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The University Seminar on South Asia seeks to broaden and deepen understanding about the region of South Asia by providing a forum to discuss ongoing research as well as special topics related to the complex and multiple societies of South Asia both past and present. Drawing together scholars from many different disciplines, the seminar fosters cross-disciplinary discussion and perspectives on a broad range of questions and concerns. In recent years, the seminar has deliberated on such issues as: religion and politics, the political function of violence in South Asia, national integration, language and community, South Asian identities in pre-colonial times, religious iconography, and many other topics. The University Seminar on South Asia is a merger of the University Seminar on Tradition and Change in South and Southeast Asia (founded in 1964) and the University Seminar on Indology (founded in 1993).

Professor Carla Bellamy

Daniel McAbee

All seminars will meet over Zoom for the 2020-2021 academic year. Meeting links provided upon RSVP. Meeting dates and times are subject to change. 

Meeting Schedule

09/21/2020 Online Meeting
6:00 PM
Illicit Sex in Early Modern South Asia: Rape, Abortion, and Law
Divya Cherian, Princeton University


The collapse of Mughal authority in the eighteenth century paved the way, as scholars have shown, for new processes of state formation in the regional polities of South Asia. The Rajput kingdom of Marwar, ruled by the Rathor dynasty with its capital in Jodhpur, was also witness to the birth of new forms. This paper will examine the records of the Marwar state to show that one such historical change was the inscription into law of a typology of sexual relations, ranging within the framework of that law from licit to illicit. Within this schema, it will analyze the possibilities of reading ‘rape’ as a legal category in these records, placing my findings in dialog with scholars who have discussed the adjudication of rape cases in early modern South Asia. The paper will also suggest that a discussion of ‘illicit’ sex remains incomplete without engagement with its consequences, in particular, abortion. The paper examines the interplay between law and the archives at hand to suggest that at least in late pre-colonial Marwar, the eighteenth century saw state and caste formation intertwine to craft new forms of sexual discipline.

10/26/2020 Online Meeting
7:00 PM
Centering Women, Countering Killing: Female-Only Sacrifices, a Midwife Goddess and Sacred Motherhood
Indira Arumugam, National University of Singapore


What if sacrifice were not so overwhelmingly premised upon spectacular killing? What if women were not simply the scapegoats in sacrificial worship? How would we theorize a sacrifice where women are the only sponsors, sacrificers, sacerdotal authorities and spectators? Animal sacrifices tend to be theologically, ritually and materially monopolized by men. Conversely, women are often prohibited from, marginalized, rendered invisible or symbolically sacrificed, that is scapegoated. Comparing an exclusively female post-parturition feast-offering to the goddess Periyachi in Singapore with an animal sacrifice to their tutelary deities by a male-oriented and patrilineal descent-based lineage in rural Tamil Nadu, this paper interrogates the associations between ritual sacrifice, reproductive fertility and gender.

Drawing out the differences between two forms of worship that are both premised on the cultivation of fertility and – albeit to differing extents, intensities and visibilities – the killing of animals, Professor Arumugam considers how a woman-led sacrificial worship allows us to rethink anthropological understandings of the interactions between acts of killing, processes of ritualization, the materiality of the body and the significance of/for womanhood. Through a worship, that is organized, choreographed, sponsored and governed exclusively by women, she considers the implications of a sacrifice which does not just exclude men but blithely ignores them in order to centre women and their capacities. Not even warranting the symbolic and ritual disavowal of men, this female-only sacrifice challenges the ritual appropriation of responsibility for fertility that frames animal sacrifices. Refuting the transcendent and immaculate conception claimed by male-oriented sacrifices, Periyachi worship dwells on the vulnerabilities of bodies, the possibilities of failure and infertility and the eventuality of death. In the process, it insists upon the centrality and singular vitality of women to creation and its labours.

11/16/2020 Online Meeting
7:00 PM
Singing Knowledge: Sound, Seed and Siddhi Across the Bay of Bengal
Carola Lorea, National University of Singapore


You can do various things through singing esoteric songs (bhāb saṅgīt, sādhanā saṅgīt) in the Bay of Bengal: Awaken your kuṇḍalinī, heal, faint, reduce the size of your penis, achieve siddhi, and more broadly, become a human (mānuṣ). Employing the whole body as a research tool, ‘singing as method’ can uncover the nuances of a synaesthetic and complex ‘epistemology of singing’, which links the physical, the emotional, and the cosmic body in material, aesthetic and affective ways.

