SOAS Southeast Asian Studies workshops series: Archives, objects and performances - Religion and folk beliefs in Southeast Asia

Key information

2:00 pm to 4:00 pm
SOAS Doctoral School (53 Gordon Square)
Lady David Gallery

About this event

We are pleased to invite you to join the second SOAS Southeast Asian Studies Workshop related to ‘Archives, Objects and Performances: Religion and Folk Beliefs in Southeast Asia’.

Join us for presentations by Edoardo Siani (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice) Lorenzo Chiarofonte (Alma Mater Studiorum University of Bologna), Panggah Ardiyansyah (SOAS PhD Candidate) and Qiao Dai (UC Berkeley PhD Candidate), chaired by Dr Heidi Tan (SOAS).

We are excited to launch a series of events that delves into the rich tapestry of literatures, cultures and politics in Southeast Asia supported by SOAS Doctoral School. This event is designed to bring together early career scholars, researchers, and enthusiasts to explore the multifaceted narratives, expressions, and identities that define this diverse and vibrant region. This series will provide a unique platform for interdisciplinary discussions and collaborations. 

The workshop will be conducted in a hybrid format, offering both in-person and virtual participation options to accommodate a diverse range of participants.

Picture credit: Train Night Market, Bangkok via Unsplash


Paper Presentations

Performing Exoticism: The search for the Other among Buddhist practitioners in Thailand 

One of the results of the reflexive critique generated by Said’s Orientalism is the call for a de-exoticization of religios actors in Asia. Yet, Buddhist practitioners in Thailand portray themselves as extraordinarily exotic. Spirit mediums don Indic saris to channel Hindu gods. Astrologers import foreign oralcular techniques. 

Diviners flip Italian-made tarot cards depicting Egyptian farohs. Based on over a decade of enthnographic research, I argue that Thai religious actors routinely perform exoticism, as this contributes to their allure among clients and followers. Highlighting the importance of recognizing agency to such practitioners, I stress that the search for the Other is not the monopoly of Europeans. 

Edoardo Siani is Assistant Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. He writes about the relationship between Buddhist cosmology and politics in Thailand. Edoardo received a PhD in Anthropology and Sociology from SOAS University of London, was Researcher and Assistant Professor at Kyoto University’s CSEAS, Research Associate at SOAS, and Adjunct Professor at Thammasat University. He has contributed to media outlets including BBC and The New York Times

Ritual sounds and amplification technologies in Burmese nat kana pwe spirit ceremonies 

During nat kana pwe spirit possession ceremonies, the music of the Burmese hsaing waing outdoor ensemble fills the ritual space and reverberates through the streets. Amplified using multiple microphones and projected by large loudspeakers, the sound of the ensemble accompanies the possession dances of professional spirit mediums (nat kadaw) and devotees, drawing both humans and spirits (nat) into the celebration. 

Digital effects are extensively applied employed, creating an enveloping sonic environment characterised by distortions and reverberations. This presentation explores the interplay between Burmese ritual sound aesthetics and sound amplification technologies in nat kana pwe ceremonies. Using audio-visual examples, the presentation will discuss how music repertoires and electronically amplified sounds contribute to constructing the ritual space and soundscapes, thus shaping the experience of the participants. 

Lorenzo Chiarofonte is a lecturer in Ethnomusicology at the Department of the Arts, Alma Mater Studiorum University of Bologna. He has conducted research in central Burma, examining music and dance in spirit possession ceremonies, court musical and theatrical genres, religious and ritual soundscapes, and media practices. 

He collaborates with the Intercultural Institute of Comparative Musical Studies at the Giorgio Cini Foundation Onlus (Venice). His first monograph Nat hsaing: Etnografia e analisi musicale di un rituale per gli spiriti in Birmania has been recently published. 

Candhi as Tomb: Ancient Hindu-Buddhist Temples from the Perspective of Early Modern Islamic Community in Java, Indonesia 

The Javanese word candhi refers to Hindu and Buddhist temples produced between the 5th and 15th centuries. It is generally agreed today that these edifices were built as places of devotional worship towards deities in ancient Java. By the early 19th century, candhi appeared to acquire newly added meaning and was believed mainly by the local population—already converted to Islam—as tomb (i.e., burial place). 

However, in the production of archaeological knowledge in Indonesia, this meaning-making has been dismissed as ‘folk beliefs’, thus reducing the value of this shifting perspective. More importantly, the re-affirming of candhi as place of worship by the Indonesia’s archaeological study is also staged as a rebuke to the previously accepted colonial interpretation of candhi as tomb. 

This study presents a re-assessment of candhi as tomb and how this meaning-making process was embedded into but also emerged from local-colonial interactions. I argue that the signification of candhi as tomb represents as much the internalisation of local knowledge of and for the 19th-century Javanese community as a pointed presentation of how the distant past should be recorded and understood by the colonial counterpart. 

Panggah Ardiyansyah is a PhD researcher at the History of Art and Archaeology, SOAS. His doctoral project focuses on the afterlives of Hindu-Buddhist materials in Indonesia by probing appropriations, transactions and reconfigurations across times and cultures. His interest in colonial collecting has led him to engage closely with the questions around object restitution and how this process can decolonise the ways we write art histories for Southeast Asian materials. 

He is a core member of the research project Circumambulating Objects: On Paradigms of Restitution of Southeast Asian Art, which aims to question systems of object ownership, circulation, and conservation by exploring local epistemologies across the region. 

Legend, Language, and Religion: The Precursor of Richard Carnac Temple’s formation of Burmese indigenous religion in Punjab 

This paper explores the method Richard Carnac Temple (1850-1931) applied in constructing knowledge of Burmese Nat worship. By comparing the content and structure of two books written during his career as a colonial official in Punjab and Burma, this paper argues that Temple’s research on Burmese Nat worship followed methods he used when collecting Punjabi legends before his career in Burma. 

Focusing on two books, The Legends of the Punjab (first published in 1884) and The Thirty-seven Nats: A Phase of Spirit-worship Prevailing in Burma (first published in 1906), this paper hopes to fill in a gap in current scholarship on colonial knowledge production by historicizing and contextualizing Temple’s career and his cultural experience in Punjab and Burma. I will examine two aspects of his views that connect the two projects in two different places. 

First, I discuss his view on the genre of legend, its relationship with colonial language policy in Punjab, and how the project on Burma later inherited the concept of “legend” as an approach to understand the complicated genealogy of Burmese local spirits. Second, I analyze how the plural religious identities and the dichotomy between Hindu and non-Hindu populations in Punjab potentially influenced his interpretation of Burmese local religion. 

Comparing Temple’s two works provides a case study for understanding the global network of folkloristics created by amateur colonial folklorists. This case study also reflects how Temple’s interpretation of Burmese religion was in conversation with knowledge in the study of religion and language in Punjab. 
Qiao Dai is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies at UC Berkeley. Her research focuses on the late eighteenth to early nineteenth-century adaptations of Burmese Jātaka tales from the Pali canon to vernacular Burmese narratives. She is also interested in contextualizing narratives within their religious and social contexts in rethinking early modern mainland Southeast Asian history. 

Open Discussion Speakers and audiences will engage in discussions on specific themes related to Southeast Asian literatures and cultures. Networking Session Participants can connect and collaborate with fellow researchers and audiences. Tea, coffee, light refreshments will be provided.