Thus Have I Seen: Visualizing Faith in Early Indian Buddhism/With a Single Glance: Buddhist Icon and Early Mikkyo Vision

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Publication: The Art Bulletin
Author: Osto, Douglas
Date published: December 1, 2011

ANBY ROTMAN Thus Have I Seen: Visualizing Faith in Early Indian Buddhism Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 241 pp. $74.00

CYNTHEA J. BOGEL With a Single Glance: Buddhist Icon and Early Mikkyö Vision Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009. 407 pp.; 53 color ills., fi6 b/w. $75.00

When I first pondered a review on visual culture in Buddhism pairing Andy Rotman's Thus HfWf l Sem and Cynthea Bogel's With n Single. Glance, the task seemed a bit like comparing apples and oranges. Rotman is a textual scholar of early Indian Buddhism, while Bogel is an art historian specializing in Japanese Esoieric Buddhism. Thus, noi only are these scholars' approaches different, bui so are their sources, linguistic training, and areas of specialization with regard to time frame and geographic location. Nevertheless, both apples and oranges are fruit; likewise, these studies overlap in two fundamental ways: they are both aboui Buddhism and visuality. Therefore, there is scope for some useful comments about die nature of these two monographs as they relate to the emerging awareness among contemporary scholars of visuali ty in Buddhism.

Rotman 's study on visuality and faith as depicted in die Divyavadana, "a vast collection of Buddhist moral biographies written in Sanskrit in the early centuries of the Common Era" (p. 4), serves as a companion to his translation of the same text.1 Like his translation, Thus Have I Seen is written in a colloquial style, which should appeal to the layperson and scholar alike. In fact, his easyto-read English is even more commendable here than in his translation, which (due to its lack of technical precision) might not appeal to traditionally trained Buddhist philologists.

Rotman's clever choice of due for his study is an immediate indicator to any Buddhist textual scholar of the primary theoretical thrust of the monograph. The phrase "thus have I seen," which does not commonly occur in Buddhist sources, is an intentional corruption of the classic opening phrase of every su tra (discourse) of the Buddha: "Thus have I heard, at one time the Lord was dwelling. . . . [_evam maya Sndam ekasmin samaye bhagavan . . . viharati ama. . . .]." Traditionally, it is believed that these words were recited at the first Buddhist council following the final nirvana of the Buddha, by Änanda, faithful monk-servant and cousin of the Buddha, who not only was present at practically all of the Buddha's sermons but also possessed an eidetic memory and could recall verbatim every teaching occasion of the Buddha. Much scholarly ink has been spilled over this opening phrase; however, the general agreement among Buddhologists is that it is simultaneously an authenticating marker of a sutra's authority and a sign of the fundamentally oral nature of early Buddhist scriptural transmission and culture. Thus, Rotmaii rhetorically transposes the traditional "heard" for "seen" in his tide to jar his readers and provoke a kind of cognitive dissonance. In this way, Roiman has already primed his informed authence that he is going to challenge the scholarly status quo on lhe fundamentally oral nature of early Indian Buddhism by demonstrating the importance of visuality in his source text, the Divyavadana. This is confirmed m the first pages of the monograph, where Rotman asserts, "As the title of this book suggests, the Divy avadan n is visual literature grounded in a visual epislemology" (p. 4).

Thus Have J Sem is organized into eight chapters divided into three parts. In his introduction, Rotman lays out the broad strokes of his project: "the visual component of the Divyfwailana is more than just, a visual culture with consensus and homogeneity7 regarding visual practices and processes; it is also a visual economy. . . . The 'value' of this visual economy, however, is neither cash nor hard currency. It is faith" (p. 6). "Faith" in the Buddhist context generally refers to two overlapping related terms in Sanskrit: Sraddha and prosada. These two types of faith are central to the narratives in the Diviävadäna. Smrldhä and prosada and their connection to the "visual economy" of the text become die themes of parts 1 and 2 of Rotman's study. Part 3, "Seeing the Buddha," examines accounts in the Dhiyävadäna of practices concerning the visual experiences of the Buddha, which fall outside the typologies detailed in Rotman's first two parts on faith.

