Giant Hindu statues and the spread of Indian public religion

A new genre of monumental statues of Hindu deities is proliferating across India and its diaspora, merging tourism with the new public role of Hinduism. In the journal Current Anthropology (February), Kajri Jain writes that these giant-sized statues have been increasingly appearing since the 1990s, aided by the growth of automobile use and tourism. The erection of huge statues in India has ancient lineages, going back to the colossal rock-cut statues of Buddha and Jain of the second and sixth centuries and medieval period, respectively. But Kajri Jain writes that the modern revived phenomenon is partly a Hindu response to take back public space after Dalit (or untouchable) and Buddhist statues and monuments started going up to challenge the caste system and press for social inclusion. Despite the secular entertainment and political value of these newer statues, they also have strong Hindu links, “confounding any sequential narrative of progress or transformation from the religious to the secular.”

These statues, such as the 108-foot Shiva completed in 2011 and part of a “one-stop Shiva” shopping complex, are tied into circuits connecting “public welfare, religious patronage and the private capital of the family firm,” Jain writes. In the case of the many Shiva statues, they have been incorporated into existing Shiva pilgrimage routes in the north and south of the country now accessible by car. For example, Bangalore-based financial tycoon R. N. Shetty has established control of his small coastal town as well as its temple, building a 123-foot Shiva near his golf club that creates a “circuit between tourism-led development and religious legitimation,” she adds. In one sense the location, size, and visibility of these giant statues overcome the limits of caste and religion, “offering a panoply of innovative forms of ritual participation,” even as they serve to exclude non-Hindus more consistently than annual religious festivals and “enable a host of new actors to participate in religious-cum-developmental patronage and gain social or political status to match their economic wealth or access to resources.”

(Current Anthropology,