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Introduction: spaces of religion in urban South Asia

Istvan Keul

The present volume has its starting point in an interdisciplinary, international research project on religion in Mumbai titled Dwelling and Crossing: The sociocultural dynamics of religious spaces in Mumbai (2014-2018) funded by the Research Council of Norway. While the project coordinators (Michael Stausberg and the editor of this volume) are working in the academic study of religions, the other participants come from different fields: political science, sociology, anthropology and modern South Asian studies. Unlike more conventional approaches in the study of religions, our project did not aim at providing histories or ethnographies of more or less clearly defined religious groups or movements. Instead, it took a spatial approach: The locations of religion in the various subprojects included neighbourhoods, cross-religious places of worship, the sidewalk and the slum, but also literary works containing (re)presentations of religion in urban contexts. This approach offered a number of advantages: Firstly, it avoided an unnecessary homogenisation of religions and religious groups, allowing room for discussions of individual trajectories spanning multiple identities and histories. In addition, zooming in on limited socio-geographic spaces seemed to be a more practicable way of dealing with the continuous transformation of a megalopolis impossible to comprehend as a whole. The spatial approach also offered an opportunity to conceptualise place and space in ways other than as taken-for-granted. confined settings with inhabitants - namely, as socially constructed, relational, complex spaces (Low 2009: 21-22).

This collection of essays is the outcome of a workshop that expanded the project’s geographical scope of inquiry to include South Asian cities of various sizes: Mumbai (Bombay), Delhi, Kanpur, Madurai, Nanded, Lahore. Banaras (Varanasi), Kolkata (Calcutta) and Islamabad. In the resulting essays, scholars from different disciplines look at religion as one of the (still very much persistent) variables in the dynamic interplay of factors that characterises complex urban social spaces. In addition to physical (built, residential, landscaped; historical and contemporary) spaces, a wide range of other spatial constellations that lend themselves to a fruitful analysis and interdisciplinary dialogue, such as virtual, medial and fictional spaces, are addressed as well. Ranging from the material, corporeal and explicit to the less or even in-visible, the spatial frameworks of the contributors’ reflections on South Asian urban articulations of religiosities and “spirited topographies”

(Hancock and Srinivas 2018) reflect the multiple potentialities inherent in a field of study that is still in its beginnings. The present volume also aims at contributing to filling (empirically and conceptually) a "conceptual void between religion and the city” diagnosed by Berking and others (2018), who characterise the different approaches to this field of research as both fragmentary and fragmented.

At first glance, and from a historical perspective, the focus on some of the South Asian urban contexts encountered in the contributions to this volume do not come as a surprise. Varanasi, the century-old pilgrimage centre and seat of Sanskrit learning on the banks of the Ganges figures prominently among the Indian cities readily associated with religion. Also, an old temple city such as Madurai, or a pilgrimage destination such as Nanded in Maharashtra (even if less known) would probably not raise any eyebrows. These are cities that can be called, following Eck (1987: 2), orthogenetic cities, creators and sustainers of a cultural order. Mumbai or Delhi, on the other hand, seem to be less obvious choices at first, being examples of the heterogenetic city; collectors of a culture’s plurality and divergence; and places characterised by both economic and cultural productivity, and ambiguity (see also Redfield and Singer 1954: 59). The religious landscape of such cities is much more complex, and its importance for the fabric of these places is often overlooked. Studying the dynamics of religious spaces in large cities rich in contrasts and ambivalences reveals the various ways in which cultural perceptions and social practices on different societal levels contribute to the creation and shaping of complex imagined and real spaces of religion. The study of religion and religiosity in such multicultural settings benefits from taking into consideration Arjun Appadurai’s works, which point out that localities (and the relationalities and factors within, including the religious) are not given but are historically and contextually produced and should be understood not only as spatially bounded but also as imaginatively connected to other social spheres and spatial configurations (Appadurai 1996: 188). As seen next, the contributors to the volume paid particular attention to this aspect as well.

