Blurred boundaries

Print edition : September 04, 2015
The book is a comprehensive analysis of the cross-cultural encounters between the countries of Asia and the mutual influences.

THE word “encounter” has several connotations in social science. The generally accepted meaning is to meet (someone) expectedly or unexpectedly in contentment or in conflict. The book under review has its main thrust on cultural encounters, focussing on the study of cultural identities and symbolic representational and interpretational forms in a cross-cultural and global perspective. It is particularly concerned with problems relating to processes where cultural identities and representations interact and are exchanged. As such, the work under review reflects a cultural interface resulting from the intensified process of exchanges.

India and South-East Asia

The lead essay by Herman Kulke belongs to the first section of the book, named “Changing Perspective”. He throws new light on the Indianisation of South-East Asia as he conjoins Western interactions with India since the days of Alexander and elaborates how European scholars, parallel to Western colonisation, carried out historical research and propounded different types of theories on the nature of India’s interactions with South-East Asia. He also refers to the work of nationalist Indians who believed in the theory of “Greater India” and “Hindu colonies”. He says the concept of Indianisation led to a more refined analysis of the whole complex of India’s cultural influence on South-East Asia. He also refers to critiques of Indianisation in the context of the re-evaluation of the process of state formation and the nature of early states on both sides of the Bay of Bengal. His article shows the possible causes of early state formation in South-East Asia under strong Indian influences as well as similar evolutionary processes on the other side of the Bay of Bengal. Here, Kulke looks at the political and cultural developments as a phenomenon of convergence. He explains this with reference to his research on Odisha as well as on South India and South-East Asia. Unlike the Indianisation theory, this convergence thesis provides more space to indigenous initiatives in South-East Asia. Kulke also talks of South and South-East Asia interactions from the perspective of Chinese influence and looks afresh at his own hypothesis of cultural convergence and also responds to Sheldon Pollock’s hypothesis of Sanskrit cosmopolites.

Geoff Wade’s essay, also in the “Changing Perspective” section, shows how, in the early 14th century, China experienced a decline in both political power and military strength. The highly militarised state of Chinese society in that age, determined by the warfare between Yuan loyalists, marked much of the succeeding decades. For almost 280 years, the Mings remained heavily involved militarily on virtually all its borders, and through such a policy, expanded the scope of the Chinese state. Wade’s paper examines some of the warfare by the Ming military and then explores the Ming state and the later Chinese periods.

Wade’s article has 13 sections. The first is about Ming military action against Yunnan in the 14th and 15th centuries, which was followed by the regime’s interaction with Die-Viet. He also refers to the maritime voyages of Zheng-He and other eunuchs. Wade shows how military aggression was accompanied by economic exploitation which resulted in the establishment of a forceful cultural hegemony. He further talks about several Ming attacks, such as the attack on the old port pacification, the super-intendancy in Sumatra in 1407, the violence in Java in 1407, the threats in Burma in 1409, the attacks on Sri Lanka in 1411, and the attack and capture of Su-Gun-la of Samudea in 1415. These missions were intended to wrest control of ports, control of the economic lifeline, and finally trade. The next section of Wade’s article refers to a Ming military expedition as depicted in a Ming text. He points out that modern representations of the episode are stupendously similar to this Ming text. Wade’s main argument is that the Ming involvement in Asia ultimately was similar in character to the European infiltration of the region. This argument is, however, open to debate as the nature of Ming occupation and control had a different character from Western colonial patterns of infiltration and control.

The next section of the book is devoted to articles pertaining to political connectivity and conflicts. Upinder Singh, Tansen Sen and Sunil Kumar have contributed three articles from the perspectives of India-South-East Asia, China-South Asia and Central Asia-India interactions.

