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.
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
millions of dollars on communication equipments, radio and TV
programs, and foreign aids, but they cannot generate the kind of
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.