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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 fall semester. 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.

11/19/2020 Online Meeting
6:00 PM

Carola Lorea, National University of Singapore

12/14/2020 Online Meeting
6:00 PM

Christophe Jaffrelot, Centre d'études et de recherches internationales (France)

01/11/2021 Location TBD
6:00 PM

Amna Khalid, Carleton College

Location TBD
2:00 PM


02/15/2021 Location TBD
6:00 PM

Tulasi Srinivas, Emerson College

03/15/2021 Location TBD
6:00 PM

Joyce Flueckiger, Emory University

04/06/2021 Location TBD
6:00 PM

Elaine Fisher, Stanford University