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Were-Tigers of Odisha in Adivasi Folklore  

Stefano Beggiora

The Meriah Wars, a series of conflicts that bloodied the central districts of the state of Odisha (India) in the 19th century, pitted the indigenous populations of the Konds against the British army. Historiographic sources demonstrate that although the apparent British casus belli claimed an intent to suppress the Konds because of their practice in human sacrifice, the evidence remains unreliable and incomplete on how the Konds actually followed this ritual and indicates that the British Raj’s true motivations lay elsewhere. Sources instead illustrate concretely that the British Raj focused its actual attention on areas that, until recently, drew scarce interest but reflected its increasingly urgent need to extend and consolidate the colonial rule in the belt of central-eastern India. This cultural clash with the Konds would later highlight the limited understanding of Europeans about the crucial role that many indigenous peoples played in the political balance and as social subjects in the buffer zones on the edge of the forests. If it has been reported that the Konds were often chased, persecuted, and shot down like beasts and that their villages were set on fire in this dark page of colonial history, it is also true that their communities were fluid entities capable of evading peace treaties, using the harsh and unexplored jungle terrain to their advantage and sometimes mounting a strenuous resistance. This uncontrollability is probably the main reason for their misrepresentation in colonial sources, which often emphasize the gruesome aspects of human sacrifice and the Konds’ prowess in the witchcraft arts. It is in this context that the ability of some tribesmen to transform themselves into were-tigers and possibly prevail over an otherwise stronger enemy is first recorded. The practice of theriomorphism has survived to this day, along with a shamanic-type religiosity among the Kond minorities still populating the Kandhmal district. Therefore, an ethnographic approach allows not only for a detailed investigation into this still little-known phenomenon and a clearer analysis of certain aspects of this community’s history but also a deeper understanding of the wide relational spectrum of the Konds with their territory and the wildlife surrounding them and as they coped with the challenges imposed by modernity.

Article

Bangladeshis in Italy  

Andrea Priori

The Bangladeshi population in Italy boomed in 1990, spreading from Rome and forming local enclaves shaped by migration chains; it is the second-largest Bangladeshi group in Europe and sees a preponderance of Sunni Muslims, a large majority of working-age men, and poor access of women to employment. Although both Italian institutions and migrant associations promoted a monolithic image of the “Bangladeshi community” as a category of political visibility, Italian Bangladeshis present considerable variety in terms of geographic origin and ideological affiliations and important differences in terms of social origins between endangered middle classes and urban middle classes with steady economic situations. Interaction with the Italian institutions results in further differentiation between “legal” and undocumented migrants, which overlaps, in part, with that between those in northern Italy, where Bangladeshi workers are generally entitled to full rights, and those in Rome and the south, where the informal economy is widespread. The large presence of undocumented working-age men fuels marginality and exploitation, both by natives and co-nationals. Patronage relations between co-nationals are crucial in providing access to emigration, housing, and employment and add to the dynamics of self-organization, especially in the case of secular associations. A peculiar characteristic of Italian Bangladeshis is the tendency to form mononational organizations (both secular and Islamic) that proliferate by virtue of scissions, along with transnationalism and entrepreneurship. In contrast, the new generation tends to move beyond communal introversion and transnationalism, but this is limited to only those with promising careers. Even among young people, extensive areas of marginality exist; this results in the persistence of attitudes typical of the migrant generation and reproduces among those who grew up in Italy the distinction, characteristic of the situation of the migrants, between those who have been successfully incorporated into Italian society and those suffering social exclusion.

Article

Religion and Environment in Bhutan  

Elizabeth Allison

Religion and the environment have been entangled for millennia in Bhutan. When Buddhism was introduced from Tibet in the 7th and 8th centuries, it incorporated existing animistic and shamanistic understandings of the landscape, developing a unique spiritual ecology built on long coevolution with the landscape. The notable disseminators of Buddhism in Bhutan—Songsten Gampo, Guru Rinpoche, Terton Pema Linga, the Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, and others—sanctified specific sites on the landscape with their Buddhist teachings. The cultural forms introduced by the Shabdrung in the 17th century have been nurtured into the 21st century, providing a strong sense of cultural identity and historical continuity. Building on cultural and religious traditions, Bhutan’s leaders shaped a contemporary nation fed by a wellspring of ancient wisdom, connecting environmental policy and practice to Buddhist roots, in the context of rapid modernization and change. The guiding development model Gross National Happiness emphasizes the interdependence of economy, ecology, culture, and governance. Forest and conservation policies draw on Buddhist values for their relevance, as do waste and reuse practices. Bhutan’s 2008 constitution codifies the obligations of all Bhutanese to maintain culture, ecology, and religion. A long cultural and religious history interwoven with the landscape has created a uniquely Bhutanese Buddhist form of traditional ecological knowledge that contributes to ongoing cultural continuity and ecological resilience.