Guru-singers of esoteric and heterodox groups – Bāuls, Fakirs, Sahajiẏās, Matuẏās, among others – memorize, compose and cite thousands of songs as paramount means to achieve higher states and to autenticate knowledge. Just as scholars sustain their arguments by referencing previously published scholarship (‘Foucault wrote this!’, ‘Bourdieu wrote that!’), gurus intersperse their speech with entire verses of songs, sometimes jumping from teaching to singing, as contiguous modes of discourse. Songs are offerings as well as currencies circulated among the epistemic community to gain, validate, and disseminate knowledge.

Why do traditions that reject caste and worship femininity rely upon aural media, instead of ‘ocularcentric’ ways of knowing? How does this epistemology of singing coexist with different hierarchies of the senses in a post-colonial society? Is this way of knowing and sensing the world useful to question ingrained academic practices, and change them?

Dr. Lorea will explore these questions drawing upon immersive field-work with Bengali teachers and performers of esoteric songs, developed over 11 years of ethnographic engagements with different lineages, located in the Indian state of West Bengal, in western and southern areas of Bangladesh, and in the Andaman Islands, where low-caste refugees from East Bengal have migrated since the aftermaths of Partition.

12/14/2020 Online Meeting
4:00 PM
What shared sacred space in the Dargah Sharif (Ajmer)?
Christophe Jaffrelot, Centre d'études et de recherches internationales and Sciences Po (France)


The leaders of the Ajmer Dargah Sharif, including the khadims and the sajjada-nishin claim that it is a very syncretic place. This claim may be supported by the universal message of Mu’in al-din Chishti and by the presence of many non-Muslim pilgrims in the shrine. Its syncretic quality may also be due to many ceremonies and rituals that closely resemble that of Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists. The dargah does not only attract non-elite Hindus and Sikhs; historically, Hindu maharajahs have patronized the place nearly as much as Muslim nawabs, nizams and emperors. And today political leaders, including Hindu nationalists, continue to visit the dargah.

The reasons why non-Muslims, be they rich or poor, villagers or statesmen come to the dargah are similar to those of the Muslim devotees: some of them visit for spiritual reasons, but most of them are engaged in a transactional logic. They believe in the power of Mu’in al-din Chishti to fulfil their wishes. In this paper we suggest that the fact that the pilgrims are often engaged in a transactional relation with God via Mu’in al-din Chishti diminishes the syncretic dimension of the dargah. Non-Muslims are not necessarily interested in the Muslim Other and his creed. They may not even necessarily interact with him in any meaningful way. Some may not consider the dargah as a Muslim place at all. But it is one and that also diminishes its syncretistic potential in another manner, by excluding the non-Muslims from some of the rituals, in particular the namaaz. At the same time, in spite of these limitations, the dargah remains one of the few places where Muslims and non-Muslims of India co-exist (and sometimes interact), at a time when the segregation of the urban space and the rise of Hindu nationalism have made the relations between both communities more complicated. In that sense, the dargah culture shows some resilience.

01/11/2021 Online Meeting
7:00 PM
Pilgrimage in the Colonial Imaginaire: From the Picturesque and Sublime to Festering Hotbeds of Miasma and Sedition
Amna Khalid, Carleton College


Melas and pilgrimage sites loomed large in the colonial imaginaire. Painted by the greats like Turner, Prout and Dibdin, the mystique of places like Hardwar and Allahabad clearly piqued the curiosity of Britons in India and back at home. Early British representations rendered pilgrimage sites and melas grand, awe-inspiring spectacles. But by the mid-nineteenth century, these sacred spaces came to be seen as exclusively religious and inherently diseased dens of chaos, degradation and sedition. What accounts for this shift from the "sublime" and "picturesque" to "foully dirty" and sites of "wanton beastliness"? Drawing on artistic representations, both visual and literary, missionary records, and official government records and proceedings Prof. Khalid considers the role of scientific discourses of sanitation and public health, among other factors in the drastic and long lasting transformation of these places in the colonial imaginaire.