Part 1, on the practice of Smddha, is divided into two chapters: "Seeing and Knowing" and "Getting and Giving." In chapter 1, Rotman states that Sraddhä is belief in two related phenomena: first, the Buddhist karmic system (thai individuals reap the results of their morally skillful or unskillful actions), and second, that making offerings lo monks is a particularly efficacious way to acquire good karma, or "merit," within this system (p. 24). However, Rotman points out that the Divyavadana does more than simply explain the karmic system and the efficacy of donating to monks in order to illustrate ihe benefits of eraddha: it employs visual descriptions in an "ekphrasiic" sense (p. 24, "ekphrastic" here meaning a "verbal representation of a visual representation")." In order to show how this works in the Divyavadann, Rotman analyzes the story of Kotikarna in the Kolikarna-avtidana.

The story begins with Kotikarna, a caravan leader, becoming separated from his caravan while 011 the shore of the ocean. When he sets out alone to find his way home, Kotikarna comes across a city surrounded by five thousand "hungry ghosts" (piteous creatures iu Buddhist mythology who wander in constant thirst and hunger in a wasteland that closely overlaps this world) begging for water. When Kotikarna asks what deed led to lheir rebirth in this state, the hungry ghosts reply that "the people of Jambudvipa [this world] are difficult to convince. You won't have iradiihâ [failli] . . ." (p. 24; brackets mine); to which he replies, "Friends, I can see what's before my eyes. Why wouldn't I have Sraddhñ [in you]?" (p. 24; brackets in the original; emphasis mine). Kotikarna's encounters with other people (a former shepherd, an adulterer, and a Brahman woman) yield a similar message. In each case, for Kotikarna "seeing is believing"; that is, he sees lhe negative results of their former misdeeds and understands them as karmic consequences, By use of these examples, Rotman maintains that sraddhn possesses a particular meaning in the Divyavadana, which differs from the use of this concept in the Theravada Buddhist scriptures. These texts, known as the Pali Canon, are written in the Pâli language and are considered by many to represent some of the earliest written sources we possess of ancient Indian Buddhism. Drawing on the work of Rupert Gelhin, who claims that Sraddlia in the Pali texts signifies a feeling of trust or confidence in something often obtained through an oral/aural medium, Rotman stales that in the Divyavadana die logic and medium of Sraddhä are reversed: characters "develop 'a positive feeling of confidence or trust' - thai is, they develop Smddha only after having a 'direct and personal knowing and seeing that something exists' " (p. 30; internal quotes are Rotman's citation and rephrasing of Ge thin).

In chapter 2, "Getting and Giving," Rotman elaborates on the concept of Sraddha, revealing how the Divyavadäna disparages the Hindu concept of bhakti (devotion) as inferior to Buddhist sraddhd. Moreover, Rotman shows how bhfiktianA Sraddha focus on different objects: whereas Hindu bhakti is directed solely at the personhood of one's chosen deity, the object of Buddhist Sraddha is "an individual as a speaker of truth, and to a greater extent, the truth of that speaker's utterance" (p. 42). In addition, Rotman sees Sraddha in this context as a mental state that is neither cognitive nor affective but tlie "product of aii aesthetic engagement" (p. 55). The end result of such an aesthetic engagement is to "make offerings to proper recipients at the proper times" (p. 60), based on a correct comprehension of the karmic system.

