Today I talked to Divya Cherian about her article "The Owl and the Occult: Popular Politics and Social Liminality in Early Modern South Asia" published in Comparative Studies in Society and History (June, 2023).
Historians of Islamic occult science and post-Mongol Persianate kingship in the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Empires have in recent years made clear just how central this body of knowledge was to the exercise of imperial power. Alongside, scholarship on tantra has pointed to its diffuse persistence in the early modern period. But what dynamics beyond courts and elite initiates did these investments in occult science and tantra unleash? Through a focus on the seventeenth-century Mughal court and the Rajput polity of Marwar in the eighteenth century, this article weaves together the history of animals with that of harmful magic by non-courtly actors. It demonstrates the blended histories of tantra, Islamicate occult sciences, and folk magic to argue that attributions of liminality encoded people, animals, and things with occult potential. For some, like the owl, this liminality could invite violence and death and for others, like expert male practitioners, it could generate authority. By the eighteenth century, the deployment of practical magic towards harmful or disruptive ends was a political tool wielded not only by kings and elite adepts for state or lineage formation but also by non-courtly subjects and “low”-caste specialists in local social life. States and sovereigns responded to the popular use of harmful magic harshly, aiming to cut off non-courtly access to this resource. If the early modern age was one of new ideologies of universal empire, the deployment of occult power outside the court was inconsistent with the ambitions of the kings of this time.
Divya Cherian: An assistant professor in the Department of History at Princeton University. Prof. Cherian is a historian of early modern and colonial South Asia, with interests in social, cultural, and religious history, gender and sexuality, ethics and law, and the local and the everyday. Her research focuses on western India, chiefly on the region that is today Rajasthan. She is the author of Merchants of Virtue: Hindus, Muslims, and Untouchables in Eighteenth-Century South Asia (University of California Press, 2023) (Indian edition: Navayana, 2023), winner of the American Institute of Indian Studies' 2022 Joseph W. Elder Prize in the Indian Social Sciences.
Ahmed Yaqoub AlMaazmi is a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University. His research focuses on the intersection of law, the occult sciences, and the environment across the Western Indian Ocean. He can be reached by email at [email protected]
or on Twitter @Ahmed_Yaqoub. Listeners’ feedback, questions, and book suggestions are most welcome.
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