Wash your hands and sing! Purification via Water and Word

28 March 2020

Sacred water can be anywhere. That is what seems to emerge from the flow of information currently circulating on handwashing and purification tips. Against the current dramatic global sanitary crisis, this information is symptomatic of a desire of (re) appropriating the sacred and the sanctification process.

Washing hands has become one of the essential “weapons” against the rapid spread of the Coronavirus. While our pragmatic modern societies are working on quick and efficient medical answers to the contamination, lots of voices are also rising to advocate the use of prayers and/or inspirational songs while washing hands. For this large panel of religious and non-religious agents, the action of washing hands advised by medical professionals is not sufficient to answer comprehensively the current crisis. Backed up by unprecedented means of communication (IT and social media), these “upgraded” handwashing initiatives spread not only via the agency of religious authorities, but also through personal initiatives.

Wash and Sing

Following the craze of tweeted singing suggestions, some sites started listing the best songs to sing while washing hands – for instance, “Songs to sing while washing hands: Coronavirus hand-washing songs”. Singing has an obvious entertainment purpose and it forces the practitioner to keep washing for an appropriate amount of time, 20 seconds according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It also helps the singer to assimilate the washing steps and to cheer up during an anxiety-inducing situation. In the process, the gesture is ritualized, which represents, for new forms of spirituality, an individual appropriation of a purification process.

Wash and Pray

Religious authorities and spiritual practitioners are not to be outdone: The net is flourishing with posts suggesting to accompany handwashing with prayers and recitations. The poster below, for instance, was circulated by Catholic authorities (here a diocese in Vendée, France). It copies the pictograms currently circulated by the French government about how to wash hands, and it adds a prayer to be recited alongside. The poster is entitled “How to wash hands ‘the Catholic way’ ”.

Washing hands…the Catholic way.

The poster ascribes a part of the Pater Noster (or alternatively the Salve Regina) to each basic gesture of hand hygiene. This association could be read as a mnemonic method to remember the different steps of the handwashing. It also has spiritual virtue since the poster ends with the following sentence: “Clean hands save lives… and prayers saves souls!”

If reciting a prayer while washing hands is not a daily practice in Christianity, it remains an essential step for the celebrant before and during Mass (especially before beginning the Eucharistic prayer). During the celebration, a liturgical bowl and ewer are used. Many churches have also preserved their “lavabo” (or “piscina” or “sacrarium”), a stone basin that was constructed in the sacristy for the priest to wash his hands before starting the Mass (lavabo-s are also found in monasteries’ cloisters and refectories).

Lavabo niche with aquamanile in the sacristy of Erfurt Cathedral

For purification purposes, the lavabo rite includes the pronunciation of a psalm (Psalm 25). It brings the priest into a state of ritual purity, necessary for him to accomplish his duty of intermediary and divine agent.

Comparative overview: Islam and Judaism

In Judaism and Islam, ritual hand washing is not reserved for religious authorities, but is prescribed to everyone on several occasions. The Wudū, or ritual ablution of Islam, is an essential purification process in the context of the religious practice, either the formal prayer (salat) or before handling and reading the Qur’an. The gesture and recitations that go along are prescribed with details by the respective religious traditions. Wudū fountains and tanks are pivotal architectural elements of the Islamic prayer place, the masjid.

It is noteworthy that, in the urban context, an important part of the religious landscape developed around the need for creating a sacred space for codified ablution rituals: ablution tanks attached to mosques in the Islamic context, Jewish mikveh-s, Brahmanic kund-s (temple tank), Buddhist chōzuya-s (water ablution pavilion), etc.

In Judaism, ritual handwashing, or netilat yadayim, is a daily practice extended to several occasions and not restricted to worship and religious activities. It is for instance prescribed to everyone upon arising, before/after eating bread, after leaving a cemetery, upon leaving a bathhouse/room, or after touching part of the body which is dirty. Water has to be poured abundantly and a blessing is pronounced.

As an essential corner stone of Jewish spirituality, the idea of purity (ṭaharah) is accompanied by detailed precepts on the different grades of cleanliness and methods of purifying unclean objects or body parts. Recent discussions on the significance of purity in the study of Judaism associate pure/impure classifications with a cosmology proposing a social arrangement of the world (see, for example, Douglas, Mary. 1973. Natural Symbols. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Pelican Books. Neusner, Jacob. 1973. The Idea of Purity in Ancient Judaism. The Haskell Lectures, 1972-1973. Leiden: Brill). Just as physical distancing is prescribed to avoid the contact with the unclean, “the social body draws lines, restricts admission, expels undesirables and guards its entrance.” (Frimpong 2011: 89)[1]

In South Asia

We recognize here strong similarities with the South Asian experience of purity, though Douglas insisted on the universality of these anthropological concepts. Impurity and pollution are indeed strong spiritual and social markers of South Asian cultures, which is particularly prominent in Hinduism. Here, water plays a crucial role as ultimate purification element (and potential agent of inclusion or exclusion). In Hinduism, water is necessary to answer ritual and moral impurities and is thus present in all the rituals, may they be daily routine rituals, rituals linking to particular stages of life or exceptional rituals. Here also the water gets its purification properties from its association with the recitation of appropriate mantra-s. The highly codified Brahmanic tradition gives detailed prescriptions about the gestures, positions, visualizations, mantra-s, intonation and coordination of these parameters. The smallest inaccuracy invalidates the rite.