Part 2, "The Practice of Prosada" chapters 3 through 6, constitutes the bulk of Thus Have I Seen. Chapter 3, "Agency and Intentionality," introduces the concept of prosada. Here, once again Rotman draws on the work of Gethin in the Pali sources, noting that Gethin understands pasada (Pali equivalent for the Sanskrit prosada) LO be a state "of mental composure, serenity, clarity or purity, and trust" Gethin. cited in Rotman, p. 66) .3 Rotman (like Gethin) sees prasada as substantially untranslatable, but nevertheless views the specific meaning and function of the term as differing in the Divyavadäna from its use hi Pali texts. As hi his understanding of the fraddlia, Rotman asserts that imisrula hi his source text "is conveyed almost exclusively through the medium of sight - individuals see an agent of prosada, such as the Buddha, and then prtmada arises in them" (p. 67). Elaborating on his view, Roiman declares, "In short, prosada isn't jusi a kind of faith, It is a mental state that occurs within different social realms in response to sensory contact with certain phenomena" (p. 71). And the primary form of sensory contact that occurs in this context Ls seeing. However, prosada is more than just a mental state: Rotman considers it as functioning in what he calls "the seeing-prasadagiving-prediction typology," which involves a compulsion to give. That is, for one who sees something that is prasadika (an agent of prosada) , prosada arises in them, which compels them to give to the agent. This in turn leads to the prediction of the karmic rewards that will result from such a gift.

In Chapter 4, "Participation and Exclusion," Rotman demonstrates the egalitarian nature of prasada, showing how (surprisingly) those excluded tend to be the wealthy and the fortunate. Here, Rotman claims that in the Divyavadäna, when certain individuals (particularly the poor) come upon an agent oi" prusada, they have a compulsion to give, and while their offerings are often objects of little market value, because of the sincerity of the giving, they yield extraordinary karmic results p. 108). In chapter 5, "Proximity and Presence," Rotman investigates the mechanics of prasada by examining the social and political implications of how the concept is uarrativized within the Divyavadana.

In chapter 6, "Politics and Aesthetics," Rotman addresses the seeming automatic and spontaneous nature of "pmsâda-imuïttea giving" and the erotic, aesthetic, and political implications that arise from such a view. Particularly interesting for this reader was Rotman's observation that prasäda and the actions it engenders are enough to start one on the Buddhist paúl, "even if one is not cognizant of faith's arising or its great rewards." From tliis insight Roiman draws a conclusion that holds important implications for our understanding of Indian Buddhist conceptions of agency: "This formulation of prosada undermines the fantasy of sovereign, imperial, or heroic consciousness in agency, and in doing so offers a glimpse into the ways that power uses people, not just the converse. Characters in the Divyavadäna are not fully sovereign subjects, and il is soteriologicaUy important that lhey aren't" (p. 147). Tims, the author concludes that the discourse on prasada in his source text is "more about negotiating and accommodating the power of others dieu [sic] asserting one's own. . . ." (p. 148).

Part 3, "Seeing the Buddha," shifts away from conceptions of failli to look more closely at the figure of the Buddha and his relation to visuality in the Dwyavadatia narratives. In chapter 7, "Past and Present," Rotman discusses the "seeing" of die Buddha after his final nirvana by examining the story of King Asoka 's pilgrimage to sacred sites of Buddhism, where he encounters supernatural beings who actually saw the Buddha during his lifetime Asoka is thought to have ruled about a century after the death of the Buddha). These encounters, according to Rotman, create "a visual lineage that links Asoka with the Buddha, so when Asoka sees . . . [these beings] .... he is somehow seeing the Buddha's physical form" (p. 159; brackets mine). But Rotman asserts that this visual connection is not enough; a verbal supplement is needed. Once given, the result is similar to prosarda: the king makes an offering.

In chapter 8, "Images and Imagination," Rotman conjectures on the use of images in early Indian Buddhism. Rotman maintains dial for Buddhist images, "The aesdietic involved was not one of disinterested pleasure but of karmic effect. Their value as ari was in their capacity as visual objects to further one's karmic development. . . . Understanding what images were supposed to do is necessary for understanding how images were used" (p. 178). In response to Robert Brown's view that Indian Buddhist representations on monuments were placed there not to tell stories but to function as icons for reverence and worship, Rotman counters, "... I don't think thai these images are divorced from die narratives that they seem to represent, even if die relationship is hard to recognize" (p, 183). He then speculates thai monks competent in the Buddhist narrative tradition may have been stationed at images in order to explain dieir significance to "uncomprehending laity" p. 184). This idea (while entirely plausible) is next to impossible to substantiate unless some textual evidence could be found suggesting that such a situation look place.