Upinder Singh looks into the issue of religious endowments made by South-East Asian kings as recorded in the inscriptions of Nalanda, Bodhgaya and Nagapattinam. Her article delves into inter-state relations and interregional as well as trans-regional encounters in Asia, revealing pluralism in the religious landscape and royal religious policy. As a whole, the essay looks at the issue of religious endowments from the intersection of various perspectives such as Indian and South-East Asian political history, commerce and diplomacy, and histories of religion and regional variations. Finally, the essay looks into the issue of interregional connectivity and the role of the ocean in sovereignty. This kind of research no doubt opens up new vistas of ideas for emerging areas of research in India-South-East Asia relations. Undoubtedly, Upinder Singh’s theory of interregional connectivity and the role of the ocean is one of the significant contributions of the book.

Tansen Sen talks about two episodes of Chinese military interventions in medieval South-East Asia, the missions of Wang Xuang and Zheng-He. Sen talks about the changing regime in middle India and Sri Lanka and elaborates on Chinese political and military interest in and quest for Buddhist relics. Again, Tansen Sen’s theory of the quest for Buddhist relics brings new ideas to researchers in the field of India-China encounters. No doubt, a future reader of this essay will feel encouraged to carry out further historical investigations in the areas of India-China strategic, diplomatic, commercial, political and religious interactions.

Sunil Kumar’s essay re-examines the relationship between the Delhi Sultans and Central Asia. The author analyses Persian literature and linkages with Sultanate elites. He identifies how distant elite patronage often became active in the course of historical encounters. He talks of Turkish ethnicities, Sultanate regimes and trans-regional connections in the first section of the essay. The second section studies the immigration of Mughal auxiliaries and frontiersmen and their impact on the Delhi Sultanate. There is a chronological representation of the historical developments of the Delhi Sultanate. Kumar demonstrates how glimmers of the “inconvenient” Central Asian heritage of the Delhi Sultanate elite did creep into the Persian chronicles. His essay reflects on the meticulous reconstruction of the changing historical context of designing and redesigning the language of political ideology.

Religious rituals

The third section of the volume deals with religious rituals and monuments. Here, Parul Pandya Dhar and Soumya James talk of religious encounters, both from the perspective of Buddhism and Hinduism. Parul Pandya Dhar’s article refers to Buddhism and the temples and monastic complex of Dong-Duong of Central Vietnam. She talks of the nature of the religious practice of Dong-Duong, using local inscriptions and Buddhist culture and architectural examples. Her essay traces meticulously the different trajectories of the fragmented remains scattered across Vietnamese and European museums and she closely examines a photograph from the archives of the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient and the Guimet Museum in Paris. It is a splendid example of Buddhism’s encounter with Shaivism from the perspective of Hindu-Buddhist interconnectivity.

She looks into different iconographic clues and plausible textual bases in art as found in local sites and links those to the iconography of sculptural pieces as a whole. So Parul Pandya Dhar’s representation of South-South-East Asian interregional affinities and connectivities as reflected in art objects helps us understand the theory of cultural convergence.

Soumya James’ essay on Durga and Siva at the Banteay Srei temple in Cambodia draws the reader’s attention to gender studies and performance traditions in Asian art. In fact, culture is a phenomenon that goes beyond any boundary. Her essay highlights this concept of blurring boundaries between monuments, images and practices. She locates the goddess in colonial historiography, talks of the imaginative literature of Cambodia, discusses contemporary studies on the status of the feminine in Cambodia, and places Banteay Srei and its Durga-Siva images as the components of a test case. She looks into the emotional spaces in these historical components. Siva and Durga, according to Soumya James, connect as a pair complementing and balancing each other in the cultural and emotional representation of South and South-East Asian art. Her approach of including gender and performance art can, again, inspire new ideas in future researchers.

The final section of the book discusses trade icons and artefacts. The three contributors for the section are Osmund Bopearachchi, Suchandra Ghosh and Yumiko Kamada. The Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal have always played a crucial role in the dissemination of cultural linkages between South and South-East Asia. Bopearachchi’s article talks of the interactions between Sri Lanka and the western and eastern coasts of India. His paper takes up images of Boddhisattva Avalokitesvara as a test case, highlighting the cultural encounters of trade and art in the region. Avalokitesvara icons, no doubt, are important markers for understanding maritime trade and the spread of Mahayana Buddhism in the coastal regions of India, Sri Lanka and South-East Asia. His article shows the popularity of Avalokitesvara among mariners and reconfirms the theory of “Blurring the boundaries” in cultural encounters.

