The Cow in the Elevator: An Anthropology of Wonder

The Cow in the Elevator: An Anthropology of Wonder

by Tulasi Srinivas

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In The Cow in the Elevator Tulasi Srinivas explores a wonderful world where deities jump fences and priests ride in helicopters to present a joyful, imaginative, yet critical reading of modern religious life. Drawing on nearly two decades of fieldwork with priests, residents, and devotees, and her own experience of living in the high-tech city of Bangalore, Srinivas finds moments where ritual enmeshes with global modernity to create wonder—a feeling of amazement at being overcome by the unexpected and sublime. Offering a nuanced account of how the ruptures of modernity can be made normal, enrapturing, and even comical in a city swept up in globalization's tumult, Srinivas brings the visceral richness of wonder—apparent in creative ritual in and around Hindu temples—into the anthropological gaze. Broaching provocative philosophical themes like desire, complicity, loss, time, money, technology, and the imagination, Srinivas pursues an interrogation of wonder and the adventure of writing true to its experience. The Cow in the Elevator rethinks the study of ritual while reshaping our appreciation of wonder's transformative potential for scholarship and for life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822371922
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 05/10/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
File size: 26 MB
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About the Author

Tulasi Srinivas is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson College, author of Winged Faith: Rethinking Globalization and Religious Pluralism through the Sathya Sai Movement, and coeditor of Curried Cultures: Globalization, Food, and South Asia.

Read an Excerpt



We are the children of our landscape; it dictates behavior and even thought in the measure to which we are responsive to it.

— Lawrence Durrell, Justine

Everyone is building a house, apartment, veedu-vaashal [Tamil: houses and thresholds]. They call me and I go!

— Dandu Shastri, chief priest, Ganesha Temple

The Cow in the Elevator

In January 2009 I found myself trying to help lure a reluctant cow named Kamadhenu into a mirrored elevator. Her handler pushed her rear end while I held a tempting sheaf of ripe bananas in front of her. Kamadhenu was spooked at seeing her reflection in the surrounding mirrors of the elevator. She lowed miserably, uncertain of this claustrophobic mode of transport.

I had been invited by Dandu Shastri to a grihapravesham (Sanskrit: lit. house entering, a house-blessing ceremony) at a high-rise luxury apartment complex. The apartment complex, called "Golden Orchards," was dominated by a midcentury modern aesthetic. It sat like a giant white tower with its mirrored dark windows and steel railings in a pristine landscape of lush green bamboo foliage.

A central part of the grihapravesham, derived from ancient Hindu agrarian customs, required a sacred cow to walk through the new house. The house to be blessed in this case was a penthouse on the eighth floor. The young priests and the doorman, charged with getting the materials for the grihapravesham ready, were trying to coax the unwilling Kamadhenu into the elevator when I met them.

After an hour of sweet talking, bribes in the form of bananas, and some hefty shoves to her rear end, we were successful. Kamadhenu rode in the elevator, her eyes brimming with fear. Once off the elevator, though, she quickly regained her composure, chewing her cud in a bored manner as she was led down the fancy mirrored corridors. There was little evidence of Hindu ritual celebration anywhere — no mango tornana (Sanskrit: garland for a doorway), no oil lamps, and few flowers. The place seemed silent and forlorn.

The marketing manager for the building joined us. Wrongly believing I might be an investor, he attempted to sell me an apartment by listing its many wonders: "This is best complex, Madame! Full amenities." He proudly informed me that the apartment complex had expensive, tumbled Carrarra marble bathrooms and luxury Scandinavian faucets. I was unimpressed, but he continued: "We have purohits [Hindu chaplains] to do all rituals, Madame. You are Hindu, no? If it has to be done 'in absentia,' then we will get your details — gotra [Sanskrit: lineage descent], nakshatra [Sanskrit: astrological details of birth], and all — and we can perform it for you. Many people buy here, Madame! These are 'super' apartments!" In response to my question about sales, he referred to his easy sales of luxury apartments and his enormous commissions as "majatime! [Kannada: fun time!]."

The view from the penthouse was truly commanding; the whole of Malleshwaram lay at our feet, green treetops swaying in the breeze. We could see a few tiny bungalows with their tiled roofs, the remaining holdouts in a rapidly rising city. The newly built high-rises surrounded us, punctuated by the maws of open excavations with their ubiquitous scaffolding.

Despite the luxury, all of us felt the loneliness of the anomic surroundings. Dandu Shastri was unusually quiet as he issued orders to his assistants. No one joked or laughed. Once the homa kunda (Vedic fire pit) was prepared, he lit it with little enthusiasm and performed the invocations in a mechanical manner. "These houses are all the same. No one ever lives in them. They are bank accounts," he said to me sotto voce. He asked the manager for "details," as he put it. The manager took out his phone where he had stored them, and recited the nakshatra and gotra of the absent owner.

