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Of Blurred Religious Identities

Rohini Mokashi Punekar

By Yoginder Sikand
Penguin India, New Delhi, 2003, pp. 270, Rs. 250.00


In the face of state instituted religious violence, the language of hate spewing across the country and the casual acceptance of this in ordinary lives, it is difficult not to stress the significance of this book, its sanity and its timeliness. While there is hardly any aspect of the political, economic, social or cultural life in India that is not stained by considerations of religion and sect, or the violence generating thereof, this is a fact that is known, sincerely bemoaned and endlessly circulated in academic circles of a certain colour; how much sympathy it receives amongst persuasions of other kinds is anybody’s guess. It is to be hoped therefore, that the book finds favour on account of its many charms, not the least of which is a laconic sense of the absurd, or that its appeal may lie in its first hand description of many shrines not easily accessible to the religiously inclined, and so make its impact indirectly.      The book is a focused yarn; it is also a travelogue; an ethnographic account of various cults and shrines outside the mainstream; a limited history of sorts. Beginning with the Ayyappa shrine in Kerala, Yoginder Sikand takes the reader on a fascinating journey to little known places of worship that have nevertheless infused, historically, a culture of mutual respect, even inspiration, between two or more religions. We go with the author through the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and thus upwards to the north and the west, through changing landscape, weather, language, cuisine and the physical features of the humble people who throng these shared spaces. A few shrines retain their shared spiritual praxis: the devotees of Ayyappa who have traditionally worshipped his Muslim army chief, Waver, so that the shrines of both these legendary figures draw equally Muslims and Hindus; the dargah of a sufi at Bidar which is sacred to Muslims and Lingayats; the temple-dargah of Shishunala Sharif  (this is a small whitewashed affair made of the graves of the saint-poet Shishunala and his parents, but the votive flowers, earthen lamps are obvious Hindu indicators, as are the Hindu names of the singers of his songs) in the impoverished countryside near Dharwad; the shrine to Our Lady of Good Health in Vailankanni, which is Christian in liturgy and worship, but is sacred to the non-christians, so that the place has acquired the colours and ...

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