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Secularism, Religiosity and Popular Culture

This paper is an ethnographic essay dealing with various facets of religiosity, urban communities and roadside temples even as it raises larger issues on the secularisation of Indian society. Its central argument is that the notion of "multiple modernities" may provide a framework to understand the flourish of contemporary religiosity as it accords a role to tradition in the shaping of the modernisation process. In the specific context of Hindu communities, the sanskritisation process works conjointly with the secularisation process. The paper also suggests some possibility for rethinking the notion of popular culture as well.

Secularism, Religiosity and Popular Culture Chennai’s Roadside Temples

This paper is an ethnographic essay dealing with various facets of religiosity, urban communities and roadside temples even as it raises larger issues on the secularisation of Indian society. Its central argument is that the notion of “multiple modernities” may provide a framework to understand the flourish of contemporary religiosity as it accords a role to tradition in the shaping of the modernisation process. In the specific context of Hindu communities, the sanskritisation process works conjointly with the secularisation process. The paper also suggests some possibility for rethinking the notion of popular culture as well.


he received wisdom on the secularisation process in high modern societies is that the process entails first, the decline in religious beliefs and practices, secondly, the privatisation of religion whereby religion is confined to the private sphere of one’s life and/or becomes subjectivised, and thirdly, the differentiation or separation of the secular domain of state, economy and science from religion, whereby the religious sphere ceases its domination and control over these spheres [Casanova 2006]. This secularisation thesis has been the subject of empirical verification in these modern societies and it is now widely believed that the decline of religious beliefs and practices are more the European experience of secularisation (though even that has been revised recently) whereas the American experience has been described more as the “churching” of America rather than one of the decline of religion there. In the modernising world, it was believed till recently that secularisation and modernisation were associated and that with modernisation, societies would become secular. Now there is the realisation that secularisation is path-dependent on the trajectory of modernisation adopted by societies and with multiple modernities, the process of secularisation across states and societies would also differ.

In India, the secularisation debate has been more or less confined to the problems in the construction of a modern secular state and concerned itself to aspects related to the separation of state from religion, understood broadly in terms of erasing state practices from religious domination or significance, the relationship of the state to minority religious communities and the separation of politics from religion [Bhargava 1998; Chatterjee 2006]. But the separation of the state from religion is rather one way, for secular state practices do in fact reshape religious practices and subjectivity, such as attempts to legislate ban on religious conversions. However, the Nehruvian notion of secularism in India failed to indicate what historical roots ought to be a part of the modern Indian, and what was to be rejected [Swamy 2004].

The first two aspects of the secularisation thesis, namely the decline of religious beliefs and practices and the privatisation of religion have never been of much interest to sociologists of India to merit empirical investigations, although the allure of “spiritual India” as the exotic “other” still retains its hold in the world at large. Examining the relevance of The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James to contemporary times, Clifford Geertz has observed that contrary to the perception of James that religion is becoming more subjectivised, religious faith today has been driven “outward towards those of the polity, the state and that complex argument we call culture” [Geertz 2000:170]. Geertz also observes that the contemporary global shifts in religious sensibility have led to “a vast remaking of judgment and passion” (2000:185).

In recent years the globalisation of religion, especially of the growth and vitality of diasporic Hinduism has received some attention [Rayaprol 1998]. But such studies in the local contexts of India have been rather few [Srinivas 2004]. Few would deny that there has been a flourish of Hindu religiosity going by the mushrooming of temples, the large following of new Hindu religious leaders like Amritanandamayi, Sai Baba, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar or Baba Ramdev and the TV channels coverage of religion. Both the thinking laity and the social scientist are left to wonder if this religious flourish is on account of simple demographics of increased population, the rise of religious faith, the assertion of a cultural identity where religion is symbolic of a cultural system, or perhaps all of these in varying degrees. The construction of the modern Indian with a secular subjectivity did not erase her religious sensibility, although it appears to have transformed it in some ways.

