Event — IIAS Lunch Lecture

A Mantra for Elephants: Religion and Animal Modernity in Malaya

Elephants in the Malay World are understudied relative to their counterparts in China, Siam and South Asia. How have elephants and peoples impacted each other's histories? And what does this history show about how religion is entangled in our relationships with other species as it moves towards its present, modern forms?

Lecture by Faizah Binte Zakaria, IIAS Fellow.

Lunch is provided. Registration is required

This lecture 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.

Faizah Zakaria (affiliated fellow with IIAS) is a postdoctoral fellow at Nanyang Technological University. She graduated from Yale University in 2018 with a PhD in history, specializing in the environmental history of Asia. She also holds an M.A in Southeast Asian Studies from the National University of Singapore. Her research is broadly concerned with issues of environmental change, indigenous rights as well as religion and ecology. She has published in journals such as Critical Asian Studies and Indonesia and the Malay World. At Leiden, she is at work on her first monograph tentatively titled 'Spiritual Anthropocene: An Ecology of Conversions in a Maritime Southeast Asian Uplands,' based on her dissertation, which won the Arthur and Mary Wright Prize at Yale.

Registration (required)

If you would like to attend this lecture, please register via our webform below (by Thursday, 14 March if you would IIAS to provide lunch).

About IIAS Lunch Lectures

Every month, one of the IIAS affiliated fellows gives an informal presentation about his/her work-in-progress. IIAS organises these lectures to provide the research community with an opportunity to freely discuss ongoing research and exchange thoughts and ideas. Anyone with an interest in the topic is welcome to attend and join the discussion.