Religious practices can offer interesting ways to understand cities such as Bangalore, says anthropologist Smriti Srinivas

At a 2008 property show at Kanteerava Stadium, something curious caught Smriti Srinivas’ eye. Besides the usual advertisements touting ‘world-class amenities’ and proximity to IT parks, builders were advertising another feature: proximity to places of worship, such as the Ramana Maharshi Centre in Sanjay Nagar.

After the early ’90s, the expanding boundaries of Bangalore led to changes in consumption and housing, but also an area far less noticed: religiosity, or the ways in which people practice religion in daily life.

This was the subject of a talk by Professor Smriti Srinivas at the National Institute for Advanced Studies (NIAS), as part of its ‘The City In Question’ lecture series.

Smriti, a professor of anthropology at the University of California Davis, has previously studied Bangalore, and written extensively on the city’s Karaga festival. The property show she attended set off a train of thought that led her to study the interactions between Bangalore’s expanding boundaries and modes of religious practice.

Access to religious spaces

She offered that in the most material sense, the ring roads built by city authorities to facilitate easy transport between certain areas could become important channels of access to new religious spaces (she terms these channels “highways to heaven”).

Smriti used the eastern suburb of Whitefield as an example. Earlier, a dominantly Anglo-Indian settlement, Whitefield has now become a software hub, with even special bus routes for the area. Explosions in housing and new forms of consumption — malls and restaurants — have accompanied the suburb’s new software image.

But there is another way to view Whitefield: besides its high-tech, ‘global’ buildings, the area also houses the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences. “It’s a healthcare hub — not by the government or a corporate body, but by a global religious movement,” she said. Another example was that of the Pyramid Valley in Ramanagaram, founded in 1990, which borrows the jargon of management and psychology. It, too, is anchored by the Kanakapura-Ring Road junction in south Bangalore, and serves the upper-middle class people from nearby areas, she noted.

At the talk, she said cities were often imagined as secular entities, with religiosity (a term, she says, that communicates the practical aspects of religion) playing no role in the public imagination — except in cases of communal violence, for example.

Religiosity as a resource

But there was more to be understood from the ways in which people practiced religion; religiosity could offer “cultural and archival resources”, she said. While she didn’t wish to ignore the history of communal violence, religious practices could be a creative force, she clarified later over email. “The Right has certainly been reductive in its understanding, but we still need to recognise that there is more to religiosity-in-the-urban than the construction of communal identities.”

In matters of urban policy, religion rarely appeared; if at all it did, it was only peripheral, incidental, she said. But in understanding cities, religion can offer a move beyond the nitty-gritty of policy issues to a larger cultural context.

“I want to draw attention to the wide range of practices in contemporary life, some of which have long histories, and which could have a significant role in imagining our urban futures,” she says.