Archive for November, 2012

Diaspora of the Gods

Waghorne, J P. 2004 Diaspora of the Gods: Modern Hindu Temples in an Urban Middle Class World, New York: Oxford University Press, vii plus 292 pages.

Globalisation has brought about many significant politico-economic and cultural transformations around the world. According to Giddens (1990), such transformations are ‘consequences of modernity’, which involves a profound reorganisation of time and space in social and cultural life. The founding fathers of sociology have theorised modernity in various ways. Most significantly is Weber’s theory of modernity as rationalisation, a process that is interwoven with the disenchantment and demystification of the world. Weber argued that modern society is characterised by reason and scientific thinking: religion, God, magic, and superstitious beliefs have no place in it. The questions that arise then are: What is the state of religion in modern society? Has religion declined over the years, or is it still continuing to play a major role in the lives of people?

It is in this context that Joanne Waghorne’s Diaspora of the Gods becomes an important contribution that seeks to explain the resurgence of religion in the social life of people, especially the mushrooming of Hindu temples in this hyper-modern and globalised world. Through rich ethnographic accounts and hefty descriptions, Waghorne explains the ‘middle-class religious sensibilities’(page 20), as well as the ‘globalisation of more localised temple traditions’ (page 172) in an era of trans-national religions. In the volume, she also documents the various reasons why ‘Hindus have chosen to transfer a portion of their wealth from business, and now technological and scientific know-how, into the renovation, construction, and maintenance of temples’ (page 235), not just in Chennai but also in the diasporas.

The book has four chapters, excluding the introduction and conclusion. Chapter one gives a historical perspective on the construction of Hindu temples in Madras (Chennai). Chapter two provides a rich ethnographic account of the Mylapore neighbourhood, which has witnessed a growth not just in middle-class families but also in numerous Hindu temples. The gentrification of the goddesses and the increasing involvement of wealthy businessmen in temple construction and maintenance are discussed in chapter three. Finally, in chapter four, Waghorne looks at the globalisation of local temple traditions, and the network of gods and goddesses in the Hindu Tamil diaspora around the world.

Religion, City, and the Middle Class

Religious beliefs and practices are considered to be private matters for each individual. The public and political role of religion is discouraged as it may create divisiveness in societies that are multicultural and multi-ethnic in nature. The resurgence of radical Hindu nationalism in India that perceives religious minorities (that is, Muslims and Christians) as alien and anti-national is a case in point. The historical roots of confining religion to the private sphere lie in the separation between church and state in Europe, and the birth of the concept of secularism. Secularism refers to the non-interference by religion in matters of state and in politics — and vice versa. In India, however, it means the equal treatment of all religions (sarva-dharma-samabhav) by the state.

Secularism in India became stronger due to British rule and with ‘the development of communications, growth of towns and cities, increased spatial mobility, and the spread of education …. [the] concepts of purity and pollution which are central as well as pervasive in Hinduism … greatly weakened’, leading to the secularisation of social life and culture (Srinivas, 1972, 118 & 119). The educated middle class evolved as the leading representative of secularism and democracy; cities and towns became centres of science and modernity, whereas villages remained as the repositories of religion and tradition. This, however, does not mean that religion and culture were completely foreign to, or absent from, the lives of middle class families in cities and towns. Waghorne brilliantly discusses how religion is not only present in middle-class life in contemporary Chennai, but also growing in importance and visibility. This is confirmed by the ‘six hundred large temples and numerous street signs scattered throughout the metropolis — not to mention the many major churches and mosques’ (page 4). There is a ‘new temple building boom in the modern commercial city’ of Chennai, which could be a result of middle-class reaction ‘against the period of state atheism’ under the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party rule that ‘officially opposed temples as an imposition of old priestly — Brahman caste — authority’ (pages 4-5). This mushrooming of temples and the enthusiastic engagement of the middle class with religious rituals defy views that reject the coexistence of science and religion/faith and predict ‘the demise of “organised” religion among the educated’ middle class in urban geographical spaces (page 5).

Hindu Temples in the World System

Although a recent phenomenon, the temple boom in Madras (Chennai) city has a long history. According to Waghorne, two factors primarily accelerated the process of temple construction: ‘untamed dialogue when distinct groups met and merged, and high-speed economic activity’ (pages 38-39). Such high-speed economic activity and increasing global trade/mercantile networks occurred between 1640 and 1800, which Wallerstein has referred to as the modern ‘world system’. In India, with the expansion in trade and commerce, the cultural milieu has also undergone transformation. ‘New mercantile wealth, like the old royal wealth, flowed into temples’ (page 40); and temple building was no longer associated with state authority or kingship, but with merchant groups. As Bayly has noted, ‘the formative role of Indian merchant communities in the growth of Madras [Chennai] was expressed through the building and endowment of temples’ (cited on page 38).