But it is clear now with the hindsight of political experience that the Ayodhya mobilisation and the post-Ayodhya electoral victory of BJP indeed provided the opportunity both for the politicisation of Hinduism and the foregrounding of religion as a marker of cultural identity, in this case the Hindu identity, and of the association of cultural identity with national identity indeed. Although the BJP’s attempts at a broad based mobilisation for democratic politics based on “Hindutva” politics may have been thwarted by the victory of more secular forces, the issues of religion as cultural identity and the nature of secular society have hardly been resolved or foreclosed permanently.

All over urban India, there has been a mushrooming of roadside temples and we now know that these could be sites of potential communal conflict in some regions, going by the recent Baroda

Economic and Political Weekly November 4, 2006 episode of the demolition of a 200-year-old Sufi dargah by the municipal administration and its consequences. In Mumbai, the high court ruling in favour of a filed public interest litigation (PIL) had given permission to demolish hundreds of roadside temples. Other city and town administrations are known to demolish them at times just as fervently as they do the illegal squatter settlements, only to find both roadside temples and squatter settlements rise like phoenix from their ashes.

How do we understand the “event” of the construction and demolition of roadside temples in urban India in the framework of a sociology of tradition and modernisation? Here the concept of “multiple modernities” may be useful as it combines both aspects of tradition and modernisation. It emphasises the relevance of cultural traditions and religion for the formation of multiple modernities, although the process may entail the transformation and pragmatic adjustment of tradition [Casanova 2006]. This article seeks to engage with this “event” by drawing evidence from roadside temples in Chennai.

The field work done in Chennai in the months of March to June 2004 sought to understand roadside temples as an emergent urban cultural phenomenon in all its aspects, as well as the social background of those engaged in building and managing these temples. In all, information was gathered from about 25 roadside temples in the Mylapore-Mandaveli area of south Chennai.

Temple Builders

There exist many roadside temples, meaning those built on the sidewalk of streets appropriating public space. As compared to other regions, Chennai’s roadside temples offer a variety in terms of the deities that are worshipped, the most common being those of Amman (mother goddess) and Ganesh (‘Pullayar’). These temples try to replicate the architectural features of the bigger temples of Tamil Nadu with ‘gopurams’ and the like, with brightly painted figurines of gods and goddesses. The construction of the gopuram and performance of the ‘Kumbhabishekam’ have generated much enthusiasm from about the early 1990s, coinciding with the phase of vigorous building of roadside temples. Shrewd observers of roadside temples remarked that during the first tenure of Jayalalithaa as chief minister, she went on a demolition spree but later realised that if she were do it again, she would lose her votes, implying thereby that a wide crosssection of the population supports the temples, enough to affect electoral results. It often seems that pedestrian rights for many Chennaiites have a lower priority over their cultural and religious beliefs and rights. But on occasions, the state administration did demolish many of these temples, even in other towns like Madurai, when they were seen to obstruct traffic or come in the way of the widening of streets.

The history of each roadside temple is unique, and is often a layered history of individual life trajectories, of contestations and negotiations, and the belief structure of the persons involved. One cannot also overlook the fact that a number of the Ganesh temples have been put up by taxi and autodrivers, and cycle rickshawallahs. Today it is almost a norm for every auto stand to have a Ganesh temple. Ironically, it is even quite common to see a board put up adjacent to the temple indicating the membership of the autostand drivers to the CITU (Marxist) trade union.

The popularity of Ganesh temples is on account of the widespread belief that worship of Ganesh signifies auspicious beginnings. People remarked that, these days, as soon as an apartment block is constructed, somebody from the neighbourhood will put up a Ganesh temple. Yet others noted that Ganesh temples are put up at the point of intersection of a “three-way path” – one street being perpendicular to another is considered inauspicious

– to ward off evil. With so many Ganesh temples around, there are varied claims about the ‘shakti’ (generally understood as boon-giving powers) of particular Ganesh temples. This has even led to a kind of myth-making process whereby a certain kind of resistant subaltern morality is constructed, as if to indicate that if expropriation by one class is justified, it can be for others too and hence morals cannot be absolute norms. For a widely held belief among the slum youth, at least in Chennai city, is that a Ganesh idol has a lot of ‘shakti’ if it is stolen from somewhere. A watchman of a middle class apartment had imaginatively placed a Ganesh idol in the hollow of a tree-trunk in front of the complex only to find it missing after a few months!