In sum, Thus Have I Sfen is an important contribution to Indian Buddhist studies for a number of reasons. While this book will not revolutionize die field (how many ever do?), it adds much needed nuance to our understanding of early Indian Buddhism through an examination of an importani collection of narratives. Rotman writes about writing about visuality and faith in early Indian Buddhism. This sort of double refraction is in many ways quite removed from the actual lived experience of Indian Buddhists and their embodied encounters with visuality, faitii, and die economics, politics, and aesthetics of this Buddhist culture. Nevertheless, if we as modern scholars have any chance of comprehending these aspects of early Indian Buddhism we must have recourse to the written sources. Rotman's study of the Divyavftdana narratives demonstrates die great fertility of such an approach. Moreover, his volume is a valuable corrective to die overemphasis that has been placed on the oral/aural nature of early Buddhism. And as a further contribution, Rotman connects this visual culture to conceptions of Buddhist faith and die practice of giving, which highlights a typology thai scholars of die field will find impossible to ignore in any future studies of early Indian Buddhist narratives.

As noted above, Bogel's With a Single Glance is a substantially different kind of book than Rotman's Thus Have, 1 SfKn. Rotman is a lexiual scholar studying written accounts of visuality in a collection of Indian Buddhist narratives, while Bogel is an art historian investigating visuality in Japanese Mikkyô (Esoteric) Buddhism. Esoteric or Tantric Buddhism began hi ancient India sometime in the first millennium CE and subsequently spread to China, Japan, and Tibet. Tantric Buddhism is distinctive for its secret transmission of special knowledge concerning die use of visual diagrams (mandalas), sacred sounds (mantras), and magical gestures (mudras) as a means of attaining enlightenment. Bogel's study of Japanese Esoteric Buddhism examines directly die material culture of Mikkyo and the various dynamics thai occur between this material culture and Esoteric Buddhism's approach to visuali ty. Thus, while Rounan's monograph contains no illustrations whatsoever (which is fairly common for works of this kind), Bogel's text is lavishly illustrated with more than fifty colorplates, which are supplemented with more than sixty black-and-white images. The overall effect is to render With ? Single Glance a visually striking text, one that cannot help but capture the reader's attention. Bogel's work consists of eleven chapters divided into five parts, making it a substantial account containing detailed descriptions of Mikkyo paintings, sculpture, ritual implements, mandalas, and architecture . Since an exhaustive treatment of such in-depth material is far beyond the task of this review, I shall concentrate on Bogel's theoretical contributions m our understanding of visuali ty in relation to Japanese Esoteric Buddhism.

In her introduction, Bogel sets oui her agenda:

Kukai [the founder of Japanese Esoteric Buddhism] taught that the material and visual forms of his teachings instantiate the absolute, transcendent Dharmakaya Buddha, whose preaching is made accessible through ritual activity: "With a single glfinre one farames n Buddha." Where studies of Mikkyö and Kukai have previously focused on texts OT an as a ritual aid, my discussion of Mikkyö icons and imagery makes Kukai's new emphasis on the visual an underlying theme, (pp. 3-4, brackets mine, emphasis in the original)

Already in this statement we are alerted to two important aspects of this study. First, for Esoteric Buddhism the visual is directly soteriological: thai is, under the right conditions, vision by itself can lead to enlightenment. Second, Bogel informs us that she is going to give prominence to the visuality of Mikkyö rallier than the texis. Here we immediately see substantial differences both in subject mailer and approach between Bogel and Rotman. The early Indian Buddhist tradition under discussion by Rotman does not possess the same non'on that developed much later in the Tantric Buddhist tradition concerning the direct soteriological power of the visual, and Bogel's approach (unlike Rotman's textual study) directly addresses the visual and material in her study. Bogel elaborates, "This study highlights die radical shift in seeing in ancient Japan that both welcomed and was altered by Mikkyö icons and praxis. Kukai's Mikkyö teachings, Shingon, and to a lesser extent the Tendai Lotus Esotericism . . . introduced to Japan literally hundreds of new Buddhas, bodhisattvas [future Buddhas], devas [gods], and guardians" (p. 4; my brackets, emphasis in the original).

