.” Thousands of pages of parliamentary papers dealt with 4,000 immolations while the death of millions from famine and starvation was mentioned “only incidentally — sometimes only because it tended indirectly to increase the number of widows performing the ‘horrid act’.”
According to Bayly, sati was seen as an “irrefutable justification for the continued British presence in India.”
Analysis of Government data
Age of victims
In several respects, the Government data contradicted missionary figures. Most missionary narratives had emphasized the tender age of the widows. Government statistics, however, claimed that almost half the satis were in the age group of 50 and above, and two-thirds 40 and above. Less than five percent of all satis between 1815 and 1829 were in the age group of eleven to twenty.
Overall, sixty percent of the widows who immolated were over fourty-one years of age. The Government report concluded, “…a great proportion of these acts of self-devotion have not taken place in youth, or even in the vigor of age; but a period when life, in the common course of nature, must have been near its close.”
Between 1815 and 1820, 62 child widows (below 18 years) were immolated in the whole of Bengal, which was less than two percent of the total number.
Number of widows on pyre
Government numbers also revealed that of the 8,132 widows who immolated themselves in the Bengal Presidency, 8,004, i.e., 98 per cent mounted the pyre alone. Only 128, i.e., 1.6 per cent burnt to death with one or several widows of the same man.
In fifty-two cases there were 2 women, in four cases 3, and in three cases 4. The survey did not mention a single instance of more than four widows immolating with one man.
Here too, there was a wide gap between Government and missionary figures. William Ward had cited several instances of a large number of widows burning with one man. He mentioned one occasion in which 13 widows immolated with one man, another involving 37 widows of a man, another 12 widows, and yet another in which 18 widows burnt with one man.
Claudius Buchanan in An Apology for Christianity in India referred to a case in 1799 that was related to him, in which 22 of the 100 wives of a Kulin Brahmin immolated themselves and the fire was kept kindled for three days! Such statements, not borne out by the Government numbers, raise misgivings about the genuineness of missionary accounts.
The high incidence of sati in Bengal was linked in some accounts to kulin Brahmin polygamy. Claudius Buchanan, in his Memoir, gave instances of kulin Brahmins who had over a hundred wives. However, Rammohan Roy, in his A Second Conference between an advocate for and an opponent of the practice of burning widows alive, pertinently asked, “How many kulin Brahmins are there who marry two or fifteen wives for the sake of money, that never see the quarter number of them after the day of marriage, and visit others only three or four times in the course of their life?”
The geographical distribution of sati also did not substantiate the connection with kulin polygamy. The incidence of sati was higher in West than in East Bengal (more in Calcutta than in Dacca Division), whereas kulinism was more prevalent in East than in West Bengal.
The frequency of sati in Bengal was also attributed to the Dayabhaga School, associated with Jimutavahana, a Brahmin from Radha. Dayabhaga, viewed as a reformed School of Hindu Law as compared to the orthodox Mitaksara, allowed women greater access to their deceased husband’s property for their maintenance.
But Jimutavahana introduced Dayabhaga to Bengal in the twelfth century, whereas incidents of sati increased only in the decades preceding its abolition, when first the missionaries, and then the British Government presented statistics on the extent of the custom.
Further, the first Judge of the Calcutta Court of Circuit mentioned the significant fact that he had no less than 57 civil suits pending involving property worth four lakh rupees, to which Hindu women were parties.
It was thus “clearly possible for widows not to follow their husbands to the pile, to fill respectably their own positions in society, and to manage their own affairs.”
Missionaries and the campaign against sati – second phase
The entire colonial debate on sati centred on figures provided by the missionaries and the Government, each set of which suffered from serious flaws. But the figures seem to have been seldom questioned during the course of the campaign the Evangelicals and missionaries unleashed.
In 1815, the second edition of William Ward’s View of the History, Literature and Mythology of the Hindoos was issued by the Serampore Press. It contained a chapter citing the Baptists’ figures on sati in the Calcutta area and included descriptions of the most offensive cases known to Ward.
In 1816, the first known major pamphlet on the subject, A Collection of Facts and opinions Relative to the Burning of Widows with the Dead Bodies of their husbands and to other Destructive Customs Prevalent in British India, was published in England by William Johns, a missionary expelled by the British from Serampore in 1812. Johns protested that,
“…in this country, we appear to have retrograded, for whilst we have legislated to prevent cruelty to animals, we allow a portion of the human race, nay even of our own subjects, to have cruelties practiced upon them at which humanity shudders.”
William Ward, on a visit to England during the years 1819-1820, personally confirmed missionary accounts of sati. In a letter to Miss Hope of Liverpool, a long-time activist of the British and Foreign Bible Society, he claimed,
“By an official statement that I brought with me from India, it appears that every year more than seven hundred women (more probably fourteen hundred) are burned or buried alive in the Presidency of Bengal alone. How many in other parts of India? Your sex will not say that in the roasting alive of four widows every day there is not blood enough shed to call forth their exertions?”
