UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Destination enlightenment : buddhism and the global bazaar in Bodh Gaya, Bihar Geary, David


This dissertation is a historical ethnography that examines the social transformation of Bodh Gaya into a World Heritage site. On June 26, 2002, the Mahabodhi Temple Complex at Bodh Gaya was formally inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. As a place of cultural heritage and a monument of “outstanding universal value” this inclusion has reinforced the ancient significance of Bodh Gaya as the place of Buddha's enlightenment. In this dissertation, I take this recent event as a framing device for my historical and ethnographic analysis that details the varying ways in which Bodh Gaya is constructed out of a particular set of social relations. How do different groups attach meaning to Bodh Gaya's space and negotiate the multiple claims and memories embedded in place? How is Bodh Gaya socially constructed as a global site of memory and how do contests over its spatiality implicate divergent histories, narratives and events? In order to delineate the various historical and spatial meanings that place holds for different groups I examine a set of interrelated transnational processes that are the focus of this dissertation: 1) the emergence of Buddhist monasteries, temples and/or guest houses tied to international pilgrimage; 2) the role of tourism and pilgrimage as a source of economic livelihood for local residents; and 3) the role of state tourism development and urban planning. Based on my analysis of these social constituencies I argue that World Heritage sites, like the Mahabodhi Temple Complex, are important global spaces of convergence where history, memory, narratives and groups are entangled through UNESCO's universal claims. It is for these reasons that it is important to look beyond the universal abstraction and examine the ways in which spaces of global memory are laden with social and cultural meaning that is activated, reproduced and contested through a range of social practices. In this way, World Heritage is not only about the production of authoritative pasts but it is also about creating new meanings and forging new global public spheres across cultural, national and religious difference.

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