Ganesha Caturthi in France
Kovil illa uril kudi irrukka vendam
(Do not live in a place without a temple, Tamil adage, Sangam period)
Picture 1: People are waiting the arrival of the chariot of Ganesha (Paris, 2008). Anthony Goreau-Ponceaud
According to Jacobsen (2009: 183) “the misfortune of the Tamils in the modern nation state of Sri Lanka is an important context for understanding the religious rituals in the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora”. Indeed for the Sri Lankan Tamils, religion is a significant factor not only in maintaining ties with the homeland but also in orienting their lives in the diaspora. Additionally, Hinduism is not recognized in France as a religion but only as a ‘philosophy of life’. According to the Bureau of ‘Religions’ (Bureau Central des Cultes) Hinduism is not recognized in France. The French state regulates the different cultes. As Bowen (2008) and Adrian (2009) have shown, France’s state-controlled secularist model and the politics of laïcité require the strict privatization of religion, eliminating religion from any public forum, while at the same time pressuring religious groups to organize themselves into a single centralized churchlike institutional structure that can be regulated by and can serve as interlocutor to the state. In the case of Hinduism, such a structure does not exist. In that way, for the establishment of a kovil it is necessary to create an association officially registered at the Prefecture of Paris.
Placing Hindu practice in Paris
The kovil serves as a community centre that makes Hinduism experiential. It also importantly constitutes a visible place for Hindus and non-Hindus to refer to and to gather in. It creates a sense of collective solidarity and a common identity. Although kovils are by no means the only places in Paris for the religious life of Hindus, they certainly hold importance in the public display of religiosity in French culture. Until recently only a relatively small percentage of the French population knew where and how Sri Lankan Hindus practice their faith because Hindu public religious institutions were virtually non-existent when the first immigrants arrived. In the end of the 1970s and in the early 1980s rooms were hired for the communal celebration of certain festivals. Such places of worship were by necessity only temporary. The first permanent places of worship appeared in 1985. In fact, among the 11 kovils owned by Sri Lankan Tamils in the Paris region, the association of Sri Manicka Vinayakar Alayam or Ganesha/Vinayagar temple enjoys the greatest popularity. This major Sri Lankan Hindu temple in France was officially opened in the heart of the La Chapelle district in 1985. The owner of this temple, Sandera Sekaram, is a Vellalar from Jaffna who arrived in France in 1975 at the age of thirty. The opening of this temple is linked to specific activities that his family undertook in the diasporic space. Ganesha is a god who is the subject of a special devotion from Sandera Sekaram’s family. In 1983, the mayor of Paris gave him the authorizations to open his temple, yet this was not easy. He told me in June 2008:
In 1983, I commissioned a statue of the lord Ganesha from my family in Sri Lanka. The statue arrived in France in 1984. I installed it at the Embassy of India in Paris for its consecration and the following year, I placed the murti on the domestic altar of my home – an apartment on the third floor of a building near the Oberkampf metro station in the 11th arrondissement of Paris. I opened the temple in February 1985 [his flat serves as a community temple before the opening of the temple itself]. But complaints from neighbours because of the noise generated from the comings and goings of the worshippers resulted in expulsion proceedings (Sandera Sekaram’s lessor requested termination of the lease to evict him). Therefore, in 1992, we created the association ‘Sri Manika Vinayagar Alayam’ in order to install the murtis in a former carpentry workshop, here at the 72 rue Philippe de Girard. But we are going to move again, we are going to go a little further, at the 17 rue Pajol. It will be a bit bigger.
This new temple is a few yards from the original site. All works were planned by a stapathi (architect) from Chennai. The building is immediately adjacent to a residential block. On the whole, the temple is well situated to serve as a place of public access for Hindus in Paris. As a result, places which formerly tended to remain hidden and inconspicuous, with barely any indication of the people who used them, have become increasingly visible. The Hindu Tamil minority has begun to make clear that they want to present their religious orientations and practices to the outside world. In doing so they are claiming their own place as part of the French religious pluralism, particularly during the Ganesha caturthi.