This increasing involvement of merchant communities in temple building also brought the market place and the sacred place together in the public arena. Three kinds of Hindu temple emerged during this mercantile period. The first type is the eclectic or generic temple that houses an array of deities in an attempt to bring together all communities (inclusivity). The second type is the community-only or ‘caste’ temple, which discards a dialogic relationship between communities and is confined to a specific caste group only (exclusivity). And examples of the third type are duplicated temples, which are ‘built not so much as copies, but as kinds of “branch office” of older, more famous temples’— multiplicity (page 41). These new temples, built by merchant communities, were central to urban spiritual and commercial life; they still continue to function in the city as ‘the site[s] of conversation, of business, and of social life’, and thrive as living traces of the mercantile period in India (page 74).

The Gentrification of the Goddess

With increasing trade and commerce, the size of the middle class in urban centres began to expand, and they donated a large amount of their mercantile wealth towards temple building. Economic growth also transformed the religious sensibilities of the middle class. In such a context, many independent and village goddess temples aspired to middle-class acceptability. This attempt on the part of a goddess temple to change her ‘basic modus operandi to match the changing polity and the changing urban social realit[y]’ is referred to as gentrification (page 169). Mariyamman temple is one such example: ‘Employing Brahman priests, forbidding animal sacrifices within the temple precincts, and disassociating the goddess with her questionable former role as a murderous wife and dangerous mother, render her more acceptable to a wider public, surpassing her non-Brahman identity of the late 1970s’ (page 133). Over the past decades, Mariyamman, once viewed as a ‘village goddess’, has risen to popularity and gained wealth and importance among urbanised communities.

Globalised Localism

With globalisation, the movement of people across borders has grown significantly. According to recent data, there are more than 25mn people of Indian origin living in over 185 countries across the world. It is the ‘culture of origin’ that binds these diasporic communities with their home countries. T K Oommen, in an interview with Anand Kumar and Frank Welz (2003, 103), argues that the homogenising and hegemonising tendencies of globalisation have forced people to search for their roots which, most often, results in revivalism, leading to traditionalisation. This is quite evident among diasporic populations who, due to their disengagement with their home countries, always fear loosing their ‘true’ identity. In order to overcome such fears, diasporic communities import their local culture and traditions to their host countries.

Waghorne, in her chapter on ‘Portable Stone’, brilliantly discusses how more and more local temple traditions are becoming globalised and are now quite visible in many world cities. These temples are branches of the ‘original temples’ (the duplicated type) that are transported into a global context to foment a new kind of trans-national religion. For example, Mariyamman and Durga-amman have focused the religious lives of the Hindu diasporas in Singapore, Malaysia, the Caribbean, Guyana, and South Africa (page 174). It should, however, be noted that such temples and ‘goddesses are always “local” in the sense that they are associated with specific sites called shakti pithas in Tamil Nadu and among Tamil-speaking peoples’ (p. 173). This export of local traditions, temple structures and goddesses into a global context is referred to as ‘globalised localism’; and the middle class has played a major role in the construction of such trans-national religious locality.

Making Space for God/s

It is evident from the discussion above that the significance and visibility of religion is growing in urban spaces, and that the mercantile middle class has been playing an instrumental role in this regard. They are building temples, reviving religious traditions, and often transporting local goddesses to world cities. Religious activities are moving out of the domestic sphere and are expressed more explicitly in the public domain. New temples were constructed by ‘like-minded’ people for the purpose of ‘preserving culture and developing devotion in the midst of modern life’ (pages 231-232). Temple construction is not any longer associated with kingship or the royal family. Middle-class religious sensibilities and their mercantile wealth now determine the space for divine presence.



Giddens, A. 1990 The Consequences of Modernity,Stanford (CA): Stanford University Press.

Kumar, A and F Welz. 2003 ‘Approaching Cultural Change in the Era of Globalisation: An Interview with T K Oommen’, Social Identities,vol 9, no 1: 93-115.

Srinivas, M N. 1972 ‘Secularisation’, in Social Change in Modern India,Hyderabad: Orient Longman, pp 118-146.


@ Sarbeswar Sahoo, Diaspora Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2011