In these times of cultural and ideological tensions across the world, the coexistence between followers of different faiths is a burning issue. South Asia is no exception to this global trend: over the past decades, every country of the region has witnessed tensions and sometimes open conflicts between religious communities. While strengthening politico-religious organizations, these conflicts have polarized every society, putting their cohesion under severe stress. However, South Asia also has a long record of intermingling between religious communities, which to this day remains epitomized by the sharing of various kinds of sacred sites: saints’ tombs, temples, churches, street shrines as well as natural or topographical features serving as places of worship. These shared sacred sites, which carry all the polysemy of the notion of sharing (ranging in significance from indifferent co-presence to deeper interpenetration, not to mention the notion of division the term also includes), provide rich insights into the dynamics of religious interaction.
This project aims to study these sacred sites shared by different religious communities by asking two sets of questions. First, what does the sharing of these sites tell us about the fabric of plural societies in times of rising religious and ethnic nationalisms? How much work does sharing a particular site require on the part of public authorities, religious specialists, and devotees? Are instances of accommodation between different religious communities only an epiphenomenon? Do they act on or reflect wider interactions in everyday space? Is there continuity or discontinuity between religious practices on the one hand and social and political practices on the other? To what extent does the sharing of sacred spaces reduce the risks of conflict between religious groups? In the opposite direction, how does conflict affect interactions in shared holy places? The specificities of South Asia in the long run (co-presence of religions with theological discourses that are seemingly incompatible, i.e. the “monotheistic” exclusivism of some opposed to the “polytheist” inclusivism of others) as well as more recent political and religious developments in the region (the rise of nationalisms and fundamentalisms) should only make our case studies more relevant from a comparative perspective, helping us to bring these debates forward and gain further insights into the intricate politics of coexistence.
Second, the focus on shared sacred sites will lead us to explore the articulation between religious interactions and the politics of belonging, as the existence of such shared spaces questions the boundaries between groups and between religions – if not the very notion of “religious community” itself. We shall thus determine the logics behind going to a place which, at first glance, does not belong to one’s own religion. What religious authorities declare as non-canonical or outside the fold of “true” religion can be experienced as fully coherent by devotees, who may also refuse the logics of affiliation. Religious fuzziness is characteristic of shared sacred sites and we aim to document it ethnographically. This will lead us to critically examine the theoretical apparatus mobilized by scholars to think through religious interactions, at the forefront of which are the concepts of syncretism (an often hasty qualification used to refer to all forms of religious interrelations or to all practices that are not easily attributable to a specific religion) and of tolerance (uncritically endowed with the positive meaning of the Enlightenment). In the process, this will conduct us to re-assess the modes of apprehending religion beyond the community-based categories that are usually mobilized.