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Religious Creolization and Differentiation

“Double Religiosity”, Generation,and Recognition of Hindus in La Réunion
Créolisation et différenciation religieuses. « Double religiosité », génération et reconnaissance des Hindous à La Réunion
Criollización y diferenciación religiosas. “Doble religiosidad”, generación y reconocimiento de los hindúes en La Reunión
Natalie Lang
p. 35-58


Religious differentiations are as important as creolization processes in creole societies. Taking four generations of a family in La Réunion as an example, I illustrate how religious practices and identifications can develop historically, culturally and socially in a creole context. Changing importance of and identification with religious practices are interrelated with political developments and power relations, ranging from the colonial context via departmentalization to regionalization, which come along with possibilities and felt expectations of cultural identification, including as French, Indian, Hindu, Reunionese, and Creole. Religious practices also reflect changing images of Hindus, such as from indentured laborers to successful entrepreneurs, as well as their aspirations for recognition and status. Combining people’s material and sensory approaches to religion with the discursive level of their life stories reveals a complex historically embedded relation between religious creolization and differentiation.

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I would like to thank Valérie Aubourg and Mathieu Claveyrolas for the invitation to this special issue and for their helpful suggestions in the publication process. I also thank Patrick Eisenlohr, Loreley Franchina, Carola Lorea, Kenneth Dean, Show Ying Ruo, Chen Ning Ning, and Fabian Graham for their inspirational comments on the first ideas of this article, and the anonymous reviewers for their constructive suggestions. The article was written during a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, and the research on which it is based was supported by a Dorothea Schlözer PhD Scholarship and Centre for Modern Indian Studies travel grants at the University of Göttingen.

1Advocates of the study of Creole societies praise its contribution to an anthropology that acknowledges the complexities and processual character of cultural transformation (Hannerz, 1987, Korom, 2003:12, Pourchez, 2013). At the same time, creolization has been criticized for being used extensively without enough precision. Instead of taking it as an analytical tool, scholars have suggested to study how creolization was used and imagined in socio-political discourses in particular places at particular historical moments (cf. Palmié, 2006). Similarly, rather than thinking about religious creolization or syncretism as analytical tools, which would imply examining the mixing of assumed religious entities as defined by authors or authorizing institutions, some scholars see more value in examining such concepts as discursive tools that are used to define religious communities either negatively, as corrupting assumed religious truths, or positively, as tolerant and plural (Van der Veer, 1994).

2Acknowledging the significance of both the discourses that people carry about their religious practices and the material and sensorial aspects of religion (Meyer, 2009) reveals the importance of religious differentiations in the Creole context of La Réunion. While processes of religious differentiations and the making of religious minorities may appear oppositional to creolization, the case of La Réunion demonstrates how these trends can be interrelated. The idea of a “religion créole” (Nicaise, 2008) grasps different dimensions of a “Creole religion” with its own logics that emerged in the plantation context by emphasizing both the continuum that religious traditions form in contemporary La Réunion and the individual religious paths people pursue. I suggest to pay even more attention to differentiation processes, such as resistance to religious creolization, marking religious boundaries, and claiming recognition of a minority religion. Such processes have also been observed on the neighboring island Mauritius in the “ethnicization of creolization” (Eisenlohr, 2009) and the decreolization of memory (Claveyrolas, 2012). As Frank J. Korom (2003) demonstrates for the case of Trinidad, decreolization can serve as a strategy of a minority group to resist full submersion into a majority population, for example by pursuing external creolization but internal decreolization. As this article illustrates, the interplay between religious creolization and differentiation processes can become apparent on different levels, including among groups, in rituals, or even within the life courses of individuals. Furthermore, (de)creolization processes can be more or less conscious or targeted, as Christian Ghasarian (2008) suggests by differentiating “acculturation” and “creolization” as inevitable phenomena in the hierarchical colonial context from more intentional “cultural reinventions” (réinventions culturelles). Finally, creolization itself can imply differentiation, linguistic, religious, or cultural purity claims, and hierarchies (Benoist 2012). Similar to Raymond Massé’s (2013) argument that people in Martinique use creolization as a way to pursue a quest for more recognition as they feel economically neglected and politically subordinated by Metropolitan France, both creolization and the reinvention of ancestral cultures are differentiation movements that are directly linked with wishes for recognition of local culture in La Réunion.

3The history of this previously uninhabited island and today outermost region of the European Union has moved from the plantation context to receiving the status of a French Département in 1946 and of a French Région with more local authority in 1982. Reunionese today are French citizens with ancestors from different parts of the world, including Africa, Madagascar, India, China, and France. These ancestors came to the island under different conditions, including as slaves, indentured laborers, traders, or colonizers. Their religious practices developed in the colonial context of métissage (ethnic mixing), institutional racism, economic difficulties, and under a strong dominance of the Catholic Church, with little contact with their ancestral places. Only in the second half of the twentieth century, some socially aspiring Reunionese started reorientation movements, which were mainly driven by interest in ancestral religions. Favored by the decline of colonial hegemonic power in many parts of the world, and by French decentralizing politics of the 1980s, Reunionese society allowed for more institutional and social recognition of both ancestral cultures and Reunionese Creole culture.