This festival lasts for twelve days but the high points in terms of ritual importance and the number of people attending is the chariot procession or rathayatra. The procession ritual was organized for the first time in 1996, just one year after the ‘miracle of the milk’. This procession has changed over the years. As in Norway (Jacobsen, 2008: 197) “the number of elements included and the quality have increased. Each year new elements have been added”. While initially there was only one chariot, a second one was quickly added and brought from Sri Lanka as well in the form of a richly decorated resin elephant. The number of participants grew steadily: in 1996 it was estimated between 1,000 and 2,500. In 2004-2008 the Ganesha festival drew between 10,000 and 15, 000 visitors, and the number given for 2010 and 2011 was 30,000. This will surely be more at the next festival on September 2!
It is obvious that this procession is no exact replica of those in Sri Lanka. For example its date in the Diaspora does not follow the traditional ritual calendar based on the planetary movements but complies with the official regulations of the French authorities which allow this procession on Sundays only, when traffic is lightest. On rathayatra, the murtis of the two most important gods of the kovil, Ganesha and Murugan are transported on two festival chariots on the streets. These chariots are hand-pulled through the streets in a circle around the kovil by barefooted devotees dressed in traditional costumes, the first exclusively by men and the second by women, thus blocking traffic.
Picture 2 and 3: rathayatra (Paris, 2009). Anthony Goreau-Ponceaud
Before the procession, the streets are washed with rose water and saffron by two water trucks from the municipality to purify the path of Lord Ganesha, and men carry heavy wooden cavadis. This practice is becoming increasingly popular. The cavadis are held on the shoulders of the carriers who dance to the beat and tune of drums and flutes. Most cavadi dancers are younger men. But, in 2008, forthe first time a woman was seen with a cavadi on her shoulders. These dancers are followed by women carrying on their heads camphor offerings which are set on fire. Piles of coconuts are placed along the way in order to be broken as the chariots pass them. Numerous devotees of the Lord accompany his idol, dancing and singing bhajans (songs worshipping divine beings).
Picture 4 and 5: Cavadis
Meanings and community
This procession is a movement from one place to another that is symbolically and ceremonially resonant. This event consists of distinctive elements (costumes, music, chariot, and so on) that distinguish it from the everyday urban routine but are presented in ways comprehensible to Hindu and non Hindu spectators alike. For Sandera Sekaram, this procession is held not only for the benefit of the Sri Lankan devotees of the deity concerned but also for the wider public. The Sri Lankan Tamils living in France are very much committed to the writing of brochures about their religion so as to make Hinduism understandable by French and non-Hindus in general. More specifically, members of the temple of Ganesha have created a website. They also sell videos of previous processions and every year much energy is invested in trying to get journalists to cover the event. These operations of communication are indispensable because the average cost of the festival is 40,000 euros. So even if this event is firstly organized by and for the Sri Lankan Tamils, according to Sandera Sekaram, “by bringing more than 20.000 people each year this festival is a way of reuniting the whole South Asian population beyond religious splits”. But according to Sandera, “even if there are Muslims and Christians who come to see the festival, this event is important for us because it allows us to show ourselves to others”. Thus, this procession brings Sri Lankan Tamils together in order to put religion and religious identity on display. And according to Jacobsen (2008: 191) “people moving with sacred objects on public streets make their religious traditions, their identities and their concerns visible to each other and to an audience”. This procession also makes the size of the group visible. And, by using their bodies and a number of objects, the Sri Lankan Tamils openly demonstrate their religiosity in the streets. In doing this they lay a claim to public space: they temporarily occupy it; they fill it with their bodies, voices and instruments. This event is also an occasion to bring the deity out of his normal abode, the sacred interior of the temple, into the profane everyday world. And by combining procession (movement) and station (the significant stopping in front of the most influential merchants in the community, which is where the coconuts are broken), this event has “a performative character” (Slyomovics, 1995: 159). Moreover, the route of the procession always describes a circle or a square through the neighbouring area back to the temple. Moving in a clockwise direction they perform what is known as pradaksina or circumambulation. In this sense, the Ganesha Caturthi is a public ritual which refers to the idea of a sanctifying delimitation of space and time. Space and time are well socialized through deliberate practices and local representations which are accompanied by emotions, through which social experience is tested, displayed, expressed and debated. The street then appears as a primal scene of politics where identities and loyalties are put in contact and in tension with each other. As pointed out by Jacobsen (2008, 201), “the area of the temple is marked as the territory of the god. In the circumambulation of the temple, the audience watching the procession merges with it more easily”.