The contributions

In the opening essay of the volume, Clemens Six discusses simations of contestation and conflict involving places of worship in Delhi after Partition (August 1947). Spaces of the urban sacred became focal points for the implementation of political authority and legitimacy and of a model urban society, and - at the same time - for the contestation of cultural hegemony as places of opposition and subversion. In the process, a large number of Hindu temples and Muslim shrines and mosques were officially authorised or demolished. The author shows that through these actions, the municipal and national authorities had a twofold aim: to fashion what in their view was a modern and religiously diverse India and to implement their version of secular statehood. The essay addresses further important issues: the contested boundaries between religious and secular urban spaces in the context of decolonisation, forced migration and inter-religious violence. It also takes up more general questions concerning the category of the sacred in (modern) urban history, such as its transitivity as a result not only of religious practices but also of modern governmentality; the continuities and ruptures that characterise the transition from colonial to postcolonial societies; and the connections between religious transformations, on the one hand, and the socio-economic and political transformations of the 20th century on the other.

Applying a dynamic fieldwork strategy, Kathinka Froystad looks in her contribution at inclusive religious practices in Kanpur and selected “contingent moments” that occurred during her research. The author starts out from one particular religious site, a Kali temple in the city’s suburbs, and follows visitors of the temple and a Brahmin priest around as they move through their neighbourhood, the city and surrounding villages. The focus of the study lies on her interlocutors’ engagement (or non-engagement) with a variety of non-Hindu religious festivals and sites, each coming with their own characteristic sensitivities and associations. In addition to documenting a certain degree of religious flexibility and openness, Froystad also shows how the temporary crossing of religious boundaries can generate offence and has the potential to develop into inter-religious conflict. The "tag-along method” used by the author provides insights into the selective approach of her interlocutors to (cross-religious) sites and ritual events and their (often) low level of familiarity with the intricacies and sensitivities of others' practices. The latter aspect, in turn, generates at times “contingent moments” and “inter-religious lapses,” the first-hand observation of which contributes to increasing our knowledge about the largely unexplored area between religious openness and religious offence.

The topic of Mary Hancock’s essay is American Protestant mission in 19th-century southern India, more specifically the spatial practices connected to inter-cultural exchange and urban development in Madurai. The resulting new spaces included built environments created by and for the work of Christianisation: residences, churches, schools, dispensaries and orphanages. Their production and valuation were underwritten by the missionaries' notions of sacrality and their perceptions of competing local sacralities. At the same time, these spaces can be described as hybrid in architecture and interior design, as well as in the logics of their placement and use. Together, these built forms constituted a set of architectural. cultural and religious borderlands, shaped by colonial urban spaces, while being also products of and stages for Indo-American interactions that existed in complicity with and as counterpoints to British imperial formations. The author examines these issues through an analysis of the paired spatial projects of the company state and American Protestant mission in Madurai, a temple-centred settlement and node of medieval religio-political power. These aspects of the production of urban space reveal how religious convergences and frictions were entwined with the making of urban worlds in colonial South Asia and offer a genealogy for the ways in which urban world-making helped extend a new American imperial formation, built on commercial, religious, and education networks, in the interstices of British empire.

In his contribution. Knut A. Jacobsen looks at a Sikh pilgrimage centre located far away from the region of greater Punjab, where most of the historically and religiously important sites of Sikhism are. Pilgrimage is a widespread, popular and accepted ritual in contemporary Sikh religious traditions. Nanded in southern Maharashtra is the town where Guru Gobind Singh passed away in 1708, a year that marks for the Sikhs the end of the lineage of human Gurus and the beginning of the Guruship of the Sikh holy book, the Gum Granth. Nanded is also one of the five takhts, the Sikli seats of religious authority and legislation. Apart from the main gurdvârâ in Nanded, which contains a number of relics of Gum Gobind Singh, the Sikhs have built a large number of additional sites associated with Gum Gobind Singh’s life. At the time when the Gum Granth was compiled, Nanded was not yet a pilgrimage place, but it developed into one over the centuries as Sikli pilgrims increasingly visited historical sites associated with their Gums and celebrated the memory of historical events. As Jacobsen shows in his description of the town’s sacred sites, key features of the Sikli tradition were spatialised in Nanded, with the Sikh presence continuously expanding over the last decades. He also points out that the emphasis in Sikh pilgrimage on the history and territorialisation of faith did not lead to an increased effort towards architectural preservation, and the continuous replacement of old buildings with new structures does not seem to affect the feeling among pilgrims of being present at historical places.