In her introduction, Bogel also explains Kukai's unique appreciation for the visual. In his writings, Kükai addresses the importance of representations of divinities in what Bogel suggests might be called today "Esoteric visual theory." For Kukai, the mandala (a geometric pattern used in Esoieric practice that depicts Buddhist holy beings) is "not only a representation, or a didactic tool, but the very form of Buddhahood." He therefore maintained that the mandala, whether in painted, sculpted, or symbolic form, participates in what Bogel calls a "logic of similarity" that "characterizes the structure of ihe Mikkyö Buddhist cosmos and the source of its 'visual efficacy.' " Within this structure the practitioner possesses agency, but so, too, does ritual and, by implication, the visual and material components of ritual. Accordingly, Bogel asserts that for Kükai, "Esoteric material culture is the transformato ry grid for the liberating and creative energy of the Dharmakaya Buddha, and can thus be understood as the substance of that energy" (p. 6).

Bogel begins her monograph by looking at the terminology and historical and religious taxonomies regarding Buddhist visual culture. In die first three chapters, she considers specifically the main components of Shingon doctrine and ritual theory; investigates Esoteric Buddhist doctrine in relation to the cultural praxis of image making and representation; and details how Buddhist icons were thought lo operale with visual and ritual efficacy to bring about various religious and social goals. In Part 2, "Mikkyö Visual Culture and Its Sources," she investigates icons defined by Shingon and Tendai Buddhism as "Esoteric" and analyzes their historical and iconographie éléments. Part 3, "Visions and Cosmologies," compares metaphoric modes of vision and literan1 expression and demonstrates connections amongjapanese secular painting and poetry, metaphoric language about vision, and terminology used for secular and religious art,. Part 4, "Vision, Ritual arid Imagery," examines "immaterial modes of imagery" (p. 14) in China andjapan and elaborates Kukai's Esoteric visual theory. Part 5, "Choreographies of Ritual Space," describes the reception of Shingon and Tendai visual culture in Japan in die early ninth century (chapter 10) and then focuses the discussion on the statues of the Lecture Hall at Töji (Kyögokokuji) (chapter 11).

A number of issues addressed in Bogel's study are particularly relevant to our current inquiry into Buddhist visual culture. In chapter 5, "Kukai andjapan: Transmitting Mikkyö Visual Culture," Böge! states, "The most important visual commodities in Mikkyö ritual are unquestionably painted representations of the Mikkyö divinities in the form of mándalas" (p. 117). Also of primary importance were portraits (painted or sculpted) of the Buddhist masters of the Esoteric tradition, which were displayed in special halls along with the mándalas (p. 120). In addition to mándalas, Kukai introduced to Japan numerous Tanuic ritual implements, such as the gilt-bronze, five-prong vajra ("diamond-thunderbolt," p. 129), depicted on the dust jacket of Bogel's book.

In chapter 6, "Sight and Syncretism," Bogel theorizes about vision in Buddhist doctrine and practice, making the provocative assertion, "In the case of the meditator, visuality - a consequence of vision - plays a richer and more three-dimensional role than textual scholars typically accord it. Mental imagery is often understood as linguistic by textual scholars." Bogel goes on to counter the "linguistic turn" popular among certain scholars of Buddhist studies; "The development of a Mikkyö vision in culture and secular art describes much from a mandalic construction of the divine world and from the logic of similarity between nondual subject and object. This is a kind of broad-based Mikkyö pictorial ism" (p. 142). Later in the same chapter, Bogel remarks, "Many Buddhist scholars would contend that die gaze is already always informed by discourse. . . . But in Buddhist praxis, the separation of the gaze from the earthly sphere to a meditative mental sphere, and the desire to give material form to visionary experiences . . . may argue against an a priori primacy of discourse in vision" (p. 147). Here we see the theoretical underpinnings of Bogel's approach, coupled willi a rationale for examining visuality through primarily material culture rather than textual sources.

