India beyond the Ganges: Defining Arakanese Buddhism in Persianate colonial Bengal


In the late eighteenth century a Scotsman returned from Bengal with one of the largest private libraries of Persian texts collected in the Subcontinent. Among those manuscripts were several volumes of translations of Arakanese and Pali texts into Persian, as well as quasi ethnographic accounts on Buddhism as it was practiced in what is seen today as the frontier region between South and Southeast Asia. In this article I look at this archive and the historical moment that surrounds its making in the perspective of the development of Buddhist studies. This large corpus of texts happened to be a false start in the history of the study of Theravāda Buddhism, but it constitutes a unique source to learn about local forms of Buddhism on the eve of the fall of the Arakanese kingdom and the integration of its religious institutions within the Burmese sangha. While discussing a selection of texts from this vast corpus, I pay special attention to the culturally layered transmission of knowledge on Arakanese Buddhism via the work of Bengali munshīs (i.e., Persian secretary). I argue that this layered transmission caused the almost immediate obsolescence of this corpus as a source of information in the early colonial context. However, for the cultural historian, those Persian texts contrast with the then emerging institutionalised orientalist discourses and offer a new vantage point for the study of Arakanese Buddhism.

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