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Places in Search of a Purpose: Colonial Cathedrals in Postcolonial India

Guest author Jonathan Miles-Watson (Tallinn U) contributes this essay to continue the March 2011 Anthropology News series on place.

Christ Church Cathedral. Photo courtesy Jonathan Miles-Watson

If, as Fernandez has argued (“Emergence and Convergence in Some African Sacred Places” in Low & Lawrence-Zuniga, eds, The Anthropology of Space and Place: Locating Culture, 2003), space is transformed into place through the mutual constitution of people and their environment, then what happens to places when there is a sudden and dramatic population shift? Does the built environment and the humans that dwell there become disconnected? How do new populations deal with and understand visible traces of past human action? These are the questions that a group of anthropologists and geographers, collectively known as the Landscape Heritage and Practice group, at Tallinn University, have been jointly exploring for the last six years. I have been part of that team for the last three years and throughout that time I have been focusing on engaging my specific fieldwork in Shimla with these general concepts and the theories surrounding them. This has lead me to question the way that the value of sacred places is assessed by those interested in the development of civil society.

From Simla to Shimla
In many ways Shimla provides an ideal case study for this kind of project: it was built at the height of British India as a refuge for Europeans, a place where they could inscribe their presence into the Himalayan Mountains. The historical record suggests that early European visitors to the location that was to become first Simla and then Shimla, often noted that its temperature provided a suitable backdrop to recreate a piece of Europe in India (Pubby, Shimla Then and Now, 1988, p 20). A series of complicated historical events saw the place gradually transformed towards this goal as people deliberately set out to generate a space that resonated with their homeland. Simla then was intended to be a place whose features evoked the homeland and made its European residents feel somewhat at home.

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