• Report

Transcending the Bay of Bengal


Report of: 


Friday, 31 October 2014


Princeton University Princeton
United States

This past October saw the successful convening of "Belonging Across the Bay of Bengal," a workshop held under the rubric of the IIAS/Mellon-sponsored program on Asian Spatialities. This followed up on an earlier meeting at Princeton in 2011, where a core grouping that included scholars from Leiden and Princeton used a discussion of traditional texts and modern textbooks to bridge the perceived divide between specialists of South and Southeast Asia. Armed thereby with a sense of what the three dividing historical moments were for our project -- namely the long 19th century, the economic crisis of the 1930s, and the difficult period of emancipation and independence after WWII -- in addition to a better feel for the geographical scope of our concerns, we were able to broaden our research base and come to better grips with our subject in what was, for all, an incredibly fruitful discussion.

After an opening paper from David Ludden on the Bay as historical space, the gathering saw a further eleven offerings explore vectors of connection and imagination crisscrossing that same arena, or else thinking about relationships between actors throughout and even beyond it. The primary themes that emerged were concerned with freedom of migration and mobility, the place of India in historical imagination and, related to the last, some rather polarized northern and southern narratives that sought to distinguish contemporary sojourners from ancestral gifters of world religion.

As Ludden noted, much of the grand historical interaction in the eastern half of the Indian Ocean has been across its southern latitudes – one need only think of the 11th century Cholas or the 15th century Ming incursions prior to the penetration of European power in the 16th century that saw the very naming and claiming of that space through Bengal. Even so, and despite our largely modern lens, Anne Blackburn's paper bridged our discussions with a treatment of how Buddhists around that Bay have long conceived of themselves as a community that was once referred to as "Southern" rather than Theravadan, though one that was only southern in relation to China, given so many vital links sustaining connections between Lanka and Burma. Her longue durée treatment certainly allowed us to see a history of monks in motion and attendant rituals of ordination being deployed by states on both sides of the Bay. Nor was this necessarily in any one direction. Even so, a primary shift is singled in the 19th century with the rise of non-regal sites of exchange and interaction; especially in post-kingly Lanka, where the discourse of global Buddhism transformed into the language of "reform."

Such notions are to be found in the history of Islam across the Indian Ocean too, and there is a burgeoning literature on that subject that takes some of its queues from the encounter with a Christian and colonizing West. In this sense, then, Anne Hansen's ensuing paper on Khmer conceptions of religion was salutary in several ways given that "Indianised" Cambodia was never really the site of a Christian encounter, but rather some of its elite monks and intellectuals engaged with Orientalist thinking about the history of Buddhism. Such thinking caused them to shift away from casting the subcontinent as a mythological space and reimagining it as a historical one whose bequeathing of a world religion would play into their own nationalist thinking of Khmer superiority.

One of the reasons for Cambodia's lack of engagement with a Christian challenge reflects its de facto integration, even absorption, within the Southeast Asian mainland and its relative isolation from the new web of coastal capitals that served European empire by the late 19th century. And it was to these capitals that many sojourners and settlers came, though not always willingly. As Teren Sevea showed in his pivotal paper on "Faqirs running amok," a stage by stage examination of saintly genealogies of Muslim saints in Singapore, Batavia and Perak shows how men remembered today as pious Arabs from the Hadramaut were in some cases Tamil and even Gujarati convicts (known locally as "Klings") banished to the colonial periphery where they served mixed constituencies of Malays, Indians and even Chinese. Equally engaging in the narratives of their service and sanctity are the tales of their subverting the Western political order and even being the true authorities of, and guarantors of safety in, the colonial matrix.

Then again, as Pritipuspa Mishra argues, we should also remember the many "Kling" travelers who went in the shadow of larger crowds of Bengali or Tamil laborers and whose literati at home wanted to replace the memories of bonded labor with the ancestral pride of having been bringers of civilization to such far-flung (and seemingly abstract) places as Bali. Was Kalinga not the name of the great kingdom of Orissa whose conquest had caused the great Ashoka to convert to Buddhism in the 3rd century BCE? Certainly many Oriya literati cast themselves in the 1930s as historical masters of the sea, for it should not be forgotten that India's nationalists were not yet settled on the colonial idea of Mother India as a network of village societies. Rather, and much like the Greater India Society of Bengal, some could see India as the Queen of the Ocean and possessor of both sides of the Bay of Bengal.

