The Owl and the Occult: Popular Politics and Social Liminality in Early Modern South Asia

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Historians of Islamic occult science and post-Mongol Persianate kingship in the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Empires have in recent years made clear just how central this body of knowledge was to the exercise of imperial power. Alongside, scholarship on tantra has pointed to its diffuse persistence in the early modern period. But what dynamics beyond courts and elite initiates did these investments in occult science and tantra unleash? Through a focus on the seventeenth-century Mughal court and the Rajput polity of Marwar in the eighteenth century, this article weaves together the history of animals with that of harmful magic by non-courtly actors. It demonstrates the blended histories of tantra, Islamicate occult sciences, and folk magic to argue that attributions of liminality encoded people, animals, and things with occult potential. For some, like the owl, this liminality could invite violence and death and for others, like expert male practitioners, it could generate authority. By the eighteenth century, the deployment of practical magic towards harmful or disruptive ends was a political tool wielded not only by kings and elite adepts for state or lineage formation but also by non-courtly subjects and “low”-caste specialists in local social life. States and sovereigns responded to the popular use of harmful magic harshly, aiming to cut off non-courtly access to this resource. If the early modern age was one of new ideologies of universal empire, the deployment of occult power outside the court was inconsistent with the ambitions of the kings of this time.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)751-778
Number of pages28
JournalComparative Studies in Society and History
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 29 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science


  • India
  • Jain
  • Marwar
  • Mughal
  • Rajput
  • human-animal
  • magic
  • non-human
  • occult
  • owl
  • tantra
  • weaver


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