Parts of the hand as described for the fulfillment of Āchamanam

The ritual called Āchamanam (आचमनं) is about consecrating water and consuming it. It aims at eliminating physical and mental pollution. Its performance is an essential part of the Sandhyavandana (संध्यावन्दन), a set of rituals to be performed three times a day by Hindus that have been initiated through the sacred thread ceremony. Vaishnavist and śhaktit Purāna-s like the Bhāgavata Purāna or the Devi Bhāgavata Purāna describe how to perform the Āchamanam. Interestingly, Āchamanam practices are closely linked with the so-called “Narayana-kavaca Shield”, a Vaishnavist protection against fear and revealed by the Vedic deity Indra.

This crucial Hindu rite show affinities with Vedic material and Zoroastrian practices (that also emphasize ablutions). Both these traditions foregrounded questions of hygiene and physical, mental and spiritual purification.

This brief overview of some of the important rituals present in the big religious Indo-European traditions shows how much Water and Word are tied together for spiritual purification objectives. Today, singing while washing hands can be understood as a (only partly conscious) revival.

— Sara Keller

Sara Keller is a post-doctoral researcher in the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations”. She specialises in medieval Indian history, especially water works in western India.

[1] Frimpong, A.D. 2011. Purity and Impurity: Menstruation and its Impact on the Role of Akan Women in the Church. PhD thesis.

Walking through the streets of Calicut (II)

Calicut, 14th of March 2020

In times of Corona, is it still possible to walk through the streets of a big city that is always teeming with people? Especially in cities where there are no sidewalks, but where passers-by, vendors and automobiles (from autorickshaws to trucks) have to share the streets, it is easy to get in each other’s way. And it is exactly these things, especially physical proximity and touching, that we should avoid at the moment. Covid-19 has already changed our cities. In Tianjin, blue metal walls have been erected to separate shops from their customers or to seal off entire districts. It is known as the „Blue Great Wall“. The blue walls are a symbolic wall against the virus, but de facto they are supposed to protect people from themselves. This virus will further segregate our society in new ways. The demarcation measures issued by the local authorities, ranging from recommendation to prohibitions, are only the beginning.

What does Corona have to do with Calicut? Relatively little, actually. India is currently not one of the countries at risk. We’re currently talking 87 known and confirmed cases, 19 of them in the State of Kerala. However, since Germany is one of the risk countries, I was put under “quarantine” by the Indian authorities on March 13, 2020 “for my own protection”. Actually, it is only a “hotel quarantine”, i.e. I am not supposed to leave the hotel if possible, avoid all “non-essential” movements in the city and most importantly not use public transportation. There are certainly worse things, especially since the reports from friends and colleagues in Germany do not at all give me the feeling that I just wanted to be there. To understand why not only China, South Korea and Italy are counted among the risk areas, you just have to take a quick look at the map of the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University on “Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases”.

The context of all this is a research stay in Calicut. Fortunately, I was able to do some of the fieldwork at the beginning of the week. Besides a visit to the regional archives, this included a short “city walk” with Dr. Muhammedali, head of the History Department of Farook College, and Dr. Shinoy Jesinth, a young historian from Malabar Christian College, who wrote his dissertation on the urban development of Calicut during the colonial period. We visited the Tali Shiva Temple, a Jain Temple (but haven’t had access to the interior of either one) and the Railway Institute, founded in 1888, went through the Big Bazaar (Valiyangadi) and finally ended up at the Mothakara mosque, which is believed to date back to the 19th century. (For images see Twitter).

The site visits are only one part of the program – of course to see which historical buildings, streets or squares are still there today and what they look like, in order to check which elements that early modern travellers have seen are still there today. By concentrating on the historical (preserved) travel accounts, I can circumvent the current problem to a certain extent. After all, it reminds us that these travellers, too, have already had to contend with epidemics and disease; and we can all take this opportunity to remember that it was always our journeys – private and business, voluntary and forced by migration – that contributed to the spread of disease and epidemics in the world. In order to be able to make further observations on the emergence and development of urbanity, we will today devote ourselves to the Italian Pietro Della Valle, whose reports combine ethnographic observations, object-related documentation, astronomical position-finding and precise route descriptions.

Again, it’s our interest to find out, what this city looked like in the time of its greatest economic success and visibility: the houses, the streets, the squares and the buildings. And how people moved within it, how they used these places and what they thought and expected of it. In the research group “Religion and Urbanity” we are primarily investigating how religion and urbanity formed each other: “What role has religion played in urbanization? How has urbanity changed religion, and how do they continually influence one another?” However, since urbanity has not only been influenced by religious practices, actors and institutions, we first have to ask more general questions (under which conditions urbanity emerges and possibly disappears) in order to be able to define the specifically religious part more precisely.

The Italian travel writer, poet and composer Pietro Della Valle (1586-1652), a member of the Roman nobility, actually wanted to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1614. This turned into a journey as far as India, which lasted eleven years in total. On June 8, 1614, he started in Venice, sailed first to Istanbul to learn Turkish and Arabic. After about a year he continued his journey, via Alexandria and Cairo to Jerusalem, where he visited the holy places. However, he did not return to Rome, but continued his journey to Damascus, Baghdad (where he married a Syrian Christian woman, who died during the journey) and Isfahan (1617). Trained in ancient (European) languages, the nobleman also visited ancient sites such as Babylon, Nineveh and Ur, where he made transcriptions of inscriptions (cuneiform). The path led him further into the northwest of India. He reached Surat in 1623, from where he travelled south along the west coast in stages to Calicut. Via Muscat, Basra and Aleppo he returned to Rome, where he finally arrived on 28 March 1626.

After an honourable reception in Rome he was allowed to devote himself to the elaboration of his travel description, which was published in three volumes from 1650 onwards. The work consists of 54 letters to a friend. In the seventh letter, he reports on his “excursion” to Calicut, after having previously stopped in Mangalore, Kádiri, Carnáti and Cannanore [Kannur].

