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Shrines in India and Pakistan demonstrate shared practices of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims Gugga Pir (Mairhi) near Patiala, India, where tombs and folk and spiritual music attract hundreds of worshippers each week

Shrines in India and Pakistan demonstrate shared practices of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims

17 January 11

Modern scholars and politicians tend to assume that the ‘world religions’ are separate and bounded entities with their own unique institutions and texts. State policies reinforce this ‘reality’ by relying upon tools of enumeration and labeling to perpetuate religious difference. The partition of colonial India in 1947 and the mass expulsion of Muslims from East Punjab and a similar movement of Hindus and Sikhs from West Punjab, was an extreme example of the accentuation of religious difference. What this research in the region of Punjab (Pakistan and India) shows, however, is that despite all this, many holy places, shrines and tombs of saints (pirs) are regularly used by Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.

This research project was conducted between 2008 and 2010 by Dr Navtej Purewal, Dr Virinder Kalra and their interdisciplinary team, funded by the Religion and Society Programme. Fieldwork took place at a mixture of mainstream and marginal shrine sites in Punjab, and used a combination of surveys, participant observation, ethnography and interviews, as well as study of oratory and music such as qawalli, kirtan and dhadi. The team found that various forms of social exclusion and everyday necessity are addressed through spiritual idioms. In ‘DIY’ shrines and practices the mixing of symbols is common, and self-run rituals and spiritual services exhibit a considerable freedom of interpretation and practice which empowers dalit/low caste groups and women. These sites are used not only for worship and spiritual practice, but serve a wide variety of personal, social and community functions.

State authorities and religious leaders are not always happy about this situation. When they intervene, practices become more disciplined, and surveillance of performance, sermon and ritual comes into operation. Yet the popularity of these sites makes them hard to police effectively, and these forms of ‘everyday’ or ‘lived’ religion continue to thrive on both sides of the border which today separates India and Pakistan. To some extent, the effect is to undermine the reality of separate, ‘communal’ religious communities, but nationalism, physical separation of religiously defined communities across the border, and enforcement of ‘big’ religion through politicised religious ideologies act as a countervailing force.

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