Category Archives: Indian religions

Steven Kemper on Anagarika Dharmapala: A New Study

Steven Kemper: Rescued from the Nation: Anagarika Dharmapala and the Buddhist World, University of Chicago Press,  2015

Anagarika Dharmapala is one of the most galvanizing figures in Sri Lanka’s recent turbulent history. He is widely regarded as the nationalist hero who saved the Sinhala people from cultural collapse and whose “protestant” reformation of Buddhism drove monks toward increased political involvement and ethnic confrontation. Yet as tied to Sri Lankan nationalism as Dharmapala is in popular memory, he spent the vast majority of his life abroad, engaging other concerns. In Rescued from the Nation, Steven Kemper reevaluates this important figure in the light of an unprecedented number of his writings, ones that paint a picture not of a nationalist zealot but of a spiritual seeker earnest in his pursuit of salvation.

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Speaking of the Self: Gender Issues in South Asia

Niroshini Somasundaram, in IIAS Newsletter, reviewing A. Malhotra & S. Lambert-Hurley. 2015. Speaking of the self: gender, performance, and autobiography in South Asia. Durham: Duke University Press. ISBN 9780822359838

In the last few decades, scholars of South Asian history have disputed the notion that South Asian cultures do not possess the autonomous representation of the individual, particularly in documenting histories, compared to their European counterparts. To that end, the numerous ways in which self-representation has been practiced in this region in different forms and time periods have been increasingly explored in scholarship. The rich collection of essays in this volume, edited by Anshu Malhotra and Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, challenge the existing boundaries and discourses surrounding autobiography, performance and gender in South Asian history by presenting a varied and fresh selection of women’s autobiographical writing and practices from the seventeenth to mid-twentieth centuries. The compelling choice of authors explored in the essays include Urdu novelists, a Muslim prostitute in nineteenth century Punjab, a Mughal princess, a courtesan in the Hyderabad court and male actors who perform as female characters. It moreover challenges conventional narratives in the field of autobiographical studies by relaying in careful detail the different forms which ought to be encompassed within the genre of autobiography such as poetry, patronage of architecture and fiction. Continue reading

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Reviewing “Ports of the Ancient Indian Ocean”

Richard Fynes,  reviewing Marie-Françoise Boussac, Jean- Françoise Salles & Jean-Baptiste (eds.) Ports of the Ancient Indian Ocean,  Delhi: Primus Books. 2016. ISBN 97893840820792  …………… in IIAS Newsletter,  Summer 2017

This edited volume delivers much more than is suggested by its title, since it includes discussions of emporia as far inland as Delhi, the time-scale covered by its articles extends from the 20th century BC to the 18th century AD, and since not only the Indian Ocean, but also the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea are discussed by the various authors. Given the wide range and disparate nature of the twenty-four papers in the volume, how should one orient oneself among them? Best to begin with Elizabeth Lambourn’s ‘Describing a Lost Camel’ – Clues for a West Asian Mercantile Networks in South Asian Maritime Trade (Tenth-Twelfth Centuries AD). The volume taken as a whole forms a contribution to the genre of world history and Lambourn provides a clear-eyed assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of that genre. Although Lambourn’s paper is primarily concerned with the two hundred years from the tenth- to the twelfth centuries AD, her masterly analysis of the sources and criticism of the various methodologies in which they are employed provide the reader with a prism with which to view the remaining papers in the volume. Lambourn begins her account with a review of the relevant archaeological and documentary evidence. It is salutary to learn just how insecure is the dating of many South Asian ceramic types and consequently of the archaeological sites whose dating has been largely derived from ceramic evidence. Lambourn notes the problems posed by pluridisciplinary character of the sources and their simultaneous use. Her paper focuses on the port of Sanjan, in the domain of the western Indian dynasty of the Rastrakuta, where, for the tenth century there is rare conjunction of evidence from archaeology, Arabic geographical writings and Indian epigraphy. Her discussion is rich both in evidence and insight, and she gives due acknowledgment to the work of Ranabir Chakravarti, whose work has led scholars to reformulate the questions they ask of the sources. Lambourn’s findings lead her to speculate on the nature of world history and the relationship between micro- and macro history, as she expresses dissatisfaction that she is “left with an eclectic collection of small insights and few satisfactory larger narratives.” Such honest appraisals of the conclusions of one’s research invite further questions and are thus a stimulant to further research. Continue reading

