ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Wilderness and Supernature: The Owl in Early Modern South Asia


Cherian Divya - Princeton University, History, Princeton, United States


17 – More Than Human: Animal-Human Relations in Pre-Modern South Asia


 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. But what about the history of occult knowledge and practice among non-courtly actors, human and non-human, in early modern Asia? This paper will braid a history of pre-colonial (seventeenth- and eighteenth-century) human-animal relations with that of courtly as well as popular uses of occult knowledge (tantra, Islamic, and folk) to offer an account of the owl and of magic as complementary political resources in Mughal and rajput domains in early modern India. Given the owl’s location on multiple margins—wild/settled, night/day, and human/animal—rooted in its habits, habitat, and physiology, its interactions with humans configured it as liminal. The paper will argue that this sort of liminality imbued to beings and things in possession of it an occult fecundity. For some, like the owl, this could invite violence and death and for others, like expert male practitioners, it could generate authority. The presentation makes a case for the extension of the everyday political in early modern societies to include magic and the material and symbolic labor of wild animals.