Article

Tantra in South Asia  

Hugh B. Urban

Tantra is historically one of the most important but also most often misunderstood, understudied, and poorly defined currents within the Hindu and Buddhist traditions of South Asia. Widely dismissed by European Orientalist scholars and Christian missionaries as a degenerate form of black magic and debauchery, Tantra has been embraced by contemporary popular and New Age audiences as a liberated path of sensual pleasure and sexual freedom. While it has been defined in many different ways by modern scholars, Tantra has played a central but often ambivalent role in South Asian religious, social, and political history. In the 21st century, Tantra remains an important though often misunderstood religious presence, both in the few surviving Tantric lineages of South Asia and in the various popular forms of tantra-mantra (in India) and “Neo-Tantra” (in Europe, England, and North America).

Article

The Bon Religious Practice in Bhutan  

Kelzang T. Tashi

Bon in Bhutan is a little-known religious practice despite the ubiquity of its worldview in the Bhutanese way of life. Characterized by animistic and shamanistic practices, Buddhist writings and oral narratives presented Bon as the antithetical religious belief that has existed before the arrival of Buddhism. In the face of being viewed as false and heretical by Buddhist priests for centuries, the heterodox Bon is widely practiced in Bhutan and the Himalayan hinterlands even as it lacks any formal organizations. The core practices of Bon are oriented toward fulfilling this-worldly and pragmatic goals such as replenishing the blessings associated with property and increasing livestock and fertility. The focus upon the worldly goals and the non-existence of a founder, canonical texts, and metaphysical doctrines render Bhutanese Bon uniquely an unreformed and unorganized religious practice that is primarily oral and pertains to the worship of an amorphous body of worldly deities and spirits, which, until recently, involved live animal sacrifices.

Article

Indigenous Religions in the Asian Uplands: Perspectives on Landscape in Northeast India  

Claire Scheid

Indigenous religions in the Asian uplands comprise a broad spectrum that includes a variety of unique site-specific practices, rituals, and beliefs. Just as the Asian uplands are a vast territory home to multiple cultures, they are also home to multiple indigenous religions. It is important not to conceptualize indigenous religions as homogeneous or static; rather, they are specific, organic systems particular to a given community that may vary even from household to household in design, praxis, and content. Similarly, it is tempting to presume that all indigenous religions in the Asian uplands must integrate the hilly or mountainous terrain around them into their cosmologies, ontologies, or eschatologies; this is also a fallacy. While some indigenous religions do worship or deify the topography that surrounds them—such as the Lepcha and Lhopo (Bhutia) of Sikkim, India, whose veneration of Mount Khangchendzonga is central to their understandings of the cosmos—others—such as the Adi of Arunachal Pradesh, India, and the Khasi of Meghalaya, India—consider certain upland sites in nature as sacred but do not incorporate them into the framework of their religious conceptualizations or practices in a primary way. To illustrate the variety of indigenous religions found in the Asian uplands, and their independent relationships with, and conceptions of, nature and landscape—and to highlight the diversity extant even between those in close proximity to each other—examples can be found in four ethnic communities (the Adi, the Khasi, the Lepcha, and the Lhopo [Bhutia]), all classified as “scheduled tribes” under the Constitution of the Indian Republic and located in Northeast India. Through a survey of these four groups, it becomes apparent that “indigenous religions” vary greatly in upland (and other) areas—and practically, and ethically, cannot be effectively generalized. It is easiest to glean a working comprehension of the characteristics of indigenous religions in the Asian uplands through recognizing the distinctive qualities of a sampling of individual ethnic communities that reveal great differences despite their geographical similarity. Indigenous religions do not exist in sterile isolation from other “mainstream” religions; boundaries between indigenous religions can be permeable, even if the religions themselves are very different; globalization is changing how indigenous religions are articulated, as they take on new structures for the sake of preservation; and while a mountain may be the center of an upland Northeast Indian religion, equally, it may not be.