After the reception by the great Zamorin, he was able to explore the city and its inhabitants. So let’s follow him on his way through the bazaar, through the streets of Valiyangadi and into another, more “noble” quarter to the Palace of the Zamorin: „After Dinner I landed also with the Captain of my Ship and some other Souldiers; we went to see the Bazár which is near the shore; [1] the Houses, or rather Cottages, are built of Earth and thatched with Palm-leaves, being very low; the Streets also are very narrow, but sufficiently long; the Market was full of all sorts of Provisions and other things necessary to the livelihood of that people, conformably to their Custom; for as for clothing they need little, both Men and Women going quite naked, saving that they have a piece either of Cotton, or Silk, hanging down from the girdle to the knees and covering their shame; the better sort are either wont to wear it all blew, or white strip’d with Azure, or Azure and some other colour; a dark blew [turchino] being most esteem’d amongst them.” (Travels, p. 360) In the following he deals with hair and jewellery. Men carry sword and bucklers.

Before going any farther, Pietro Della Valle devotes himself to the division of the local population into social and religious groups. There are essentially two groups, the “Gentiles” and the “Malabari”, who live with the pagans, but are basically Muslims: „The Inhabitants of the Kingdom of Calecut and the In-land parts, especially the better sort, are all Gentiles, of the Race Nairi for the most part, by profession Souldiers, sufficiently swashing and brave. But the Sea Coasts are full of Malabari, an adventitious people, though of long standing; for Marco Polo, who writ four hundred years since, makes mention of them; they live confusedly with the Pagans, and speak the same Language, but yet are Mahommetans in Religion.[2] From them all that Country for a long tract together is call’d Malabar, [3] famous in India for the continual Robberies committed at Sea by the Malabar thieves; whence in the Bazar of Calecut, besides the things above mention’d, we saw sold good store of the Portugals’ commodities, as Swords, Arms, Books, Clothes of Goa, and the like Merchandize, taken from Portugal Vessels at Sea; which things, because they are stolen and in regard of the excommunication which lies upon us in that case, are not bought by our Christians. Having seen the Bazar and stay’d there till it was late we were minded to see the more inward and noble parts of the City and the outside of the King’s Palace; for to see the King at that hour we had no intention, nor did we come prepar’d for it, but were in the same garb which we wore in the Ship.” (Travels, p. 361-362) Then they continued through the city, towards the palace, along plots of land with large trees in which wild monkeys climbed. The passage is interesting above all because this part of the city is clearly different from the bazaar quarter in the eyes of the traveller: „Accordingly we walk’d a good way towards the Palace, for the City is great, and we found it to consist of plots set with abundance of high Trees, amongst the boughs whereof were a great many wild monkeys, and within these close Groves stand the Houses, for the most part at a distance from the common Wayes, or Streets; they appear but small, little of their outsides being seen; besides low walls made of a black stone surround these Plots and divide them from the Streets, which are much better than those of the Bazar, but without any ornament of Windows, so that he that walks through the City may think that he is rather in the midst of uninhabited Gardens than of an inhabited City. Nevertheless it is well peopled and hath many inhabitants, whose being contented with narrow Buildings is the cause that it appears but small.” (p. 362-363) From here they continued on to meet one of the viceroy’s men who knew from Goa. He finally persuaded them to meet the Zamorin, who also wanted to receive the group. The main gate of the palace was located on a small “piazza” with trees, which finally gave the flaneurs the shade they were looking for, before they went step by step into the inner area of the palace. (p. 363)

More will follow soon.

— Susanne Rau

Susanne Rau is professor of spatial history and culture at the University of Erfurt and one of the spokespersons of the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” .


[1] This is most probably the Bazaar Road.

[2] Many of the inhabitants were, in fact, Hindus.

[3] According to Grey, this is a misapprehension. The word is derived from Mala (Dravidian: hill) and Arabic bar or Sanskrit bara, denoting territory. (Travels, vol. 1, p. 121, n. 4). See also: “Malabar Coast”, URL: https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Malabar_Coast (14.3.2020)


Viaggi di Pietro della Valle il pellegrino ; con minuto ragguaglio di tutte le cose notabili osseruate in essi: descritti da lui medesimo in 54 lettere familiari all’erudito suo amico Mario Schipano, divisi in tre parti cioè: la Turchia, la Persia e l’India, Rom 1650-1658 (full text available on Gale)

Quotations are taken from the English translation:

The travels of Pietro della Valle in India, 2 vols., from the English translation of 1664, by G. Havers, ed. Edward Grey, London 1892.

Research literature:

Ayyar, K.V. Krishna, The Zamorins of Calicut. From the earliest times down to A.D. 1806, Calicut 1999 (first published 1938).

Flüchter, Antje, Frühneuzeitliche Indienwahrnehmung zwischen Empirie, Antike und Antiquarianismus. Die Briefe des Pietro della Valle (1586-1652), Maritime Entdeckung und Expansion. Kontinuitäten, Parallelen und Brüche von der Antike bis in die Neuzeit, ed. Raimund Schulz (Historische Zeitschrift / Beihefte (Neue Folge), vol. 77), Berlin/Boston 2019, p. 361-390.

Micocci, Claudia, Pietro Della Valle, Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, vol. 37 (1989), p. 764-770.

“Pietro della Valle”, in: Encyclopædia Britannica [2019], URL: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Pietro-della-Valle (13.03.2020)

Qudsiya Contractor on “Old Shanghai” and Hindu/Muslim Relations in Modern India

KFG Fellow Qudsiya Contractor‘s research explores how religion and religious identities impact the urban experience of the poor in Mumbai. Her project focuses on the Muslim poor in a Mumbai neighborhood and explores how socio-spatial segregation, a lack of basic amenities, economic deprivation, police surveillance and political marginalization play out in everyday life.

