“The Street Temples of Bombay” is an urban documentation project that has been on my mind for several years now. I have always been fascinated, probably since childhood, by the way in which people approach their religion. I am not much of a religious person but it’s impossible not to notice the way people adorn the little temples they build in their houses and often outside.
The ones built outside are usually made by shopkeepers, or the homeless or those who live on the streets. There is also the common practice of discarding old statues under the shade of a tree and sometimes, passersby mistake those for street shrines too. Another reason for the little temples is land grab. Most often due to lack of space, hawkers first set up a small shrine on a wall and then later go on to set up their businesses. As time passes, the temple expands and so does the hawker’s business.
The project involves a lot of walking and the minimal set up of a 35mm digital camera and a flash sometimes.
No one objects when I make these photos. Sometimes I include people in the frame, sometimes I don’t. It’s an aesthetic call and no other reasons fuel it. A number of times, people would call out to me and offer sweets or a glass of tea, they’d ask me to sit down and tell them my reason for photographing street temples. I haven’t encountered a single negative reaction so far and in fact, some of them tell me am doing god’s work and all that, which I find highly disturbing.
India leans on and towards religion a lot. It is sometimes a crucial binding factor and sometimes it is even a dividing factor. A double edged sword indeed. A number of street shrines are guarded by local goons. Near slaughter house compound, a slum in Bandra, a goon called out to me and offered me a few grams of crack, while a few metres ahead, another offered me a joint of Indian street grade hashish.
A few metres further ahead, on my way, a woman offered me rose sherbet while her husband told me to sample some kebabs from their food stall. Needless to say, I didn’t take any of it, but it just establishes the whole point of how religion and any research allied to it actually misleads people into believing that you are also part of it.
I shall continue with the project for another year. Every street I have walked so far has ended up with me getting delayed by other appointments. And Bombay isn’t an easy city to travel by foot in by any standards. But, had I not done this on foot, I may never have encountered so many people and seen the many ways they get by. Every street I walk by again opens me up to a new temple that was either not there before or I hadn’t seen during my first walk!