4Creole can mean many things. Perceptions of societies as Creole usually refer to the historical intercultural encounters in the plantation context under unequal power relations between different actors and groups (eg. Claveyrolas, 2017:10). However, the local meanings of the term vary. In the Caribbean, Creole refers to the encounter of African and European heritage, which excludes Indo-Caribbeans ideologically and conceptually (Munasinghe, 2006). In Mauritius, Indo-Mauritians rather look down on those referred to as Creole (Eisenlohr, 2006) and are in turn perceived as anti-Creole in Mauritian identitarian discourses (Claveyrolas, 2017:87ff). Mathieu Claveyrolas (2017) nevertheless speaks of Creole Hindus to emphasize the historical context of slavery and plantation in Mauritius. In La Réunion, creole seems to encompass even more diversity in its local and conceptual usage than in the Caribbean and in Mauritius. Despite perceptions of Creoles as descendants of French impoverished colonizers, also called Petits Blancs, who mixed with people of other origins (Andoche, 2000, Benoist, 1979:13,19, Ghasarian, 1991:147), and who are contrasted with people of Indian origins, Creole can also refer to Reunionese society at large, with its diverse compositions of cultural forms. This also means that Creole and Hindu religious practices do not mutually exclude each other in La Réunion.

  • 1 Religious census is not allowed in France. My interlocutors usually estimated the number of Hindus (...)

5Most Reunionese Hindus, who present about 30 percent1 of the more than 850 000 inhabitants of the island, have at least one ancestor from South India who had migrated to La Réunion in the colonial context of indenture in the nineteenth century. Very few Reunionese can speak Indian languages – they speak French and Creole, and I witnessed very little evidence of caste during my fieldwork. Furthermore, while some Reunionese Hindus engage in reorientation projects toward India, many others valorize the locally created religious traditions. Similarly, yet not necessarily congruent, while some engage in class-related standardization processes of religious contents and practices by adopting more Brahminical practices from India, others claim pride in more “popular” practices, locally created or from India, such as fire walking and Karly (Kāḷi) festivals with animal sacrifices. Importantly, these different trends are not mutually exclusive.

6What appears as a linear trend from creolization during the colonial period to wishes for recognition of difference since the second half of the twentieth century is more multifaceted. First, there might have been more resistance in the past against being absorbed into the Creole society than one might assume. Even though comparing their religious practices to Catholic practices in one of the rare examples of Indian workers’ voices being documented speaks more for religious adaptation with the aim of justification (Marimoutou-Oberlé, 1999:94), other historical evidence of Indian workers in the 1870s managing the administrational skills to build their own temples (Marimoutou-Oberlé, 1999:95) or creating a relief association with the aim of enabling workers to return to India and celebrate religious festivals (Fuma, 1999: 56) let assume historical processes of differentiation as well. Second, today’s pride in locally created religious practices with their creolization history fights and complements the recent reorientation toward India (Lang, 2021). Furthermore, the emic concept of double religiosité (double religiosity), which I have heard several times by different interlocutors who mostly referred to the practice of both Catholic and other, such as Hindu or Chinese religion, continues to play an important role. Discourses on how Reunionese Hindus perceive their religiosities today range from victimization to self-realization. While some criticize the “mental colonization” by the Catholic Church, others present themselves as creative bricoleurs who are consciously open to engage with diverse religious orientations, including Catholicism. Taking people’s claims about double (or multiple) religiosity seriously reveals not only that they perceive these practices as efficient, but also as different. In this article, I show that such conscious double religiosity is at once a historical consequence of creolization because people combined Catholic with other practices, and an example of religious differentiation, because they perceive the combined practices as different.

7The ways in which Reunionese discursively mobilize religious creolization and differentiation nuance perspectives on creolization as a process oriented toward the future and opposed to returning to ancestral sources (Benoist, 2012:14). Rather than attaching temporal meanings to creolization and reorientation projects as heading to the future and returning to the past respectively, Reunionese Hindus can employ both to work toward their aspired futures. While the turn to Indian sources by some Reunionese Hindus presents a means to achieve social status wherein they refer to India as a great world power, the valorization of local creole religious traditions is linked to claiming pride in a historical past of ancestral suffering and adaptation, as well as resilience against more recent reorientation projects. Both stances can reflect aspirations for future social mobility (Lang, 2021).

8In this article, I take four generations of one Reunionese family as an example to illustrate how religious practices and identifications can develop historically, culturally and socially in a Creole context. The following sections demonstrate how changing importance of and identification with religious practices can be interrelated with generational differences in terms of both age and historical developments from the colonial context via departmentalization to regionalization. These political developments are accompanied by changing possibilities and felt expectations of cultural identification as French and Hindu/Indian and Reunionese/Creole, for instance through more travel possibilities to India and more recognition of Hindu religion in Reunionese society. Such identifications in turn are related to changing images of Hindus from indentured laborers conducting sorcery to successful entrepreneurs and (upper) middle class adherents of a world religion.

9The article is based on twelve months of anthropological fieldwork in 2014-15 and a five-week follow-up in 2017. I lived in two Reunionese households for four and eight months respectively, and with two more Reunionese families during several weekends. Participant observation meant following practitioners in their religious everyday lives, including in their homes, temples, ashrams, shops, during cultural events, and on the social media platform Facebook. I have enhanced these perspectives by recording narrative, biographical interviews. In the analysis of data, I treat field notes, interview transcriptions, Facebook interactions, and other materials as complementary sources while paying attention to differences between more and less conscious or reflected self-presentations.

Growing up with two religions

  • 2 All names are pseudonyms which correspond to the persons’ gender and to the origin of their actual (...)
  • 3 The Creole term semblani is pronounced [sãmbla’nī]. It corresponds to cāmpirāṇi in Tamil (Engl.: b (...)