She has recently published two articles. One, entitled “Nostalgia for Shanghai’s Shikumen”, discusses efforts to demolish old housing, called Shikumen, and how nostalgia about these structures continues to be present in people’s minds. She writes that “a sentimental longing for the past lingers on in Shanghai”.

Her second article discusses “How Jaggi Vasudev has helped strengthen fears about Muslims”. In it, she and her co-author Suryakant Waghmore show Vasudev’s teachings are based in elite Hindu traditions and they illustrate how Muslims are constructed as new outcasts as a result. The authors show how “as a political category, Muslims invoke fear. They are suspected by many people of harbouring anti-national and anti-liberal sentiments.”

Both articles have much broader implications about memory and urban development, and religious coexistence and hierarchical power structures. They provide a fascianting opportunity to reflect on religion and urbanity in modern societies – enjoy reading!

Walking through the streets of Calicut (I)

As the readers of this blog already know, I currently come to Calicut frequently. The official name of the city is “Kozhikode” (in Malayalam: കോഴിക്കോട്), but the word is difficult for Europeans to pronounce, so we better stay with Calicut. Arab traders are said to have given it this name (Qāliqūṭ).

When we think of large Indian cities today, we usually think of Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai or Calcutta, or perhaps Bangalore. These are all megacities today or they will be in a few years. We could also call them ‘global cities’ because they are commercial and financial centres with networks that span the globe. Of course, caution is always advisable when we transfer modern concepts to the past. But I would like to show to what extent, since the late Middle Ages, one or the other city understood itself to be global, in the sense of globally networked trade relations or a religious centre which attracted people from all over the world – sometimes both.

From today’s point of view, Calicut is not a city that stands out in demographic, religious or economic terms. It has about half a million inhabitants, or two million if you include the entire agglomeration. This puts the city around the 100th position in the Indian city ranking. This was different in the late Middle Ages and early modern times.

Calicut was already at that time an internationally known port and a trading centre. This also has to do with its prehistory. Since the early Middle Ages, Arab traders settled here. Ibn Batuta from Tangier already determined in the middle of the 14th century that there was an important port in Calicut, to which traders from many distant regions would come. Vasco da Gama landed here in 1498, after he had succeeded in finding the sea route to India. The Portuguese built a fortified factory in 1513, but abandoned it in 1525 for fear of it falling into the hands of the enemy. In 1616, the English followed them. In 1766, Haidar Ali took the city; in 1782, the British occupied it.

The more Europeans – especially the Portuguese, Dutch, French and British – entered the South Asian markets, the more trade in Calicut and thus the importance of the city declined (Mathew 2006). Until at least the end of the 16th century, however, Calicut was one of the most important seaports and trading centres connecting Malacca in the east with Venice in the west.

In Europe, too, the city was known early amongst the merchant communities and in the scholarly milieu. The view of Calicut in the city book by Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg, published between 1572 and 1618, is evidence of this.

View of Calicut from 1572. (See here for copyright details).

On the cartouche one can read: “Calechut Celeberrimum Indiae Emporium”, which means “Calicut, famous Indian centre of trade”. Of the Indian cities only Kannur, Goa and Diu were otherwise present with a city view in this book.

Based on these assessments, I would like to examine in more detail how urbanity has developed in this city, or whether and how contemporary observers perceived urbanity. Or, if we take a step back, what this city looked like in the time of its greatest economic success and visibility: the houses, the streets, the squares and the buildings. And how people moved within it, how they used these places and what they thought and expected of it. In the research group “Religion and Urbanity” we are primarily investigating how religion and urbanity formed each other: “What role has religion played in urbanization? How has urbanity changed religion, and how do they continually influence one another?” However, since urbanity has not only been influenced by religious practices, actors and institutions, we first have to ask more general questions (under which conditions urbanity emerges and possibly disappears) in order to be able to define the specifically religious part more precisely.

In order to find answers to these questions, I first try to follow the travelers of that time on their paths through the city or try to reconstruct their descriptions. Of course, this is only possible if they have left written reports. It makes sense to distinguish here with Michel de Certeau two types of reports: map and parcours. The report type “map” describes a city “from above” as if the person were standing on a mountain or tower. With the “parcours” we can follow the traveller through the streets (see Rau 2011). The travelers, whether they are traders or pilgrims, are also basically ‘global actors’ in that they contribute in a praxeological sense – by travelling between distant places and making connections or comparisons in the narrative – to the formation of “globality” or at least an idea of it.

In a series of contributions, I will follow one traveller at a time on his way through the city or – optionally – follow him on the imaginary elevation in order to gradually construct an image of this city between the 15th and 17th century. Today we will start with François Pyrard (1578-1621), who is usually called “de Laval”, because he came from the French town of Laval in northwest France.

François Pyrard set sail from St. Malo in May 1601 in a small two-ships squadron belonging to local ship owners to sail to India, perhaps to the Moluccas. Two months later Pyrard’s ship was shipwrecked near the Maldives. The other ship sailed on to Sumatra. Together with some other sailors, Pyrard spent five years on Malé as a guest against his will. Pyrard observed the people and learned their language (Dhivehi), which gave him a deeper insight into their way of life. In 1607, during a Bengali raid on the archipelago, he was captured and taken to Chittagong. From there, i.e. far in the east, he made a long journey to the Malabar Coast, to Calicut, Cochin, Cannanore and Goa, possibly also to other cities (Bouchon 1989; Lelièvre 2014, p. 22).

