- Coastal Shrines and Transnational Maritime Networks Across India and Southeast Asia by Himanshu Prabha Ray
Himanshu Prabha Ray's first book on cultural exchange across the Bay of Bengal, entitled The Winds of Change: Buddhism and the Maritime Links of Early South Asia (Ray 1994) was a pioneer work. In a time when too many Indian scholars still viewed Southeast Asia as "Greater India," she carried out a thorough investigation into the then burgeoning field of Southeast Asian archaeology, resulting in a renewed, balanced approach to the "Indianization" of Southeast Asia and the role of Buddhism in this process. The book was an inspiration to many historians of Southeast Asia, including this reviewer. The author then became one of the most prolix writers on matters of exchange between India and Southeast Asia and on the maritime history and archaeology of the Indian Ocean. A quick perusal of the web and my own notes brought up some fifty-five titles to this day that deal with such matters from a variety of angles and formats (articles, book chapters, and many authored and edited books), some fifteen of which were published in the past ten years. The work under review here is her latest single-author, book-form production and again deals with the relationship between India and Southeast Asia.
The present book's agenda, as clearly expressed by its title, is to explore the close relationship between those shrines that can be said to be "coastal" (even if built some distance inland) and the innumerable networks that link them to other such sites in South and Southeast Asia. Nine chapters tackle such broadly defined matters from a variety of angles: the early centuries a.d. are dealt with in a first chapter on "Culture, the written word, and the sea." The expanding networks are then considered in parallel with "Maritime cultural landscapes," a notion borrowed from Westerdahl's (1992, 2016) now standard approach for maritime historians and archaeologists (the latter was reformulated for a conference on Asian maritime archaeology). The following chapters deal with "Travelling Relics," "The King and the Temple," "The Coastal Shrine and Maritime Networks, 7th to 13th centuries," a critical reexamination of Pollock's "Buddhist cosmopolis," "Shipwreck Sites," and, to conclude, matters of "National Identity and Transnational Heritage." Much of the matter presented in these chapters has been published in a variety of formats in the preceding years (see among others Ray 2012, 2019a, 2019b).
All along her book, Ray insists on mobility and connectivity at various levels, on the multiplicity of intersecting networks, and on the identification of multiple minor agents, audiences, and communities from villagers to priests and merchants. She repeatedly criticizes the top-down approach to temple history that emphasizes the links between royalty and the state and the shrines, while nevertheless quoting as she writes many inscriptions that do prove the occasional involvement of kings and nobles in the process. She puts much energy into demonstrating that ruling dynasties known as Hindu [End Page 169] also entertained Buddhist temples and points to the interaction between the practices of the two religions in India and to the fact that Buddhist Mahayana communities were active in India all the way into the thirteenth century and early modern times, while downplaying the Tantric aspects of these sites. She also insists on the need to consider that several competing ideologies coexisted within Buddhism along these networks and complains about the recent surge of studies insisting on the preeminence of Esoteric Buddhism. She delves into the fact that "the mobility of transmitters, producers, and consumers of religious texts, images, shrines, and inscriptions needs to be factored into the discussion of the 'Buddhist cosmopolis'" (p. 169).
Such remarks and discussions are of course most welcome, particularly when the incipient state of the art in Southeast Asian studies is considered. Ray, however, has the annoying habit of neglecting to quote...