Temple Construction and Working Class Insecurities

If the bigger temples of Tamil Nadu have written accounts of their history, roadside temples have only popular histories that need to be pieced together from often contested and oral accounts. Being predominantly a working class activity that is an expression of working class religiosity and culture, such histories are no doubt intertwined with the varied life trajectories and contingencies of working class existence. Let us take the case of Chakrapani who has put up a Ganesh temple near the Mandaveli market. As Chakrapani’s house was facing, what he called as a “three-way path”, he was advised by elders in the family that it was inauspicious for the prosperity and welfare of his family. Chakrapani told me that he had initially placed an idol on the outer wall of the house. His house is nothing but a small plot of land on which he has a half-done construction of one room in brick and cement. As his house was constructed on a plot of land that belonged to the Sri Kapaleeswar temple in Mylapore, there had been attempts to evict him for the last 40 years. According to him, his next door neighbour on the right side, one Shanmugadurai Nadar, a firewood depot owner, his neighbour on the left side, the owners of Thandu Mariamman temple and an employee of the Kapaleeswar temple have been acting in concert with the help of a CID official and some rowdies in the area to evict him and appropriate his plot of land.

Chakrapani then put up a small Ganesh temple in the land in front of the house, which actually belonged to the Chennai Corporation, perhaps to stall eviction attempts. I was amazed at all the letters he had safely kept in a basket, those written to police commissioners, temple authorities, etc, and the manner in which he produced them to me as evidence of his long struggle against eviction. It is remarkable that he remembered the exact date when he put up the temple in 1968 and claimed to have built the gopuram for the temple in 1971. Chakrapani says in a day there are on average 40-50 visitors to the temple.

Now who is Chakrapani? He is about 68-70 years of age and was earlier a vegetable vendor in the Mandaveli vegetable market. With the market demolished in the last 10 years to give way to a marriage hall, he could no more be a vegetable seller. He began to earn his living by renting out bamboo ladders and rudimentary construction materials like bowls and spades. He also takes the temple ‘hundi’ (money offered by devotees) collection, using

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some for temple purposes and the rest for himself. He is otherwise absolutely poor with a few utensils and plastic pots and no bed. Although Chakrapani built the temple to ward off the evil to his family, he did not fully succeed in warding off evil either. His detractors, according to him, poisoned his wife’s mind so that she now lives separately in a village on the suburbs of Chennai where her daughter also lives. He also claimed that his detractors managed to kill two of his infant children. In spite of all odds, he carries himself in a very dignified way.

Morality and Legality in Public Space

But not all roadside temples necessarily involve eviction disputes and land appropriation. Situated near the bus stand and adjacent to a taxi stand that later became an auto stand opposite the landmark Sanskrit College on the busy Royapettah high road, is a Ganesh temple that occupies much of the broad sidewalk there. The Ganesh idol has been there for nearly 22 years and one Anbu put up the temple. Anbu is an auto driver and though initially he lived in the neighbourhood, he has now moved into a Housing (slum) Board flat in Tiruvanmayur. Mani who has been looking after the temple for the last 22 years as the ‘gurukal’ was formerly a construction labourer working under a contractor. Now he occasionally works as a casual worker doing painting work and gets Rs 35 a day. But his primary vocation is the temple work. Although so far they have faced no eviction problem, they had actually handed over the temple to the government’s Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) department for one year, as they were embroiled in a custody case in the court some three years ago. The auto stand drivers – the founder auto driver was not one of them – wanted to take over the temple as it was located in their auto stand and had appealed to the court. The judgment in the Saidapet magistrate court went in favour of the founder auto driver, and during the time when the case was pending, the government looked after the temple and had its own appointee as the temple priest. This is indeed an interesting custody battle between auto drivers, the auto stand drivers feeling deprived that they did not have a Ganesh temple, as the spot had already a temple put by another individual auto driver prior to their presence.