Article

The Appropriation of Islam in the Maldives  

Boris Wille

The Maldives is one of four Muslim majority countries in South Asia. The contemporary Islamic Republic of the Maldives frames itself as a “100 percent Muslim nation.” The state religion is Islam, all 380,000 citizens are Muslims by law, and the practice of other religions is prohibited. Ever since the first Muslim exposure, probably in the 10th century, Islam has gradually evolved into a sociocultural configuration that affects most domains of archipelagic society and culture. It shapes foreign relations, informs legislation, and influences arts and architecture, as well as language and scripture. Scholarship of Islam and Islamization in the Maldives acknowledges the historical trajectories of the appropriation of Islam as well as its contemporary relevance in Maldivian identity and state politics.

Article

Jewish Merchants in the Indian Ocean Trade  

Elizabeth Lambourn

The history of Jewish merchants in the Indian Ocean trade is a story in two parts. Before the modern period the scarcity of surviving material and textual sources causes this community’s history to wax and wane depending on the place and the period. Historians are left to grapple with the question of whether such microhistories can be read as paradigmatic. After 1500 a plethora of documents and material remains allow a far more detailed history and analysis, as well as across an expanded area. Especially after 1700, Jews from Europe and the Middle East entered colonial flows, joining long-standing Jewish communities along India’s western seaboard and in the Yemen, and in time establishing new businesses across the Horn of Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Far East. Academic research into these networks is sparse and quite dated until the colonial period, when a new wave of work integrating Jewish merchants into larger narratives occurred.

Article

Religion and Migration in Rakhine  

Michael W. Charney

The historical migration and religious development in Rakhine (Arakan) up to the end of the second decade of the 21st century is complicated. This region was a crossroads for South and Southeast Asian civilizations and existed at the overlap of the frontiers of Islam and Theravada Buddhism. Existing in an ecological niche with a difficult topography and climate and a low population base, Rakhine social and state formation was built around inclusivity and tolerance. Although for much of its history the dominant religions of the population of the region were animism and then Brahmanism, successive waves of immigrants from both Bengal and Myanmar meant that Islamic and Theravada Buddhist influence was very strong. The early modern kingdom that emerged at Mrauk-U, its main political center, was built on maritime connectivity with the Indian Ocean world and developed a court culture that was both Muslim and Buddhist and ruled over a population that was religiously heterogeneous. Toleration was challenged, however, by the conquest of Rakhine by Myanmar in 1785 and efforts to eradicate local religious autonomy. Things did not improve under British rule after the British annexation of 1826. The Myanmar and British rulers of Rakhine politicized the region’s history and tried to retell the history of the region in ways that excluded some populations and included others, leading to efforts to force the Rohingya out of Rakhine from August 2017.

Article

The Ismaili Tradition in Iran: 13th Century to the Present  

Daniel Beben

The Ismailis are a minority community of Shiʿi Muslims that first emerged in the 8th century. Iran has hosted one of the largest Ismaili communities since the earliest years of the movement and from 1095 to 1841 it served as the home of the Nizārī Ismaili imams. In 1256 the Ismaili headquarters at the fortress of Alamūt in northern Iran was captured by the Mongols and the Imam Rukn al-Dīn Khūrshāh was arrested and executed, opening a perilous new chapter in the history of the Ismailis in Iran. Generations of observers believed that the Ismailis had perished entirely in the course of the Mongol conquests. Beginning in the 19th century, research on the Ismailis began to slowly reveal the myriad ways in which they survived and even flourished in Iran and elsewhere into the post-Mongol era. However, scholarship on the Iranian Ismailis down to the early 20th century remained almost entirely dependent on non-Ismaili sources that were generally quite hostile toward their subject. The discovery of many previously unknown Ismaili texts beginning in the early 20th century offered prospects for a richer and more complete understanding of the tradition’s historical development. Yet despite this, the Ismaili tradition in the post-Mongol era continues to receive only a fraction of the scholarly attention given to earlier periods, and a number of sources produced by Ismaili communities in this period remain unexplored, offering valuable opportunities for future research.