The Malabar and Coromandel Coast (Peninusila Indiae citra Gangem; Nuremberg: 1733; Bern University Library)

In 1610 the group finally succeeded in returning to Europe and even to France via Africa and Brazil, where Pyrard then wrote a report on his travel adventures and observations. It was published a few years later in a total of three volumes: in 1611 first in a Discours, then in 1615 a more extensive version in two volumes (see Bibliography).

Pyrard writes not only about the layout of the city and the houses, but also about the streets and squares and the water basins, the – actually non-existent – city walls that the Europeans were always looking for, the merchants and the traded goods. The description is one of the longest we have from this period, and so dense that when reading it, one can almost grasp the ”way of life” of this city:

„The town of Calecut is the court, and, as it were, a summary of the whole kingdom. I resided there much, and I can say that it is a very fair and great city, situate on the sea-shore, in extent from one end to the other more than a league and a half of beach, and along the whole of that distance between the town and the sea are only the houses of the Moucois [i.e. Mukkuva-s], the fishermen, and other poor folks, who also have there their Pagode [read: Hindu shrine] and temples. All the beach or strand is covered with almedies, or little fishing barques, and other vessels. The circuit of the town is more than five leagues, but what is called Calecut is, in fact, a large district covered with handsome, large, and magnificent buildings and spacious enclosures, in such wise that a single house requires a very large space for all its gardens, orchards, fishponds, and plantations. And all around are mansions of this sort only, full of people, as well Nairs, Malabars, and Mahometans, as all manner of foreigners, who are welcomed there. [Nairs or Nayars is the name for a South Indian caste, warriors and land tenants.] For it is not as in the other towns of the Malabars, which are only occupied by the Malabars: here you see all sorts of temples and Pagodes, large and well built, for all the several religions, of which I shall speak anon.”

After having described location, dimensions, villa-like houses and religious diversity, Pyrard comes to infrastructure: water tanks, walls, bazaars, the harbour.

“There are many public tanks, which are very large, well paved, and furnished with balustrades of stone work, and are well cleaned and maintained. Each religion has its own; and there is one such that is a quarter of a league in ambit of the square. These are highly necessary, owing to the excessive heat of the climate. The walls of this town are not very strong: it is only enclosed with earth-works and low walls. The houses are not built in order or arranged in streets as in Europe, but are scattered about in confusion: but in one part of the town, that next to the sea, and near to the great magazine of the king called Alfandeque, there is a quarter of about a half league in circuit, which is built and arranged in streets, as in these parts. In that part of the town are only shops, of all manner of trades, artizans and merchants, which are necessary for the public weal. All this quarter has a barrier round about, although it is within the enclosure of the whole city. In these houses they keep only such furniture and utensils as are necessary.

Their markets, which they call Bazar, or little towns, are so full of people all the day long that it is difficult to pass them. These people are of all races, from the Cape of Good Hope to Japan. At nightfall, everyone shuts his warehouse and shop securely with bars and heavy iron padlocks, and goes home with his family to his house, which is as I have described, with its gardens and enclosures. The buildings of this Bazar are very large and well-constructed of stone and wood, and supplied with shops, warehouses, and yards, all securely enclosed: these serve only to keep their merchandise and goods, or for the purposes of their crafts, and there they spend the day only. There are three large spaces in these enclosures, where the market is held every day of the week. This market is surrounded with gates and walls, and the gatekeepers let none pass the night in these warehouses containing the merchandise; and yet nothing is ever lost, so excellent is their judicature and police. In these enclosures remain only officers and gatekeepers, whose duty it is to keep watch and ward throughout the night. There is not a single temple there. The vessels which enter and anchor at Calecut, bringing all that merchandise, ride there with no great security, for there is no proper port or harbor, but only a roadstead, so that when the wind is from the sea they are in great peril. The land is low, and there is a little cape or promontory jutting out into the sea.”

Then he goes into more detail about the way houses are built, which he compares with that of the Maldives.

“As for the fashion and form of the buildings of the country, it is to be noted that the common people build with earth, and thatch their houses with coco-leaves, but not with such care and skill as the Maldive people. Taking some earth, they mix it with water, and mold it into large squares, which they dry in the sun, and then use for their walls; but the rich and well-to-do build with good stone, and roof with tiles. All their buildings are square, like four arcaded pavilions with a court in the middle. Their carpentry and joinery is the handsomest and prettiest it is possible to see: it is worked of diverse agreeable designs, as we do our finest sideboards and tables, and all painted. Their houses have stories, but not so many as ours. Some have two or three buildings of this style in the midst of others; that in the midst has a smaller court and arcade; the others are round about it in a square. They construct their houses and courts in this fashion, to avoid spilling or casting a drop of water or any dirt upon their floors, which are as clean as a table of highly polished wood.

All the houses of the Malabars are of this sort. They have large porches at the entrance to their houses, as well poor as rich, within the enclosure: for all their houses are enclosed with walls, – that is, those of the rich; the rest have ditches and good strong palisades of wood, and note that these are so high that when one wants to go from one house to another one must ascend a ladder of five or six steps, and so descend, while on both sides are wooden barriers which close with locks. You never see there any house but has its garden and orchard, small or large. These porches or Aviards in front of the houses are for receiving passing strangers, both for giving them meat and drink, and also a place to rest and sleep; they take them not inside their houses, so that they may depart during the night when they will, and whenever their boats, or if they be wayfarers, their fellow-travellers, are ready to depart.”

Finally, it is explained why Calicut is the most important trading city in the whole of India. Pyrard probably emphasized that the religious freedom prevailing in the city was particularly conducive to trade, especially against the background of the experiences in his home country France.