Slum lords and local ‘dadas’ are also known to take the initiative in putting up temples, not always with the motive of land appropriation or making money, but more as an expression of their social status in the community. The Sri Vembadi Vinayakar Aalayam temple situated at the end of Srinivasan street, off St Mary’s road was put up by the late Sundaram right in front of his residence and appropriated the street space. This temple had a plaque indicating it was put up in 1964 and that it was inaugurated by the then Tamil Nadu information minister, one Puvaragam. The late Sundaram was a slumlord for nearly 30 years until his death in the early 1990s. Often charged by the people as being involved in the distillation and sale of illicit arrack (country liquor) during the period when the state tried to enforce prohibition of liquor, Sundaram amassed wealth and clout through the sale of arrack to the poor men of working class families in the slums in the neighbourhood. Accused of heinous crimes like murder, polygamy and so on, Sundaram was feared even by the police. But this is not the only image of him. Known to be a benefactor of the poor, Sundaram was actively involved in the slums’ community activities like putting up temples, helping families in distress, often meeting their funeral expenses, and networking a good deal with politicians. Today people remember him with awe and mixed feelings of respect, fear and sympathy. A local rumour articulated even today is that just a short time before his death, he had placed his foot on the Ganesh idol proclaiming that it was just a stone. People attribute his death to this single act of disrespect, overlooking his other criminal activities. All this is part of the slum folklore.

Mother Goddesses, Myths and Superstitions

Apart from the Ganesh temples, there are numerous Amman temples and unlike the former, these temples are predominantly associated with Dravidian and dalit Hinduism where the rituals performed, such as propitiating the goddess in the Tamil month of Aadi through offerings of Koozhu (ragi soup) and Pongal (sweet Kichidi), are meant to primarily appease the goddess whose wrath could otherwise inflict calamities and diseases. Unlike the Ganesh temples, the origins of these temples are more closely associated with superstitious beliefs and spiritual fantasies and women too are often involved in putting up these temples. People hold a number of beliefs about Nagamma’s powers and make a distinction between “divine snakes” and “ordinary snakes”. In one temple they found the idol growing, in another they found the neem tree shedding milk, in yet another a school boy observed the temple shaking, in one the Amman came out of the earth. There are also such stories of the past in popular memory. In Kolavizhiamman temple in Mylapore that has existed for long, popular memory has recorded the incident of how a British officer tried to remove the idol and how he subsequently became blind. Peepul (arasam) trees either entwined with neem trees or standing alone are associated with snakes and lord Shiv and so they invariably attract attention as potential temple sites, although initially it would start by just placing a rolling stone vertically to symbolise the Amman/Shiv. Sooner or later, the figure of Amman would be installed and worshipped and will thenceforth progress into a temple. Popular Hinduism is much the outcome of local myths and local imagination, reflecting the pre-puranic and even pre-vedic indigenous form of Hinduism prevalent in the region.

Amman Temple, Culture and Community

It is an almost mandatory cultural norm for each slum settlement to have one or a few Amman temples, as Amman worship is popular among the non-brahmans, especially the dalit castes. This also promotes a sense of community, even if at times people have complained of coerciveness and occasionally of the role of rowdies. But in many others, there is a well organised set of cultural and philanthropic activities undertaken by neighbourhood groups.