10Gabriel and his wife Colette2 are in their late 70s, have six children who are in their 40s to 50s, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Except for one grandchild, who was studying in Metropolitan France, all were present for the annual semblani3, a ritual to worship the ancestors that many Reunionese families of Indian and other origins conduct on November 1, All Saints’ Day. The ritual offering conducted in the dining room of their house around noon included elaborate temporary aesthetics that the family had prepared since five in the morning: food in all colors, including differently cooked parts of sacrificed goat and chicken, each ancestor’s favorite foods, (alcohol) drinks, or cigarettes, as well as items of their clothing, were laid down before their picture. Each time I thought it now looked perfect, another food item was distributed equally on to the seven banana leaves (Figure 1). This elaborate piece of art did not last long. In descending order of family status and generation, we each presented our respect to the ancestors and then waited outside to let them eat, before gathering together the parts of the arrangements and sharing them amongst us throughout the course of the evening. Not having understood that we should wait to allow the ancestors to eat, I opened the door to the living room. The entire family squalled. I was explained that they should not be disturbed for fifteen minutes to allow them to eat. I apologized, saying that I hoped that I had not disturbed them. Later in the evening, Gabriel mentioned the moment once again and told me that I should remember this for the next semblani, otherwise I would risk getting slapped by the ancestors.

Figure 1 : offerings to the ancestors during a semblani.

Figure 1 : offerings to the ancestors during a semblani.

La Réunion, 2014, photo by the author.

Figure 2: offering flowers on a cemetery.

Figure 2: offering flowers on a cemetery.

La Réunion, 2014, photo by the author.

Figure 3: crosses and Malbar symbols on a cemetery.

Figure 3: crosses and Malbar symbols on a cemetery.

La Réunion, 2014, photo by the author.

11Ancestors are extremely important in La Réunion and they are worshipped or prayed to on numerous occasions. One day before, on the eve of All Saints’ Day, I had accompanied Gabriel and his wife Colette to the cemetery. While they pay 10 Euro a month for the care of graves, they visit the cemetery on occasions such as All Saints’ Day, Mother’s/Father’s Day, or Grandmother’s/Grandfather’s Day. We bought 25 floral bouquets and put them in vases or on the ground at 13 different gravesites, lighting a candle at each (Figure 2). Most of the graves we visited had crosses, while some graves also featured yellow Malbar symbols in addition to crosses (Figure 3). Gabriel and Colette prayed with joined palms in the Hindu devotional way and made the sign of the cross before and after each moment of prayer. The graves we visited did not only include family members, but also a Catholic village priest, and an elder (gramoun) Malbar who had lived and whose spirit is still present on the ground where Gabriel built their house. We also laid flowers below the Jubilee cross, a large cross on Reunionese cemeteries where you can pray for all those whose graves you cannot visit. When I asked Colette how she was praying, she replied: “Have you not learned prayers?” She then recited Catholic prayers.

12Rather than analyzing which elements of the couple’s cemetery visit and their semblani at home would accord with a particular religious tradition, and whether their practices present cases of syncretism, bricolage, or parallel accumulation, I am interested in how they perceive their practices, how Reunionese discourses about creolization or about recognition of religious difference are reflected in their religious practices, and how the family’s perceptions change over time, both between generations and within their personal life stories.

13The importance of ancestors is salient in many life stories and people’s religious choices. Gabriel’s ancestors exemplify the diverse migration histories to La Réunion. The island entered the sugar industry in 1815, which created demand for a massive labor force to be recruited through the systems of slavery and indenture from East Africa, Madagascar, China, and India. Between 1674 and 1830, and between 1829 and 1881, nearly 10 000 Indian slaves and over 110 000 Indian indentured laborers were brought to La Réunion respectively (Fuma, 1999:8-37). In contrast to British colonies with high numbers of North Indian immigrants like Mauritius or Trinidad, most Indian immigrants in La Réunion came from South India. While Gabriel does not know where exactly his paternal grandfather came from but that he was a Z’arabe (Muslim of Gujarati origins), he knows from his father that this grandfather worked as a cook in a sugar cane factory in La Réunion, and returned to India soon after. The grandmother, in Gabriel’s words a Réunionnaise Malbar, a Reunionese of South Indian origins who did not migrate herself, worked in the same factory, and stayed with her son, Gabriel’s father, in La Réunion. Gabriel’s maternal grandfather, in Gabriel’s terms a Réunionnais Blanc (White Reunionese) who was married to a Réunionnaise Malbar, left to Madagascar. Thus, both Gabriel’s parents grew up in La Réunion with Reunionese mothers of South Indian origins and without fathers, who had left to India and Madagascar. One time he told me about his ancestors as we were sitting at the sea front waiting for a death ritual (kalmadi, Tamil: karumāti, see Lang, 2020) to continue, his wife Colette interjected “This is what they told you, but you haven’t witnessed it yourself”. “Yes”, Gabriel replied. He then resumed: “I have ancestors from all directions. What does this make me?” I naively suggested “Everything?” But he replied “You need to choose one path. I have chosen the Tamil path.” This statement is interesting with regards to his embodied religious practices described further below.

14The Creole terms zansèt or goulou and the French term ancêtres for ancestors most often refer to Reunionese ancestors, thus grand-parents and great-grandparents of the contemporary adult generation, rather than to earlier ancestors in India. The importance of the local context has also been observed in Mauritius, where Hindu ancestors are not necessarily Indian either (Claveyrolas, 2021). Gabriel does not know much about his ancestors who actually came from India. He therefore cannot personally worship them in the semblani, which is directed toward his and Colette’s parents, one brother and one sister, and the gramoun who had lived and whose spirit was still present on the ground where they built their house. Although most Reunionese do not know much or anything about their Indian ancestors, several people told me how proud they were of their Indian ancestors who had undertaken the long and difficult journey to the island and who had undergone many hardships which ultimately enabled their descendants’ social mobility.

