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Belonging and Discomfort: Young Hindu Religiosity in Rural Norway

Ph.D. candidate, Volda University College, Norway

The theme of this article is young lived Tamil Hindu religiosity in small towns and rural districts in Norway. It explores when and why young Hindus choose to expose, or not to expose, religious materiality outside religious settings, such as in encounters with ethnic Norwegian friends and the greater Norwegian society. The article also asks whether it is possible to trace influences on their religiosity stemming from their non-Hindu local and national contexts. The analysis is based on field notes from observations, written responses to a questionnaire with open-ended questions (N=25) and transcripts from photo-elicitation interviews (N=7). The participants are between 16 and 25 years of age who have lived most of their lives in Northwestern Norway. The findings suggest that adjustment to secular cultural scripts take place when these young Tamil Hindus handle religious materiality in their Norwegian context.

Keywords: Hinduism, rural Norway, youth, individual religion, materiality, belonging, meaning


In a small town facing the North Sea, famous for its rough weather and characteristic Art Nouveau architectural style, there is a newly inaugurated Hindu temple. In a former office, a small number of Tamil Hindus has made great efforts to found a temple that serves a scattered group of members. The temple is one of three main religious meeting places for fewer than 1,000 Tamil Hindus in this northwestern county in Norway. In the country as a whole, there are 15–20,000 Hindus, of which around 70 percent are Tamil Hindus from Sri Lanka (Jacobsen, Vogt and Rian 2011).

There are eight Hindu temples and thirteen official Hindu religious organizations in Norway (Jacobsen 2013). The institutional visibility of Hinduism demonstrates a growing religious diversity in Norway. It may also indicate Hindus having a strong religious identity, even if it is not a given that the visibility in institutional Hinduism is duplicated in the individual lives of Hindus in Norway.

It is therefore of interest to study young Hindus’ retrospective reports on their individual, everyday and material religiosity, which is what this article explores. Specifically, I focus on how young adults handle religious symbols, material objects and religious practice outside religious settings, such as in interactions with ethnic Norwegian friends and the greater Norwegian society. When and why do the young Hindus choose to expose, or not to expose, religious materiality? Moreover, is it possible to trace any influences on their religiosity stemming from their non-Hindu local and national contexts?

Norwegian Contexts

Being attentive to how Hinduism in diaspora interacts with and is affected by receiving societies is a topic in other studies (Kurien 2007; Penumala 2010; Vertovec 2000), and requires sketching out some features of national and local contexts.

On a national level, Furseth (2015a) points to the complexity of religion in Norway. There is a growing plurality of religious and nonreligious worldviews in Norway, and the ways in which these are practised and presented are versatile. Religion continues to have decreased significance for individuals, yet religion is more visible and public (Furseth 2015a, 182). The dominant religious tradition that Hindu adolescents encounter in Norway, locally and nationally, is Christian Protestantism. While that kind of religiosity places personal beliefs and cognitive convictions at the fore (Ballard 2000; Kumar 2013), Hinduism “stresses orthopraxis over theological belief” (Kurien 2007, 32) as well as the partaking in rituals (Jacobsen 2009). However, in an urban Norwegian setting, Gupta (2006) has documented a religious (re-)conceptualization among North Indian youth, which involves more emphasis on the cognitive and intellectual sides of religion as well as a more individualistic attitude towards religion. Another significant feature characterizing Norwegian society is secularization, in which scepticism to religion in the public sphere is a dominant feature (Schmidt 2010, 202). Despite a high level of membership in the Church of Norway, the former state church, Norwegians are “among the least believing and least practicing populations in the world” (Davie 2013, 143).

There are distinct regional differences in Norway when it comes to religion. A main religious feature of Western Norway is folk church religiosity.1 Personal belief in god in this region is higher than the average in Norway, even if the amount of people with such a belief decreased considerably from 1991 to 2008 (Botvar, Repstad and Aagedal 2010, 52). In addition, traces of strong Christian lay organizations are noticeable. Moreover, since the 1980s and 1990s, small groups of immigrants have settled in this region, among them the Tamils. Gradually, these immigrants have established religious institutions such as temples, monasteries and mosques; some of these have lasted only temporarily, while others have grown stronger over time. In recent years, the Roman Catholic Church has had an explosive growth in the area mainly due to the immigration of workers in the marine and maritime sector. In addition, the 2015 refugee crisis has influenced the present religious landscape, by making Islam especially more visible.