Amen Jaffer and Hajra Cheema analyse Milad celebrations in working-class neighbourhoods of Lahore from a local perspective, focusing on neighbourhood sociality rather than situating the festival in the wider framework of religious nationalism. The annual festival commemorating the Prophet Muhammad's birth has grown in significance in recent years and continues to be in a process of transformation. According to the authors, even though Milad has become the main vehicle for the public showcasing of a Sunni identity, its norms are still being worked out. The same applies to the limits to which other, non-religious elements can be incorporated within it. Jaffer and Cheema discuss religious rationalities and their spatial implications in connection with the event, as well as other factors that shape public behaviour in urban contexts, such as expressions of masculinity, patriotism or competitivity. For instance, while the streets of the neighbourhoods are converted into colourfill worlds, veritable settings for beauty and spectacle, the Milad celebrations provide the young men involved in the process with an opportunity to express their control over the space of the respective neighbourhood. According to Jaffer and Cheema, Milad is more than just a festival meant for expressing religious sentiments. It is at the same time a space in which the social relations that constitute the fabric of the neighbourhood are produced and reproduced.

In her essay, Vera Lazzaretti explores the politics of religion in Banaras (Varanasi) by looking at the transformation of the area around two central religious sites, the Kashi Vishvanath temple and the Gyan Vapi mosque, focusing on boundaries and "in-between spaces.” Her vantage point is the Vyas Bhavan, a hundred-year-old building owned by a family of Hindu ritual specialists with a long tradition and high standing in the area, which was demolished in the summer of 2017 as part of a large government development project of urban renewal. Based on a close ethnographic relationship with Kedarnath Vyas (the head of the family), observations in the buffer zone between the two sites, and conversations with the area's residents, Lazzaretti introduces and discusses the notion of the "boundary within,” a demarcation exposed by the demolitions in connection with the development project. In addition to the tendencies of delimitation against the Muslims that characterised the history of the space under discussion long before the demolitions, in recent years the struggle of Kedarnath Vyas for maintaining both his religious authority and his property was directed against the Kashi Vish-vanath Temple Trust and assimilation into the temple domain. As more and more buildings in the compound were demolished, with the ruins of the buildings visible for months, residents deeply affected by the destruction of the neighbourhood’s material fabric and distinctive way of life started a protest movement, criticised political leaders and the government's development plan, and debated about “real Hinduness.”

Manisha Basu’s essay has its point of departure in Chetan Bhagat’s novel One Night @ the Call Center. Large parts of the novel's narrative unfold at a call centre in Gurgaon, a satellite township of New Delhi and one of the world's most important offshoring centres. In a dramatic moment of the plot, when the leading characters go through near-death experiences, one of them receives a phone call from God, in which the deity offers to save them if they in return promise to change their lives. Sounding like a self-help guidance counsellor, God speaks to the characters in an English inflected by Americanisms, an idiom familiar to them. As it also Writs out in the course of the novel, God is Hindu, and a woman. The larger issues addressed by Manisha Basu concern the ways in which religion is instantiated in modern urban contexts characterised by the newest digital technologies and networked life-worlds (in this case, as an emancipated, female, digitally enabled supreme deity) and, more importantly, what she calls "the postpolitical Hinduisation and the woman question.” According to Basu, authors such as Bhagat work to provide urbanised contemporary Hindu nationalism with an apolitical face, a process in which the vision of the emancipated Hindu woman plays an important role.