Bogel further explicates her approach in chapter 9, "Mikkyo Ritual and Imagery within Ritual." For example, she writes that

visual thinking and perception are at the very core of what is "emptied" by the practitioner's mind in meditative discernment. . . . Stated differently, meditators see differently than others. Vision is constructed and deconstructed in contemplation. What the meditator sees does not relate to associations with the object mentioned in the ritual text or to its depiction in the mandala; it relates to the norms that ritual training cultivates and the "energy fields" that ritual and ritual contemplation induce. These ritual norms are analogous to the "pictorial conventions" of that which is contemplated, (pp. 214-15)

Further on, Bogel succinctly summarizes what is arguably the most important theoretical contribution of her study: "Text does not relate the visual; it alters the visual. . . . A ritual text can be explained, but eidetic contemplation cannot: we cannot ultimately know what individual eidetic contemplation constitutes. This volume attempts to return the visual to what has been largely a textual and doctrinal discussion of Mikkyö Buddhist icons" (p. 221). This idea thai the visual lies outside the textual is highlighted once again on the final page of Bogel's monograph: "Both 'visual authority' and 'visual efficacy' refer to a visuality thai the ritualist may respond to (and thus, by 'looking back,' create) independe tit of textual directives or informed by them" (p. 337).

Having briefly looked at a number of similarities and differences between Thus Have I Seen and With a Single Glance, the obvious question that arises is: How have these two monographs contributed to Buddhist studies? Clearly, both works emphasize the significance of the visual for Buddhists both in ancient India and medieval Japan. Ii should be fairly axiomatic that visual perception (as the dominant human sense) would play a significant role in any major religions tradition, However, what both Retinan and Bogel have done is draw attention to the importance of investigating the visual in its own right. These two studies also underline the value of approaching visuality in Buddhism from both a textual and an ari historical perspective. While Rotman's study Ls primarily textual, he nevertheless considers how visuality is depicted in a substantial collection of mainstream Buddhist narratives, demonstrating how a careful exploration of these stories challenges common notions of agency and efficacy with regard to the visual. Bogel's study, in contrast, directly addresses the visual and material culture of Esoteric Buddhism in a way thai challenges the current "linguistic turn" taken by some scholars in Buddhist studies who deny the possibility of having an uimiediated, nonlinguistic experience.4 She persuasively argues againsl the reduction of die visual to the linguistic or textual. In this regard, her study is both much needed and timely. Recent research in the fields of psychology and philosophy convincingly make die case diat quite a bit of both human and non human animal cognition is noiilinguistic.'1 To my nii n d. attempting to reduce human thought to linguistic discourse is a gross distortion of how humans interact with the world. And as Bogel points out. we may currently lack the theoretical tools to explain how "visual thinking" takes place, but this does not mean we can continue to bury our heads in the linguistic sand and pretend that such thinking dues not take place. In this regard, both Rotman and Bogel have done Buddhist studies a great service in keeping the field up-to-date with recent developments in our understanding of these important subjects.


1. Divine Stories: Divyavadana, pt. 1 (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2008).

2. Rotman borrows this term from W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). 152. See Rotman, p. 213 n. 3.

3. R. M. L. Gethin, The Buddhist Path to Awakening (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1992), 112.

4. See, for example, Robert Sharf, "Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience." Numen 42, no. 3 (October 1995): 228-83.

5. See, for example, José Luis Bermúdez, Thinking without Words (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

Author affiliation:

DOUGLAS OSTO is program coordinator for the Religious Studies Programme at the School of History, Philosophy and Classics, Massey University [School of History, Philosophy and Classics, Massey University, Privale Bag 11 222, Palmerston North, New Zealand 4442].

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