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JULIA STEPHENS (Rutgers University)

Cosmopolitan Graves: Thamboosamy Pillai and Legacy Making and Unmaking in British Malaya


07 May 2024 | 3pm BST

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In 1902 Thamboosamy Pillai was buried in a Hindu cemetery after his body was embalmed and transported from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur aboard a British government yacht. Thamboosamy played a leading role in the development of British Malaya—as a colonial bureaucrat, Tamil labor recruiter, diasporic merchant, and Hindu philanthropist. This paper describes my efforts to trace his life and legacies through colonial archives, urban cemeteries, digital heritage groups, and family memories. While highly trained in colonial law and accounting, a deft businessman, and a celebrated socialite, Thamboosamy did not leave behind the sort of intellectual outputs that other scholars have used to understand how Indian Ocean elites articulated their own forms of vernacular and oceanic cosmopolitanism. Instead, he engaged in what I term material cosmopolitanism—through his investments, embodied habits, and household relations. These influences were amply on display at his funeral. Proceeded by a procession set to Handel’s Dead March and accompanied by Chinese fireworks, Thamboosamy was buried in a silver-encrusted casket at a time when cremation was becoming more common among some Hindus in Kuala Lumpur. Thamboosamy success was rooted in his ability to navigate across diverse social worlds, in a context in which what it meant to be Hindu, Tamil, and Malay remained highly contested. Today, however, he is celebrated as the leading Tamil-Hindu of his generation, who was responsible for the founding of the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple and the shrine to Lord Murugan at Batu Caves. The more cosmopolitan dimensions of his past sit at odds with the compartmentalized logics of contemporary multi-cultural nationalism. Yet when I connected with his descendants, they spoke of how their forebearer’s cosmopolitanism lives on. The paper grapples with the implications of tracing such contested legacies across archives, oral histories, digital spaces, and material monuments. 

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Julia Stephens is an associate professor of history at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. Her research focuses on how law has shaped religion, gender, and economy in colonial and post-colonial South Asia and in the wider Indian diaspora. Her first book, Governing Islam: Law, Empire, and Secularism in South Asia, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2018. She is currently finishing a book manuscript entitled Worldly Afterlives: Tracing Diasporic Family Trails Between India and Empire.

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