Theses Doctoral

Constructing Community: Tamil Merchant Temples in India and China, 850-1281

Lee, Risha

This dissertation studies premodern temple architecture, freestanding sculpted stones, and Tamil language inscriptions patronized by south Indian merchants in south India and China. Between the ninth and thirteenth centuries, Indian Ocean trade was at its apex, connecting populations on European and Asian continents through complex interlocking networks. Southern India's Tamil region, in particular, has been described as the fulcrum of the Indian Ocean circuit; however, knowledge of intra-Asian contact and exchange from this period has been derived mostly from Arabic and Chinese sources, which are abundant in comparison with the subcontinent's dearth of written history. My project redresses this lacuna by investigating the material culture of Tamil merchants, and aims to recover their history through visual evidence, authored by individuals who left few written traces of their voyages across the Indian Ocean.

The arguments of my dissertation are based primarily on unpublished and unstudied monuments and inscriptions, weaving together threads from multiple disciplines--art history, literature, epigraphy, and social theory--and from across cultures, the interconnected region of the eastern Indian Ocean and the South China Seas, spanning the Sanskritic, Tamil, Malay, and Sinocentric realms. My dissertation challenges traditional narratives of Indian art history that have long attributed the majority of monumental architecture to royal patrons, focusing instead on the artistic production of cosmopolitan merchants who navigated both elite and non-elite realms of society. I argue that by constructing monuments throughout the Indian Ocean trade circuit, merchants with ties to southern India's Tamil region formulated a coherent group identity in the absence of a central authority.

Similar impulses also are visible in merchants' literary production, illustrated through several newly translated panegyric texts, which preface mercantile donations appearing on temple walls in the modern states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh. Moreover, my work analyzes the complex processes of translation visible in literary and material culture commissioned by merchants, resulting from inter-regional and intercultural encounters among artisans, patrons, and local communities. Rather than identifying a monolithic source for merchants' artistic innovations, in each chapter I demonstrate the multiple ways in which merchants employed visual codes from different social realms (courtly, mercantile, and agrarian) to create their built environments. In Chapter Four, I provide a detailed reconstruction and historical chronology of a late thirteenth century temple in Quanzhou, coastal Fujian Province, and southeastern China, which both echoes and transforms architectural forms of contemporaneous temples in India's Tamil region.

Piecing together over 300 carvings discovered in the region in light of archaeological and art historical evidence, I develop a chronology of the temple's history, and propose that Ming forces destroyed the temple scarcely a century after its creation. In Chapter Three, I interpret stone temples patronized by the largest south Indian merchant association, the Ainnurruvar, as being integral to their self-fashioning in India and abroad. While the temples do not project a merchant identity per se, I show that they employ an artistic vocabulary deeply entrenched in the visual language of the Tamil region. Chapter Two looks at other forms through which merchants created a shared mercantile culture, including literary expressions and freestanding sculptural stones. These texts demonstrate that merchants engaged in both elite and non-elite artistic production. Chapter One analyzes the distribution, content, and context of Tamil merchant sponsored inscriptions within the Indian Ocean circuit, focusing on the modern regions of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, and Andhra Pradesh. An appendix offers new translations of important Tamil language mercantile inscriptions discovered throughout south India.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Dehejia, Vidya J.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 25, 2012