This ritual process of ambulation around the temple assumes renewed meanings among Tamils in Paris, in so far as it also delimits a political space of identification between the city and the Tamil community. The main function of this procession in a diasporic context is to exhibit one’s own religious culture. The latter becomes a marker of cultural uniqueness. This procession can also become the means to form ethnic communities and identities in the immigrant context, especially as the route of the procession has never been changed. The procession-ritualized time enables the community to stick out from discretion and be visible in full view of everyone, which makes it a means of drawing public attention. While the Ganesha festival is organized with the aim of allowing the Tamil population to achieve a certain degree of legitimacy within the French public sphere and society, the process is far from going unquestioned by the French polity. In fact, the procession was banned by Tony Dreyfus twice – in 1999 and in 2000. This is because for some inhabitants of La Chapelle, the procession exacerbates communalism, seen as the closing in of ethnically defined communities on themselves. This claim refers to the postulate of French political philosophy that citizens must all subscribe to same values in the public sphere. In France, due to laïcité, when private religious groups which are not recognized by the state seek to act publicly, they incur suspicion. They compete with the state for the loyalties of their members, and thus promote communalism. Finally, this procession confirm that transnational connections enable migrants as never before to maintain collective identities and practices. This has significant bearings on the culture and identity of the so-called second generation.
Lecturer in geography
University of Bordeaux IV
UMR ADES CNRS
Adrian, M. 2009. “France, the veil and religious freedom”, in Religion, State and Society, Routledge, vol. 37, n°4, 345-374.
Bowen, J.-R. 2008. Why the French don’t like headscarves. Islam, the State, and public space, Priceton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.
Bhatt, C. 1997. Liberation and purity. Race, new religious movements and the ethics of postmodernity. London: Routledge.
Goreau-Ponceaud, A. 2011. “Tamils in France”, in Dynamics of Indian Emigration: Historical and current perspectives, edited by R. Irudaya and M. Percot. Delhi: Routledge, Chapter 3, 64-90.
Goreau-Ponceaud, A. 2008. La diaspora tamoule : Trajectoires spatio-temporelles et inscriptions territoriales en Île-de-France. Thèse de doctorat de géographie, Université de Bordeaux 3, 427p.
Hargreaves, Alec G. 1995. , Immigration, « Race » and Ethnicity in Contemporary France, London and New York: Routledge.
Jacobsen, Knut A. 2008. “Processions, public space and sacred space in the South Asian Diasporas in Norway”, in South Asian religions on displays. Religious processions in South Asia and in the Diaspora, edited by Knut A Jacobsen, London: Routledge, 191-204.
Jacobsen, Knut A. 2009. “Establishing Tamil Ritual Space: A Comparative Analysis of the Ritualisation of the Traditions of the Tamil Hindus and the Tamil Roman Catholics in Norway”, Journal of religion in Europe, n°2, 180-198.
Slyomovics, S. 1995. “The Muslim World Day Parade”, in Nation and Migration. The politics of space in the South Asian Diaspora, edited by P. Van Der Veer, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 157-177.
 According to Bowen (2008, 18), the control of organized religion by the state is intended to guarantee public order.
 Sandera told me that it was also to celebrate this miracle that he wanted to organize the procession.
 Even if the journalists do not understand the meaning of the event, it gains much media attention in an exotic bias.