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Searching for Shiva, Vishnu, Buddha, Allah, ...
Religious life in Chennai, India

Ali Akbar Mahdi
October 18, 2004

India has a secular government and the laws in India are supposed to reflect the worldly tradition enshrined in the Indian constitution. However, different religious communities still live abiding their own religious and family laws. Confronting these religious communities and their traditions has been a politically difficult task for the Indian democracy, especially in rural areas and smaller towns where religion dictates social life. Political parties affiliated with or supported by religious groups have been strong enough to make it hard for the state to resist their sectarian demands >>> Photos

India is a vast land with a lot of people from diverse religions: Hinduism, Islam, various traditions within Christianity, Judaism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, Bahaism, Zoroastrianism, and other nature based religions. This religious richness and diversity cannot be missed by anyone visiting India. Religion is central to Indian culture, and its practice can be seen in virtually every aspect of life in the country. Statues of various gods and goddesses, placed in doorways, shops, and street corners, are hard to miss.

Many people have a small shelf or corner in their homes dedicated to religious symbols and objects for praying. Major stores in the traditional segment of the town, especially older merchants, start the day by engaging all employees in a communal prayer. Colorful dots and lines, representing their devotion to different gods and goddesses, are seen on the foreheads of people in shops, banks, government offices, and even entertainment centers. Chennai may not represent the larger India but it is a lot more religious than I originally thought.

The most visible religious tradition in Chennai is Hinduism. I was told that in the state of Tamil Nadu, where Chennai is located, there are over 30,000 old and new temples, built at different times by different dynasties. These resplendent temples are more than a place of worship. Historically, they have served as a place for celebration and social gathering, teaching, social services, and medical care.

Their structures represent arts, culture, and human imagination. They capture the most mysterious feelings and thoughts that humans have to offer. Carvings on the wall, the designs on the interior and exterior, and the incarnations in these temples represent cultural, historical, and religious feelings, attitudes, and thoughts encapsulated in myths and traditions. Characters represented in these structures are various incarnations of Gods like Shiva, Vishnu, Surya, and goddesses like Durga, Ganga,.... Pictures presented here are only a sample of these temples.

Next to the Hindu temples are Christian churches of all kinds, many with Catholic affiliations. In Chennai, there is a Jain temple, a holy place for Sikhs, a Bahai center, and several mosques as well. There are also several Dargas (Persian word Dargah) or holy shrines where Sufi pirs, saints, and Muslim ulama are buried. These Dargas are very similar to imaamzadehs in Iran. In these churches, Christian symbols are often combined with Indian cultural symbols.

Mosques represent the third visible category of shrines. The pictures of the mosque you see here are from the Thousand Lights Mosque, one of the most important Shia mosques in Southern India, built in mid-1800. Its name is based on a legend that one thousand lamps were needed to light up its main assembly hall. This is also the only multi-domed mosque in the city. Another old and big mosque in the city is the Wallajah Mosque (big mosque) built by the family of Nawab Wallajah in 1789. The architecture of these mosques reflects a blend of Indian, Islamic, and Iranian influences.

As an Iranian, who grew up in a religious city and knows Shi'ism well, visiting the Thousand Lights Mosque was quite surprising. As a Shia institution, it differs from Iranian mosques in several ways. First, in Iran mosques are not shrines. The Thousand Lights Mosque is treated as a shrine, with a seminary attached to it. On the second floor of this mosque, there are two small rooms designed as what we know in Iran as haram (sanctuary). They are called bargah, one dedicated to Imam Hossein and one to Abolfazl al-Abbas. Each has a wooden frame designed in a chamber, like a Zarih in Iranian shrines.

There are also minarets and dooms on the top of these zarihs replicating their actual structures in Karbela (See pictures). Indian pilgrims come into this place and engage in the same kind of rituals that Iranian pilgrims perform in Imam Hossein's or Abolfazl's shrines, even though there is no actual burial on the site. They treat the wooden frames as real haram, go around it, sit next to it for a long time demanding blessings, and tie knots in the hope of receiving divine help for their concerns.

Secondly, women are not allowed to worship in the same hall. In Iran, women can enter mosques and they usually stand in a separate area behind men, but usually within the same hall. Here, women have a separate place of worship away from the main hall. In fact, the person showing the mosque to me regarded this feature of the mosque as unique and progressive relative to other mosques! I went to another mosque where there was no place for women and who were not even allowed to enter the premises. This is a tradition that has caused a great deal of concern among female Muslim activists. This past January, Daud Sharifa caused a storm in Muslim community in India by organizing women for establishing a female mosque, where women have control over the site and make decisions about its affairs. The jamat (clerical establishment -Ruhaaniyat) has opposed her efforts and done everything to undermine her activities among Muslim women.

Thirdly, I was surprised by the close contact this community had with the clerical system in Iran. In fact, a poster on the wall (see the picture) indicated that on June 24, 2004, there would be a grand opening of a Daar ol-Zahra to be inaugurated by the Grand Ayatollah Abdollah Javadi Amoli. The reach of the Islamic Republic's internationalism into this community, as I had seen it earlier in Syria and Kenya, is quite amazing.

Americans spend millions of dollars on communication equipments, radio and TV programs, and foreign aids, but they cannot generate the kind of close-knit relationships with a community so far away as the fundamentalists in Iran have! These wide influences also testify to the failure of secular forces in fostering effective lines of communication with religious people and influencing their views on world affairs >>> Photos

Ali Akbar Mahdi is a Professor at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology in Ohio Wesleyan University. Homepage.


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