Session Abstract: Varieties of aroma have pervaded Asian history. Unsurprisingly, tropical and subtropical Asian places are the natural habitat of many fragrant substances. The historical significance of these goods is immense—we only need to look at the salient example of the spice trade that shaped world history. Yet the histories of smell throughout Asia remain unexplored. How were smells described, understood, and experienced? What do such histories teach us about the material, medical, and religious practice of Asian cultures? To address these questions, this panel gathers four scholars specializing in the religious and medical history of China and India in the premodern era. Peter Romaskiewicz examines "strange fragrances" emitted by corpses in medieval Chinese religions, revealing the intimate connection between such aroma and the otherworld. Yan Liu positions the study of smell in the medical culture of Tang China, when new interpretations of smell emerged accompanied by the use of aromatics as antidotes to dispel demons. Margaret Ng offers a case study of frankincense, a sought-after aromatic in Song China, investigating its key role in appeasing the divine and alleviating the pain of women giving birth. Karen Ruffle scrutinizes two seventeenth-century texts in India, and shows how they fuse the olfactory with the visual to represent Hyderabad in southern India as a Shiʿi paradise. Overall, by exploring the meanings and experiences of smell across time and space, this panel seeks to highlight the unique olfactory powers that traversed the material and the immaterial, the mundane and the divine, and life and death.
Paper Presenter: Peter Romaskiewicz – University of California, Santa Barbara
Paper Presenter: Yan Liu – SUNY, Buffalo
Paper Presenter: Margaret Ng – College of Wooster
Paper Presenter: Karen Ruffle – University of Toronto