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The Karāva People in Fable and Tale

S. N. Arseculeratne

The Karāva people of Ceylon claim to be descended from the Kuru refugees, who scattered after their defeat in the Great War between the Pandavas  and the Kauravas1 or Kurus, related in the Mahabharata. The Kauravas settled in many parts of India, Bengal and in Ceylon. In Ceylon, the recorded descriptions of the Kauravas have been few, but mention has been made from around the 11th century to the 15th century due mainly to the military involvements of the Kauravas (now called the Karavas).

 A flag which belonged to Don Pedro Arsecularatna of Maggona, depicting the arrival of a group of Karāva chiefs and retainers …. The square towards the bottom has the peacock with 3 people on it. (a) King Rajasinghe II; (b) The Dutch ship’s captain [off Negombo]; (c)  Mudaliyar  Arseculeratne of Negombo

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The Traumatic and Devastating Partition of Indian and Pakistan, 1947

Yasmin Khan,  courtesy of  The Guardian, 6 August 2017, where the title is “Why Pakistan and India remain in denial 70 years on from partition” 

On 3 June 1947, only six weeks before British India was carved up, a group of eight men sat around a table in New Delhi and agreed to partition the south Asian subcontinent. Photographs taken at that moment reveal the haunted and nervous faces of Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian National Congress leader soon to become independent India’s first prime minister, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, head of the Muslim League and Pakistan’s first governor-general and Louis Mountbatten,the last British viceroy

  A convoy of Sikhs travels to Punjab after the partition of India in August 1947. Photograph: Margaret Bourke-White/The Life Picture Collection/Getty

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Remembering Sir Christopher Bayly, Historian and Scholar for All Times

Richard Drayton, In search of Christopher Bayly,” keynote, for the Memorial Symposium for Sir Christopher Alan Bayly St Catharine’s College, Cambridge May 21, 2016 

‘Va, pensiero, su alli’ dorate’ Fly thought on wings of gold’, spread from a small choir to a crowd of thousands in Paris on the night of April 30, the 30th night of the “Nuit Debout” occupation of the Place de La Republique.1 The “Song of the Hebrew slaves” from Verdi’s Nabucco, once the anthem through which Garibaldi and Mazzini’s followers had lamented Austria’s Babylonian tyranny, became a symbol in 2016 of a month’s defiance of the French state’s proscription of public protest. Continue reading

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Sinhala-Tamil Tussles in the Mythical Netherworld of Rāvanā

Ranga Kalugampitiya, courtesy of Colombo Telegraph, dated 20 July 2015, where the title runs ‘Rāvanā & Sinhala Buddhism: A Strained Relationship Ridden With Contradictions”. The version here being embellished with Editorial highlighting.

Rāvanā, one of the principal characters in the Rāmāyana, emerges as a villain in the mainstream (Hindu) understandings of the text. Given the important position that Rāmā (Rāvanā’s opponent), who is believed to be a manifestation of Viśnu, occupies in the Hindu religious tradition, Rāvanā becomes a symbol of evil in those readings of the text.

Nevertheless, the conceptualizations of Rāvanā within the context of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism point to alternative perspectives on the character. One such perspective that has emerged in the post-2009 Sri Lankan context shows a tendency to idealize Rāvanā as a national hero. The present paper argues that the relationship between Rāvanā and Sinhala Buddhism that this conceptualization suggests is ridden with certain contradictions that Sinhala Buddhist nationalism fails to address successfully. Continue reading

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