Displacement, religion and urban space-making in India’s southwest littoral
Carmel Christy (University of Delhi) analyses the making of the urban space along the Cochin coast in the 20th century in relation to the lived practices and religious rituals of the shore-folks who were displaced and re-organised into other parts of the city.
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Port cities in India are the gates to a wider world through which spices, people and religion flowed seamlessly beyond regional boundaries. Port cities such as Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Cochin became centres of commercial activities and exchange of cultures. Several studies about the Indian littoral describe how the open flows of trade and people created a cosmopolitan culture in these port cities. Cochin is a small port city on the southwestern coast which is located in a geographically strategic location. The availability of spices and the sea routes attracted trade relations with the Arabs, the Chinese and the Romans since time immemorial. It is also one of the few port cities which was colonised by three major European colonisers – the Portuguese in the 16th and 17th century (1503-1663), Dutch in the 17th and 18th century (1663-1773) and the British from the 19th to the mid-20th century (1814-1947). These interactions left traces of merging of cultures and a sense of cosmopolitanism in the city.
Cosmopolitanism, which is considered as a defining aspect of Cochin in some earlier analyses, does not, in itself, make religion irrelevant to understanding urbanity of this city. Urban formation can be understood both as a material process as well as an embodied process where intangible aspects of citizens’ lives such as lived religion enliven city spaces and its structures. To explore this, I analyse the spatial reorganisation of the shore-folks for the establishment of Cochin Shipyard Limited, a major national development project begun along the coast of Cochin after independence. The unmaking of a Catholic church and cemetery into a dry-dock for ships provides entry points to discuss meanings of religious place-making for its believers and the new entrants to the ‘transformed’ technical space. The paper reconstructs this history of space-making by collating archival materials, ethnographic accounts, literature and myths which make it possible for spaces to possess many lives exceeding the recorded ones.
Carmel Christy K J is assistant professor of Journalism at Kamala Nehru College, University of Delhi. She is interested in research questions that explore the interconnected workings of caste, gender/ sexuality, media, body and space. Her book on the same subject titled Sexuality and Public Space in India: Reading the Visible was published by Routledge, UK in March 2017. Carmel holds a PhD from the University of Hyderabad and has also been a Fulbright-Nehru Postdoctoral fellow at University of California, Santa Cruz.
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