15Gabriel and Colette present two examples of how Reunionese of Indian (and other origins) born in the late 1930s could grow up in La Réunion around the time when it became a French overseas department. After the colonial sugar industry declined since the second half of the nineteenth century, La Réunion was left without any significant economy. Although it became a French overseas department in 1946, the 1950s and 1960s were still characterized by social disillusionment, increasing unemployment, and an understaffed health system (Combeau 2010). Colette grew up as a “slave” of her older sister, as she terms it, working on sugar cane plantations and in the household since the age of eight, without permission to go to school. When she became ill because of the hard work, she returned to her parents’ home and had to milk cows and carry the milk over hilly paths across a long distance every morning. Gabriel’s father worked as a driver in a sugar cane factory, and changed to a different factory when the first one closed. Gabriel started to work in the same sugar factory at the age of 14 and joined his father to the second one, where he was a metal worker until also this factory closed in the 1980s.

16While Colette did not learn how to read and write, Gabriel went to a “laicist” school (école laïque) until the age of 14, to which he walked five kilometers and where he learned how to write on banana leaves from a teacher who did not know French, only Creole, as he states. The fact that it is important to Gabriel to note that he went to a “laicist” school reflects the powerful role that the Catholic Church played in education at that time. Gabriel’s and Colette’s children benefited more from French school education, and some have succeeded in establishing small businesses, while others are without employment. The democratized access to education in La Réunion is better reflected in the generation of their grand- and great-grandchildren, some of whom went to university, in La Réunion and in Metropolitan France. Although the proportion of children in full-time education is still lower than in Metropolitan France, young Reunionese have benefited from longer education and are said to have become more aspirational than their parents’ generation, who grew up in plantation society-like conditions (Roinsard, 2008). While some of Gabriel’s grandchildren hold rather esteemed jobs, for example one being a nurse, others seem more helpless with their careers and pursue unsteady paths between small jobs and unemployment. La Réunion is a peculiar socio-economic construct, where a high population density coincides with high levels of unemployment and simultaneously with high living costs. The island’s economy is strongly subsidized by the French state and by the European Union. Some of my interlocutors called the department’s strong dependency of France “neocolonial”. While Reunionese Hindus are often associated with social status and economic success, many face financial and social problems as well. The children and grandchildren of Gabriel and Colette present an example of a lower middle-class family with both upward mobility and social difficulties.

17The story of the development of the family’s Hindu religious practices reflects their aspirations for well-being and social status. While Gabriel does not know anything about his grandparents’ religious practices, his father used to play the drums in a fire walking temple, while his mother only conducted semblani at home. Today, Gabriel is the only one of five brothers and sisters who practices Hinduism and who invites family members for the annual semblani. He began to perform religious rituals in his own home after several things had happened, including an accident at work, disturbing noises in the courtyard at night by spirits who annoyed the family, a miscarriage, and different animals dying at certain spots of the courtyard. Gabriel went to see an old Reunionese Hindu priest who told him that, because the previous owner of the place had venerated the goddess Pétiaye (Tamil: Periyācci), who is associated with child birth, by conducting poul nwar (black henn, French: poule noire), a popular, sacrificial ritual to protect one’s children or avoid problems with childbirth, Gabriel would need to do the same. Both semblani and poul nwar are rituals that are impossible to define as “Hindu”, “Catholic”, or “African”, as they contain elements from diverse traditions and often reveal striking similarities (Pourchez, 2000). Gabriel started to perform poul nwar for Pétiaye annually. Furthermore, the priest told him that Mini (short form for the god/saint/spirit Minisprin, associated with Mounisvaran/Muṉīsvaraṉ, a guardian deity) passed through the courtyard at night, and advised Gabriel to sacrifice a rooster for him, which he started to do annually too. No more problems occurred. When Gabriel could afford it, he started sacrificing a goat for Mini. Once some of his children and grand-children could also afford it, they contributed by sacrificing one to three goats each. While they performed the ceremonies hidden in the back of the courtyard where Gabriel had built a small shrine in 1959, reasoning that it was still perceived as forbidden until the 1980s and no one from the Catholic Church should have seen that, they built their family temple in 1982, which is still at a spot in the courtyard invisible from the street, but in the course of the years, the sacrifices turned into big events with about nine goat sacrifices and over 500 guests (family, friends, neighbors). While Gabriel is one of the most modest people I have ever met in his appearance and attitudes, he is proud of his family’s position to be able to invite so many people.

18The increase in Hindu religious practices in Gabriel’s family compared to his parents’ generation reflects both the family’s financial capabilities and the historical development from a powerful position of the Catholic Church and less possibilities to perform Hindu practices, to more recognition of Hindu religion – institutional recognition, and at least as importantly, social recognition. In the colonial period, unlike the African slaves, who had been forbidden from any non-Christian practices (Ève, 2001), Indian indentured laborers were allowed to continue some of their religious practices (Fuma, 1999:15). However, the Church forbade the introduction of priests from India to La Réunion, and sought to prohibit Hindu ceremonies, which Catholic priests claimed were infernal and pagan (Prudhomme, 1984:318). Furthermore, French assimilation policies often included Catholic baptism. Even after departmentalization, the Catholic Church remained powerful and Indian religious practices were often highly stigmatizedtwo important themes that Reunionese Hindus often evoke today. Until today, many Reunionese, including Gabriel and Colette, and some of their (grand-)children, perform both Catholic and Hindu rituals. While the public display of Catholic practices served to demonstrate assimilation and Hindu rituals were rather conducted in the private sphere in the colonial period (Ghasarian, 1997), Reunionese can publicly assert social status through Hindu rituals today.