“But to return to what concerns this town of Calecut in general: it is the busiest and most full of all traffic and commerce in the whole of India; it has merchants from all parts of the world, and of all nations and religions, by reason of the liberty and security accorded to them there: for the king permits the exercise of every kind of religion, and yet it is strictly forbidden to talk, dispute, or quarrel on that subject; so there never arises any contention on that score, every one living in great liberty of conscience under the favour and authority of the king, who holds that to be a cardinal maxim of government, with a view to making his kingdom very rich and of great intercourse. If by chance there should arise any difference or disturbance on that subject, he who began it would receive corporal punishment, as being guilty of treason, without hope of pardon or remission of sentence. This is why everyone lives there in great peace and concord, notwithstanding the great diversity of races and religions of the inhabitants, and of strangers and sojourners: for besides the native Gentiles [that is, Hindus] and Mahometans, there are many Christians. In former times the Portuguese lived there, and had two towns and fortresses, which they had permission of the king to build near the sea, yet was there never friendship or any good understanding between the two; in so much that these towns and fortresses were captured and razed by the native kings and the Portuguese driven out, and at the present day they have neither town nor fortress there, as I have remarked already. At present, however, they are at peace, and the Portuguese by divers presents cultivate as best they can the friendship of this king, whom they fear more than any other. For the purposes of trade, there is at Calecut a factor on behalf of the Viceroy of Goa, assisted by a clerk, along with their wives and families. This factor is a kind of agent or ambassador, having also the power of issuing passports to the Indian merchants; for at all the harbours and ports of India, which are at peace with the Portuguese, the latter have these factors for this purpose, otherwise the merchants would have much trouble in going for passports to the Portuguese towns.

There reside also two Jesuit fathers, the one an Italian, the other a Portuguese, who are well received of the king, and get from him a pension of a hundred crowns a year, worth more than five hundred in Spain, besides what they have from the king of Portugal for their living and maintenance. They have builded a very handsome and large church, with an enclosure and cemetery attached, near the sear-shore, on ground presented by the king; and they have the king’s leave and licence to convert the people to Christianity, so long as they use no constraint. Their labours had borne good fruit at the time of my departure, for there were already a good number of new Christians [that is, converts]. They preached publicly in their church, and not elsewhere. They are very well housed, and have very fine gardens, and before their church is a large cross. The Christians all have their houses in the same quarter near to one another, which they have themselves built. There are, however, some among them that are not Christians, and even in the same house will sometimes be found inmates of different religions. [….] Having spoken of the Christians resident at Calecut, I shall proceed with what concerns the other religions that are practiced there. Among others, the Jews have their own quarter and synagogue, which none enter but they. The Mahometans, although they be of divers races and countries, yet have no difference of religion (except the Persians [i.e. Parsis]), and frequent the temple of the Mahometan Malabars. There is also another race of Gentiles besides the natives, who, albeit of the same religion, make no alliances with them, nor go to their temples, but have their own Pagode, using none other: of such are the Banians [or Vanya-s: members of the Vanya merchant community from Gujarat] of Cambaye and Diu, who have their own Bramenis, and hold them in the greatest honour. Yet the Bramenis of Malabar may freely enter their Pagode, as having common rights with them. This leads me to say that they are the one race in India who are throughout all the countries held in the highest esteem, for there are some of them among all the Gentile Indians.” (Pyrard 1887, vol. 1, p. 401-407)

— Susanne Rau

Susanne Rau is professor of spatial history and culture at the University of Erfurt and one of the spokespersons of the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” .


Pyrard, François: Discours du voyage des François aux Indes Orientales, ensemble des divers accidens, adventures et dangers de l’auteur en plusieurs royaumes des Indes et du séjour qu’il y a fait par dix ans, depuis l’an 1601 jusques en cette année 1611… Traité et description des animaux arbres et fruicts des Indes Orientales… plus un brief advertissement pour ceux qui entreprennent le voyage des Indes, Paris 1611.

Voyage de François Pyrard de Laval contenant sa navigation aux Indes orientales, aux molusques et au Brésil. Les divers accidens, adventures et dangers qui lui sont arrivez en ce voyage… avec la description des païs, mœurs, loix, façons de vivre, police et gouvernement, du trafic et commerce qui s’y fait…, 2 t. en 1 vol, Paris 1615.

Modern scholarly edition:

Voyage de Pyrard de Laval aux Indes orientales, 1601-1611 contenant sa navigation aux Maldives, Moluques, Brésil ; les divers accidents, aventures & dangers qui lui sont arrivés en ce voyage […] ; avec un petit dictionnaire de la langue des Maldives ; un traité des animaux & plantes des Indes, plus un bref avertissement & avis pour ceux qui entreprennent le voyage des Indes orientales, préface de Geneviève Bouchon; établissement du texte & notes de Xavier de Castro. Suivi en annexe de La relation du voyage des Français à Sumatra / de François Martin de Vitré, 1601-1603, 2 vols., Paris 1998.

Quotations are taken from the English translation:

The voyage of François Pyrard of Laval to the East Indies, the Maldives, the Moluccas and Brazil, transl. Albert Gray, 2 vol. in 3, London 1887-1890.

Research literature:

Bouchon, Geneviève: A French traveler in Portuguese India (1601-1610): François Pyrard de Laval, in: STVDIA 49 (1989), p. 301-314.

Bouchon, Geneviève: Sixteenth Century Malabar and the Indian Ocean, in: Ashin Das Gupta, Michael Naylor Pearson (eds.), India and the Indian Ocean, 1500-1800, Oxford 1987, p. 162-184.

Lelièvre, Guillaume: Les précurseurs de la Compagnie française des Indes orientales, 1601-1622. Thèse d’histoire, Université de Caen Basse-Normandie, 2014. HAL Id: tel-01658114

Mahlke, Stefan (ed.): Atlas der Globalisierung. Welt in Bewegung (Karten und Grafiken von Adolf Buitenhuis), Berlin 2019.

