Illegal Prayers

A study of Shrines found on the roads of India

How can something so legitimate like prayers be illegal? In an effort to answer this question, I have tried to analyze critically as to how the superstitious beliefs in India tend to tie in with the scientific and logical explanations, using the example of a shrine. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “a shrine is essentially a place regarded as holy because of its associations with a divinity or a sacred person or relic, marked by a building or other construction”.[1] A close observation of a shrine, in the middle of a road, divulged so many details about its existence and beliefs, both tangible and intangible.


India is a country of over one billion people. Owing to its diverse physical, social and cultural patterns, it has flourished as a country of many races, religions, and languages. Due to its multi-cultural background, India annually celebrates a minimum of twenty-one public holidays with additional state-declared regional holidays, which is the highest as compared to any other nation.[1] Notably, only three of them are national holidays while rest are all religious. This exhibits a vivid scenario of spiritual leaning of the country which, in turn, contributes to the creation of numerous places of worship like temples, churches, synagogues, mosques etc.

Indians have a firm belief that “God exists in everything”. Although not every shrine may be built for reasons of spirituality but more so as an act of blind faith. An apt scene from the movie, PK, exposes how easy it is to create a shrine out of a single stone and be accepted by people as a holy shrine within minutes. This development has metaphorically been compared to the process of building a factory. A stone as “shrine” becomes the main “machine”, few coins spread around is the initial “investment” and some paint to highlight the shrine; is all it takes to start the “business of fear of god”.[2]

Analyzing the shrine:

The first impression of the shrine in the picture above reveals how it has become an inherent part of the primary road, located in the heart of the city. Judging by the wear and tear in and around the shrine, it seems to have been situated here for quite a while. The road is very wide which could have been constructed to solve the problems of frequent jams due to heavy traffic flow. Still, the authorities chose not to demolish the structure and instead, the area surrounding the shrine is well paved and enclosed off by road dividers.

An analysis of the entire arrangement formulates a very interesting theory. Everything about the shrine and its surroundings has two set of reasonings, one justifies the mythical beliefs and the other validates the logical explanations. Starting with position of the shrine, it is situated below trees which may be believed to be shielding the shrine but actually, in my understanding, this is more to safeguard the devotees against the harsh weather. The second noticeable feature is the square plan of the shrine with all the elements of a temple; including a garbhagriha where the presiding deity is enshrined, a shikhar symbolizing the mountain peak above the sanctum sanctorum, a mandapa which is a raised pavilion for the devotees to stand and pray and a ghant or the bell believed to produce divine energy when rung while entering the temple. These elements are built in a very simplistic form here as compared to other temples; though their symbolic presence creates a spiritual aura, it can be estimated that to facilitate easy construction and labor the forms have purposely been kept basic. Thirdly, the size of the shrine is just enough to house the deity so that no one can enter and use the space thereby maintaining the sanctity of the temple, while logical reasoning behind this can be that being right in the middle of the road, the small size and low height does not block riders’ view of the road. Another observation about the color of the temple being white is that it symbolizes purity but with regards to the building materials, it can be noted that whitewash is the most common and cheapest form of exterior painting in India. Finally, the little arrangement for the incense sticks on the pavilion not only facilitates the devotees to perform the rituals but also helps to keep out the foul smell arising from the surrounding areas.

There is a fresh garland over the temple door which implies that it gets regular visits from devotees, meaning it is a place of gathering for people. It is very clear from the elements listed above that it is a Hindu temple where offerings are paid twice a day- in mornings and evenings. This also happens to be the peak time of commute for working people. How safe is it to have people, especially elderly and children, in the middle of the road with so many vehicles passing by them throughout the day? Who would be blamed in cases of mishaps? Temples are meant to be places filled with positive energy augmenting calmness, and quite ironically it has rather become a cause for conflict between people.

Conflicts and concerns:

The use of public property for religious establishments, by any group of the society, is not only unfair to the others but also illegal. Such an act often sparks a reason for clash between freedom of worship versus development of the country. Conflicts have arisen not only when the shrine is perpetual but also when it is tried to be encroached. The demolition process takes much longer than the construction itself, and most of the times it never even happens due to reasons as varied as fear of god, corruption by government officials, fear of conflict between different religious groups, interference by political parties playing vote bank politics and so on. Many shrines are constructed by notorious groups overnight on ongoing development sites. These people then demand money from the contractor of the job, who expedites the case to government authority. The decision for such cases typically takes months and the project comes to a standstill abruptly. The shrine once again becomes a reason of conflict between public, suffering due to unfinished construction work, and the government. What came into limelight via this situation was the mindset of these people trying to take advantage of the system for their benefit. Yet another issue created in the backdrop of the shrine.[3]

The shrines are appreciated by people as long as they are built in dedicated areas and homes, but as soon as these sprawl into public properties all around the city, they cause such nuisances for the citizens. The issues range from traffic jams to as serious as riots between religious groups leading to curfews, destruction of public property, injuries and loss of lives. For example, around 300 residents of Mumbai protested against the demolition for illegal structures in their area where they guarded the structures for hours at length. The authorities had to stall their operation in order to avoid tense situations while another incident occurred in Gujarat, where riots were set off during the razing of a Muslim shrine leading to death of six people and leaving dozens injured.[4]

Sometimes issues arise due to the negligence of people and sometimes as a deliberate act by political parties. Many concerns had been expedited to high courts who ruled in favor of the public demanding demolition of the structures. But it is outrageous that even the Supreme Court had to “handle” the people by mentioning God in its argument, saying, “God never intended to obstruct the path. But you are obstructing the path. It is an insult to God”.[5] Till date no consistent policy in this matter has been put forth after the ruling.

In conclusion, I understand that different religious faiths lead to the creation of such structures, which are interwoven in the urban context. While the same faith connects one group of the society to the other, it is also one of the main reasons of conflict occurring between people with contrasting beliefs.


1. Oxford University Press. “English Oxford Living Dictionaries.” Accessed September 16, 2016.

2. Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. “The Times of India.” Accessed September 16, 2016.

3. Youtube, LLC. “Youtube.” Accessed September 18, 2016.— Bollywood movie, PK, directed by Rajkumar Hirani, written by Rajkumar Hirani and Abhijat Joshi, and produced by Vidhu Vinod Chopra.

4. Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. “The Times of India.” Accessed September 29, 2016.

5. Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. “The Times of India.” Accessed September 27, 2016. ;and The New York Times Company. Accessed September 27, 2016.

6. Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. “The Times of India.” Accessed September 18, 2016.

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