Inter-Asian connections and linkages have a long and fascinating history, and an equally fascinating historiography. The southeast Asian connections, in particular, have received much attention, having been examined through a variety of prisms, ranging from the ‘Greater India’ idea of the early decades of the 20th century, to Sheldon Pollock’s hypothesis of the ‘Sanskrit cosmopolis’ of the beginning of this century. As pointed out in the introduction itself, scholarship on ‘cross-cultural Asian interactions … still tends to be in a reactive mode’. This book makes a refreshing change, in the way in which it addresses the theme of connected histories, and underlines the multiplicity of ways in which such connections can be explored to give a richer understanding of the time and space.
The book sets out to both raise and attempt to answer questions on the contexts within which the cross-cultural interactions evolved as well as the modus operandi and agents of transmission. The focus is on the cross-cultural, and therefore, equal importance is given to both sides, rather than making out, for example, that Southeast Asia was a passive recipient of all that India sent out. Equally important, while one of the concerns is rethinking the India-Southeast Asia connection, in keeping with the title of ‘Asian Encounters’, there are papers that address other parts of Asia as well.
The book is divided into four sections – Changing Perspectives; Political Connectivities and Conflicts; Religions, Ritual and Monuments; and Trade, Icons and Artefacts. In the first section, the focus is clearly on historiography. Hermann Kulke sets the tone with his paper on ‘The Concept of Cultural Convergence revisited: Reflections on India’s Early Influence in Southeast Asia’, in which he begins with an overview of the writings on the region. Beginning with the idea of ‘Hindu colonization’ and ‘Indianisation’ visible in the work of historians like R.C. Majumdar, he goes on to discuss the alternatives and critiques provided by historians like Paul Wheatley and Ian C. Glover, before re-examining his own ‘cultural convergence’ hypothesis. He then discusses and critiques, in detail, Sheldon Pollock’s ‘Sanskrit cosmopolis’ hypothesis.
The second paper in this section, that of Geoff Wade on ‘Ming China’s Violence against Neighbouring Polities and its Representation in Chinese Historiography’ provides a welcome reminder that it is not enough to look at the connectivities across the Bay of Bengal or the Indian Ocean alone, but look beyond, to Asia as a whole. The second part of this essay is particularly interesting, in the parallels that Wade draws in the way in which two events, widely separated in time, nevertheless show similarities in the ways in which they are represented in writing.
The second section of the book begins with an essay by one of the editors, Upinder Singh, on ‘Gifts from Other Lands: Southeast Asian Religious Endowments in India’. Focusing on the inscriptions at Nalanda, Bodh Gaya and Nagapattinam, which record the religious endowments made by some Southeast Asian kings, she suggests that we need to move beyond the old idea of ‘religious diplomacy’ for studying such endowments. She therefore, makes a case for locating such inscriptions within the broader historical context of trade, religion and the political imaginary.
The next paper, that of Tansen Sen, continues the theme of Wade’s article, to draw attention to the need to study war in the historical Asian context in a more nuanced fashion. Looking at two specific episodes mentioned in Chinese records, he underlines their importance in the broader frame of furthering China’s strategic interests in that region, rather than as just one-off attempts without any inherent continuity in policy.
The third paper in this section, by Sunil Kumar, shifts the focus from the East to the West of India, to Central Asia. The theme of ‘the central Asian heritage’ of the sultans of Delhi and the Mughals has a long history in India, but Sunil Kumar provides a different perspective. Analysing the Persian literature of the time, he shows how the writers used different narrative methods to highlight differences or continuities. In the process he demonstrates, once again, the role of such narratives in understanding political realities and the discourses that grew up to surround these realities.
In the third section there is a shift back to Southeast Asia through the study of specific monumental complexes as sites of cultural interaction. The first paper in this section is that of the other editor of the volume, Parul Pandya Dhar, who studies Dong Duong in Central Vietnam. Artefacts from this site are to be found in museums and they are probably the only way in which the importance of the site can today be understood. Dhar’s paper foregrounds the importance of museums and photo archives in understanding cultural connections. She also points to the need to mesh iconography and inscriptions much more creatively to situate interactions of religion, art, aesthetics and patronage.
Soumya James’s paper in this section continues the theme of different sources and different readings of sources to the study of cultural history. She draws attention to two areas that still get much less attention than they deserve, those of gender and performance traditions. Arguing that ‘images, inscriptions, performance traditions and architecture’ have ‘permeable boundaries’, she highlights through her study of images of Durga and Siva at Banteay Srei, the need to understand cross-cultural interactions through visual arts interpretation.
The fourth and final section is about trade as disseminator of both ideas and artefacts. Osmund Bopearachchi looks at Sri Lanka’s position and role in the dissemination of Buddhism to Southeast Asia. His thorough examination of the multitude of images of Avalokitesvara along the coasts and waterways of Sri Lanka draws attention to the patterns of the spread of these images across the Bay of Bengal as a way of understanding maritime trade along with Mahayana Buddhism. Continuing with the theme of the spread of Buddhism, Suchandra Ghosh examines the circulation of ‘votive tablets’ across eastern India, Bangladesh and Thailand. Both these papers underline the connection of Buddhism and trade through religious objects.
The last paper in the book, that of Yumiko Kamada, takes the discussion into the early modern period through her study of the trade in carpets from the Deccan. In the process of studying the way in which the Deccani carpet became a viable and affordable replacement for the Persian and the Turkish carpets, she demonstrates on the one hand the emergence of a new product in the Asian trade and the role of the Dutch East India Company in the sale of this product. Particularly interesting is the discussion on the ways in which the Deccani carpets entered the Japanese market in the 17th century, often to be used as float covers in Japanese festivals.
‘Connected histories’ is a term that has been used many times earlier; the kinds of connections discussed in this book makes is particularly useful. The editors in their Introduction state that one of their main concerns was ‘the conviction that there is an urgent need for Indian scholars to re-engage with Southeast Asia. However, a re-engagement with this region has to be combined with a broader Asian, even a global perspective’ (p. xiv). They succeed in the former admirably. The latter needs to be studied further. Perhaps the only addition that this reviewer would have appreciated or looked for would have been a study of the Java Mongol connection after the Mongol expedition to Java in the 13th century.
Radhika Seshan is Associate Professor, Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune.
Vijaya Ramaswamy is Professor and Chairperson at the Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.