An Anthropological Study of Cities in South Asia
India, which has seen rapid economic development since the 1990s, has experienced especially acute change in its urban societies. Specifically, the urban middle class has been rapidly expanding, the development of a consumer society has reached regional cities, and various phenomena of distortion in the redevelopment of existing city blocks have appeared. These all in turn have given rise to various forms of social problems including violent disputes among different religious groups resulting from social anxieties, worsening living environments and expansion of slums, the growth of newly affluent social strata and on the obverse side growing disparities in wealth. This joint research has the ambitious goal of linking up with the funded scientific research projects listed below in order from an anthropological point of view to search for ways to resolve the issues arising in contemporary Indian urban society. Nevertheless, anthropological research in India’s cities lags far behind research on agricultural communities and castes, and their basic structures remain unclear. In that sense this joint research will place these contemporary issues as the research focus, and one of its methods will be from a cultural history and scholarly viewpoint to cast a broad eye over the south Asian region. This is to shed light on the special characteristics of South Asian cities and the basic structure of their cultural and social strata.
During the three-and-a-half years of its existence, this research group held ten seminars. Members of our research group conducted individual field research, and released and discussed their research findings primarily focusing on the four themes below, with the major points of discussion also shown below.
Urban character of South Asia in contrast to villages
The unique characteristics of cities of South Asia cannot be found only in the heterogeneous nature of their populations, lack of a sense of community, and focus on economic exchanges. The basic characteristics of traditional South Asian cities also includes their search for spirituality and religious centrality. This is found both in regions that formerly had Hindu rulers as well as in regions where Muslim rulers long exercised supremacy.
Regional character of urban areas of South Asia as viewed from their basic structure
Despite the conclusions in theme 1, major differences are identifiable between the northern part of the subcontinent where Islamic influences were strong and the southern part where those influences were not sustained, as well as the manner in which these are reflected in the structure of basic social spaces in urban areas. Specifically, in the north the disadvantaged in urban society tend to congregate in mohalla (neighborhoods or localities), which are demarcated by natural boundaries. In the south, however, we identified a tendency for temples, shrines and churches, among others, scattered throughout urban districts to act as small nuclei around which the disadvantaged congregate.
Factors related to change in urban areas
Local characteristics such as those discussed in 2 have been disappearing along with the development of conditions associated with economic globalization and the resulting flow of people, goods and information. These have resulted in changes to localities that were formerly the center of old urban areas in traditional cities. In this respect, a number of investigative reports have provided empirical evidence that the above mentioned flow of people, goods and information has tremendous power to bring about a change of locality in urban societies in South Asia.
Reconstruction of localities in urban areas
In contrast to this, a move towards the construction of new localities has also arisen. On such occasions, traditional religious practices have proved a key basis for the reconstruction of localities, as empirical investigative reports in various areas have pointed out. Such trends have an intimate connection with the flourishing of religious nationalism, and are important factors supporting the politicization of religion in South Asia.