This presentation explores the traveling lives of Buddhist corporeal relics as material registers connecting new domains of antiquarian scholarship, colonial diplomacy, and rituals of religious reclamations across South and mainland Southeast Asia. In late nineteenth and early twentieth century Siam emerged as the sole independent buffer between British and French colonial interests in mainland Southeast Asia. British diplomatic investment in Siam reflected colonial scholarly interest in Buddhist heritage and imperial anxieties for political and cultural control of a wider transnational Theravada Buddhist world of South and Southeast Asia.
This presentation develops around one particular case of archaeological discovery of a Buddhist relic in 1898 from Piprahwa Kot (near India-Nepal border). The authenticity of Piprahwa Kot and of neighbouring sites and antiquities in the Nepal Terai, as sites and objects associated with the life of the Sakya-Muni, Gautama Buddha, became embroiled in a spectacular scandal of “archaeological forgery”. Nonetheless, the British government in India decided to present the relics to Chulalongkorn (King Rama V of Siam) for ritual enshrinement in Bangkok and redistribution to Buddhists of Ceylon, Burma, and Japan, while incarcerating the original reliquary in the Indian Museum (Calcutta, then capital of British India).
Following the different and changing institutional, cultural and political locations of this and similar relics that traveled from archaeological sites and museums to new Buddhist temples in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, this paper explores the multiple identities and meanings that accrued around these objects. The study seeks to bring out the centrality of modern regimes of diplomacy, scholarship, and religious practice, both in British India and Siam, and across a wider transnational Theravada Buddhist world, in producing new visibility and multiple identities and meanings around Buddhist relics.
Sraman Mukherjee is Assistant Professor in the School of Historical Studies at Nalanda University (Rajgir, India) and a visiting research fellow at the KITLV.
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