CFP Stone Masters: The territory cults of monsoon Asia

Proposals are invited for papers to join a stream of panels proposed for the Asian Studies Association of Australia meeting, Sydney, July 3-5 2018.

In an influential 1933 essay, Paul Mus suggested that remarkably similar cults addressing the power of places could be found throughout what he called « monsoon Asia ». Sacred stones or other types of markers are often found at sites designated for sacrifice, feasting or veneration. These acts are often the fulfilment of “contracts” drawn with the “Lord of the Land,” or are spontaneous events held to mollify the spirit for offences. While often glossed as « guardian spirits », these supernatural figures can also be terrifying presences that cause sickness and misfortune to the community as a whole if mistreated. People who collectively submit to the mastery of these Lords in turn assert mastery over the associated territory. These are, as Mus noted, cults that are simultaneously spiritual, political, and social in significance. Intriguingly, Mus suggested that these cults are indigenous to India, Indo-China, Indonesia, parts of China, and parts of the Pacific, forming a common substrate of religious culture in the entire area.


This stream of panels seeks to test the usefulness of Mus’ provocative assertions for understanding the region today.


The discussant of this panel is John Holt, author of Spirits of the Place(2009).


Topics for discussion might include:


  • Mus’ notion that the cults formed a “spiritual land survey, the centre of each district being marked by one of the sacred stones » (Mus 2011:34). How do people assert ownership over land through these cults, and how does this relate to alternate claims over land now current, such as those made by the nation-state and processes of commodification?
  • How have cults been co-opted (or otherwise) by larger power structures (kings, states, polities)? And/or how have cults incorporated references to more widespread power structures, such as the notion of contracts, or a hierarchy of spirits that mirrors the bureaucracy or nobility, and so on?
  • Some cults include rules about pregnancy out of wedlock, menstruation, and the movement of members into and out of the territory of the spirit, while also being clearly cults of fertility for the land. What is the link between the bodies of people and the body of the land?
  • What is the nature of relationships between these cults and other forms of religious culture in the region?
  • In relation to notions of nature and culture, Mus had rejected the term “animism” to describe these cults, but the term has enjoyed a revival recently.  How adequate or not is “animism” as a concept to accurately account for this phenomenon?
  • These cults are often related to agricultural rites. What is the link between water, stones and fertility, and in what ways does it remain relevant as livelihoods change?
  • Could a perspective from medical anthropology help elucidate the manner in which these cults often explain collective illnesses?
  • What terminology is used to refer to these “Lords of the Land”? What is the particular form of mastery implied by these cults? How does this compare to notions of mastery found elsewhere?
  • In what ways is the “Lord of the Land” a gendered concept? And how do relationships to this entity relate to gender relations more generally.
  • The theme of the ASAA 2018 is “Area Studies – and beyond.” A striking element of Mus’ argument for the reader today is the way it identifies a unity that knits together groups that might otherwise be contrasted (peasants and tribesmen; urban and rural; state spaces versus Zomia; insular versus mainland; southeast Asia versus east and south Asia; Asia as opposed to the Oceania). What does this unity suggest for Area Studies in general?
  • Detailed accounts of particular cults.
  • Comparisons of the cults across the region.
  • Propose your own focus or problem.



Paper proposals are due to the conference conveners by NOVEMBER 1 2017.


However, in the first instance, please send expressions of interest and/or abstracts to panel convener Holly High. Please . I will then be able to send you the appropriate link for submitting an abstract on the conference website.


For more information about the conference, please visit this page:

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