Creating Religious Identities: Buddhist Monuments in Colonial and Post-Colonial India

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Himanshu Prabha Ray


This paper draws on my work on the maritime history of early South and Southeast Asia and the use of sea-lanes of the Indian Ocean by pilgrims for visits to sites associated with the life of the Buddha. A second perspective is provided by the rediscovery of Buddhism in Europe coinciding with the development of new disciplines, including archaeology. These disciplines were introduced into India with the government-sponsored Archaeological Survey of India, founded in 1871. Alexander Cunningham, the first Director-General, brought Buddhism to the forefront and established its study as a separate sub-discipline. This had far-reaching implications for the demarcation and archaeological investigation of many of the monuments linked to Buddhism, especially Bodh Gaya and Sanchi. This paper addresses the issue of the manifestation of a Buddhist identity in colonial India. It is often suggested that this identity owed its origins to the formation of the Mahabodhi Society and the emergence of nationalism in Sri Lanka. This paper examines political developments in India in the context of the Navayana or the Neo-Buddhist path, forged by B.R. Ambedkar on the 2500th anniversary of Buddha’s parinirvana, or demise, in 1956. To what extent did this newly formed identity become interlinked with the identification and control of archaeological sites in India and their redefinition? How did the renegotiation of Buddhist identity affect India’s relationship with Thailand?

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