Literature on religiosity among young Tamil Hindus who have spent all or most of their lives in Norwegian contexts is scarce. However, the participants in my research are part of a large Hindu diaspora in which scholarly attention is gradually turning to Hindu adolescents who were born, or have lived most of their lives, in this diaspora (Amarasingam 2008; Fibiger 2010; Holtmann and Nason-Clark 2012; Jones and Fox 2013; Kurien 2007; Lourenco 2011; Raj 2000). Research on Tamil Hinduism in Norway has mainly focused on the first generation of migrants who have established religious and cultural institutions (Jacobsen 2003, 2004). An exception is Vedeler (2004) who documents how lessons in the traditional dance Bharata natyam in Oslo pass on a traditional model of Tamil culture as well as central aspects of the Hindu religion. In a comparative study of ten migrant groups measuring the role of religion in individual lives, Elgvin and Tronstad (2013, 77) find that older migrants from Sri Lanka are considerably more religious than the younger generation. In a study where Tamil and Somali youth are compared, religion is not emphasised (Engebrigtsen and Fuglerud 2009), although it is pointed out that religion is important for Tamil youth, most of them Hindus, even if they do not want to practise it in the same way as their parents (Engebrigtsen and Fuglerud 2007, 88).

The existing literature does not give a comprehensive or a clear picture of the religiosity of young Tamil Hindus in Norway. More substantial and situated knowledge is needed, which is the aim of this article.

Theoretical Perspectives

In order to analyse young Hindus’ everyday religiosity, theoretical perspectives connecting materiality with meaning-making, mobility and belonging are utilised. It is a fundamental human experience to engage with objects in daily life; hence, a material approach is closely linked to an everyday life approach in research (Fuglerud and Wainwright 2015; Rinkinen, Jalas and Shove 2015, 870). The significance of materiality is evident also when everyday lived religion is researched (Ammerman 2007; McGuire 2008). Meyer and Houtman (2012) argue that studying religion in the perspective of materiality concerns how religion happens materially. Attention is given to how objects do and are religion (see Damsholt, Mordhorst and Simonsen 2009, 13). In Hinduism, where the ritual dimension is so pivotal, the material and embodied character of religion is a central feature (Sinha 2011, 1). Moreover, the interest in researching material objects is growing in studies of South Asian religions (Jacobsen, Aktor and Myrvold 2015).

Materiality and the production of meaning

Attention to meaning-making entails close attention to culture, as meaning is a dimension of culture and social life, and since culture serves as context for interpreting practices. In the tradition of the sociology of religion, religion is regarded as an integral part of meaning-making and culture-generative processes (Furseth 2015b). Within a material approach, objects and things are assumed to be actively involved in the process of producing and constructing cultural and social life (Morgan 2008)—hence, also meaning. It also allows an understanding of meaning as wider than merely mental abstractions; meanings are also embodied, felt and sometimes messy since they are grounded in practices and in interactions. As Birgit Meyer (2015, 163) succinctly puts it, “materiality […] assists in putting the social on its feet.” Social imagination and imaginaries have culturally shaped material forms, which are sensed and made sense of (Meyer 2015, 162). Meyer argues further that in a given society there are several interconnected collective representations or social imaginaries. Objects are situated within these social imaginaries; they are produced, creatively and individually related to, and given meaning (Fuglerud and Wainwright 2015). These processes between objects, individuals and the social imaginaries entail friction, dialogue and struggles, and end up generating a diversity of meanings, which is a view on culture found within newer cultural sociology (Furseth 2015b, 122). When humans and objects interact with and influence each other, contextual repertoires of ideas, emotions and practices are performed, acknowledged, rejected, changed and generated. These processes, which can be viewed as meaning-making processes from below (Furseth 2015b), become perhaps even more apparent within a transnational perspective, which has mobility as a central feature.

Materiality, mobility and meaning

Due to migration, travel and a digitally interwoven world, religions and humans—and their associated ideas, practices and things—are on the move (Levitt 2013). Levitt uses the metaphor of a circulating meteor, which “casts off and accrues elements as it travels” (Levitt 2013, 162) to capture what happens on this journey. Along its trajectory, religion happens in encounters between contextual and introduced elements (Levitt 2013, 160). This perspective challenges notions of religion as stable and unchangeable. On the contrary, mobility affects and changes things, persons and contexts (Svašek 2010, 2012). Although Svašek’s main focus is on migration and art, her ideas of transit, transition and transformation throw light on the encounters, changes and meaning-making dynamics that happen when religions are on the move, resulting in context-specific features of religion. She argues that when things move and meet, new social, cultural and spatial environments are constituted. The term transit is used to denote these contextual changes (Svašek 2012, 2). Transition refers to the consequences transit has on objects and images. Their efficacy in terms of meanings, values and emotions changes (Svašek 2012, 3). This means that with changed environments objects can achieve new meanings, their significance can be altered, new ranges of emotions can arise and struggles concerning their value can occur. In other words, changed environments affect what objects and images do.