When it was her turn to participate, Kamadhenu obediently followed directions. She wandered through the million-dollar home, climbing a short flight of stairs to the enormous bedrooms and lifting her hoofs to cross the thresholds of the walk-in baths, she stoically left a heap of dung on the marble floor of the kitchen, much to the delight of the participants for whom the cowpat was an added blessing.

ARNOLD VAN GENNEP, in his pioneering work on ritual ([1909] 1960), focused on limens, or thresholds, as significant stopping spaces within rites of passage. He wrote that ritual subjects were liminal for the duration of the ritual, lodged "betwixt and between" positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremony (Turner 1967, 93–103; 1969a, 95, 1969b, 94–96, 102–6). For Van Gennep limens were not only dangerous and difficult spaces but also magical. He differentiated three phases to ritual space based on their relationship to the limen: preliminal (separation or isolation, during which individuals are separated from their group), liminal (in between or transitional), and postliminal (reintegration into the social group). Half a century later, Victor Turner's focus on the continuity of social structure led him to argue that liminality was limited both temporally and spatially, and was essentially a space of anti-structure, but he acknowledged that the limen was a profoundly creative and indeed transformative space for individuals partaking in ritual, stating, "Liminality ... [is] a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise" (1967, 97).

Consideration of a space of liminality thus provides the ground for a strategic consideration of the possibility of creativity and wonder. Ritual process is transformatory, creative, and generative, for it allows its participants to remain in the dangerous and productive space in between — the liminal space — constantly. Shifts in the discourse of wonder create and sustain a way of contesting received limits while simultaneously reconfiguring and reimagining ontological possibilities — what we might term a simultaneous "rupture-capture." I argue that this engages a dual process of rupture-capture that allows ritual participants to occupy and engage two seemingly contradictory forces at the same time. Michael Puett insightfully theorizes that ritual allows for subjunctive spaces — wishful emotive spaces oriented to the future — that encourage both the appreciation of perspective and the imagination of horizons (2008, 18). This recognition of the space between what is now and what is possible is but a condition of subjunction, which simultaneously allows for "recovering the moments of wonder that make the ordinary extraordinary; for seeding new initiatives that cultivate fresh vocabularies and trajectories" (Mathur and da Cunha 2006, 7).

In Malleshwaram, the rituals of space and dwelling such as the grihapravesham work in three primary ways: to organize and categorize space as sacred and nonsacred, the ecological to the built; to sanctify and domesticate space by purifying it to be occupied; and to remedy mistakes made in the material articulation of the space itself. Rituals are not limited to temple publics but flow unchecked into the spaces of the city. The actions of loss and change ensured that the city was no longer merely fixed and material but was instead in a process of world making. When seen thus — as world-crafting events — the city's rituals basically devolved into two types — the prophylactic and the remedial. Through the recording of these ritual acts, I explore the architecture of this wonderment.

Grounded Wonder

When I began fieldwork in 1998, elderly residents of Malleshwaram, many of whom had lived there for their entire lives, spoke fondly of the tutelary deity of the neighborhood: Kadu Malleshwara — Shiva of the Forest — in the form of the lingam or priapus with a third eye. Shivanna, eponymously named after the deity, and a devotee of the Kadu Malleshwara Temple, called the deity "Kannappa," an etymological reference to the Tamil word for eye. The panopticon of the Lingam's eye — kanne — is a significant source of wonder to localites. Shivanna insisted that the deity's third eye was all-seeing and that this clairvoyant insight inhabited the space of the temple, its environs, and even the localites, affording them a moral insight that others did not possess. In Malleshwaram, as elsewhere in India, the Hindu sociocosmic order is expressed as an aggregate of territorially specific, interdependent, mutually constituting and sustaining myths reflecting a parallel spatio-temporal cosmological order.

But according to geologists in the Bangalore region, the Kadu Malleshwara deity was an outcrop of ancient gneiss rock, part of the rock that formed much of the peninsular Deccan plateau. Devotees to the temple spoke of the rocky outcrop on which Malleshwaram was built, "gaare kallu" in Kannada, as undergirding the durability of all life.