The Sri Nagakanniamman temple opposite Mandaveli bus terminus first started off as a small stone that was worshipped under a peepul tree and has today become a mini-temple complex of three small shrines – one of Nagakanniamman, a shrine for Hanuman along with brass idols of Ram and Sita, almost back to back with the Nagakanniamman shrine. In between the two is a fairly mid-sized peepul tree under which it all started nearly 30 years ago. On the north side of the tree, there is a stone idol of Ganesha. On the south side and facing the east is a shrine for Ayyappan, considered as a tribal diety living on the hills of Sabarimalai in Kerala. This whole mini-temple complex, which

Economic and Political Weekly November 4, 2006 is an amalgam of tribal, dalit and vedic gods and goddesses, is put up on the sidewalk of Venkatakrishna road. The shrines were done like small ornamental ones with freshly painted figurines of gods and goddesses. Lighted plastic name boards indicated the name of the donor who helped to construct the shrine. Now who are these people who helped construct these small shrines that constitute the mini-temple complex on the street sidewalk?

All of them belong to a neighbourhood association called ‘Mylai Mandaveli Friends Association’ that has been in existence for nearly two decades. It has office bearers like president, vice president and secretary. The present secretary, one Shankar, overseers the temple activities; he was earlier the owner of a wine shop just close to the temple complex. He himself is the son of a former slumlord. Shankar was however a devout person and for nearly 25 years, he and his friends had organised pilgrimage trips to the Ayyappa shrine at Sabarimalai in Kerala. Once his business prospered, he decided to build this roadside shrine which formerly was a small shrine under the tree. Now Shankar has given his wine shop on lease, lives off the rental income and engages himself with neighbourhood philanthropic activities. A nearby woman flower seller, one Kanniamma, told me that nearly 30 years ago, she had first put up a stone there when the peepul tree was small and then subsequently the temple was developed by Shankar, the wine shop owner and others.

On the first Sunday of the Tamil month of ‘Aadi’, the Nagakanniamman temple celebrated its three-day Aadi festival. The festival was organised by the ‘Mylai Mandaveli Friends Association’ and the most significant part was the distribution of saris to 2,000 poor women in the neighbourhood, irrespective of caste and creed. I came to know from the organisers that it was the 19th year that they were celebrating the festival and they had on numerous occasions distributed saris to the poor. The organisers told me that no public collection was made and that the activity was fully funded by members of the association, many of whom are traders and shopkeepers living in the neighbourhood. Also on the day of the procession of the 63 ‘Nayanars’ (the Tamil Saivite saints) of Sri Kapaleeswar temple, they organise to feed about 15,000 poor persons who come to the temple festival, serve cool drinks on the occasion and put up a child rescue centre to retrieve lost children on the crowded days of the temple festival. They also distribute textbooks to poor school children and help them fund their education. It is remarkable that they started the sari distribution function first by observing a minute’s silence to pay homage to the lost children of the Kumbhakonam fire tragedy of 2004 and a high ranking police official (IGP-Admin) inaugurated the sari distribution function. The fact of the association’s frequent public and neighbourhood activities was evident to me because they had their own name-painted steel barricades to regulate the crowds.

Neighbourhood and Political Support

These few illustrations are meant to merely indicate that roadside temples are largely put up by the working class or the urban underclass and spurred by various motives and passions. Often an initiative undertaken by a slum youth, such as installing an idol, would thereafter be taken care of by the neighbourhood community as in the case of one Murthy who was killed in an inter-gang slum feud. The Ganesh idol he had enthusiastically installed was subsequently developed into a temple by a middle class brahman family who resided opposite the location and who was disturbed to find the Ganesh idol not appropriately propitiated. Balu, an illiterate rickshawman has kept an old issue of the English newspaper The Hindu as his prize collection for the ‘City Engagements’ column of that issue had reported an event that he had organised in his small roadside Ganesh temple. A middle class neighbourhood friend got it into the newspaper for him, though he cannot read it. Listening to Perumal recount his life-time achievement of building the Ganesh temple is indeed moving. A 70-year-old cycle rickshawman, he has been earning his livelihood by plying the rickshaw for the last 55 years. He and three other rickshawallahs put up a Ganesh temple in their youth. Now with his other three comrades dead, it is left to Perumal to proudly display the plaque inscribed on the wall and to recount its history. Apparently, once when the corporation demolition squad arrived at the scene, a lawyer in the neighbourhood called up the mayor of the city, who was then a DMK man, and requested his intervention to stall the demolition as it was a temple put up by the rickshawallahs and thus saved the temple.

