ERC-funded project on South and Southeast Asian epigraphy

Colorful roofs of an Indian temple complex seen projecting above a wall of rectangular stones.

The temple of Sundareshvara at Nangavaram, Tamil Nadu, India (photo by E. Francis, 2007).

The content of this post was provided by M. Francis and A. Griffiths.

Two Paris-based research units, the Centre d’études de l’Inde et de l’Asie du Sud (CEIAS, UMR 8564, EHESS & CNRS) and the École française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO), the Humbolt-Universität zu Berlin (UBER) and the university « L’Orientale » in Naples (UNO), will collaborate in a six-year research project granted by the European Research Council (ERC) as part of its “Synergy” scheme.

The project DHARMA: The Domestication of “Hindu” Asceticism and the Religious Making of South and Southeast Asia (2019–2025), will be launched on May 1st 2019. The ERC funds are awarded through the European Union’s Research and Innovation Programme Horizon 2020. The project’s three Principal Investigators are Emmanuel Francis (CEIAS), Arlo Griffiths (EFEO) and Annette Schmiedchen (UBER).

The project will focus on the religion known today as “Hinduism”, a major world religion and the main religion of the world’s largest democracy, India. But this history is not limited to India. DHARMA will study the history of “Hinduism” in comparative perspective, focusing on the period from the 6th to the 13th century. During this period, the Bay of Bengal served as a maritime highway for intense cultural exchange. The resulting process of “Indianization”, marked notably by the spread of “Hinduism”, of an Indian writing system, and of India’s sacred language Sanskrit, touched large parts of South and Southeast Asia.

The Sanskrit word DHARMA can designate the cosmic law that is upheld both by gods and humans. But it is also often used to refer to any of the numerous temple-related foundations made to support this law. The DHARMA project seeks to understand the process of “institutionalization” of “Hinduism” by investigating the roles of various agents, from kings and noblemen to priests, monks and local communities. It emphasizes the social and material contexts of “Hinduism”. This emphasis requires a multi-regional, multi-scalar and multidisciplinary methodology in order to forge a real synergy of scholarship on premodern South and Southeast Asia.

Our approach will be based on the correlation and contextualization of written evidence from inscriptions and manuscripts, as well as material evidence from temples and other kinds of archaeological sites. The project will be carried out in four task forces. Three regional task forces will focus, respectively, on the inscriptions and archaeological sites of the Tamil-speaking South of India (A), of Central through North-Eastern South Asia into what is today Myanmar (B), and of mainland plus insular Southeast Asia (C). A fourth, transversal task-force (D), led by Dominic Goodall (EFEO) and Florinda de Simini (UNO), will focus on textual material transmitted in manuscript form. For our operations in Asia, the EFEO regional centres in Pondicherry, Siem Reap, and Jakarta will serve as anchors.

South and Southeast Asian manuscripts, normally written on palm-leaf, preserve a rich textual archive relevant to the history of “Hinduism”. We will produce editions with translations of texts that have so far remained unpublished, and therefore untapped, by historical research. These include descriptions of religious practices, as well as prescriptions that deal both with lay religiosity and with religious life in temples and monasteries. As for archaeological evidence, we are in an ideal position — thanks to the long-term collaboration between French and Asian archaeologists — to initiate surveys and contribute the data from excavated sites which are known to be rich in data and which will thus enable us to confront our findings in the inscriptions and texts with the archaeological record. Inscriptions are the main sources for the history of premodern South and Southeast Asia. But they are not all accessible, even less so in a machine-processable format. For the large-scale comparative research that we propose to undertake, making as much as possible of South and Southeast Asian epigraphy available, in a digital database, is therefore a core objective of this project. By making the epigraphy of South and Southeast Asia (in Sanskrit and vernacular languages) enter the digital age, the DHARMA project will create exciting new pathways to comparison across regions. The project will participate in the ERC’s Open Research Data Pilot, and will publish all of its epigraphic data in the form of TEI/EpiDoc encoded XML files under a Creative Commons license.

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