In opposition to the hard longevity of the rock was the fluid persistence of water; its liquid capacity to bring fertility was part of Bangalorean folklore. Riparian pleasure abounds in Sthala Purana (Sanskrit: the myths of place) of the great temples of the region. Tanks — man-made lakes — and streams in and around Malleshwaram dominated the imagination as jeevananadi (Kannada: the river of life), symbols of fertility, prosperity, and plenitude. Rama, the watchman at the Ganesha Temple, who had grown up in a small house where the hills of Malleshwaram met the flat land of Swimming Pool Extension, poetically described the neighborhood of his youth as "thumba 'mood' itthu [Kannada: it had mood]," implying that it was emotionally connected and evoked different modes of feeling. To the older localites, this topos of Malleshwaram, of rocks, trees, and lakes, was a singular evocation of the much-beloved sacred geography of India. For inhabitants, the landscape of the city was grounding — locational, emotional, dreamy, discursive, self-framing, protective, and prognosticatory. For them, the landscape and its connections with ecological and local divinity were real — sensual and visceral.

But in the early 1990s when Malleshwaram became the experimental site for building, Bangalore developers Kaytee Developments, Purvankara Builders, and Brigade Developments, along with Bombay developers Prestige, Raheja, and Embassy groups, in cahoots with corrupt city government, bulldozed and dynamited the rocks and drained the tanks to make way for more building lots. A series of exogenous factors, including the liberalization of the Indian economy in the early 1990s followed by the global market for labor, washed over Malleshwaram — what economists bleakly call "human capital externalities" (Glaeser 2011, 316–42) — making Bangalore a hotspot of growth. During the twenty or so years of my study, land value in Malleshwaram rose at a rate of over 300 percent per decade. The neighborhood changed from low-lying, middle-class, and upper-caste small bungalows of local "old money" families to vertical upper-middle-class luxury apartment complexes, largely occupied by a new, boomtown bourgeoisie, a global software workforce, to whom locality and ecology seemed unimportant. The neighborhood became more diverse, anomic, and unsustainable, resulting in public service issues such as water shortages and rolling blackouts.

The shifting visual field of the neighborhood, with the cutting of trees and the eruption of giant billboards and towering edifices in a few short years, led to a state of dizzying disorientation. Bungalows were knocked down to make way for midsized apartment buildings, and in turn midsized apartment building were bulldozed to make way for luxury complexes. Rapid and widespread automobilization compounded the disorientation. As the ecology became precarious against the onslaught of the rapidly growing and changing city, its precarity encouraged an emergent understanding of the city as an archive of lost wonder, a space where mystery nourishes discourse and where practice and emotion intersect to create a growing disorientation. The ghostly presence of the lost topos of Malleshwaram is one of the causes of a pervading sense of the uncanny, in which the unhomelike feeling of the uncanny — the strangely, uncomfortably familiar — is embedded in change. This enduring disorientation transformed nostalgia itself into an endless condition of loss. I was sensitive to the evocation of loss in its material built form, for this was the city in which I had grown up and become an architect. I knew most of its streets and byways, its peculiarities and delights. My own nostalgia echoed in the anger of citizenry who felt their city was being slowly destroyed by the triple forces of a kleptocracy — rule-bending developers, pay-to-play bureaucrats, and corrupt politicians. Dwelling in these vacuous yet comfortable spaces made residents recondition and organize their experience of the fractured city as the experimental parts of a subjunctive condition, in which the imagined utopia could be made real.

But I realized quickly that for some, this nostalgia was read as a loss of a socially homogenous city and a Hindu identity. The loss of a landscape that was familiar and accepted was easily attributed to Western-style capitalism, allowing for political and politicized arguments for a retrieval of a "Hindu" past and arguments for a "return" to a lost mythic landscape that was not local but national. At the time I began my fieldwork, these arguments were being forcefully made by means of the nationalist project of the building of a temple at Ram Janam Bhoomi complex in Ayodhya, a radical reconstruction of a muscular — and modern — Hindu identity. But when a group of young men went around with sacred bricks for donations that would be used to build this iconic Ram temple, localites met them with polite disinterest. The nostalgic condition foreclosed the possibility of passing from the domain of the possible to the realm of the actual. In this case, nostalgia operated as an agentive state of resistance opposing the quick amnesiac forces of development.

And Ungrounded Wonder

By 2002 Malleshwaram was on the cusp of a second wave of development fueled by large investments, legal and otherwise, from Mumbai and Dubai. Illegal land grabs became commonplace in the first few years of the twenty-first century. Elderly residents like Mr. Krishnan and Chellappa, both of whom had inherited large homes, told me that they were frightened to live alone because developers' goondas (Hindi: thugs) threatened elderly residents with injury or even death if they refused to sell. In such instances, wonder assumed its original meaning, as a wound. The smaller apartment complexes were destroyed to make way for architect-designed and -planned "estates" — high-rise, luxurious, gated communities replete with amenities and a global modernist aesthetic that became the norm for dwelling in the city. These estates protruded aggressively into the Malleshwaram sky and dwarfed the earlier generation of apartment buildings.