In fact, it was quite common to be told of many similar instances where knowing the local politicians, DMK or AIADMK men, helped in stalling demolition attempts. It is therefore not surprising that the flower seller seated by the Sri Nagakanniamman temple opposite Mandaveli Bus Terminus, whom I approached to gather some information about the temple, first made it clear to me that she was an active member of the DMK party’s women’s wing and that she knew the local DMK politicians, perhaps suspecting that I was either from the HR&CE department or somehow connected with either demolition or take over of the temple. It is because of the association of roadside temples with deities that are favoured by the backward and dalit castes and the working classes, that the political leaders from the DMK and AIADMK, political offshoots of the rationalist anti-religious Dravida Kazhagam, have given protection and patronage to these temples.

Roadside Temples and the Government

For varied reasons, the state sometimes takes over a roadside temple under its administration. The government had apparently issued a notice to the Mylai Mandaveli Friends Association for takeover of the temple but under the leadership of Shankar, the association has gone to court and the matter is now being legally contested. Apparently many prosperous roadside temples in Chennai are taken over by the government under the HR&CE department, in order to check it as a money-making enterprise. The government officials come on surprise checks to see the hundi collection of the temple and if the money is above a certain limit they initiate proceedings to take over the temple. Now many roadside temples do not have a hundi for fear of takeover as the people who build and look after the temples have a deep emotional attachment to them. However, when the government takes over a roadside temple it appoints its own priests who are government employees, subject to service rules like transfers and pension and sometimes the incumbent priest gets absorbed as a government employee.

On occasions such as road widening or traffic regulation, governments have demolished these temples. In these instances, secular reason and governmental rationality prevail over religious sentiments and most people involved in the construction of these temples seem to accept it as inevitable. In the 2005 temple

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demolitions in Madurai, the municipality had apparently even demolished temples taken over by the HR&CE department so much so that the court had to restrain the municipality. The Tamil Nadu government is perhaps the only state government to have a discretionary policy of both encouraging these temples, as they are essentially a Dravidian and working class urban cultural activity, ensuring public interest protection through the HR&CE department and approaching demolition cautiously so as to safeguard popular sentiments.

Temple Priests

Most of the roadside Ganesh temples hire a brahman priest to perform the daily ‘pujas’ for a monthly salary of Rs 500. While some of these brahman priests are recent migrants to the city and come from priestly families from the villages of Tamil Nadu, there are some brahman men who take it up as a vocation after retirement, especially if they are good in Sanskrit and vedic learning. One such priest told me that his post-retirement employment as a priest of a roadside temple is really the fulfilment of a life-long yearning as in his youth he was trained in a gurukulam in Mahabalipuram on Aagama Shastras. His employers are auto drivers to whom he is answerable and accountable. Generally, the auto drivers make a monthly contribution to fund such temple expenses as the priest’s salary. Those who are unable to hire such a priest usually do the pujas themselves. In Amman temples it is common to see women functioning as priests, and hardly any brahman priests, as Amman worship is considered part of Dravidian/dalit Hinduism. Some of these women priests are also well versed in folk astrology (Kuri) and so have a large clientele visiting their temples. One Amman temple has been in existence for over 45 years, and was started and still managed by hereditary trustees belonging to the vanniyakula kshatriya (naicker) caste. The current priest belongs to the same caste and is a 56-year-old former employee of Coromandel Garments, a Tata unit in the Ambattur industrial estate, who had opted for the voluntary retirement scheme (VRS). While he gets no monthly salary, he gets to keep the ‘dakshinai’, the plate offerings made by devotees.

