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Imitations of Buddhist Statecraft

The Patronage of Lao Buddhism and the Reconstruction of Relic Shrines and Temples in Colonial French Indochina

Patrice Ladwig

Keywords: architecture; Buddhism; colonialism; governmentality; mimesis; relics; rites; statecraft

From 1893 onward, French colonialism sponsored and restructured Lao and Khmer Buddhism in order to create an ‘Indochinese Buddhism’. Over a span of several decades, the French promoted monastic education, reconstructed the major temples in Vientiane, and renovated the That Luang, the most important Buddhist relic shrine of Laos. This article explores the motivations and strategies for this endeavor, specifically focusing on French efforts to ‘re-materialize’ Lao Buddhism’s religious architecture. I argue that the renovation of these monuments as symbols and centers of power under the auspices of the École française d’Extrême-Orient was based on mimetic processes that should be understood as a form of ceremonial governmentality and colonial politics of affect, whose goal was to win the ‘sympathies’ of the colonized.

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