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The Domestication of ‘Hindu’ Asceticism and the Religious Making of South and Southeast Asia

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - DHARMA (The Domestication of ‘Hindu’ Asceticism and the Religious Making of South and Southeast Asia)

Reporting period: 2022-05-01 to 2023-10-31

The religion known today as “Hinduism” is a major world religion and the main religion of the world’s largest democracy, India. But the history of “Hindu” institutions is not limited to India. DHARMA is studying the history of “Hinduism” in comparative perspective, focusing on the period from the 6th to the 13th century. During this period, the Bay of Bengal served as a maritime highway for intense cultural exchange. The resulting process of “Indianisation”, marked notably by the spread of “Hinduism”, of an Indian writing system and of India’s sacred language Sanskrit, touched large parts of South and Southeast Asia.

The Sanskrit word DHARMA can designate the cosmic law that is upheld both by gods and humans. But it is also often used to refer to any of the numerous temple-related foundations made to support this law. The DHARMA project seeks to understand the process of “institutionalization” of “Hinduism” by investigating the roles of various agents, from kings and noblemen to priests, monks and local communities. It emphasises social and material contexts of “Hinduism”, which requires a multi-regional, multi-scalar and multidisciplinary methodology, to forge a real synergy of scholarship on premodern South and Southeast Asia.

Our approach is based on the correlation and contextualisation of written evidence from inscriptions and manuscripts and material evidence from temples and other kinds of archaeological sites. The project is carried out in four task-forces. Three regional task forces focus, respectively, on the inscriptions and archaeological sites of the Tamil-speaking South of India (A), of Central through Northeastern South Asia into what is today Myanmar (B), and of mainland plus insular Southeast Asia (C). A fourth, transversal task-force (D), is focused on textual material transmitted in manuscript form. For our operations in Asia, the EFEO regional centres in Pondicherry, Siem Reap, and Jakarta serve as anchors.

Inscriptions are the main sources for the history of premodern South and Southeast Asia. But they are not all accessible, even less so in a machine-processable format. For the large-scale comparative research that we wish to undertake, making as much as possible of South and Southeast Asian epigraphy available, in a digital database, is therefore a core objective of this project. South and Southeast Asian manuscripts, normally written on palm-leaf, preserve a rich textual archive relevant to the history of “Hinduism”. We are producing editions with translations of texts that have so far remained unpublished, and therefore untapped, by historical research. These include descriptions of religious practices, as well as prescriptions that deal both with lay religiosity and with religious life in temples and monasteries. As for archaeological evidence, we are in an ideal position — thanks to the long-term collaboration between French and Asian archaeologists — to initiate surveys and excavations at sites which are known to be rich in data and which will thus enable us to confront our findings in the inscriptions and texts with the archaeological record. The archaeological operations are led by experienced French archaeologists in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Indonesia.
The first major post-pandemic meeting took place in the form of a midterm workshop on ‘Institutionalised Religion and Asceticism in South and Southeast Asia in the Pre-Modern Period’, again held in Berlin (01-04/03/2022), which gathered a significant part of our international team with several members and guests attending in person, plus a large attendance online. Presentations were made about the progress in almost all sub-projects of the action as well as about the organisation of the work (task-forces), tools, and practicalities. Several team members elaborated specifically on the theme of cenobitic institutions in the Hindu tradition called maṭha.

Another workshop took place in Pondicherry (30/01/2023 to 03/02/2023). The central theme of this workshop was how Hindu institutions served as centres of learning.

Core-members of the project carried on with the writing of the various forms of project documentation. The DHARMA Encoding Guide of Critical Editions, which had been under development for 3 years, was finally finished and released in April 2023. Further guides are still under construction (DHARMA Metadata Guide, DHARMA Authority Lists Guide). See

Various tools already set up have been used:
- the GitHub repository for collaborating on the encoding of texts, which at the time of reporting contains, besides various other files and guidelines, 1682 XML files of epigraphical editions at various stages of completion, as well as 659 XML files reused from earlier projects, 19 XML files of critical editions and 27 XML files of diplomatic editions of manuscript-transmitted texts to be disseminated and displayed on the project’s database;
- a Zotero library, for managing the bibliographical references of the project, which at this time contains approximately 17,000 bibliographical entries;
- the blog ( serving as the primary communication and dissemination channel of the project, which is regularly updated.

OA digital editions of major epigraphical publications (Annual Report on Indian Epigraphy, South Indian Inscriptions, Epigraphia Carnatica, Répertoire onomastique de l’épigraphie javanaise) have been made accessible on the temporary website of the project.

Other current or completed tasks concern the management of and the workflow for the metadata of the inscriptions we are editing, the authority lists for ancient place-names and personal names and for controlled vocabularies, as well as the development of the project’s database (the online website for publication and search of DHARMA digital editions of inscriptions and transmitted texts).

Collaboration took place with activities of other projects: Shivadharma (ERC no. 803624), Japanese VIHARA project (JSPS), Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (University of Hamburg).

DHARMA members also participated in non-DHARMA workshops/conferences and produced several publications under the aegis of DHARMA. See:

DHARMA archaeological operations continued in Bangladesh and Cambodia, and started in Indonesia (Bumiayu).
Recent ERC-funded comparative research on mediaeval pious foundations and endowments (FOUNDMED) has demonstrated the need for more regional analyses of the impact of religious patronage on premodern societies. Another ERC-funded project (Beyond Boundaries) had begun to make Indian epigraphy available in digital editions. Our project broadens the data for intercultural research and greatly expands the number, geographical scope and chronological coverage of digitally edited inscriptions from the ‘Hindu’ world. It will also furnish comparative material for the humanities and social sciences more broadly, on such issues as cultural transfers that are not mediated by military conquests; on the mixed motives underlying patronage in a cultural context with no unified “Church” and where the agents are diverse (kings, royal women, laity, religious communities). Our thorough documentation of encoding practices is expected to set new standards in digital epigraphy and philology as regards premodern textual sources from South and Southeast Asia.