As an academic trained in geography, I have for a long time been looking to develop a coherent understanding of this process that is popularly known as ‘globalization’. The term has acquired steady popularity from the 1980s onwards and has become as often used – in academic literature, journalistic literature, and lay conversations – as terms like ‘modernity’ and ‘nationalism’. For many, it means that the goods that we consume today in India are made in some other part of the globe; that trends in music, fashion, and food travel quickly around the world, leading to a loss of uniqueness. To many, it means the onslaught of “McDonaldization,” or “Coca-colanization.”
For many others, globalization has dangerous repercussions in terms of entry of foreign direct investment, and foreign corporations into national markets. Thus eroding and eradicating indigenous business—for example, think of the street protest among small traders of Delhi against the entry of retail giant WalMart in India. My frustration with globalization is that the narratives I discovered were too fragmented. Those that spoke about cultural globalization, erosion of local uniqueness, spread of ‘foreign tastes,’ often ignored the economic dimensions behind the “McDonaldization” of the world. And, on the other hand, those narratives that talk about foreign investment, mergers, and take-overs of national business have little to say about cultural change. Both narratives often tend to provide a birds-eye view without the satisfaction of a nuanced, grounded, place-based perspective on the culture-economy dialectic of globalization.
As I reflected over these omissions, I had the chance to visit the Akshardham temples in Delhi and Gandhinagar in Gujarat. The spectacle left me dizzy—here was a locally grounded version of globalization brought to fruition in spotless alabaster, occupying hundreds of acres of beautifully manicured gardens and reflecting pools. Inside the temple, one moves from the Himalayan themed cyber-optic landscape of the Mansarovar lake and meditating Lord Swaminarayan, to the plastic jungles of Cherrapunji replete with fake moss, plastic snakes, and electronic owls that rotate their heads a full 360 degree. Then, the Vedic boat ride takes you through the simulated villages of Vedic India, which are actually spectacular dioramas with little historic accuracy. One realizes that the audience has been inducted into a “Vegas-esque” spectacle where religion and fantasy mingle. The temple landscapes theme meticulously followed Disney’s model of Disney World, only here Mickey Mouse has been replaced with the gods of the Hindu pantheon.
The audience files from one themed environment to another, like gleeful children who can’t wait for the next ride. The production of this spectacle is a million dollar project – bringing globalization to India through the meticulous study of Disney Worlds all over the globe. Globalization, I argue, does not constitute neatly sliced segments of economic change in the market places insulated from cultural fluxes elsewhere. Globalizing realities are best understood through urban spaces like the Akshardham temple complexes in India where economy and culture, religion and fantasy, spiritualism and commodification bleed into one another in the production of contemporary spectacles.
This visit piqued my interest, and I took trips to Akshardham temple complexes in Houston, Irving-Dallas, and Atlanta to understand how globalization is being grounded in the global north. Here, the temple complexes are almost exact replicas of their Indian counterparts, but smaller. But the culture-economic narrative they wish to weave is completely different. In the US, where commodification, consumption, and alienation is rampant, and where the cities and their skyscrapers are the very epitome of the spectacle of capitalism, the Akshardham temples steer clear of any form of “Disneyization”. The temple complexes are not themed, no Vedic boat rides or sound and light shows here, but instead, they boast of museums that weave narratives of migrant-patriotism displayed carefully through selective rendering of history. Only Hindu freedom fighters, Hindu poets, and literary geniuses are carefully chosen and displayed to evoke the greatness and hoariness of primarily Hindu-India.
Because the temple complexes lack the patina of age, the museums seem to almost make up for their newness by evoking the ancientness of Indian history. But only a very carefully selected Hindu version of it. The Akshardham temple complexes also house schools, language teaching centers for migrant children, and double-up as cultural social networking sites for women. They also boast of food courts that cook Gujarati-Indian samosas, doklas, and sweets according to the specification of the Swaminrayan traditions. Although the temples are spectacular in their Italian alabaster facades, they attempt to ground the migrant Indian’s angst with globalization in more mundane ways than the spectacular theme park narratives of their Indian counterparts. Here nationalism, multiculturalism, patriotism, and narratives of race and gender are negotiated through the everyday spaces of class-rooms where boys and girls are taught separately. Here the racial and cultural ‘others’ like Hispanic, Black, and White Americans are welcomed into the complex. The temples in the US also become moral and cultural points for passing down the essentials of tradition that are swiftly being washed away by globalization. The second generation migrant youth is expected to get her/his bearings corrected through the sacred spaces of the temple’s everyday life, and not get deflected into drinking, or pre-marital sex for instance.
This collage of temple narratives from India and US enabled me to transcend my frustrations with globalization literature. Here I found tangible sites where culture and economy were deeply inflected when it came to chalking the complex tropes of globalization. These complex tropes were a picturesque entry-point into the troubled textures of commodification, alienation, as well as narratives of race, gender, and nationalism.
Featured image credit: McSpicy Paneer Passion, by Divya Thakur. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.