Jaina Prosopography Project and Online Open-Source Database Construction

Prosopography, at the most general level, is the collective biography of persons of a particular place or period. However, with the rise of Digital Humanities, prosopography has also become a powerful tool for investigating the complex social networks that connect people within a particular group, place, or period. Recent online prosopographical database projects include PANDiT (Prosopographical Database for Indic Texts) (featured here on the Digital Orientalist) and the CBDB (China Biographical Database Project). Here, I discuss the Jaina Prosopography Database, which is set to launch publicly in March 2021. I’ll discuss not only the framework of the database and its functionality as a research tool, but also the process of its creation as a potential model for those interested in crafting similar open-source databases.

The Project and Database

The Jaina Prosopography project, developed by Peter Flügel, principal investigator, and Kornelius Krümpelmann, research assistant, of the Centre of Jaina Studies at SOAS in collaboration with the Digital Humanities Institute at Sheffield University “explores the relationships between Jain mendicant lineages and their supporters, focusing on the nexus of monastic recruitment, geographical circulation of monks and nuns, their biographies and literary production, and patronage,” [1] with the overall goal of reconstructing a social history of the Jaina tradition. When launched, the Jaina Prosopography database will allow users to search, analyze, map, and download historical information on Jaina mendicants and householders. You can search by name, place, event, or works. In addition to English, the site will also be available in Nagari script.

Database entry

Jaina Prosopography Database entry for “Hemacandra” (click to enlarge).

At present, the database contains over 8,000 entries, each of which, on the backend, contains no less than 34 possible datapoints. In this example above of the Jain acharya Hemachandra, visible on the frontend, you can see the complex classification and coding schema for each mendicant’s name, which is divided into multiple attributes and socio-temporal aspects. Each entry may also include information about religious affiliation, sect, family relationships, monastic relationships, life events, and roles. Notably, the Sources of each of these datapoints are also included.

Network diagram

Hemacandra network diagram.

Social relationships (e.g. preceptor, pupil, family, patron) can be visualized as a network with branching nodes and downloaded as .png or .mwb files. The spatial relationships of Jaina mendicants, as well as other people, places, and events, can be visualized using the Map feature. All of this data is open-source and can be downloaded in .csv or MySQL format.

Map of India

Map in Jaina Prosopography Database. Highlighted dots indicate number of records linked to that respective location.

More than a repository of information, the Jaina Prosopography database is a powerful analytical tool for conducting sociological and historical research. Scholars will not only be able to utilize the database’s tools to analyze sets of data within the current corpus, but they can also download the data for external analysis. Researchers can also apply for editing privileges (which will inevitably require some training in navigating the data-entry system) in order to upload their own datasets for integration within the Jaina Prosopography database, creating opportunities for a variety of research projects.

List of collaborators for Jaina Prosopography database

The Process

Timelines

Building a database, particularly a database as complex as this one, requires a long-term commitment. Jaina Prosopography: Monastic Lineages, Networks, and Patronage research project, which began in 2017 through a grant from the Leverhulme Trust, grew out of an earlier project (2012) to publish Johannes Klatt’s Jaina Onomasticon (published 2016). The content of these volumes provided much of the initial source material for the database.
Before building the database, the team spent a considerable amount of time researching other online databases and prosopographical projects, and developing a coding system that would capture the complex and fluid identities and lives of Jaina mendicants (see Jaina Prosopography I and II: Sociology of Jaina Names and Patronage).

Selecting a Format

Originally envisioned as a triplestore database, the current database is MySQL. The frontend of the online database uses the Symfony PHP web application framework, including Twig for templating. The interactive tools are written in Javascript using Leaflet for maps, D3 for charts, and vis.js for network diagrams. In selecting a format and designing a database, it is critical to consider its longevity. Providing users with the ability to freely download data ensures that the work can live on in other forms. In discussion with Dr. Peter Flügel, he also stressed the importance of clear communication between researchers and developers, who come to these projects with different sets of expertise and may have different expectations or conceptualizations for database design and functionality. It is also important to keep in mind that the process may proceed iteratively and to remain open to pivoting, adapting, and improving the design.

Building the Team

In addition to Peter Flügel and Kornelius Krümpelmann from SOAS and the team of developers from the Digital Humanities Institute, contributors to the project include a range of scholars from across Europe and India. The current team of contributors, which today consists of scholars from SOAS, Gujarat University in Ahmedabad, University of Mumbai, and the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune, meet weekly via Zoom to discuss interpretations of the inscriptions and manuscripts they’re analyzing and encoding into the database along with any other questions that may have come up during data-entry. Each of these contributors is funded through their affiliate institution. In this way, the group has grown organically through scholarly connections and collaborations. Collaboration is indeed at the heart of the project, as all team members work together bouncing ideas off one another, populating the database, filling in gaps in data by using the linkages across different sources, and advancing their own research interests.

The Future

Over time, a variety of new research projects may contribute to the supplementation and refinement of the Jaina Prosopography database. A key theme that emerged in researching the project was collaboration – in conceptualization, development and design, editing the database, and in its continued development and growth. As the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the attention of many researchers toward the digital landscape, the number of open-source database projects will likely continue to grow, promoting innovative research and cultivating collaborative communities of scholars.

References

[1] “Jaina-Prosopography: Monastic Lineages, Networks and Patronage” SOAS University of London Website, accessed October 13, 2020, https://www.soas.ac.uk/jaina-prosopography/.

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