Projects and Research

The projects and research promoted and supported by the IORC are diverse and interdisciplinary. They include but are not limited to: histories of the Indian Ocean region; trade and commerce within the region; defence and strategic studies; environmental studies; faith and culture; and education and communities. The IORC encourages and supports interdisciplinary projects and research initiatives from both within Sheridan Institute and globally. 

Current Projects & Research

Indian Ocean Imaginings: People, Time and Space, Lexington Books, 2022: Joshua Esler and Mark Fielding
This book is a multi-disciplinary study of the Indian Ocean region, bringing together perspectives from the disciplines of history, defence and strategic studies, cultural and religious studies, and environmental studies. From the earliest exchanges through Sumerian and Harappan trade, through to emerging geopolitical alliances in the twenty-first century, Indian Ocean Imaginings seeks to demonstrate both the continuity and change, and unity and diversity of the region. The expanse of this ocean and its littoral rim is connected through the social imaginary, which enables these processes. It is with the stories of the peoples inhabiting this rim that this book is concerned – told both through micro studies of the everyday lives of the region’s people, and through macro studies centred around civilisations, empires, nation-states, and climate change.      

Leadership Development: Historical and Anthropological Approaches in the Indian Ocean Region: Anne Burlinson, Joshua Esler and Mark Fielding
Organisational yearly spending on leadership development to improve managers' capabilities and nurture new leaders is relatively high. However, a recent assessment from McKinsey suggests that most of this effort has been unsuccessful. For leadership development programs to work, few researchers in management studies have proposed that we must first understand how a leader develops. This research project proposes to study leadership development in selected regions of the Indian Ocean through historical and anthropological lenses. As the "cradle of globalisation," the Indian Ocean offers rich insights into the phenomenon of leadership and leadership development. We may also learn to what extent leadership development changes according to the stages within this development, i.e. as a result of cultural and economic exchanges which took place within the Indian Ocean region prior to and following European presence in the region. This study may potentially inform the design of an integrative theory that could become the basis for modern-day leadership development programs.

Tibet and the Indian Ocean World: Rivers, Religion, Roads: Joshua Esler & Namloyak Dhungser
Pre-1950 Tibet is often imagined as a mountain hermitage, landlocked, isolated, and inward looking – a region steeped in religious tradition and ruled by a ‘theocracy’. However, the region – despite its extreme topographic and climatic conditions – was, and still is in certain respects, connected geographically, spiritually, and commercially to the rest of Asia, being shaped and influenced by surrounding cultures, even as Tibetan civilisation shaped and influenced these cultures in turn. The proposed research project will focus on each of the following domains, as they relate to Tibet’s connections and significance to the Indian Ocean world. 

  • Rivers: Arguably, Tibet is the source of all of the major Asian civilisations, for without water agricultural societies cannot develop, and Tibet is the source of many of Asia’s major rivers: the Brahmaputra, Indus, Yangtse, Yellow, Mekong, Salween, Sutlej, Irrawaddy, Bhote Kose, Arun, Karnali, and Trishuli Rivers. Due to these many rivers originating from the Tibetan Plateau, it has often been referred to as the ‘Third Pole’, with obvious geopolitical implications given the often fluctuating relationship between China and India, and changing allegiances and alliances with other neighbouring countries. In addition to their agricultural and geopolitical significance, these rivers also hold deep religious significance for peoples of various faiths – for example the major rivers originating at Mt Kailash in Western Tibet being held in great reverence by Buddhists, Jains, Hindus, and Bon practitioners.  
  • Religion: Needless to say, religion has played a crucial role in the development of Tibetan civilisation, in particular Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhism flourished in Tibet, first during the 8th century under King Trisong Detsen and the Nyingma School, and again under the later transmission of the 11th century and the establishment of the Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug Schools. Indian gurus and Tibetan disciples and translators were instrumental in these transmissions and subsequent adaptation of Buddhism to Tibetan society. In addition, early connections with Chinese Buddhists through the Chinese Princess Jincheng who married the Tibetan King Tride Tsuktsen in the 8th century, enabled some Chinese Buddhist influences in Tibet. Nepalese influence, particularly in the architectural style of monasteries and temples, further shaped developments in Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism subsequently spread through various ‘patron-priest’ (Tib: chö-yon) relationships, between renowned Tibetan lamas and Mongol Khans, Chinese Emperors, and other political leaders across Central Asia – to the imperial Chinese court, to Mongolia, Nepal, Bhutan, Kalmykia, Siberia, and far southeast Russia. Thus, Tibetan Buddhism, itself predominantly the product of Indian missionaries such as the 8th-9th century Padmasambhava and the 10th-11th century Atisa, itself received much patronage, and today is the most popular form of Buddhism in the West, and is again attracting followers in China and other parts of Asia. 

In addition to the well-known influence of Buddhism in Tibet, other religious traditions influenced Tibetan culture, including pre-Buddhist Bon (Shamanist, Yungdrong, and post-tenth century 'New Bon'), Christianity (Catholicism and Protestantism), and Islam (mostly Sunni Islam). The proposed project will examine these often underexplored religious traditions which connected Tibet to the Indian Ocean world, in addition to the predominant Buddhist tradition that shaped Tibetan society and culture.

  • Roads: Tibet is centrally located between the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia, and China, and Lhasa, the capital, was once known for its cosmopolitanism – being a mid-way trading centre for caravans from Central Asia, China, Nepal, India, and even Armenia, as well as a major centre for Buddhist pilgrimage. The 10th century kingdom of Guge (Western Tibet) was known for its great wealth, and a major centre of trade between India, Central Asia, and China – with merchants from Kashmir, Lahore, and India trading cloth, coral, and amber for wool, and Chinese merchants trading tea, raw silk, and chinaware for the same. Not only did trade goods arrive in Guge along these routes; Portuguese Jesuit missionaries from Goa came to Guge in the seventeenth century, and Catholicism was favoured by the king of Guge until he was overthrown by Buddhist-backed forces and the nearby Namgyal Dynasty of Ladakh. Earlier, in the 11th century, it was here that the Buddhist teacher and master Atisa arrived from the northeast Indian Ocean seaboard of the subcontinent, to spread the dharma and his highly influential scholarly work that was to greatly impact subsequent directions in Tibetan Buddhism – Bodhipathapradīpa, or Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment. 

Of course, trade networks predate the Buddhist period and the Tibetan Empire of the 7th century, established from antiquity through nomadic 'Black tent culture', which stretched from northern Africa, through the Middle East, across Central Asia and to Tibet. Agricultural technology and trade moved through the networks established by this nomadic culture, linking Tibet to the Indian Ocean world - in particular Western Indian Ocean littoral society. This ancient network will be a further focus of the proposed project, to give chronological depth to the connections between Tibet and the Indian Ocean region.

    The proposed project will examine the connections between these three domains, and how they tied the Tibetan Plateau to the Indian Ocean region. 


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