19When I asked Gabriel how he learned how to pray, he stated in an almost defensive way that he does not know any prayers but imagines them in his heart. His bodily movements during rituals in his family temple and in church suggest different forms of embodied ritual knowledge. The family temple, an uncovered area of about 20 square meters surrounded by walls, with a covered shrine for multiple deities, is not visible from the street but shines in bright colors for those who enter the courtyard. Gabriel’s ritual gestures include ringing a small bell, praying with joint palms, and sprinkling water over the heads of all his offspring. The movements I observed when accompanying him to church on special occasions such as the death of a friend include taking the holy water to make a cross on his forehead when entering the church, kneeling in direction of the altar before entering the bank row to sit down, kneeling again in direction of the altar before leaving the church, all in a very calm and natural manner. Similarly, Colette has embodied several practices in her daily life, such as lighting the lamp at the shrine in the living room, which features small metal and clay statues of Ganesh, Siva, Hanuman, Karly, and Buddha, applying ash from a small bowl on the shrine to the forehead of a sick grandchild, or saying “I have eaten well, thank you, Jesus” after lunch while stroking her belly, as well as practices on particular days, such as applying the ashes of a burnt olive branch on her and her present grandchildren’s foreheads on Ash Wednesday.

20The “double religiosity”, as some Reunionese call their conduct of Hindu and Catholic practices, can appear as hierarchical inclusivism in that “Christian religion has simply been absorbed and ranked in a specific place within a more general Hindu conception of the world” (Ghasarian, 1997:291). In other cases, people seem to understand their double religiosity as praying in different religious systems. While Gabriel says to have chosen the “Tamil path” and at the same time joins an approach which I have often heard in La Réunion that “There is only one god, who has many names/forms”, Colette seems to think that religious practices should be perceived separately. However, rather than seeing this couple’s perspectives as oppositional stances between creolization and religious differentiations, I suggest that these perceptions are not mutually exclusive. Furthermore, Colette’s idea of distinct religiosities does not stand in opposition with shared religious values and symbols that she embraces, such as the importance of ancestor worship and her combination of Hindu and Catholic ritual gestures.

  • 4 Indian dress combination of trousers, tunic, dupatta.

21In addition to making different gestures in different ritual contexts, Colette also dresses differently depending on the occasion. Dress is an important marker of religious identity and generation in La Réunion. Reunionese Hindus have only started to dress in “Indian” clothes during Hindu religious events between the 1970s and 2000s, when La Réunion’s “Indian” shops started to import punjabis4, saris, kurtas, and other clothes from India, whereas most Reunionese Hindus continue to wear Western clothes in their daily lives. While Gabriel wears shirt and trousers on all religious occasions, be it in private or public temples, during death rituals at the seafront, or in church, Colette wears punjabi during ceremonies in their family temple and when going to public temples and to rituals at the seafront. When we went to the cemetery, however, she told me to remove the punjabi and the red dot on my forehead (which I was wearing because I had just assisted the hair cutting ceremony of her grandchild in the family temple) to change into Western clothes for the cemetery. She herself changed into a leopard print dress with matching hat, scarf, handbag, and shoes, and she wore the same “good” dress (without the hat, scarf, handbag and shoes) again the following day during the semblani, which took place in the dining room of their house. Colette not wearing a punjabi during the semblani does not necessarily suggest that she differentiates between semblani as a Creole ritual at home and rituals in temples as Hindu rituals in public. Instead, it might rather reflect her embodied habit of wearing a nice Western dress during this ritual that she has performed for so many years – she got her first punjabi in the 1990s – and her differentiation between older and newer traditions.

“Are we still mentally colonized?”

22The possibility of being proudly Hindu emerged alongside profound societal changes in La Réunion. In addition to introducing a new social welfare support, the French socialist governments of the 1980s favored a policy of decentralization. La Réunion was given the status of Région in 1982, which allows for more authority in decisions, particularly in the realm of infrastructure and education. The 1980s also saw a diversification of public media, and La Réunion opened up on a regional level by becoming a member of the Indian Ocean Commission in 1986 (Combeau, Ève, Fuma, Maestri, 2002:144-48). The opening up also affected ancestral cultures and the recognition of Reunionese regional language and culture, including Creole language (Ghasarian, 2008:242). Many Reunionese told me that socialist French president François Mitterrand had enabled greater recognition of local and ancestral cultures in La Réunion. After a long history of rejecting Hinduism, both by Catholic priests and other segments of Reunionese society, a more open attitude emerged toward religious and cultural diversity. Growing recognition was also linked to some Reunionese Hindus’ social mobility. While only few Reunionese of Indian descent reached middle class status through commerce and the acquisition of land in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, access to education after departmentalization in 1946 promoted greater social mobility (Marimoutou-Oberlé, 2008:136-37). With growing economic, political and social success, Reunionese of Indian descent took on positions ranging from agricultural and factory workers to middle class businessmen and bureaucrats to highly educated economic and political leaders.

  • 5 Fédération des associations et groupements religieux hindous et culturels tamouls de La Réunion.