With names like "Palm Beach," "Golden Thresholds," "The Gold Coast," and "Golden Orchards," these mansions-in-the-sky advertised the new, if generic, wonder of a globally understood "good life" combined with the urban Indian understanding of nature as a utopian retreat from the ills of urbanity. The moral morphology of the city was always suspect and its spaces were risky as Western-educated Indians accepted imperfect Western metropolitical imaginings. This sanitizing of the cityscape toward the bourgeois ideal of comfort and safety led to different vernacular understandings of the city that have become embedded in the everyday fabric of the built form of the city as well as affective subjective engagements with it (Dharia 2015).

The wonder previously located in the local landscape now was imagined as a foreign land or dreamed-of place. The closed, vertical, exclusionary, and securitized spaces of the complexes were an unsurprising outcome of the growing in-migration of the city and the rapid building speculation that had begun in 1992. The residents of the new estates spoke with awe of the marvels of these vertical cities, using phrases like "bombhat [Kannada: excellent]," "thumba channa gidde [Kannada: very nice]," "super," and "adischiyama [Tamil: amazing]." They dwelt meticulously on the details: how the building had tall trees within the atrium; how the developer had taken care to provide water through innumerable underground sources with pumps running 24/7 so the residents need not worry about water shortages; how the smooth lifts were imported from Germany to provide gentle, speedy rides.


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Table of Contents

A Note on Translation  xi
Acknowledgments  xiii
O Wonderful!  xix
Introduction. Wonder, Creativity, and Ethical Life in Bangalore  1
Cranes in the Sky  1
Wondering about Wonder  6
Modern Fractures  9
Of Bangalore's Boomtown Bourgeoisie  13
My Guides into Wonder  16
Going Forward  31
1. Adventures in Modern Dwelling  34
A Cow in an Elevator  34
Grounded Wonder  37
And Ungrounded Wonder  39
Back to Earth  41
Memorialized Cartography  43
"Dead-Endu" Ganesha  45
Earthen Prayers and Black Money  48
Moving Marble  51
Building Wonder  56
Interlude: Into the Abyss  58
2. Passionate Journeys: From Aesthetics to Ethics  60
The Wandering Gods  60
Waiting . . .  65
Moral Mobility  69
Gliding Swans and Bucking Horses  70
The Pain of Cleaving  74
And the Angry God  80
Full Tension!  84
Adjustments  86
Life and . . .  91
Ethical Wonders  92
Interlude. Up in the Skyye  95
3. In God We Trust: Economies of Wonder and Philosophies of Debt  99
A Treasure Trove  99
Twinkling Excess  107
The Golden Calf  111
A Promise of Plenitude  114
"Mintingu" and "Minchingu"  119
"Cash-a-carda?" Philosophies of Debt  128
Soiled Money and the Makings of Distrust  131
The Limits of Wonder  133
4. Technologies of Wonder  138
Animatronic Devi  138
Deus Ex Machina  140
The New in Bangalore  142
The Mythical Garuda-Helicopter  143
Drums of Contention  152
Capturing Divine Biometrics  157
Archiving the Divine  159
Technologies of Capture  162
FaceTiming God  164
Wonder of Wonders  169
5. Timeless Imperatives, Obsolescence, and Salvage  172
"Times have Changed"  172
The Untimeliness of Modernity  175
Avelle and Ritu  178
Slipping Away  181
When Wonder Falls  183
Time Lords  187
Dripping Time  188
The Future, The Past, and the Immortal Present  204
Conclusion. A Place for Radical Hope  206
Radical Hope  206
Amazement in Turmeric  210
The Need for Wonder  213
Afterword. The Tenacity of Hope  216
Notes  219
References  247
Index  265

What People are Saying About This

Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger - Arjun Appadurai

"This pathbreaking book is about the politics of wonder in the ritual life of a Hindu neighborhood in a major Indian city. The book itself is a wondrously written treatment of the saturation of neoliberal lives by a radical cosmology of performance, affect, and technicity, through which ritual life transfigures the pains and puzzles of modernity. It should be read by all students of ritual, affect, and emergent practices of globalization."

Everyday Creativity: Singing Goddesses in the Himalayan Foothills - Kirin Narayan

“Brilliant and erudite, The Cow in the Elevator emerges from Tulasi Srinivas's long-term commitment to making sense of religious life in urbanizing, high-tech India. With ethnographic verve and a keen ear for diverse voices, Srinivas tells lively stories of the Hindu priests and devotees who improvise on existing ritual forms in contemporary Bengaluru. Theorizing the human need for wonder and exploring how ritual may generate wonder in changing circumstances, The Cow in the Elevator is a wondrous book.”

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