The aim of this project is to show how popular religious practices and texts elide a range of powerful knowledges and techniques that attempt to fix religious identity. In the context of South Asia and Britain, the religious identities Hindu, Sikh and Muslim are considered normatively separate traditions with their own textual sources and places of worship. However, an analysis of the demotic nature of ritual practices in the region of Punjab, which spans the border between India and Pakistan, demonstrates how syncretic practices and fluid identity markers are maintained in spite of the range of techniques that create and re-enforce the notion of hermetically sealed religious boundaries. This fluidity and fixity is played out in two ways, firstly through common religious practice (i.e. use of diva) and reference to common texts (‘Heer Ranjha’) which cross formal religious boundaries. Secondly, through a matrix of gender and caste relations, sites of worship which are visited by Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims are often constructed as feminine and low-caste as opposed to the more `pure’ or orthodox practices which are seen as male and high caste. The binaries of men/women and high/ low caste become part of the way in which formal religious boundaries such as Sikh and Muslim come to be formed and in turn deconstructed in popular practices.

Our intention is to specifically examine how gender and caste contribute to the framing of religious experience in terms of the practices of worshippers at sites which are ostensibly labelled as Muslim, Hindu and Sikh in East and West Punjab, India and Pakistan respectively. Discourses on religion seeking to highlight `differences’ of religious identities have become increasingly seen as oppositional or `communal’ in the context of hostile state relations between India and Pakistan. This hostility is most prominently played out in border areas like the Punjab (Kalra and Purewal 1999). One of the key techniques of asserting difference by each nation-state is through the fixing of religious boundaries despite which, common places of worship particularly the tombs of saints, or pirs, but also at Gurdwaras are maintained as sites of syncretic practice and boundary crossing.

The themes under investigation in this project come under the Identity, Community, Welfare and Prosperity section as well as the texts, spaces, rituals and object of the programme. Our hypothesis is that women and marginal caste groups in Punjab, over time, have been the least invested in fixed religious identities, despite their cooption in political mobilisations. Further to this, their participation in more popular religious practices offers an important insight into how gender and caste shape the experiences of religious practice while also undermining or reworking centrally-defined religious identities through `popular’ means. The following research questions illustrate the projects relevance to the programme:

  • What are the techniques and technologies, in a Foucauldian sense, by which hermetically sealed religious categories of Muslim, Sikh and Hindu are maintained in contemporary Punjab? What are the historical and textual sources for these religious identity formations?
  • How is popular worship at sufi shrines and gurdwaras maintained despite hegemonic notions of religious identity? What are the practices that are shared across formal religious boundaries? What are the gender and caste implications of these practices?
  • What are the textual sources that are at the base of these demotic practices? How are these various textual sources received by various practitioners?
  • What are the implications of these practices in the context of the Punjabi diaspora in the UK?

Oberoi’s (1994) seminal work has shown how religious boundaries are historically constructed, using the example of Sikhs in colonial North India. Pandey (1990) traces the manner in which these constructed categories became competing or `communal’ identities under colonialism based upon increasingly fixed definitions of religion. Mandair (2006) points us to Hegel’s ontotheology as the basis from which Hindu-ism and Sikh-ism emerge as the natural `others’ to Christianity in Punjab. These texts privilege the moment of colonial encounter as one in which common religious practices are lost in the face of a modern call to essentialist identity. This research aims to analyse how acts of worship and certain performative texts and forms (such as qawwali and dhadi) at certain sites in Punjab still maintain fluidity in terms of religious identification.

Jackie Assayag (2004) examines the various shared religious traditions, cults and shrines by Hindus and Muslims in rural Karnataka, India. Assayag questions the notion of `Islam’ and `Hinduism’ as mutually exclusive traditions with divergent religious practices. Despite showing commonalities with Assayag’s work, the Punjab case is unique because of the forced movement of Hindus and Sikhs out of West Punjab in 1947 and the movement of Muslims from East to West Punjab and the presence of a large Punjabi diaspora in the UK. In that sense, the enforcement of communal identity has much greater weight in Punjab than in South India, yet popular practices and texts remain salient.

This is an interdisciplinary project reflecting the research questions posed which will engage in literature from religious studies, sociology, anthropology and textual criticism. This will result in the use of mixed methods, utilising ethnographic methods at the sites to be examined, textual analysis of sufi and Sikh texts, as well as some survey work to establish the gender and caste of visitors to these sites. The projects multinational focus will also be able to examine the impact of state ideologies on religious identity. The research will involve ethnographic fieldwork in three sites ostensibly marked as Hindu, Muslim and Sikh. Interviews will be undertaken to establish patterns of religious worship ensuring a balance in terms of our interest in gender and caste. The resulting analysis will also engage with the notion of inter-faith dialogue in the Panjabi diaspora which is predicated on the fixity of religious boundaries.

This is a collaborative project involving scholars from the UK and South Asia, Prof. Furrukh Khan of Lahore University of Management Sciences, Pakistan and Prof Bhatti of Panjabi University, India are the South Asia collaborators. These two institutions will also provide accommodation and other support during fieldwork.

The project will last 24 months, with 12 months fieldwork in Punjab. The principle and co-applicant are fluent in Punjabi in written and spoken form(s) and will undertake the research.

Assayag, Jackie (2004) At the Confluence of Two Rivers
Mandair, Arvind (2006) ‘Impossible Intersections’ in N. Ali, V. Kalra and S. Sayyid (eds.) Postcolonial People: South Asians in Britain.
Oberoi, Harjot (1994) The Construction of Religious Boundaries.
Pandey, Gyanendra (1990) The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India.