Transit does not only alter things and objects; Svašek applies the term transformation to the process by which humans are affected by transit. Transformation is traceable in people’s emotional subjectivity as well as in how they understand, form and perform their identity and status (Svašek 2012, 5). Changed and new environments mean that people meet new challenges, possibilities, constraints and conditions in their everyday lives. Improvisation is a possible response to these changed and new environments. Svašek (2010) explores how Ghanaian artists approach new environments, the roles they take on, and how identity is affected. She concludes that improvisation is essential in terms of pursuing sense and meaning when transit occurs.

According to Svašek, emotions arise in the dialectic processes between transit, transition and transformation, and that they “often function as mediators of social norms” (Svašek 2012, 4). Hence, a focus on emotions can provide a gateway to examine what is perceived as significant contextual rules and orders (see Scott 2009).

Materiality and belonging

In diaspora, “longing to belong” is found to be a salient experience (Finlay 2015; Jacobsen and Kumar 2004; Nugteren 2009). Objects not only have the capacity to produce these valued emotions of belonging; objects also materialise belonging. Bennett (2015, 965) argues that belonging “becomes tangible through the relationships with place, things and other people, that create it and result from it.” Also, Morgan (2010, 71) argues that relationships and belonging are embedded in things. Belonging is, then, not merely “a sense” or an emotion. Empirically based studies find that artifacts among Tamils supply individuals with feelings of belonging and well-being, as well as evoking religious emotions in diaspora (Bruland 2013, 2015; Grønseth 2012). With Bennett and Morgan in mind, one could say that to achieve a desired belonging, the right things must appear at the right times. If not, they would be “matter out of place,”2 which would potentially endanger or unsettle belonging, as well as elicit negative emotions.

The theoretical perspectives in this article focus on the interconnection of material and cognitive aspects of the emerging adults’ everyday religiosity, which were inspired by the empirical data of this study.


The data collection began with positioned fieldwork in January 2014, which continued for a year. In the autumn of 2014, a survey with open-ended questions was conducted, which was followed up with photo-elicitation interviews in early 2015.

Qualitative methods are often preferred when everyday life and individual religion is explored, as they are well suited to capture the complexities and nuances in individuals’ lived life, practices and experiences (McGuire 2008; Neal and Murji 2015). The qualitative method used here largely allowed for the adolescents to articulate and display what they found to be relevant. The material consisted mostly of verbal accounts; however, the field notes also reflected performed practices.

Positioned fieldwork is a type of fieldwork in which appointments are arranged for when and where the researcher will be present (Staunæs 2004). The scattered settlement pattern of the group and the fact that the Tamils in the area meet at specific times and specific places rendered this kind of fieldwork appropriate. The fieldwork was mainly situated in Tamil settings: in the temple, in other religious gatherings, or in the supplementary Tamil weekend schools in which Tamil language and cultural activities are taught and practised. This provided me with observations of religious materiality within Tamil and religious settings, as well as observations of situations in which the “borders” between Tamil and the larger Norwegian setting were crossed.

According to Statistics Norway, 149 persons between 16–25 years of age with Sri Lankan background lived in the county of Møre and Romsdal when I conducted my research.3 Through snowball sampling, I received 54 email addresses of Tamils in this age bracket who had lived most of their life in this region, to whom the questionnaire was sent. Twenty-five persons responded, sixteen females and nine males, which give a response rate of 46 percent. One of the participants was employed while the rest were students: twelve at the college/university level and twelve in lower and upper secondary school. None were married, and fourteen lived at home with their parents. The rest lived in student housing or a flat.

The photo-elicitation interviews followed up both the analysis of the questionnaire and opened up new themes and topics through pictures the participants had taken and brought with them to the interview. Ahead of the interviews I gave the participants an assignment asking them to photograph some of the following: Places of importance, motives of things they valued or wanted to change, something central for their way of being religious (if they defined themselves as such) and finally something they just wanted to photograph. The pictures gave glimpses of and led the conversation to places and themes important to the participants. Seven females, who had responded to the questionnaire and indicated that they were willing to be interviewed, participated in this part of the study. Hence, these data are more extensive when it comes to female views on religion.

The analysis is a combination of theme-centred and person-centred. The former was used to achieve an overview of patterns in the material, and the latter in order to grasp the nuances in how individuals experience their situation and relations (Thagaard 2009, 184).