Roadside Temples as Urban Popular Culture

The creation of an urban popular culture through roadside temple activities as an expression of working class religiosity questions widely held assumptions about what constitutes “popular culture”. Popular culture is generally associated with the spirit of resistance. Here we see it as an expression of working class culture that seeks to synthesise the Hinduism of the “great tradition” and the “little traditions”, and in its everyday practices transcends caste, class, religious and gender boundaries. It is also simultaneously the constitution of a social text that allows people to draw meanings of nationhood and their sense of belonging in cultural terms that are rooted in local practices, everyday life and localities, and seeks to evolve new perspectives and ideas of a secular society.

Cultural constructions of national identity for large sections of the population that are immobilised in local spaces mean those that render significance to their localities and transform spaces into “places” that are suffused with emotions and experience. These cultural constructions are produced by, and they in turn reproduce, certain mentalities. Mentalities refer to the set of individual and collective feelings of the place, expressed in all actions that constitute the myriad everyday practices of the place. It is in and through these cultural constructions that people derive a sense of belonging to the nation, a sense of belonging that often interweaves and collapses the feeling of belonging to the family, the neighbourhood, the community, the city, the nation, caste and religion and so on.

Amman worship, being popular among largely the non-brahman castes of Tamil Nadu, can be said to belong more to the dravidian/ dalit gods and goddesses and is not part of the Sanskritic/ Vedic tradition of Hinduism. But what we see happening in the roadside temples is a process by which these dravidian/dalit gods and goddesses are being progressively brought within the fold of “the great tradition” of Sanskritic/Vedic Hinduism and yet retaining some of their distinctiveness. Many of these Amman temples have in the last 10-15 years performed the Kumbhabhishekam. And as a learned priest told me, the Kumbhabhishekams are performed either based on “Agama pratishta” or “Vaideega pratishta”. In the former, strict observance of rituals as prescribed in the Agama Sastras are observed and the pujas are performed by superior brahman priests considered well-qualified in Vedic rites and recitation. The Vaideega pratishta has certain less rigorous standards and is performed by ordinary priests, mostly brahmans. Most of the roadside Amman temple Kumbhabhishekams in the recent years have been performed based on Vaideega pratishta. But they nonetheless have been brought under the fold of Sanskritic Hinduism to some degree.

Placing an Amman deity together with Ganesh or Navagraha idols in an Amman temple is an attempt at synthesising, although Amman does not exclusively belong to the “little tradition” either.1 Amman or devi in various forms such as Lakshmi, Durga, Parvati, etc, is part of the “great tradition”, while other Ammans belonging to the local traditions like Karumari Amman, Mutharamman, etc, are part of the “little tradition” and are mainly village goddesses. Each of the Ammans of the “little tradition” is associated with a mythological story or local history, such that the repertoire of Amman stories and narratives is something very large. The personality of the folk goddesses and the Vedic goddesses are very different. While the folk goddesses evoke fear, Vedic goddesses symbolise love and mercy.2 All these no doubt are part of the “Sanskritisation” process first elaborated by Srinivas (1962, 1989).

In everyday practice, roadside temples bring people of diverse castes together. Respondents never failed to mention the patronage of the neighbourhood brahman families even when the temples have been put up by the auto drivers, nor did some of them seem to mind such temples abutting their compounds. Christians serve as members of temple committees and have even given large donations for temple construction like the Ramalingaswami temple in Mandaveli, which is part of the Thandu Mariamman temple. While many temples had hired the services of priestly brahmans for a meagre monthly salary, the ones that could not afford that had labourers and women doing the daily pujas. These instances of transcending boundaries are not acts of resistance as much as they are expressions of unification and harmony. They seek to minimise the distance between social positions, not consciously perhaps, but as an ongoing cultural practice that glosses over social structuration.

