Of Monks, Space and Law: Notes on an experiment with Interdisciplinarity

by Saeed Ahmad

Towards the end of December of 2018 during my fieldwork, I am introduced to Ramesh, a Bhogal resident who begins telling about the history of the settlement of Bhogal in South-East Delhi, India. This conversation eventually veers to a discussion about the local Bhogal Buddha Vihar (Monastery) and the presence of monks from Thailand who were in control of the monastery, which situation led him and others to take the legal route to regain administrative control of the institution.

Through the example of this dispute, I attempt to reflect on the idea of method, in general, and on how the use of interdisciplinary methods in this instance allows me to engage with the larger questions of my PhD, in particular. My research investigates neighbourhoods like Bhogal, the quintessential ‘migrant neighbourhood’ of Delhi that has witnessed continuous, and diverse, flows of migrants from its founding in the 1920s to the present moment. My PhD project attempts to explore how processes of ‘resident’ and ‘migrant’ place-making are dialogical, i.e. continuously in negotiation with populations, events, institutions, and structures of the city and the nation. I draw on ideas of ‘space’ and ‘place’ in human geography, which move away from the notion of  an abstract ‘empty’ space and emphasise that it is produced and reproduced through practices, structures and institutions. In this context, ‘place’ essentially become space imbued with meaning.[1] For Doreen Massey, places are produced through a spatial articulation of identities or entities, an entangled process that is subject to negotiations and reconfigurations over time. Thus, place is never finite but rather produced and reproduced through changing power relations and practices.[2] Here, I discuss an instance of the legal manifestation of strategies of place-making, which are an extension of the everyday claims made to the space.  

The case

On the face of it, the case seems like an administrative dispute, but there is more to the story. The local Buddha Vihar (Monastery) was established following the public conversion of B.R. Ambedkar (Dalit Political leader and Social Reformer) and other Dalits (i.e., former untouchables in the caste system) to Buddhism in 1956 as a mark of their rejection of Hinduism. Since some local Bhogal Jatavs (a sub-caste of Dalits) also converted to Buddhism at that time, the Buddha Vihar was carved out of the pre-existing Guru Ravidas Temple following contested claims to a separate Buddhist space.[3] Thus, the land belonging to the Ravidas temple was split up to allow the functioning of the both the temple and the monastery.  At some point in the 1970s or 80s, the monastery had fallen into such disrepair that help was sought from the government of Thailand. This financial assistance for the upkeep for the Buddha Vihar was accompanied by Thai Buddhist monks, who took up residence and the management of daily affairs at the monastery. According to Ramesh, while the monks and the Thai government have done a good job in maintaining the monastery, disputes have arisen with regard to fake documents, administration of affairs, Ambedkar’s portrait in the monastery, and celebration of his Birth Anniversary. The locals argue that their relationship with Buddhism emerged only after Ambedkar’s engagement with the religion, with the monastery being an articulation of that relationship. However, for the Thai monks, the space solely serves a religious purpose.

Brief analysis

In this case, local Buddhists living in Bhogal are staking their claim to the Buddha Vihar, claims to a place that have subsequently been transformed into legal claims of ownership. While everyday negotiations play out in the space, such as through bodily presence or tussles related to events taking place there, law is being used to claim absolute control over the space. Ramesh tells me that this case also takes on (or complaints about) past practices of the earlier committees that were involved in the management of the space, both prior to and following arrival of the Thai monks. For the Thai monks, the historical figure of Ambedkar and his ideas about Buddhism have no salience. However, for the locals, the Buddha Vihar is an expression of Dalit relations with Buddhism vis-à-vis Hinduism. In the contemporary period, they seek to reclaim the space from Thai monks who were given control by the local Buddhists. The production of this space has been subject to different meaning-making practices over time, linked to a history of Dalit articulation pitted against an assertion of Thai Buddhism. Yet, this process of production continues to employ diverse strategies and practices on either side, while the ongoing legal battle is characterized by questions of legitimacy of ownership and legality with regards to Thai control of the space. The process of place-making for the Jatava population which was settled in Bhogal saw an articulation of their Ravidasi identity through the setting up of the Ravidas Temple. This sense of place had to be renegotiated with Ambedkar’s public conversion and demands for a separate Buddhist space. In the contemporary period, the site of the Buddha Vihar is again subject to different meaning making practices by the local Buddhists on the one hand, and the Thai Buddhists on the other.

Reconsidering methods

Until I met Ramesh, my initial questions and methods were historical in nature, aimed at trying to recover the history of the space through archival work or oral histories. Lack of access to historical records about the Buddha Vihar required me to place greater emphasis on oral histories as a way to engage with the history of the space. Notwithstanding the problematic nature of memory, this approach recovered a part of the story about why and how the Bhogal Buddha Vihar came into existence, and why and when monks from Thailand and the Thai government started playing a key role in the everyday life of the space. However, crossing disciplines through ethnographic fieldwork helped reveal the larger dynamics of the narrative, where the conflict has moved into the legal domain. An ethnography of the monastery enriched my understanding of the material and bodily presence of Thai Buddhism and monks in the space. The contrasting presence of Ambedkar’s portrait in the main hall pointed to the subtle strategies of assertion employed by the local Buddhists. Moreover, my conversations with Ramesh and others, while shedding light on the history of the Buddha Vihar, also directed me to everyday interactions in the space, questions of legitimacy, and ideas of the insider/outsider. Lastly, contrasting the historical and contemporary situations helped towards an understanding of the diverse meanings and practices associated with the space.

Further research is needed through archival research, observations, semi-structured interviews, ethnographies, and textual analysis. Utilizing these methods in the courtroom, the Buddha Vihar, spaces of the neighbourhood, on archival material and the case documents would help reveal a more nuanced picture and allow me to explore how legal and everyday manifestations of such contestations are embedded in larger processes of place-making. The arguments made in the case documents, and in the court proceedings would reveal how law and everyday processes are used to renegotiate a sense of place in the neighbourhood in light of different populations, and socio-political articulations.  

[1] Tim Cresswell. 2004. Place: A Short Introduction. Malden: Blackwell.

[2] Doreen Massey. 2005. For Space. London: Sage Publications.

[3] Guru Ravidas was a poet, saint and mystic active during the Hindu reformist Bhakti movement in North India (15th -16th century) questioning caste hierarchies in Hinduism. His followers are usually called Ravidasis or Raidasis. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ravidas. For a brief description of the Bhakti movement see https://www.britannica.com/topic/bhakti. However, Ravidas’s influence and popularity has to be seen in the context of the modern period especially the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when Dalit political and social articulations took on new forms during the colonial period in India. See Vijay Prashad. 2000. Untouchable Freedom: A Social History of the Dalit Community. New York: Oxford University Press.

Saeed Ahmad is a historian of the present pursuing his doctorate in Political Science from the Centre for Modern Indian Studies (CeMIS) at the University of Göttingen, Germany.


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