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Abstract

Located in Nakhon Si Thammarat, Thailand, Wat Phra Mahathat Woramahawihan (hereafter: Wat Phra That) is a bustling haven replete with a cornucopia of buildings and objects, including the relic of the Buddha’s left eyetooth. This dissertation processes the richness of this monastery by examining the historiography, material culture, and contemporary debates that enliven the space. I argue various networks centered on Wat Phra That operate throughout time, space, and within and between communities. Thus, I look at translocal networks created through texts, a nodal network created through materials, and the interaction of global and local networks during the creation of a UNESCO World Heritage site. Throughout these overlapping networks, agency is enacted differently — by authors of local chronicles making global connections with other Buddhist communities, by both objects themselves and those who propitiate them, and through the contestation or celebration of certain processes of globalization. Chapter Two discusses Nakhon’s local, vernacular chronicles. I focus on the portions that recount the journey of the Buddha’s left eyetooth relic, as well as the legend of the retrieval of the 84,000 relics needed to fill King Aśoka of India’s stūpas. I explore how local historiographies create links between Nakhon and the greater Buddhist world by utilizing and manipulating portions of the Pali imaginaire. In the process, a network is created which unites disparate geographic locales and expands the Buddhist community, helping preserve the Buddhist sāsana. Chapter Three argues that Wat Phra That functions as a nodal network. The Buddha relic functions as a material nexus of immaterial potency that infuses nearby objects and people, and the other countless objects, images, and structures that fill the space are supplemental nodes of this potency and potentiality. The nexus and nodes mutually reinforce each other, and an expansive network is created. From there, I examine some of the ways practitioners utilize this network, including for example, developing long-lasting, personal relationships with images in the hopes of having requests fulfilled. Chapter Four focuses on three images that lack a clear identity, as they are simultaneously the Buddha and local hero(ine)s of legend. The images extend networks in time, space, narrative, and historiography as they are physical manifestations of the ongoing connection between the town’s past, Buddhism, and contemporary veneration. They delightfully confuse and push boundaries regarding what it means to be a Buddha, while also showing how narratives extend into the concrete world of Buddhist practice. In 2012, Thailand’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Development submitted a proposal to have the monastery included on the country’s Tentative List, the first major step to having the site designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Chapter Five explores the reactions to this proposal. While some are enthused about this possibility, it has also created anxiety, conflict, and confusion. Skeptical locals are concerned about the implications that the UNESCO designation will have on their daily lives, on local customs and Buddhist rituals, and on valued images at the monastery.

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