23Along with the recent possibility to be proud and self-confident about Hinduism in La Réunion come different attitudes towards the double or multiple religiosities which are common on the island. Both the Catholic Church and the Fédération Tamoule5 tend to urge those who practice Catholic-Hindu double religiosity to choose one religion. The Fédération Tamoule is an umbrella organization to a number of temple and cultural associations, which was created in 1971 to work toward recognition of Hindus in Reunionese society and the French state. Its fashioning of Hindu religion includes retrieving knowledge from India to claim adherence to a world religion and developing an educational infrastructure to perform a knowledge-based religion. Until today, the federation invests great effort in the creation of educational media, including its own television program. The Fédération Tamoule sees the influence of the French colonial administration and the Catholic Church that long dominated Reunionese society and education as one of the reasons for what many Reunionese perceive as a lack of Hindu religious and Indian cultural knowledge and for people’s multiple religiosities. Although the practices of Reunionese’ Indian ancestors might have included elements from various religious traditions, the recent “reorientation” discourse establishes this link between the loss of Hindu religious knowledge and double religiosity. Thus, the Creole context of La Réunion ironically results in more exclusive claims of religious entities than have probably existed before, which also reflects the paradox that Reunionese Hindus who work toward recognition as a religious minority feel the need to adapt to what they think the French laicist state would recognize as a religion, despite the latter proclaiming its neutrality in not recognizing any religion at all (Lang, 2021).

24The Fédération Tamoule’s objective is to provide explanations about the symbolic meanings of Hindu rituals and to create awareness amongst Reunionese Hindus that they have the right to practice their religion, and to conduct Hindu life-cycle rituals like marriage without being obliged to perform the Catholic counterparts as well. Members of the Fédération Tamoule told me that most double practitioners still choose the Catholic Church for baptisms, weddings, funerals and other life-cycle rituals. In a 2013 newsletter, the Fédération Tamoule cites a swami who said in the 1970s that when you drive a car, you cannot hold two wheels simultaneously as you will risk an accident – an expression that several practitioners repeated to me. The newsletter rhetorically asks “Are we still mentally colonized?”

25Religious differentiations in La Réunion are not only about Hindu, Catholic, and other religious orientations, but importantly also about different approaches to Hinduism. Part of the recent attempts at promoting Hinduism also include privileging certain forms of Hinduism over more controversial practices. For instance, while members of the Fédération Tamoule insist on also supporting animal sacrifices and several other popular practices, several religious leaders criticize the federation for promoting a brahminized Hinduism, which over-privileges ritual knowledge of Brahmin priests from India. Most of Gabriel’s family show little interest to intellectual approaches to religion compared to others who partake in the orientation toward India and the concomitant social aspirations. Their lower middle-class socio-economic situation would also not allow most of them to engage with religious knowledge from India in the way that some other families can by travelling to India and learning about more text based religious contents. They find other ways of asserting pride.

26One of Gabriel’s sons, for instance, builds self-esteem through his capability of having intense emotional experiences during the fire walking, a popular Hindu ritual practice in La Réunion. François, in his fifties, has a Catholic wife who is of Yab-Creole descent (Yab are descendants of European settlers called Petit-Blancs). He seems to dislike Catholicism, and he repeatedly talked to me with passion about the emotional intensity of his experience during the fire walking and about his relationship with the fire. His bodily appearance is somehow mysterious, looking serious and sometimes worried, with his torso crouched. This everyday appearance stands in contrast to the moment when he crosses the pit filled with glowing embers during the fire walking ritual, as a photograph put up in his parents’ home documents. While Gabriel does not watch the fire walking because of the risk that people might laugh at those who run (instead of walking in moderate pace), Colette, after not wanting to give François her blessing to fire walk for many years, now goes to watch his performance in the neighboring temple. Whereas some Reunionese Hindus seek to elevate the fire walking through textual religious knowledge (Franchina, 2018), François mobilizes the bodily and emotional experiences of the ritual as an important source of pride. He also asserts great pride in his ability to get possessed by a spirit in his own shrine, which he presents as a special gift to help others with their problems. Thus, François does not take his father’s decision of choosing the “Tamil path” as a starting point for turning to more Indianized or Brahminized forms of Hinduism, as some Reunionese of his generation do, but he turns to fire walking and ritual possession, two ritual practices which his father has not done before.

A Tamil and a Christian name

27The generation of Colette’s and Gabriel’s grandchildren shows how marriage choices in François’ generation can affect the development of religious practices, yet again, not in linear ways. While François and two of his brothers married Catholic women of Yab descent – one of these brothers conducting Hindu rituals whereas the other only joins the family for the annual semblani and Pétiaye worship and sometimes goes to church –, one of his brothers remains unmarried, joins the annual family rituals and sometimes goes to church, and his two sisters married Malbar men who practice Hinduism. One of them, François’ sister Louise, married into a Reunionese Hindu priest family who is very much involved in both their family temples and a “big” temple with an Indian Brahmin priest. The local classifications of temples include “big” temples, which were built or renovated in South Indian architectural style in urban areas, wherein Indian Brahmin priests perform exclusively vegetarian rituals (cf. Trouillet 2020), and “small” temples, which were built in Reunionese architecture in formerly rural areas near the sugar cane plantations, wherein Reunionese priests perform the rituals, which often include animal sacrifices. The differentiations between big and small are, however, not possible to make for all temples. For instance, some renovate their “small” temples in a South Indian style; and although some temples explicitly claim to be small or big, others are perceived as intermediate, with some even praised as a perfect mix. Louise’s daughter Aishwarya, in her early twenties, grew up with numerous cousins to whom religious knowledge from “big” temples and from India matters. Aishwarya carries kavadi (Tamil: kāvaṭi), which consists of carrying burdens in a procession organized by big temples for the god Mourouga (Murukaṉ) and is widely perceived as a new practice associated with the orientation toward India.