Spiritual reflection takes one to a different level of consciousness and the role of religion is to foster that consciousness as

Economic and Political Weekly November 4, 2006 a collective consciousness. A retired brahman bureaucrat active in the construction of his neighbourhood Amman temple remarked that the mushrooming of such roadside temples was an unorchestrated attempt on the part of society to foster a socio-religious movement to promote certain values and outlook in life. The owner of a broiler chicken shop who is managing a roadside Ganesh temple built by his father who was a taxi driver and a local DMK party activist, when asked to comment on the large number of patrons of roadside temples, remarked that people nowadays were aware that more uncertainties mark both the future and the everyday. These people from varied walks of life articulate in a different manner what Durkheim noted long ago.

For a society to become conscious of itself and maintain at the necessary degree of intensity the sentiments which it thus attains, it must assemble and concentrate itself. Now this concentration brings about an exaltation of the mental life which takes form in a group of ideal conceptions where is portrayed the new life thus awakened: they correspond to this new set of psychical forces which is added to those which we have at our disposition for the daily tasks of existence. A society can neither create itself nor recreate itself without at the same time creating an ideal [Durkheim 1915:470].

A significant question regarding the cultural construction of national identity pertains to the manner in which each secular nation constructs its “secular” identity in terms of a secular state, a secular society and a secular personhood. Swamy (2004) observed that Nehruvian secularism floundered because it was based on a conception that “froze the Hindu social order by either nonchalance to religion or by its implied negative rebuke. It lacked the positive content of providing a process for assimilation of the lower castes into the elite.” While roadside temples may at first appear to be the appropriation of public spaces (of spaces that were meant for all, in a manner that is exclusive and hence not a secular act), and the sacralisation of those appropriated public spaces may appear antithetical to the secular image, yet the practices of roadside shrines in Chennai do seem to define a new kind of secular identity and foster a spirit of secularism.

For more than a decade, the Ayodhya temple building movement has drawn the attention of all, as this movement along with the politics of Hindutva sought to constitute a national identity in terms of majoritarian Hindu ideals and norms. Such constructions of national identity in religious terms sought to define and foreground the Indian nation as the nation of Hindus in exclusive terms. In this whole Ayodhya politics, one failed to take notice of temple building activities that had gone on vigorously in the metropolitan cities like Chennai, with no links to the Hindutva movement. The construction of a national and local identity in and through the activities of Chennai’s roadside temples is neither exclusive nor chauvinistic, but derived from infusing a sense of meaning and purpose to localities around which the everyday life of the working class and others veer. More importantly, it has clearly indicated the process of multiple modernities at work in urban India and of how a collective modern secular subjectivity, is being constructed without at the same time displacing the religious subjectivity although transforming it in many ways. The processes of modernisation and secularisation in India have to reckon with and adjust to both the process of Sanskritisation and the more recent dalit counter-hegemonic cultural aspirations that seek to invoke a new set of ideals as an alternative to Sanskritic Hinduism as well as of the religiosity of other religious groups.




[Research for this paper was facilitated by a Sarai/CSDS Independent Fellowship (2004). Preliminary findings of fieldwork were presented at a Sarai seminar in August 2004 in Delhi. I am thankful to Ravi Vasudevan, Ravi Sundaram, Shuddabrata Sengupta, Vivek Narayan and many others at the seminar for their comments and suggestions, not all of which may have been adequately handled in this paper. I am also thankful to Talal Asad for giving me a copy of The Hedgehog Review, Special Issue: After Secularisation.]

1 Such attempts at synthesising have been going on for long in various forms. Kolappan (2003) mentions that one method of assimilation was to connect local gods to Vedic gods by family relationship. The Tamil goddess Meenakshi was married to the Vedic god Shiva, and the Tamil god Murugan was identified as Karthikeyan, a son of Shiva.

2 The popular Tamil serial Raja Rajeswari screened weekly on Sun TV channel portrays how Vedic goddesses replace folk goddesses in the Tamil collective consciousness. Seeing this serial made me think that “media sociology” was indeed ahead of “academic sociology” in India.


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