Two neighborhoods: one with towering mansions offset from the road by lengthy, gated driveways; the other with tall, concrete apartments divided by alleys so slim that the presence of the sky is only known by thought, not sight.
During my time in Hyderabad, I worked with Hyderabad Urban Lab (HUL) using GIS, a mapping application that allows you to insert your own data points onto an area of land. The staff assigned my two partners and I a grid of the city to explore, map, and analyze. Our two designated neighborhoods were divided by Road 1, a major highway in the city.
As we meandered through the area, two major distinctions between the adjacent neighborhoods caught my immediate attention: the drastic change in infrastructure and the difference between the amounts of public religious expression. The West was filled with mansions and corporate offices with no religious expression, and the East comprised of smaller, compact apartments, which were lathered in religious symbolism. As we continued mapping, interviewing, and researching, we began wondering if these two factors correlated with each other.
We came to the conclusion that built environments affect people’s public religious expression because the structure of neighborhoods is linked to how people engage with their communities.
The infrastructure these two neighborhoods determined how much the residents felt the need to publicly religiously express themselves. Why? We found that religious expression is a result of how people engage in their community and how they assert their identity. Both of these elements stem from the built structure of a neighborhood.
The Anand Nagar Colony community in the east displays much more religious symbolism. Walking down the narrow alleyways, rangolis, masks, flowers, and leaves crowd the doorways of almost every residency. Because these houses are in close contact with each other, the community bonds together. The infrastructure of the small houses does not leave much room for the families to express themselves within the walls, so the street becomes part of their living space. The houses are right on the alleys where people hang up decorations and communally celebrate their religions. Due to the street acting as part of living space and people’s houses crowding together, the community is strengthened. Religious expression becomes a community ritual because of the structure of the neighborhood.
Banjara Hills is the neighborhood on the west side of Road 1. This neighborhood is a newer development in the city. It has only been around for a few decades. The structure of this community differs greatly from that of the East. The houses are much larger and spread farther apart from one another and the main road. Long driveways lead to each abode. This type of infrastructure discourages community involvement and cohesion. People are not forced out onto the streets to interact; in fact, the buildings allow people to remain on their property without ever having to speak to one another, let alone express their common religions in camaraderie. We only noticed a few symbols on people’s cars and one large Buddha carving far back from the road. Community religious expression lessens as buildings reduce the interaction between neighbors.
How people assert their identity plays a part in how they use religion. The East has limited space, and people living there often feel suppressed. Religion is a way of asserting dominance in the neighborhood. Staff from HUL spoke to us about the ways in which people use religion as a means of occupying space. In Hyderabad, there are often shrines or mosques that are falling apart, but storeowners still use them as spaces for business. These storeowners use religious structures to protect their stores; the government cannot foreclose a religious space. Similar practices can be seen in the Anand Nagar Colony. We observed the streets of this neighborhood during the Durga Puja Festival. Pop-up temples and shrines covered the alleys of the community. People were using religion as a way of asserting their identity through occupying space in the streets. Because of the lack of space, religion becomes a means of occupying it. Public religious expression is heightened due to the need for individuals to affirm their identity in the city.
The West, as I have explained previously, has bountiful space. Individuals have no need to affirm themselves because their identity is not threatened. Access to space, the structure of this neighborhood, eliminates the urge to publicly express religious symbolism. As we walked around Banjara Hills, we found one large Hindu temple near the water body and one Hindu cemetery. These were the only major religious structures we identified. These religious spaces fall short in comparison to the number of spaces we discovered in the East. Because these people find their identity in the space they already own, they have no need to use religion as a means of occupying it.
These two neighborhoods seem like worlds apart even though they are within walking distance from each other. The difference in the structure of the buildings that comprise each neighborhood set them apart. The infrastructure alters how people engage in their community and how they assert their identity. Both of these factors influence the overall behavior of the neighborhood in whether or not they feel the need to publicly express their religion. I have no knowledge about the individual beliefs or private practices of the individuals in the two neighborhoods, but through observational data, I am able to make claims about the public religious expression or lack thereof in the two communities.