Universiteit Leiden

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Nira Wickramasinghe

Professor of Modern South Asian Studies

Prof.dr. N.K. Wickramasinghe
+31 71 527 2982

Nira Wickramasinghe is Professor of Modern South Asian Studies at the Leiden University Institute for Area Studies.

More information about Nira Wickramasinghe

Fields of interest

My primary interests are identity politics, everyday life under colonialism and the relationship between state and society in modern South Asia. I have pursued these interests through investigation into such diverse themes as politics of dress, civil society, citizens and migrants, and objects of consumption. Trained as a historian, I have written on late colonial and modern Sri Lanka, using a variety of archives. In the last few years, my work has moved from a focus on national history albeit from a non-state perspective to an approach that contests the nation as a frame and attempts to capture other dimensions of belonging which might be best encapsulated in the term ‘‘postnational’’. My current research addresses the genre of minor histories through studies of enslaved people and migrants in the Indian Ocean world. My most recent book is Slave in a Palanquin: Colonial Servitude and Resistance in Sri Lanka (New York: Columbia University Press 2020). In addition to my research and teaching I intervene regularly in public debates and contribute essays and op.eds to Opendemocracy,  the Wall Street Journal.


I am willing to supervise MA students on projects concerning identity and national politics in modern South Asia. For PhD projects, I welcome those interested in topics relating to the social and cultural history of communities in South Asia and the Indian Ocean world  in the 19th-20th centuries.



  • D.Phil in Modern History, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford (1989)
  • Diplome d’Etudes Approfondies, History, Université de Paris IV-Sorbonne (1986)
  • Maitrise in History, Université de Paris-IV-Sorbonne (1985)
  • Licence in History, Université de Paris-IV-Sorbonne (1984)
  • Khagne, Lycée Fenelon, Paris 6 (1982-83)
  • Hypokhagne, Lycée Victor Duruy, Paris 7 (1981-82)


  • Full Professor of Modern South Asian Studies, Leiden University (since 2010)
  • Full Professor, Department of History and International Relations, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka (2003-2009)
  • Senior Lecturer, Department of History and International Relations, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka (1990-2002)

Key publications

Authored monographs

2020. Slave in a Palanquin: Colonial Servitude and Resistance in Sri Lanka (New York: Columbia University Press). Recipient of the 2021 John F. Richards Prize in South Asian history, awarded by the American Historical Association (AHA).

2015, Sri Lanka in the Modern Age. A History, (2nd revised edn) London: C.Hurst, New York/New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

2014,  Metallic modern. Everyday machines in colonial Sri Lanka, New York, Oxford: Berghahn Press.

2006, Sri Lanka in the Modern Age. A history of contested identities, London: C. Hurst and Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

2006, L’Invention du Vêtement National au Sri Lanka, Paris: Karthala Presse.

2003, Dressing the Colonised Body: Politics,Clothing and Identity in Colonial Sri Lanka, New Delhi: Orient Longman Publ., pp. 157.

2001, Civil Society in Sri Lanka. New Circles of Power, New Delhi, London, Thousand Oaks: Sage Publ, pp. 186.

1995, Ethnic Politics in Colonial Sri Lanka 1927-1947, New Delhi: Vikas Publ, pp. 289.

Edited volumes

2023, edited with David Henley, Monsoon Asia: A Reader on South and Southeast Asia, Leiden: Leiden University Press.

2020, edited  with A. Schrikker, Being a Slave. Histories and Legacies of European Slavery in the Indian Ocean, Leiden: Leiden University Press. 

1994, edited with Radhika Coomaraswamy, Introduction to Social Theory, New Delhi: Konark Publ. 1994, pp. 147.

1992, edited with Regi Siriwardena, South Asia Bulletin (Special Issue on Society and Culture in Sri Lanka) Vol. XII, No. 1, 1992.


2001, History Writing: New Trends and Methodologies, Colombo, pp. 98


A History of the World in 100 Objects: Statue of Tara


A range of courses in history and politics, including:

  • Histories of Modern South and Southeast Asia
  • Politics of South and Southeast Asia
  • South Asian Diasporas
  • Theories and Issues in Area Studies
  • Cultures of Resistance in a postcolonial world
  • Democratising History: Asia and the World
  • The India Ocean World: Sailors, slaves, scholars

PhD supervision

For enquiries about PhD supervision, please contact me after September 2024.

Completed projects

  • Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, The Adaptable Peasant: Agrarian Society in Western Sri Lanka under Dutch Rule, 1740 1800 awarded in 2004 (supervisor, with L. Wagenaar and L. Blussé)

  • Udan Fernando, Uneasy Encounters. Relationships between Dutch Donors and Sri Lankan NGOs, awarded in 2005 at University of Amsterdam (co-promotor, with Isa Baud at Uva)

  • Nadeera Seneviratne, Negotiating Custom: The Landraad in Eighteenth Century Sri Lanka, degree awarded in 2016 at Leiden University (promotor, with A. Schrikker and L. Wagenaar)

  • Priya Swamy, 'Let us Live as Hindus': Narrating Hindu Identity Through Temple Building Processes in Amsterdam Zuidoost (1988-2015), awarded in 2016

  • Dileepa Witharana, Negotiating Power and ‘Constructing’ the Nation: Engineering in Sri Lanka, awarded in 2018

  • Idrees Khanth, Nationalism and Public Discourse in twentieth century Kashmir (with Erik de Maaker), awarded in 2019 (promotor)

  • Aditi Mukherjee, In the Shadow of Displaceability: Refugees and Migrants in Suburban Calcutta (with Sanjukta Sunderason), awarded in 2021

  • Alok Oak,  Political Ideas of Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Colonialism, Self and Hindu Nationalism  (with Pralay Kanungo as co-supervisor) awarded in 2022

