A Mantra for Elephants: Religion and Animal Modernity in Early Modern Malaya

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Abstract Summary
This article examines the text and context of elephant mantras used in shamanic modes of healing in early modern Malaya to elucidate an historical ethnography of the relationship between humans and elephants. It offers a methodological intervention in terms of how such sources can be read as well as a historiographical argument that complicates notions of animal modernity more broadly. How does reading the human-elephant relationship through the lens of religion open up new spaces for seeing and sensing not just the Malaya’s environmental past but also the ecological power of conversation with the spirit world? Two key points are highlighted. First, continuous anxieties over the potential power of the elephant were reflected in a pathological characterization of untamed elephants. The quasi-colonial relationship over captive animals that resulted from these anxieties disrupts the prevailing view that British imperialism in Malaya marked the beginning of modernity. Second, cross-cultural contact evidenced by linguistic sedimentation of these mantras - mixing the Malay and Siamese languages - brings to view the role of religious conversion in domesticating these anxieties through a performance of anthropocentric power.
Abstract ID :
Submission Type
Organized Session
Abstract Topic
Thematic Approaches to the Study of Science
Chronological Classification :
Cultural and cross-cultural contexts, including colonialism in general