Literary Review

A tapestry of connected histories

Asian Encounters — Exploring Connected Histories; Ed. by Upinder Singh and Parul Pandya Dhar, Oxford University Press, £40.99.  

Kapila Vatsyayan, in the foreword to this book, writes that the essays in this volume cover a vast geographical area, besides many centuries of dialogue and interaction among the countries of Asia where trade and empire breached many a boundary bringing trans-regional exchanges. The book emanated from the conference on ‘Asian Encounter: Networks of Cultural Interaction’ held in Delhi. The themes ranged over various aspects of politics, trade, archaeology, epigraphy, literature, visual arts, music and museums. The book leads you through the South-Southeast Asian and meanders into Chinese interactions with other parts of Asia, all these reflecting and responding to various historiographical approaches.

Hermant Kulke brilliantly analyses ‘the concept of cultural convergence: reflections on India’s early influence in Southeast Asia’. He analyses the temples in the South and those of Dieng Plateau in Java and notes that the spread of Hindu temples were connected to the growth of regional kingdoms. Another essay by Geoff Wade unwraps ‘the Ming China’s Violence against Neighbouring Politics and its Representation in Chinese Historiography’. He writes about the Ming’s expansion and also the maritime voyages of Zheng He and others. He discusses war as being an important part of Asian interactions in the pre-modern era.

Upinder Singh’s exposition on ‘the Gifts from other lands: Southeast Asian Religious Endowments in India,’ brings fresh insight. Singh points to Sailendra Grant to Nalanda, Burmese endowment to Bodh Gaya and Srivijayan endowments to Nagapattinam. She points out that the Chola provide a rare example of maritime military expedition launched by Indian Kings. The second essay in this section, illuminates the ‘Changing Regimes: Two Episodes of Chinese Military Interventions in Medieval South Asia’ by Tansen Sen. The wars are connected to a Chinese envoy Wang Xuance’s role in Kanauj after the death of Harsha in the 7th century and Zheng He in Sri Lanka in the 15th century. Clearly, the Asian Interactions cannot be idealised through the lens of peace and harmony alone. The final essay in this section by Sunil Kumar talks about, ‘An Inconvenient Heritage: The Central Asian Background of the Delhi Sultans’.

Kumar demonstrates how the awareness of the tribe and clan of the early Sultans successfully used the term ‘turk’ to create a homogenous elite identity.

Two profound essays — the first by Pandya Dhar on ‘Buddhism, Art and Ritual Practice: Doug Durong (Central Vitenam) at the Intersection of Asian Cultures’ explores a grand Buddhist temple and monastery complex at Doug Durong that was a religious and political hub involved in vibrant international traffic during the 9th and early 10th centuries. Saivism was dominant in ancient Campa but Mahayan tantric Buddhism gained importance and was dedicated to Avalokitesvara. The second essay in this section, by Soumya James on ‘Durga and Siva at Banteay Srei (Khmer temple,Cambodia): Blurring Boundaries between Monuments, Image and Practice’, expounds a new understanding on religion in Southeast Asia. It was also called the ‘jewel of Khmer Art’ as Durga in relation to Siva finds a divine place in Khmer Art.

The final section on ‘Trade, Icons and Artefacts’ has three scholarly essays, the first one about ‘Sri Lanka and Maritime Trade: Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara as the protector of Mariners’ by Osmund Bopearachchi. He highlights the importance of maritime trade networks and Sri Lanka’s strategic location in the dissemination of Buddhist ideas and imagery of Southeast Asia. Here, he explains the role of Avalokitesvara as the protector of mariners. He brings to light a shipwreck at Gothapabbatta (modern Godavaya) dated to 2nd century BCE.

In the second essay, Suchandra Ghosh elucidates on ‘Shared Past through Buddhist Votive Tablets across Eastern India, Bangladesh and Peninsular Thailand’ analyses souvenirs or the votive tablets or sealings or voyaging objects that were carried overseas and over land by traders and pilgrims as mementoes. She interprets it as the close link between trade and Buddhism. This mass produced tablets recovered were made from moulds exhibiting a multiplication of imagery, iconographic formulae and images of Avalokitesvara indicating the networks that existed in Southeast Asia.

The final essay, a totally different one is on ‘Early Modern Indian Carpets as Media for Cross-cultural Interactions’ by Yumiko Kamada. He brings to light the Deccani Carpets dispersed across the museums and private collections in Europe and Asia. The Deccani carpets produced in the centres in Masulipatnam, Ellore and Warangal were coveted as trade items, and carpets entered into Japan.

These erudite essays are like a mosaic depicting Asia in its great splendour with different textures and flourish. There are ten erudite essays supplemented excellently with neatly produced photographs and scholarly notes and a bibliography after each essay. This book brings a fresh perspective to the understanding of Asian studies and is a scholar’s delight.

S. Ananthakrishnan teaches history at A.M. Jain College, Chennai.

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Printable version | Jun 12, 2021 10:20:32 AM |

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