In her contribution. Deonnie Moodie juxtaposes two iconic sites of Kolkata (Calcutta), the Victoria Memorial and the temple complex (and pilgrimage site) at Kalighat, to inquire into the ways in which the city’s residents produce and cultivate their past and contribute to constructing and forming their heritage. Even though at first sight the memorial reminds Kolkata's inhabitants of the British dominance, it also provides a space in its built structures for promoting national figures and art, and it houses a permanent city museum in which the emphasis in the telling of Calcutta's story lies on the city’s openness for cross-culWral exchange. Kalighat, on the other hand, considered to be the place of the goddess since time immemorial (by her devotees), or the site of a temple for many centuries (by Bengali historians around 1900), is often employed to challenge the predominant narrative, according to which the city was built by Britons for commercial purposes. While both sites are important for heritage purposes and contribute to producing particular narratives of the city, especially Kalighat resists attempts to be turned into a heritage site and to be left in the past, as the author puts it, with thousands of Kolkata's residents being in a personal relationship with the goddess.

What would happen if one would think about networks, kinship between humans and non-humans or religious practice through the perspective of gardens? This is the question asked by Smriti Srinivas in her essay. Gardens as cultural and material spaces played an important role in Buddhist traditions. Mughal gardens and botanical institutions of the British period have also received much attention in the specialised literature. Srinivas proposes to look at gardens as imaginative spaces that offer fruitful material for understanding space, temporality and religion. Focusing mainly on the period between the last decades of the 19th century and the 1940s and also including sites from outside of South Asia, the author shows how the lives of plants and the lives of humans are interconnected and -through garden landscapes - tied to communities and philosophical ideas. Discussions of the genealogies of gardens in Adyar, Auroville, Singapore and Honolulu illustrate the processes and practices in time through which gardens take on their textures and materiality, enfolding spaces of religion and human lives. One of the main goals of the essay is to show how space can be studied as a "place crossed by pathways of life, aspiration, and remembrance,” emphasising movement, physical and imaginative.

Moumita Sen discusses in her contribution the course of events around the building of a shrine dedicated to Shani, a Hindu deity considered inauspicious, in a gentrifying area of southern Kolkata in the 1970s. Initially inhabited by Muslim working-class residents, the neighbourhood began undergoing major transformations when middle-class Hindus acquired land in the area, and when the shrine was established, it not only changed many aspects of local Hindu-Muslim social dynamics but also the neighbourhood’s name. In the course of her research, Sen uncovered earlier histories connected to the neighbourhood, such as the demolition of the local dargah in 1964. When she first talked to members of the local Muslim community in 2008, they were trying to raise funds through networks of political patronage to build a religious site of their own, eventually managing both to build a large mosque and to rebuild an old tomb. By exploring the history of the neighbourhood and the processes of competitive identity-building, mainly through interviews with Hindu and Muslim residents, the author addresses such fundamental questions as the ownership of public space and the strategies of resistance against majoritarianism.

The chapter on the persistence of religion in contemporary visions of Varanasi’s urban future written by Philippa Williams also draws on interviews, carried out in 2017 and 2019, as well as on government and city-level documents, political speeches and media material. The questions raised by Williams concern the politics of religion and utopian urbanism and the implications for imagining future urban citizens in a city that has acquired a special status within Indian national politics in the early 21st century. Since his election as prime minister in 2014, Narendra Modi has increasingly mobilised Varanasi (the constituency from where he contested the elections) as an urban stage for asserting a modern, Hindu-ised version of the city. Varanasi as an ancient site of Hindu orthodoxy is the point of departure for a movement aiming at a utopian vision of a future "smart heritage city.” Williams argues that through the prosaic language of India's smart-city policy, a vision of a new India is projected that is tied to a Hinduised imagination of the nation. The appointment of the Hindu priest and politician Yogi Adityanath as Uttar Pradesh's chief minister illustrates how the relationship between state and religion becomes institutionalised. According to the author, the representation of Varanasi's urban future and state-level policies have interacted to bolster Hindu nationalist sentiment and everyday communalism in the city.