28Aishwarya also held a “Tamil baptism” for her baby son. The Reunionese French term baptême tamoul refers to a Hindu name giving ceremony (Tamil: nāmakaraam). Her son’s name Inbaselvam starts with two letters that suit the astrological reading made by a Reunionese priest. The family calls the boy by the abbreviation Selvam. The possibility to have an Indian name and a Tamil baptism is rather recent. Many of my interlocutors insisted that the civil registry office did not allow parents to give their children Indian first names, and that only French (usually Catholic) names and Muslim names were accepted, in some cases until the 1990s. Gabriel’s six children were all baptized Catholic, at a time when Catholic dominance was strong and the option of “Tamil baptism” little known to Reunionese. His son François’s six children and grandchildren were still all baptized Catholic and have Christian names, which is linked to François’s wife’s Catholic background. By contrast, Louise’s three children, Aishwarya included, had a “Tamil baptism” and they have Indian names. However, Aishwarya’s son has both an Indian and a Christian name. Inbaselvam is only his second name. The first name in his passport is Lucas to facilitate his time at school, as she explains.

29There is a decisive difference between the victimizing discourse of the Fédération Tamoule of being “mentally colonized” and Aishwarya’s apologetic reasoning for a Catholic name to render his school time easier on the one side, and the self-determined perspective of some Reunionese who see their double religious adherences as conscious choices on the other side. Especially in the generation of Aishwarya, I met a number of aspiring middle-class Reunionese who consciously engaged with different religious traditions and linked concrete aims and desires to their practices. To some, their conscious double religiosities serve as resistance against hegemonic structures by institutions like the Fédération Tamoule and the Catholic Church. Both the trend to liberate oneself from historical missionary circumstances, as suggested by the Fédération Tamoule, and the conscious decision to practice different forms of worship can reflect wishes for social mobility. Rather than leading to an unconscious embodiment of religious diversity, the Creole context of La Réunion seems to foster reflected religiosities. After Gabriel has chosen the “Tamil path” two generations ago, and his children François and Louise dismiss Catholicism one generation above Aishwarya, her decision for both a Tamil and a Catholic name for her child despite her inclination toward big temples shows that there is not a linear process from “double religiosity” to “single religiosity” across generations. This also becomes apparent in the last generation described in this article.

Between first communion and playing the drums

30Colette rolls her eyes when she talks about her 10-years-old great-grandson Milo. Her look seems to suggest that in her opinion, he should be concentrating on his preparations for his first communion, the ritual when Catholics receive the Eucharist for the first time. Instead he only thinks about going to the Hindu temple and playing the drum there. When Milo joins our conversation, I ask him whether he will go to the temple tonight, and he tells me that he meets his mates there to play the drums. The temple Milo and his grandmother talk about is the Marliemmen (Tamil: Māriyammaṉ) temple in the neighborhood, where Milo’s grandfather François fire walks. The drum (tambour malbar, Tamil: tappu, see Folio-Paravéman, 2020) is an important ritual instrument in small temples. While Milo reveals great passion for playing drums in the neighboring temple, his mother, Marine, is busy preparing his first communion outfit with the little money she has to spare this month. Some hours later, Milo knocks on my door wearing a nice blue kurta and ash on his forehead and asks me if I am ready to go. Unprepared about his expectation that I would join him, I quickly change into Indian wear and walk to the temple with him. The ceremonies have already started and we hear the drums beating.

31On the day of Milo’s first communion, 42 children take part. A lower number than last year, his grandmother Brigitte says. A high number for such a small village, I find. Already at 5.30 in the morning, I hear the drums beating from the neighboring temple, where the annual Marliemmen festival takes place on the same day as the first communion. As soon as Milo returns from church at 10 a.m., having received the first communion, he changes into an elegant white Indian wear – the goddess’ color –, takes his drums, and joins the preparations for the temple procession, where I am already with his grandfather François, who tells me that he never goes to church. I am struck by the little attention that Milo’s family pays to the ritual of the first communion itself. Milo was only joined by his mother and grandmother. The latter, François’ wife, now also joins the procession wearing a punjabi. Colette and Gabriel wait on the road near their house to offer a plate of fruit when the temple procession passes.

32Despite the scant attention to the ritual of the first communion, Milo’s grandparents François and Brigitte host a party for Milo’s first communion with 150 guests on a later weekend. Furthermore, his mother posts two pictures of Milo on Facebook, which were arranged by the first communion’s photographer – on the first Milo sits in his white suit next to a statue of Maria, on the other he smiles into the camera with a bible opened in his hands. Grandmother Brigitte tells me that Milo only went to the first communion because it was her wish. After this, he can take his own decisions, she says. Milo’s taking part in the first communion thus reflects less the historical adoption of Catholicism of Gabriel’s and Colette’s ancestors, and more the often multiple religious affiliations within a family resulting from marriage, in this case between François and Brigitte.

33Although Milo exemplifies that there is no necessary exclusivity of religious affiliations in La Réunion and even displaying them openly on the same day, his passion for going to the temple to play the drum, see his mates, and even learn some Tamil, reveals both the importance of the sensory aspects of religion – many Reunionese have told me about their attraction by the drums and the emotions associated with particular drum patterns, which I could myself experience – and a certain coolness factor many youngsters I met associate with Hinduism rather than with Catholicism, which echoes a certain social status that Hinduism has achieved in the Reunionese society since some decades. What is now a coolness factor and social time with his mates might become an even more important means for social distinction when Milo grows older. The pride he displays when going to the temple in his nice kurta with the drum in his hands already presents his way of demonstrating – and at the same time achieving – social status linked to this religion which is often perceived as beautiful by other Reunionese today.