The Baptists kept up the attack through the Samachar Darpan and Friend of India (both started in 1818). In 1819, Friend of India cited the figure of 100,000 (10, 000?) satis per year.
In 1829, the journal claimed that the custom had claimed over one million lives in Bengal alone! English periodicals like the Oriental Herald and Quarterly Review reproduced large portions of the articles, as did the Bengal Hurkaru and other Calcutta periodicals.
In 1828, the General Baptist missionary, James Peggs (who had returned to England in 1825 after some years of missionary work in Orissa), published a booklet, Suttee’s Cry to Britain.
Lord William Bentinck
The appointment of William Bentinck as Governor-General in 1828, gave momentum to the campaign against sati. Bentinck was “a practicing and believing Christian,” and a member of the British and Foreign Bible Society. In December 1829, within eighteen months of his arrival in India he abolished sati.
As sati had never been a commonly observed rite, there was little protest on its official prohibition. Once the ban was announced, the allegedly rampant practice seemed to have abruptly ceased. It was a truly unique case of prompt universal compliance to a government diktat.
Sati – an infrequent occurrence
The Evangelical-missionary campaign on sati virtually silenced other voices on the issue. Till the colonial debate commenced, most foreign travelers had declared that sati was not a pervasive practice.
The Dutch, Francisco Pelsaert writing in the time of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir noted that “there are hundreds, or even thousands, who do not do it…” The Italian nobleman, Pietro Della Valle who visited India in the 1630s, confirmed, “…. This burning of Women upon the death of their Husbands is at their own choice to do it or not, and indeed few practice it …” Francois Martin, of the French East India Company, who arrived in India in 1669 and stayed on till his death in 1706, held that the custom was “not very widely practiced now.”
Even officials of the East India Company, till the closing decades of the eighteenth century, affirmed that sati was not customary. Alexander Dow, in 1770, stated that the practice had practically ceased and it was not “reckoned a religious duty, as has been very erroneously supposed in the West.”
George Forster wrote in 1782 that “…many of the Hindoo widows, especially in the Marhatta country, have acquired by their ability, their wealth, connection, or intrigue, the possession of extensive power and influence.”
Eliza Fay, wife of a judge of the Supreme Court at Calcutta, in a letter from that city in September 1781, wrote that she had “never had an opportunity of witnessing the various incidental ceremonies, not have I ever seen any European who had been present at them.”
H. T. Colebrooke, Judge and later head of the Sadar Diwani Adalat and Professor of Hindu Law and Sanskrit at Fort William College, who spent over three decades in Bengal, said the practice was rare. In an article titled “On the Duties of a Faithful Hindu Widow,” he stated that, “the martyrs of this superstition have never been numerous.”
The French Jesuit, Abbe Dubois wrote, “the country abounds with widows, especially among the Brahmins. Among this caste shorn-heads are to be seen everywhere.”
Sir John Malcolm, who administered Central India including Malwa, noted that the custom had been most prevalent when Rajputs had power and influence. The Marathas, however, had “rendered this practice very rare.”
Mountstuart Elphinstone, who held several important posts including Governor of Bombay, declared sati was “by no means universal in India… It did not occur south of the river Kishna …”
Even Sir John Kaye, who returned to England in 1845 after serving for several years in India, and, in 1858 succeeded James Stuart Mill as Secretary in the Political and Secret Department at India Office, conceded,
“But for all this, it can hardly be said that widow-burning was ever a national custom. At no time has the practice been so frequent as to constitute more than an exception to the general rule of self-preservation. Still, even in this exceptional state, it was something very horrible and deplorable in Christian eyes, and something to be suppressed, if suppression were possible, by a Christian government established in a heathen land. … I have said that this practice of Suttee has never been anything more than an exceptional abomination. It never has been universal throughout India — never in any locality has it been general.”
The entire colonial debate on sati centred on Bengal, though Rajasthan had emerged as a stronghold of the custom. Besides individual satis, mass jauhars had taken place at Chittor in 1303, 1535, and 1568 and at Jaisalmer, in 1299, when large numbers of women threw themselves into the fire as their husbands met death on the battlefield. Even today, Rajasthan retains its association with sati.
The number of sati temples in the Shekhavati region (consisting of the Sikar and Jhunjhunu districts) is unmatched in the rest of the country. Of the fourty-odd cases of sati recorded since independence, some twenty-eight have occurred in Rajasthan, mainly in and around Sikar.
It is significant that in the area where sati was alleged to have been most prevalent in British times, i.e. West Bengal, no case seems to have been reported for several generations. While sati temples and chhatris (memorials) are found in Rajasthan and other parts of India, not many (or none) seem to have been erected for the thousands who were supposed to have immolated themselves in colonial Bengal.
This lends credence to the inference that incidents of widow immolation in Bengal were overplayed by Evangelicals and missionaries firstly, to gain the right to proselytization, and subsequently, to justify their presence and British rule in India.
The amelioration of the depressed status of Hindu women was held to be a critical component of the civilizing mission of the White Man.
Featured Image: A sati as depicted by Giulio Ferrario (Wikipedia)
This article was first published on India Facts.
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