Contextualized against the backdrop of Sunil Amrith's authoritative mapping of the vicissitudes of Tamil migrants in the 1920s and 1930s (when movement becomes foreclosed and ideas of diaspora were firmly planted) a strikingly similar narrative emerges in Nira Wickramasinghe's paper on citizenship in colonial Lanka. For it was it this time that British authorities set the parameters for the ways in which Lankan nationalists would conceive of a place for acceptable Indians, not in the electoral process, but rather in an idealized, and decidedly northern, past that brought Aryanism and "true" religion to the resplendent isle where it could later be reformed and perfected.

Nor were such ideas and ideals confined to Lanka. Spurred in part by the attentions of the Theosophical movement, Lanka's renaissance man, Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933), would play a key role in shaping global appreciations of Buddhism as a "world religion" whose classical traces were to be found in other isles, such as distant Java. And if Java lacked a Dharmapala, Marieke Bloembergen showed how its numerous monuments, crowned by the Borobudur, could be made to bear not so mute witness to a greater Indian past in the minds of Orientalists, their elite informants, burgeoning nationalists and even later "Hippies" seeking a path from Afghanistan to the isles.

Of course there was a lingering tension about just what constituted local genius versus "foreign" grace, a tension made all the starker in late colonial contexts like neighboring Malaysia, which was the site of the contributions of David Henley and Bhavani Raman. Henley's paper brought us in a curious direction when, in turning the exclusionary discourse of Mahathir Mohamad, he was able to point to the enduring legacy of eugenic notions that seem entirely contradictory at first blush. How is that the Malays were to be celebrated as true sons of the soil to be kept separate from "industrious" Chinese and pliant Indians even as theories regarding origins and endurance were framed in terms of ancient moments of cultural invasion and admixture? In a way the answer is to be found in Britain's own myths of origin, of invasion and counter-invasion, though as Henley noted, the story of the (rather medically-induced) popularity of eugenic thinking in Malaysia is yet to be told fully.

Similarly deserving of recounting afresh is the momentous first International Tamil Studies Conference of 1966, held not in Southern India, but rather in Malaysia and influenced in large part by thinkers and activists moving across the Bay both under and then beyond the auspices of British Imperialism. A key player in Raman's story, the Catholic priest Xavier Thaninayagam (1913-1980), is someone whose trajectory embodies the intertwined strands of southern Asian history linking notions of globalizing religion, historical imagination of culture and prowess, and yet a desire for recognition that need not necessarily be framed as nationalism or yet cultural imperialism.

Much of Raman's paper and the ensuing discussions brought us back to every slippery notions of belonging and the claiming of social rights, and yet we were also forced to remember that there were many moments of excitement and hope in the 1960s that were not all predicated on nationalism and in which countries like India, Ceylon and Malaysia were viewed as future partners.

Of course the story that did unfold thereafter was not one of harmonious collaboration, but rather of exclusivist claiming of places for imagined "races" as eugenic thinking reached its apogee. In this sense Clare Anderson's revisiting of the Andaman Islands brought highlighted many of the tensions found around the Bay of Bengal by pointing to their seeming absence at the former convict colony where boundaries of caste and even faith have been effaced or surmounted. That said, one might point to the writings of key prisoners like Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966), who popularized exclusivist notions of Hindutva even as he wrote in Urdu, and Anderson too has much to say of the Muslim graves being studiously rediscovered and reinterpreted on the islands today. This very facet of rememoration, brought out already in Sevea's paper, was central to Laffan's own concerns in questioning the creation and recasting of the "Malay" community of Cape Town whose saints have become the poles of attraction for local "Indian" Muslims and Indonesian presidents alike.

In short the intertwined papers on mobility, the place of India, and the overlapping domains of Buddhism and Islam gave us pause for thought about a region not so much to be made the discrete object of scholarly colonization, but rather of a space whose interwoven histories offer an excellent critique of current Area Studies divides and real teaching potential if published in the future. Beyond this, too, we feel that we have made a real inroad into Indian Ocean history without romanticizing the space as a Muslim lake prior to colonialism, or yet a modern Mare Liberum to be celebrated as antithesis to the power of Great Britain in particular. With such enthusiasm in mind we are now approaching academic presses and considering ways to bring the papers into yet closer alignment and awaiting further findings from our subsequent workshop in Leiden this coming Summer.



31 October 2014


Titia van der Maas
Programme Coordinator
Phone: +31 (0)71 527 4728
E-mail: t.van.der.maas@iias.nl