34The generation of Milo benefits from these recent developments, which also include the possibility of more regular contact with India and other places. Milo has travelled to different places in the world, including Mauritius, India, Indonesia, and Thailand. Even though raised by a single mum of lower middle-class background, he benefits from the generosity of several aunts and uncles who take him along for holidays. Religion often plays a role during his trips, for example, when he visits religious sites with his relatives. He also bought his ritual drum in Mauritius. From his trip to Bali, he brought home a calendar with Hindu gods and demons for his great-grandfather Gabriel. While Reunionese of the generation of Gabriel’s children only developed an awareness of being part of a world religion as young adults from the 1970s onward, when travels to India and pride in Hinduism became easier options, Milo grows up with these possibilities.

35Milo also grows up in the general contemporary situation wherein the younger generation has multiple possibilities to participate in religious life. Milo is involved in the ritual practices at his great-grandparents’ family temple in their courtyard. On a normal weekday, when one of his uncles cleaned the temple, I saw Milo and one of his cousins praying next to each other. On the eve of the semblani described above, Milo and his cousin needed to learn how to hold the sacrificed chicken into boiling water and pluck it before it was cooked by one of their uncles. In addition, Milo attends Tamil classes in the neighboring temple – which have not provided him with much Tamil language skills yet and rather present an opportunity to meet with his friends –, and he learns how to beat the drums, which is a less formal process of listening and copying the older young adults. His great-grandfather Gabriel tells me that in his generation, young boys like Milo were not allowed to play the drums during rituals. This was the part of a selection of experienced men. He continues saying that today, young people can even be priests, and very popular ones indeed. Priesthood used to be the métier of the gramoun, the elders, Gabriel explains.

An intergenerational approach on religion in a creole context

36An intergenerational approach reveals to what extent creolization is at once a product of the local history and a continuous process across generations. The Reunionese case further suggests that processes of religious differentiations and claims for recognition of religious difference are as important as assertions of Creoleness in Creole societies. Rather than following a linear development from creolization in the colonial context to processes of religious differentiation since La Réunion became a French overseas department, different agents claim these trends at different times. While Hindus who are actively involved in the more institutional struggle for recognition present a minority in La Réunion, the impact of these negotiations reflects in Gabriel’s family’s option to claim pride in Hinduism. At the same time, the pride some family members display in their family rituals of semblani and poul nwar also reflects the possibility to mobilize creolization and assert pride in practices that do not necessarily represent the image of Hinduism that is invoked for recognition in the Reunionese and French society.

37While pointing out historical societal changes of the Reunionese context and the possibilities to practice Hinduism therein, the intergenerational account also shows how individual religious practices are linked to age and life situations. Gabriel facing problems in the new home, François overriding his mother’s reservation about him fire walk after many years, Aishwarya becoming a mother, Milo completing a life cycle ritual important to this grandmother all affected their religious practices and might change in the future. The account of this family also reveals the importance of the material aspects of religion and embodied practices. Throughout the generations, food, dress, and drums play crucial roles in how people undertake religious differentiations and experience religion. Even though the coolness factor that the younger generation attributes to Hinduism also reflects the relation between religion and identity politics in a Creole society, the sensory aspects of religion are at least as important for embracing particular religious trends and for making religious differentiations.

38To conclude, the focus on double religiosity taken in this article exemplifies the complex interplay of religious creolization and differentiations. Rather than presenting a gradual development from an unquestioned embodiment of both Catholic and Hindu practices in the generation of Colette and Gabriel to single religiosity in the generation of their great-grandchildren, the diverse religious practices of François and his siblings, over Aishwarya’s conscious choice of giving a Tamil and Christian name, up to Milo’s unenthusiastic participation in Catholic and enthusiastic participation in Hindu rituals provide a more complicated picture of unilinear processes even within one family.

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1 Religious census is not allowed in France. My interlocutors usually estimated the number of Hindus/Malbar/Tamoul at around 30 percent, which may entail an affirmative self-assessment, and which is problematic because Malbar and Tamoul denote Indian origins and/or Hindu religious affiliation, depending on context, and neither Hindu religion nor Indian origins are given categories in Reunionese society with people’s diverse religious orientations and their rich métissage. Whatever the percentage, Hindu religious activities are very visible in public.

2 All names are pseudonyms which correspond to the persons’ gender and to the origin of their actual names (Christian/European or Hindu/Indian). To further protect the people I describe, I have changed details of their life stories.

3 The Creole term semblani is pronounced [sãmbla’nī]. It corresponds to cāmpirāṇi in Tamil (Engl.: benzoin) and denotes both the resin incense and ancestor worship in La Réunion.

4 Indian dress combination of trousers, tunic, dupatta.

5 Fédération des associations et groupements religieux hindous et culturels tamouls de La Réunion.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1 : offerings to the ancestors during a semblani.
Credits La Réunion, 2014, photo by the author.
File image/jpeg, 1.1M
Title Figure 2: offering flowers on a cemetery.
Credits La Réunion, 2014, photo by the author.
File image/jpeg, 632k
Title Figure 3: crosses and Malbar symbols on a cemetery.
Credits La Réunion, 2014, photo by the author.
File image/jpeg, 414k
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Bibliographical reference

Natalie Lang, « Religious Creolization and Differentiation », Archives de sciences sociales des religions, 197 | 2022, 35-58.

Electronic reference

Natalie Lang, « Religious Creolization and Differentiation », Archives de sciences sociales des religions [Online], 197 | janvier-mars 2022, Online since 01 January 2024, connection on 15 June 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Natalie Lang

Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies, University of Erfurt –

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The text only may be used under licence © Archives de sciences sociales des religions. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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