02/15/2021 Online Meeting
6:00 PM
The Missing Goddess: Women, Water and Eco-Violence in a Contagious Time
Tulasi Srinivas, Emerson College


The Missing Goddess is an urgent exploration of the catastrophic attenuation of local water resources, through the story of the sacred Bellandur Lake in Bangalore, India -- home to the Hindu folk wilderness and contagion goddess, Kateriamman. The freshwater lake, transformed from pristine to cloudily toxic in a decade through unceasing development, suddenly begins to burn, causing residents around the lake to become seriously ill with a contagious cough. Kateriamman flees, lamenting the state of her home and is seen as missing. So this local exploration of a single sacred lake asks the potent question: If water is life, what is a life without water? How does development affect religious imaginations?

Water in Hinduism is female, fertile and pure, central to origination myths, cosmological relationships and sacred geographies. If with climate change water scarcity becomes reality in India as is predicted, what will happen to the Hindu sacred imagination? Through thick descriptions of women from a medieval caste of horticulturists who live and worship at the lake, of their men who are aquifer pirates, of unemployed Dalit well diggers who invoke the goddess Ganga, of water rituals and corrupt government officials, Prof. Srinivas attempts to unveil the deep extra-ordinary relationships that the fiery water hides; between sacrality and scarcity, women and water, and pollution and profit, towards a conceptualization of an "anthropology of apprehension" that is born out of the anxieties of ecological destruction. How are creativity and chaos, wonder and apprehension interlinked? And what are the ethics and truths of an emergent religious practice centered around such eco-violence?

03/15/2021 Online Meeting
6:00 PM
In Our Stars or In Ourselves? Misfortune and its Discontents in Modern Indian Temple Ritual
Carla Bellamy, Baruch College, CUNY


Drawing on observations made during five research trips to Delhi and the Maharashtrian village of Shingnapur between 2008 and 2020, this talk will describe and discuss rituals associated with the nascent temple veneration of the Hindu planetary deity Shani and contrast them with rituals enacted by dakaut pujaris, the low-caste Brahmins traditionally associated with him.

Shani has deep roots in Indic traditions, appearing in Puranic literature and astrological treatises as well as nine planet tableaus in early temple architecture. In texts, Shani is described as an unwelcome outsider whose gaze is dangerous because – depending on the source – it is either inauspicious or downright malevolent.

Until the early 1990’s, temples dedicated to Shani were uncommon. In northern India, instead of temple-based veneration, Shani rites and rituals were conducted by roaming dakauts. At present, however, the urban landscape of Delhi is covered with Shani temples and shrines, and the once-humble Shani pilgrimage center of Shingnapur is undergoing massive expansion. At these new centers of Shani veneration, novel rituals have evolved.

Keeping in mind that ritual is an attempt to overcome conceptual dualisms through action, I will engage several guiding questions: What mental and social illnesses are being addressed by performance of these new temple rituals? Are the causes of these mental and social illnesses evident in other cultural contexts, and if so, what can be learned from the particulars of the modern Indian case? What do these new rituals suggest about attitudes toward caste in urban and neoliberal contexts? And finally, does the recent explosion of scholarship exploring the noetic capacity of human senses and embodiment do the same work as modern Shani temple ritual for the same reasons?

04/05/2021 Online Meeting
7:00 PM
Translation and Multilingualism in the Vernacular Millennium
Elaine Fisher, Stanford University


Whether ascribed to courtly politics or popular devotion, the Vernacular Millennium in South Asia is generally characterized by a systemic, unilateral shift from the cosmopolitan to the vernacular. In this talk, drawing from my forthcoming book manuscript, I adapt the vocabulary of translation theory to articulate how multilingualism, both cosmopolitan and vernacular, was fundamental to how religious identity in south India traversed regional and linguistic boundaries. I focus, specifically, on the Vīraśaiva or Liṅgāyat community. As a product the Vernacular Millennium, Vīraśaivism has been represented as a quintessential example of vernacular religion, founded on a devotional (bhakti) sensibility that can only be expressed, we are told, in a single language of place—namely, Kannada.

And yet, a careful perusal of the archive reveals that Vīraśaivism was never purely vernacular. Instead of the expected antagonism between Sanskrit and the vernacular, we find symbiosis. Precolonial Vīraśaivas developed numerous multilingual textual genres including internally bilingual texts, bilingual commentary, and translation enterprises, particularly from the vernacular into Sanskrit. How do we account for this insistent multilingualism that defies the cosmopolitan/vernacular binary? By mapping the landscape of Vīraśaiva multilingualism, I argue in this talk that the evidence requires both that we radically shift our understanding of the history of Vīraśaivism, and that we develop a new model for thinking about multilingualism in precolonial south India.