Many are surprised that the colossal Meenakshi Temple complex in Madurai in south-India began as an anonymous stone lingam (phallic symbol of Shiva) in around 1600 B.C., and evolved through the subsequent commemoration of that spot through centuries of communal worship, patronage and craftsmanship; that the entire temple town of Madurai, as it stands today, represents the teleological end of this ancient lineage of grass-roots activism powerful enough to create an entire city.
Three millennia since, such patterns continue to exert a vivid influence on the contemporary Indian city. With the daily influx of rural migrants into the metropolis also comes the import of a sacred substratum to the public and private dimensions of Indian urbanity: The city gets sprinkled with a thousand nameless spots of religious solace transcending all legal norms and nurturing a parallel urbanism associated with Hindu shrines and temples.
Shading a smeared stone or a diminutive portrait of divinity, or marked with flags and banners, a devasthana (literally “place of the Gods”) mysteriously appears along the roadside beneath an anonymous street tree. As the anointed abode of a deity, it is worshipped through diurnal and seasonal rituals directly under the canopy. In time, that smeared stone may seem to bear the spiritual weight of an entire community, and with prayers increasingly answered, elicit its transformation into the rudiments of a Hindu shrine. When such a tree dies, the spot remains sacred, believed to be vibrant with the energies of the innumerable rituals that became the focus of community worship. An anonymous street tree thus marks the genius loci of a place to be.
As components of this parallel sacred urbanism, thousands of anonymous wayside shrines impregnate the formal Indian public realm, evolving into the centers of various invisible cults. In his essay Look Out! Darshana Ahead, Ranjit Hoskote has observed how the 1990s street side shrines in Mumbai’s suburbs in fact followed a standard evolutionary graph: “first the platform, then the parapet; in due course, an archway, this additive process culminating in the consecration of a miniature temple, rendered in grey-veined marble, complete with grille-guarded, white-tiled sanctum, bells, saffron pennant, and that vital basis of the shrine’s financial model, a collection box.”
Yet for all their semiotic association, these shrines are contradictions to the canonized symbolism of a Hindu Temple. Their orientation to the cardinal directions is ad-hoc as opposed to the strict east-west alignment of their franchised peers. And unlike the managed hygienic environment one associates with city temples, most shrines are so wonderfully raucous, open to all people and practices. With this legal and sectarian immunity, the spatial field surrounding these shrines gradually garners a complex social significance: It is from where one prays to the deity; it is the pradakshina-patha or path of ritualistic circumambulation symbolizing holy union; and it is the setting for communal festive gatherings. The shrine gradually attracts not only daily worshippers, but entities interested in commercial dealings with this destination – the mobile food shack, the craft stand, the flower seller, the alm-seeker, and the loud-speaker all represent elements of a larger evolving urbanism.
But that said, these shrines are also illegal encroachments on the public domain, blatantly violating zoning ordinances and by-laws, and it is not that they always escape their infractions. In Mumbai for instance, in 2003, the municipal authorities, undeterred by citizen protest, launched a campaign to demolish street shrines. Several illegal shrines and temples vanished leaving behind traces of their trees or paving. But their continuing veneration as sacred ruins nurtured gradual reincarnations affirming the resilience of this stealth urbanism.
Across India, Innumerable such shrines are evolving into larger, franchised entities. These transformations are evidence not only of their growing repute, but also their changing status-quo from artifacts of kitsch to canon, and anonymous illegitimacy to recognized ownership. Some shrines formalize the open space around them, but most are ingenious site planning solutions within limited spatial confines, some even incorporating the original anointed tree as part of their design. The process of building a franchised temple around a sacred tree or shrine involves special rituals to cleanse the area prior to breaking ground. The temple typically adheres to traditional canons, and if necessary, its orientation is “corrected” to face the rising sun. Collective decisions determine whether the original idols are retained or replaced with new ones, and their eventual transfer into the sanctum after the temple’s completion involves elaborate prescribed ceremonies and rituals. Such processes, all too conspicuous to avoid public curiosity, are typically the result of significant individual or communal patronage, with legitimate cooperatives, funding sources, and even records documenting the temple’s design and construction.
As alternative dialogues on place-making and populist informality, and as contradictions to mainstream practices, this metamorphosis from abstract beginnings to complex eventual compounds expands the rhetoric of planning and urban design in India, bringing in other issues of spontaneity, bricolage, ambiguity and inclusiveness. Hardly a bourgeois utopia, the demographic associated with (but not limited to) this urbanism largely comprises rural migrants, slum dwellers, and denizens of the pavement, that far from being a burden on the urban economy in fact supply it with a vast pool of labor for the “un-desirable” jobs that organized labor evades. Through their unlicensed religious entrepreneurship and uncanny ability to elude law and authority arise these intuitive manifestations of commonsense, labor and kitsch.
Can the ubiquity of such sacred trees and shrines then be included within the planning dialogues of Indian cities? Can parts of the Indian city be understood as evolving communities around maturing holy nuclei, whose future forms and extents may not be entirely unpredictable? Do the millions of wayside shrines and their continuing evolution suggest a parallel building industry, where the ingenious self-help skills of the city’s floating populace – masons, brick-layers, construction workers, and gardeners – can contribute to a significant employment base for the urban economy? Do their mysterious inceptions, growth and resilience challenge the linear reading of zoning, land use and land value? In fact, some shrines have been known to raise the real estate value of a neighborhood even as others have become communal shields to freeze changes like street widening.
The anointed Indian city raises perplexing questions on the thin line separating legitimacy and tolerance, formality and spontaneity, and urban planning versus urban possession. Size does not matter; what matters are the locations of these sacred dots powerful enough to bypass socio-political legitimacy and celebrate everyday ordinary life and reality with little pretense of a perfectible future. Today’s venerated trees and shrines will become tomorrow’s centers and monuments, for in them lie the hopes and spiritual aspirations of the millions of underserved who simply want a stake in the city. The task at hand therefore is to identify and accept them and find the mechanisms to include them as integral elements of the Indian urban landscape.