Mathew, K.S.: Calicut, the international emporium of maritime trade and the Portuguese during the sixteenth century, in: Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 67 (2006), p. 251-270.

Narayanan, M.G.S.: Calicut. The City of Truth Revisited, Kozhikode 2018 (first published: 2006).

Rau, Susanne: Zeit-Räume, Parcours und Karte. Die Raum-Erkundungen der Reisenden in frühneuzeitlichen Großstädten, in: Elisabeth Tiller, Christoph O. Mayer (eds.), RaumErkundungen. Einblicke und Ausblicke, Heidelberg 2011, p. 154-180

Subrahmanyam, Sanjay: Historicizing the Global, or Labouring for Invention?, in: History Workshop Journal 64 (2007), p. 329-334, doi:10.1093/hwj/dbm040

New edited volume: Knowledge and the Indian Ocean by Sara Keller

Sara Keller, core group member of the DFG-funded Humanities Centre in Advanced Studies “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations”, has recently edited a volume with the title Knowledge and the Indian Ocean. Intangible Networks of Western India and Beyond (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).

The volume examines Western India’s contributions to the spread of ideas, beliefs and other intangible ties across the Indian Ocean world. The region, particularly Gujarat and Bombay, is well-established in the Indian imaginary and in scholarship as a mercantile hub. These essays move beyond this identity to examine the region as a dynamic place of learning and a host of knowledge, tracing the flow of knowledge, aesthetic sensibilities, values, memories and genetic programs. Contributors traverse the fields of history, anthropology, agriculture, botany, medicine, sociology and more to offer path-breaking perspectives on Western India’s deep socio-cultural impact across the centuries. Western India emerges as a pivotal region in the maritime world as a transmitter of knowledge.

Map of Western India (Source: Wikipedia).

Pralay Kanungo on the Indian Election

Our fellow, Pralay Kanungo, has recently published an article in the Wire on the Indian elections. He investigates the rise of the ‘NaMo’ cult and traces what may lay ahead for India after this momentous election. The article shows that there were two strands to the personality cult around the new and old Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi. By combinding a narrative of development with an aggressive nationalism the ‘cult’ was able to withstand any pressure and Modi and the BJP Party won a historic election vctory.

See here for the full article.   

New Publications by Supriya Chaudhuri and Pralay Kanungo

We are pleased to announce the publication of several articles and chapters by members of our research group.

Supriya Chaudhuri, who recently joined us as a fellow and researches early modern literature, has recently published six articles:

‘Eyes Wide Shut: Seeing and Knowing in Othello’ and ‘What does the Slave know? A Response to Stephen Spiess’ in Blind Spots of Knowledge in Shakespeare and his World, ed. S. Mukherji (Medieval Institute Publications: De Gruyter, 2019), 75-88; 153-55

‘Indian Travel Writing’, in The Cambridge History of Travel Writing, eds. N. Das and T. Youngs (Cambridge University Press, 2019), 159-74

‘Modernist Literary Communities in 1930s Calcutta: the politics of Parichay’, in Modernist Communities across Cultures and Media, eds. C. Pollentier and S. Wilson (University Press of Florida, 2019), 177-96

‘On Making Noise: Hokkolorob and its place in Indian Student Movements’, Postcolonial Studies (2019), 44-58, DOI: https://10.1080/13688790.2019.1568168

‘Nishchindipur: The Impossibility of a Village Utopia’, Open Library of Humanities, 5(1): 25 (2019), 1–28. DOI: https://doi.org/10.16995/olh.395

Pralay Kanungo, who is also a fellow in the KFG and works on modern Indian history, has published an article entitled ‘Sangh and Sarkar: The RSS Power Centre Shifts from Nagpur to New Delhi’, in Majoritarian State. How Hindu Nationalism is Changing India (Hurst Publishers, 2019), eds. Angana P. Chatterji, Thomas Blom Hansen and Christophe Jaffrelot, 133-149.

If you are interested in the research of any of our fellows, or the KFG as a whole, feel free to get in touch! 

Book Announcement: The Algebra of Warfare-Welfare

Pralay Kanungo, fellow of our Advanced Centre in the Humanities “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations”, has just published a co-edited volume. The book is published by Oxford University Press and co-edited with Irfan Ahmad (Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen). 

Kanungo, Ahmad (eds.), The Algebra of Warfare-Welfare (OUP, 2019).

The Algebra of Warfare-Welfare. A Long View of India’s 2014 Election explores how the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) won the 2014 Parliamentary elections with such an unprecedented majority, and what that victory means for politics in general and Indian politics in particular. It opens up space for new theoretical and methodological reflections on electoral democracy, critically taking on such salient issues as development, terrorism, charisma, media, new mechanisms of mobilization, nationalism, rumour, religion, regionalism, polarisation, space, Muslim vote, and caste. This volume is distinct in its ability to focus squarely on the empirical acts of voting. It sociologically and historically examines the enduring as well as changing institutional, social, political, and cultural landscapes in which voting takes place. Unlike most other studies on elections in India, this book puts human subjectivity at the centre of election studies. The anthropological-sociological perspective the volume places before readers draws on political-social theory whereby the volume also examine the larger and changing contours of modernity, democracy and elections being its key faces. As such the volume situates the 2014 elections in relation to changing nature and forms of elections and democracy globally, in particular in conversation with those in the democratic nation-states in the West.

Besides co-editing the volume, Pralay Kanungo has also contributed the chapter   ‘Gurus and the Hindu Nationalist Politics: The Baba Ramdev-BJP Partnership in the 2014 Elections’ (pp.119-142) and written the afterword (pp. 357-375). The book was officially launched at a celebratory roundtable in Delhi on 25 March 2019.