  • Pak Hyojin, Laboring waste, Wasting Labor. Waste pickers and the Periphery in developing South Korea (with Koen de Ceuster)

Current projects

  • Sanayi Marcelline, Racialized Identities: Community Formation and Slave Ancestry in the Creolising Suburbs of Colombo in the mid-18th and early 19th century (with Alicia Schrikker)
  • Pouwel van Schooten, Hidden Others: Transitioning from Slavery to Freedom in the Galle Province (1650-1750) (with Alicia Schrikker and Dries Lyna)
  • Sarthak BagchiClientelism and Patronage in Indian Elections: A Comparative Study of the States of Bihar and Maharashtra (with Ward Berenschot, KITLV)
  • Timothy de Zeeuw, Imperial Subjects as Local Nationals: Official and Public placing of imperial subjects in Karafuto and the South Seas Islands (Nan’yō) within the hierarchy of the Japanese empire, 1905-1941 (with Ethan Mark)
  • Roozbeh Seyedi, Cultural Education and the Politics of Everyday Life in Iran: 1960s to 1980s (with Cyrus Schayegh and Cristiana Strava)
  • Indira Ratwatte, Should colonial reparations be part of international law: an analysis with special reference to Sri Lanka (with Prof dr Wouter Veraart VU)

Grants and awards

  • Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton – Member at the School of Historical Studies (Fall semester 2023)

  • Swedish Collegium for Advanced Studies (SCAS) fellowship award for Fall semester 2023 (declined)

  • Fernand Braudel Senior fellowship at the European University Institute, Florence in May-June 2024

  • 2023-2027  NWO (Dutch Research Council) – Open Competition grant titled: ‘Forgotten Lineages. Afterlives of Dutch Slavery in the Indian Ocean’.

  • 2023 (June)  Yale University, fellowship at the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of  Slavery, Resistance, and AbolitionThe MacMillan Center.

  • 2021-2023 (Spring).  Gerda Henkel Foundation small grant for  3 week research in archives in the United Kingdom

  • Leiden Global Interactions Seed Funding for a project entitled ŒBeing a Slave: Indian Ocean slavery in local context' (with Alicia Schrikker, History Institute) - Sept 2016-July 2017
  • Asian Modernities and Tradition small grant for project entitled ŒBritish sources on slave trade from India and Ceylon/Sri Lanka in the 18th-19th centuries¹
  • Research Fellowship at the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies, Princeton University, Sept 2008- to July 2009.
  • Visiting Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Bielefeld, Germany, June 2006.
  • British Academy Visiting Professorship, University of Oxford, June 2005.
  • University of Colombo, Faculty of Arts Research Award 2004.
  • Fulbright-Hays Senior Scholarship 2003-2004 at the International Center for Advanced Studies, New York University
  • 2001-2002: the South-South Exchange Programme for Research on the History of Development (SEPHIS) post-doctoral fellowship for the translation my book ‘Dressing the Colonised Body’ into French.
  • Visiting professorship at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris France, April-May 1998:
  • World Bank Robert McNamara Fellowship 1998: on NGOs and Development.
  • SEPHIS post-doctoral 1996-1997 for post doctoral research on ‘Dress and Colonialism’.
  • ACUNS Fellowship, July 1994: at Brown University, Providence, USA.
  • Kodikara Award from the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies 1996:
  • Full Fellowship on the US Foreign Policy Process, at the School of Public Affairs, University of Maryland, Jan-June 1993.
  • Fellowship ‘Jeunes Chercheurs’ of the Centre de l’ Inde et de L’Asie du Sud, EHESS, 1990.
  • Overseas Research Scholarship (ORS) at University of Oxford 1986-1987.

Administration and service to the profession

  • Academic Director of Research, Leiden University Institute for Area Studies (LIAS), 2018 - 2020
  • Head, BA Programme in South and Southeast Asian Studies, 2016 - 2018
  • Chair, Board of Directors of the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden, starting May 2016
  • Head, School of Asian Studies, Leiden University Institute for Area Studies (LIAS), 2011-2013
  • Chair, MA Asian Studies OLC Teaching Committee, since 2012
  • Directed (with Prof Michael Herzfeld) the IIAS summer programme on Asian Studies, May 2011 – Heritage conserved and contested: Asian and European perspectives
  • Member of the LIAS Advisory council
  • One of five coordinators of the Leiden University Profile Area, Asian Modernities and Tradition
  • Member of the Board of Directors of the International Institute for Asian Studies IIAS, Leiden
  • Member of the International Research Committee, Regional Center for Strategic Studies, Colombo, 2007-2010
  • Towards a New Age Partnership (TANAP) University of Leiden, External Supervisor in Sri Lanka 2003-2007
  • Member of the Selection Board of the ASIA fellowship (UPIASI and Ford Foundation) for 2006-2009
  • Member of the Selection committee for the SSRC (Social Science Research Council) South Asia fellowships 2005-2006
  • Member of the selection committee for Commonwealth fellowship awards, Sri Lanka, 2004
  • Senior Researcher on an ICES/NORAD project on Education and Values 2002-2003
  • Social Science Research Council (SSRC) New York consultant on a Survey of the Social Sciences in South Asia ed. By Partha Chatterjee
  • Consultant Ministry of Education on Curriculum revision for schools (Chairperson of History syllabus committee) 2005
  • UNDP consultant on Common Country Assessment 2000
  • National Integration Program Unit (NIPU) consultant on Textbook Project 2000
  • World Bank consultancy on Socio-Cultural Biases in History Textbooks in Sri Lanka 1999

Professor of Modern South Asian Studies

  • Faculty of Humanities
  • Leiden Institute for Area Studies
  • SAS India en Tibet


  • No relevant ancillary activities
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