Suchandra Ghosh’s essay takes up votive tablets and sealings as cultural markers across eastern India, Bangladesh and peninsular Thailand. She talks of the votive tablets found in Nalanda and Bodhgaya, the icons of Boddhisattva as well as Avalokitesvara and Maitreya, comparing the votive tablets and art objects of India and Thailand. She depicts diligently the “Syamatara” found in eastern India and compares that with ones found in peninsular Thailand too. Suchandra Ghosh refers to the votive tablets and stupas of the Dvaravati styles from central Thailand, which are comparable to the ones found in Bodhgaya. This article is undoubtedly a significant contribution to the Bengal-Thailand historical connection. She reconfirms Bopearachchi’s interpretation of the close relationship between Buddhism and trade.

Yumiko Kamada writes on Indian and Persian carpets as markers of cultural connectivity, which began circulating in different parts of Europe and Asia when the Dutch East India Company and the English East India Company started trading them along with other objects. The article begins with a discussion of the types of Deccan carpets, proceeds to discuss the circulation of carpets by the English East India Company and the Dutch East India Company and then refers to the carpet trade in north India and in the Deccan and its linkages with Persia and Japan. The uniqueness of the article is that the author cites many references to Japan/Japanese scholars/Japanese language. Kamada also shows how the Deccani carpet dispersed in the museum collection of Europe, Asia and the United States. He also writes that the Deccani carpet emerged as a counterpart of the expensive Persian and Mughal carpets and that these Deccani carpets journeyed across the Bay of Bengal to Japan. So Kamada’s article talks of inter-Asian connectivity and again confirms that culture goes beyond boundaries.

The book is definitely a comprehensive analysis of Asian cultural encounters. However, the title of the book appears to be broader than its actual scope. If Asian encounters in the context of connected histories is the subject, the book omits major aspects of such encounters, especially the political and the economic. I wish it had a section on cross-border ethnic migration. If we accept “encounters” from the paradigm of connected histories, then the question of ethnic migration and the resultant diaspora deserves mention in India-South-East Asia, India-China or China-South-East Asia interactions. The shaping of the ethnic composition of Indian merchant diasporas and their identity issues could have become an important section of the book. Secondly, a study of Indian family firms and their economic functions could be an interesting part of Asian encounters.

Evoking new ideas

The articles evoke new ideas or questions in the minds of their readers. The book reminds us of Fernand Braudel’s carry-over theory of longue duree. One wonders whether this book could have been discussed from the perspective of longue duree. How is history of the longue duree to be understood? The book refers to many of the issues raised by the slow pace of historical processes. Are not there changes that are so extended and so gradual that they are all but imperceptible?

A history of long processes requires careful observation of quantities over time, and it requires the formulation of causal hypotheses about how these trends influence other historical circumstances of interest. If we include in our definition of history all the structures and trends that can be identified by analytical history, then the history of the longue duree is entirely comprehensible. And in this sense, the longue duree can enter into cultural historical experience. So, considered from this angle, this book is within the paradigm of longue duree and cultural system analysis.

The final point of observation relates to the nature of inter-Asian cross-cultural encounters and whether Hermann Kulke’s new interpretation of convergence can lead us to a new notion of a shared cultural heritage history across Asia. As a whole, the book contributes significantly to our understanding of inter-Asian cultural encounters, where Asia as a whole has been represented, not just South and South-East Asia. It opens up new vistas of thought in the context of Asian dialogue and it should be a good read not just for intellectual minds but also for the general public. Each and every Asian should get a copy of the book.

Lipi Ghosh is Professor, Department of South and South East Asian Studies, University of Calcutta.

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