The size of the sample and the very context-specific material does not allow for generalizations. Nevertheless, the participants were brought up in families with migrant experiences and strong transnational networks. There are other contexts which share the same types of characteristics. My approach and my findings may be relevant for these, as I am informed by research from such neighbouring contexts.

Invisible and Visible Religion

The right things at the right places

On a very cold evening in January, I visited the now inaugurated Hindu temple during the festival of Pongal. The temple was decorated, and the transnational character of the Tamil milieu was apparent in imported decorations and fruits from Sri Lanka, and clothes bought abroad. I sat down with some girls after the rituals had finished. They wore beautiful dresses with matching accessories. The conversation turned to a discussion about clothes. Some of the girls told me that they used to hide their Tamil tunics under their jackets when they rushed through the town on their way to the temple. They did this to avoid attention around Tamilness and religion. This way of making Tamilness and religion invisible in certain places and on certain occasions was quite common, as I subsequently learned. In contrast, the temple, and to some extent the two other Hindu religious organizations in the area pursue visibility in society. Nearby schools are welcomed for visits, municipal representatives are invited to special occasions, and the broader public is reached through articles in local newspapers.

Several times during fieldwork I was told how Hindus differ from Muslim women because Hindus avoid displaying ethnic or religious clothes in public. Deepika4 (female, 16–18) explicitly says in the interview “I do not wear [Tamil clothes] outside Tamil parties.” “Tamil clothes” and “Norwegian clothes” are emic expressions found in the material. Tamil clothes are described as both beautiful and traditional. The material does not give a coherent picture of what is encompassed in term “Norwegian clothes.” It is used to denote clothes that are not traditional Tamil. The term also describes clothes displaying (too much) skin, which are clothes the participants avoid to use in Tamil settings. Jenany (female, 19–21) tells me “With Tamils I don’t wear skirts.”

There are indications in the material that certain places are perceived as more relevant for exposing religiosity than others. Prinyanka (female, 16–18) states that “[places] outside the puja5 room and the temple I don’t reckon as religious.” She continues “It is only at these places [the puja room and the temple] I do … think of God, and pray and everything, and sing and … light candles and so on. It is only at these places.” Rani (female, 19–21) does not delimit the relevance of religion to specific places, yet she tends to make religion invisible in non-Tamil and non-Hindu contexts. She admits that her closest friends may have noticed that she sometimes closes her eyes and prays in school, yet on social media, she says “I don’t think anyone would guess me as being very religious.”

Clothes, birthday parties and belonging

Priya (female, 16–18) makes a link between feeling of belonging and the clothes she is wearing: “At school and hanging out … Then I feel Norwegian. The way I dress: Norwegian.” Preethi (female, 19–21) tells how her father deliberately used clothes as a means for establishing a sense of fitting in among their Norwegian neighbours when Preethi was a little girl:

He didn’t want me to be different from the Norwegians. He knew there were few Tamils here, in a way, and he never wanted me to stand out as different. […] [A]t birthday parties […] even if it was expensive: “She [Preethi] shall have Norwegian clothes! She can have the Tamil clothes for the Tamil parties” […] I like that he gave up something that maybe was very important to him. I feel that religion was very important in his life, but still he let some of it go because of us, my sister and me. We were spared from being bullied. I guess he was afraid of that!

For Preethi, her father’s decision on which clothes to use at birthday parties is not only about social integration into the Norwegian neighbourhood. Preethi also understands it in religious terms; wearing Norwegian clothes meant abandoning an aspect of religion, and she appreciates her father for being willing to do so. Not all the participants have the same parental support as Preethi when it comes to wearing “Norwegian” clothes.

Challenging clothes as religious parameters

When I ask Deepika to describe her earliest religious memories, her response refers to teachings of which clothes not to wear, which are shorts and small t-shirts. Several girls tell how their parents or others in the Tamil milieu find wearing clothes that display too much skin inappropriate according to Tamil customs and the Hindu religion; clothes are used as religious parameters. Rani says, “Very often, when I come to Tamil parties, and if I wear a short dress, then many of the Tamils will reason that ʻI don’t think she prays at all’.” Using her own religious competence, Rani challenges this notion of Norwegian clothes being incompatible with Hindu religion:

I have worn shorts after becoming religious, and I have not been punished for that, if you understand what I mean, by God. Because I … I have received this relationship to God enabling me to listen to what he says. […] I can easily feel whether I am doing the wrong or right thing. If I realise something is wrong, I know it is a signal from Him, if you understand what I mean. […] So if He thinks it is ok [wearing shorts], I don’t care about the opinion of others.