Official Book Launch of The Algebra of Warfare-Welfare in Delhi on 25 March 2019.


Religion and Urbanity: A Brief Introduction

Religion has led to dramatic developments in the history of cities, such as foundations, waves of immigration, transformations, (re-) ghettoization and genocide. But what is the specific urban quality of religious ideas, practices and institutions? What was their role in the production of urban space? More than half of the world’s population is living in cities and urbanization affects even the most distant corners of the world. The result is that the social and ecological problems of urban density accompanying the productive and innovative roles of metropolises become ever more evident. Yet the interest in religion and city remains concentrated on contemporary issues, especially  in the “global South.”

Against this background the DFG-funded Research Group “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” (FOR 2779) investigates the historical contribution of religion to urbanization and the long-term evolution of religion and the urban. What role has religion played in urbanization? How has urbanity changed religion, and how do they continually influence one another? By focusing on religion, our goal is to gain insights into the formation of human settlements and thereby to describe different paths of urbanization and their inter-relationships with the development of religion.

We proceed from the assumption that religious practices and conceptions together with their expressions in institutions, texts (narratives) and objects have been of great importance in the formation of urbanity. Religion and urbanity have continually shaped each other – and continue to do so to this day. In order to help meet the challenges of living in situations of urban density, religion has developed and continues to develop practices, conceptions and institutions both to connect individuals with space as well as to help shape and appropriate it. The complexity of overlapping spaces means that varying temporal orders can be present in differing rituals. The circulation of objects has created and continues to produce spatiotemporal modalities (see also:https://www.uni-erfurt.de/en/philosophische-fakultaet/spatio-temporal-studies/ ) . At the same time, reference to (divine) power extending beyond its respective space furnishes spaces and temporal practices with an agency which requires cohesiveness or coordination of rulers and turns sacralisation into long-term and persistent topographical elements which produce and maintain historical identity. Conversely, the localization in the city, the communicative and ritual production of urban centers as well as the appropriation of urban aspirations and ways of life have had a significant influence on the formation of religion and religious traditions.

Erfurt viewed from the Petersberg (2010)

Consequences include small-scale spatialization of rituals, such as conceptions of the divine (and thus stabilization of polytheism), professionalization in condensed division of labor and self-historization through the above-mentioned long-lived spatialization, specific architectures and the taking up of urban imaginaries (for example, “the heavenly Jerusalem”).

With Max Weber, we are looking at the city and religion for actors and groups of actors (S. Rau, J. Rüpke ). But this cocnept also extends beyond human agency (B. Latour). With more recent social geography and spatial sociology (for example H. Lefebvre, E. Soja, M. Löw, B. Werlen and F. de Boeck), we see that urbanity is chractertized by spatiality, practices, representations, atmospheric affects, as well as practices of time (S. Rau et al.).

In light of these considerations, the reciprocal formation of religion and urbanity can not be described by way of the classical parameters of city types such as the sacred center, the city of exiles, the harbor or the agricultural city, or as instances of “Christianization” or “Islamization”. The variety of paths to urbanization must be examined through reconstructing constellations of space, time and practice and by offering a nuanced description of incremental changes in practices, conceptions, architectures, and institutions.

This also requires new concepts.

So our starting points pose research questions concerning the formation of different forms as well as changes in and new constitutions of urbanity and religion in all their diversity in different epochs and spaces. We ask:

  1.  What role does religion play for urbanization?
  2. How does urbanity affect religion? 
  3. What influence does the continuous interaction and the consolidation of heterogeneous practices have on the formation of Religion and urbanity?

Interesting phenomena include the production and alteration of space (topography, buildings, theaters, memorials), changes in spatial and temporal practices (rhythms, cycles, calendar and clock usage, rituals, processions) as well as changes in society (shifts of power, migration, formation of expertise). People migrating to a city have a means to “arrive” in a new urban community by joining a religious group, for example. Some religious experts, to name another example, aim to instiutionalise certain social milieus and try to anchor religious hopes and norms in the forms of immigration. Spaces formed by sanctuary or cemetery architecture become elements of urban religion and change the urban topography and its user flows. The establishment of central sanctuaries, the closure of neighbourhoods by the formation of dead-ends in ancient or Islamic cities or the presence of rulers in temples or cathedrals are all examples.

Hindutempel and market in Chennai (India)

The formation of new forms of the urban public changes or evokes religious spatial practices, for example the establishment of theaters in antiquity, the conversion of churchyards into squares in the 16th century and the uses of cinemas and other spaces of entertainment in North American evangelical churches in the 21st century. The appropriation of spaces by different groups of actors (political, economic, religious, spatial builders/observers) reveal specific regulations: not everywhere is prayer or sacrifice legitimate. We refer to religious practices and notions not primarily to marginal or subcultural “heterotopias” (M. Foucault) and “Thirdspaces” (Ed. Soja), but to the goal of building urban spaces with its growing contact surfaces (H. Berking) in order to live and to realize urbanity.

Many of the processes we are interested in, are particularly visible during phases of changes, such as contractions of cities in Mediterranean late antiquity, the wave of European-medieval urban creations, demographic changes in 18th-century Europe or the rise of colonial-era urban foundations in the Indian area. In addition, expansion of individual cities or networks of cities, shrinkage processes including those leading to the extinction of people and the erasure of spaces, phases of religious pluralization will form a Focus of our research. By investigatign the reciprocal formation of religion and urbanity, our research addresses a central issue which also has important consequences for today’s world.  

— Susanne Rau and Jörg Rüpke

The Roman Forum