Anustup Basu's essay addresses the question of Hindu nationalist discourse and. more precisely, the ways in which urban Hindu nationalist publicity replaces the literary-theological project of fashioning a universal Hindu religion (modelled on Abrahamic monotheism) with the informational project of advertising the Hindu nation. As any attempt at inventing singular Hindu traditions has to effectively deal with the plurality of religious systems and practices found on the Indian subcontinent, as well as the complexities of social stratification (caste system) and untouchability, such constructions have to remain incomplete, especially under the auspices of print capitalism. In the last decades, however, the author diagnoses the emergence of an electronic urban religiosity paired with advertised modernisation, which he calls Hindutva 2.0. Described as a "diagram of informational power,” “a new metropolitan template ... for the Hindu axiomatic as ethno-religious political monotheism,” Hindutva 2.0 is expressed through an "urban resonance machine,” a "Bollywoodisation,” producing the "unimaginable communities” of electronic capitalism. Thus, according to Anustup Basu, a monotheism nearly impossible to justify theologically is now rendered into a “spectral sublimation,” which makes superfluous the necessity to narrate a Hindu nation into being, as it can now simply be advertised.

Cara Cilano's contribution to the volume takes as its point of departure Muhammad Ali Jinnah's founding spatial vision for Pakistan, articulated in a speech to the Constituent Assembly on 11 August 1947, in which Jinnah assures his soon-to-be fellow Muslim and non-Muslim Pakistanis that they are free to visit any religious place in Pakistan. Cilano examines the developmentalist discourse operating in Pakistan in the 1950s and 1960s, and early U.S.-Pakistan relations, with particular attention to Constantinos Doxiadis’s plans for the capital, Islamabad, and to the question concerning the interconnections between internal and external politics. In addition to looking at Doxiadis’s work, the author analyses how the representations of non-Muslim minorities in fictional texts help produce the spatialisation of Islam and shape the lived spaces and mobilities of these minorities alongside those of the majority. The three fictional texts that depict Pakistanis over several decades of the country's existence are Sorayya Khan's 1995 novella "In the Shadow of the Margalla Hills,” her 2009 novel Five Queen ’s Road and the 2017 novel City of Spies. In these works, seemingly domestic issues and global concerns are interwoven in a complex fictional universe that - if taken together -effectively contribute to enlivening Doxiadis’s theories on the connection between humans, the everyday and the built environment.

In the volume's last chapter, I introduce residents of a mostly single-room tenement building (chawl) in Mumbai and write about my attempts at inquiring into the ways they perceived their culmrally diverse surroundings and the extent to which they engaged with their neighbours who belonged to culmrally and religiously different communities. Situated in a diverse area of the city, the three-storey structure had ten units, housing families with various backgrounds: Shia and Sunni Muslim. Maharashtrian Hindu, Jewish (Bene Israeli) and Christian (Goan Catholic). Repeated conversations with residents revealed recurrent patterns, such as initially evasive responses when asked about living next to culmrally different neighbours, as well as long descriptions of doctrinal and ritual aspects specific to my interlocutors’ own religious community. Interactions with them and the time spent in their homes also allowed glimpses at what I take to be strategies of neighbourly cohabitation in mixed-religious enviromnents. However, acquiring a better understanding of how a civil sociality and peaceful everyday are possible across religious demarcations in that building (and in other, similar mixed-religious residential constellations in Mumbai, for that matter), even without having close personal relationships, requires a closer look at what seems to be one of the key factors, namely, the notion of (civil, watchful, etc.) indifference.


Appadurai. A. (1996) Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Berking, H., J. Schwenk and S. Steets (2018) “Introduction: Filling the Void? Religious Pluralism and the City.” In H. Berking, J. Schwenk and S. Steets (eds) Religious Pluralism and the City: Inquiries into Secular Urbanism. London: Bloomsbury, pp. 1-23.

Eck. D. L. (1987) “The City as a Sacred Center.” In B. Smith and H. Baker Reynolds (eds) The City as a Sacred Center: Essays on Six Asian Contexts. Leiden, New York, Koben-havn, Köln: Brill, pp. 1-11.

Hancock, M. and S. Srinivas (2018) “Roundtable on Spirited Topographies: Religion and Urban Place-Making. Ordinary Cities and Milieus of Innovation.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 86 (2): 454-472.

Low, S. (2009) “Towards an Anthropological Theory of Space and Place.” Semiotica 175 (1-4): 21-37.

Redfield, R. and M. Singer (1954) “The Cultural Role of Cities.” Economic Development and Cultural Change 3 (1): 53-73.

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