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The Politics of “Greater India,” a Moral Geography: Moveable Antiquities and Charmed Knowledge Networks between Indonesia, India, and the West

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 January 2021

Marieke Bloembergen*
Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV) and Leiden University, Leiden, The Netherlands


Since the nineteenth century, today's South and Southeast Asia have become part of scholarly and popular geographies that define the region as a single, superior, civilization with Hindu-Buddhist spiritual traits and its origins in India. These moral geographies of “Greater India” are still current in universities, museums, textbooks, and popular culture across the world. This article explores, for the period from the 1890s to the 1960s, how networks of scholars, intellectuals, and art collectors linking Indonesia, mainland Asia, and the West helped shaping these moral geographies and enabled the inclusion of predominantly Islamic Indonesia. It contributes to recent debates on the role of religion and affections in Orientalism by following object-biographies and focusing on knowledge exchange via the networks they connected, and by exploring the possibilities, violence, and limits of cultural understanding as objects travel from their sites of origin to elsewhere in the world. The article conceptualizes moral geographies as a heuristic device to understand how people have imagined their belonging to a transnational space—in this case Greater India—whether they live inside or outside of that space. It examines the impact these moral geographies have on processes of inclusion and exclusion, particularly their common disregard for Indonesia's Islamic cultures. It warns against pitfalls of transnational, “Oceanic” approaches to Asian history that focus on cultural flows, as these can exaggerate the region's cultural unity and, in doing so, reify the moral geographies of Greater India that the article interrogates.

Mapping Social Geography
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Society for the Comparative Study of Society and History

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