Although Jenany avoids skirts in Tamil settings, she echoes Rani’s reasoning when she says “I don’t think the outfit and clothing determine whether you are religious or not, it is more about your personality.” The importance of inner personal life and relations to God are emphasised by Rani and Jenany as being more important than outer religious expressions.

Forehead mark, soccer tournaments and discomfort

A visible and material mark of Hindu identity is the forehead decoration named bindi (Sanskrit) or pottu (Tamil). The participants in this study did not use the Sanskrit or Tamil term, but refer to it as “the mark.” Jenany tells how she quit using a mark made of fabric after attending the international soccer tournament “Norway Cup” when she was around 15 years old. At this huge sports event, her coach encouraged her football team to keep together:

“Keep close, do not stand out as different, be a team!” And, I don’t know, after that, I don’t know … He didn’t say anything to me specifically, but I noticed him gazing at me, I don’t know if I just imagined it, but I removed the mark. I just felt: “You know, this week being here I want to be a hundred per cent Norwegian.” So I removed the mark. […] My mother didn’t like it, I remember. […] But I didn’t feel it meant so much for me. I used to use it all the time, all the time to the ninth grade. […] I used it all the time, everywhere. To the shop, to school everywhere. A big mark. […] After that summer I never used it again.

Jenany indicates that the mark is an object somehow hindering her being totally Norwegian and part of her football team, so she removed it. She has not applied it again on a daily basis, even though she had a significant spiritual experience a few years later that made her “more and more religious,” so she wears it in the temple. For some of the young Tamils, material and embodied religious items like the forehead mark can generate feelings of uneasiness or discomfort in certain settings. An interviewee referred to another girl who was instructed by her parents to wear the mark on a daily basis, which led her to make the mark as small as possible. The mark applied after puja has a powdery form. Entering non-Tamil contexts, several of the participants tell they wipe out the mark applied after puja. Rani does it as she fears questions about what this powdery mark is made of (which she explains to me is cow manure). “If I must stand there and explain, I fear they will judge me, although they don’t actually do so.”

Pictures, achievements and emotions

The materiality of Hinduism is persuasively demonstrated in the large number of deity images. Five girls mention they have a picture of a deity or a puja altar in their student housing. Preethi’s father installed a puja alter in her apartment when she moved away from home. The reaction from her Tamil friends was “Okeeeey …!! So you believe in a way […].” And Preethi’s response was “Yes, [laughing] it makes me feel safe.” This story suggests that among some young Tamils the choice of placing religious objects in everyday surroundings is understood as a demonstration of belief. Preethi herself considers herself “not that religious,” yet religious objects generate positive feelings of safety in her life. However, religious objects can also produce other feelings when faced with me as an ethnic Norwegian and non-Hindu researcher. Jenany is a first year college student. She has a puja altar in her flat with pictures of many deities; there are also flowers and other puja-related items. I asked her about a picture in the corner of the altar. It looked as if it had been placed there recently. It depicted Saraswati, a favourite goddess among many Hindu students. Jenany starts her narrative by saying “I am pretty superstitious, unusually superstitious for my age.” Then she tells me how her study situation improved dramatically, which she ascribed to the presence of Saraswati on her altar. In the questionnaire, Naija (female, 19–21) writes, “I have a picture of Ganesha, here in my flat, actually. I sometimes pray in two seconds before a test, ha, ha!” Jenany’s choice of the word superstitious (instead of, for instance, religious) and Naija’s “ha, ha” may indicate that they experience a sense of discomfort when exposing religiosity in front of a non-Tamil and non- Hindu. In my understanding, Jenany eases the situation by using the word superstitious, and Naija by adding humour.

Embodied practices, dilemmas and change

What you eat or drink can be public, visible and embodied acts that demonstrate religious and/or ethnic background. Not eating meat certain days, for instance, is for the most part a cherished tradition that bonds Tamil families together; it is also considered by many to be a parameter of religious dedication. Upholding this tradition in the company of non-Hindus is regarded by many as (too) demanding. Preethi says, “I cannot be a vegetarian each time I am out with friends,” and she has therefore quit the religious habit of abstaining from meat on Fridays. Drinking alcohol evokes similar dilemmas. Kartika (female, 19–21) explains to me:

Alcohol. […] I told them [her parents] that I have tasted it, and […] they were quite negative to it. That might have to do with their upbringing. And I understand their point. Anyway, they consider it as negative. They do not allow me to drink. And that makes it hard, since I do drink, but it has to be behind their backs, you know. But my hope is that they eventually will understand that this is something I have to do.

Kartika feels that drinking alcohol in certain settings is necessary. Divija (female, 19–21) has also chosen to drink alcohol. Her answer in the questionnaire reveals a more critical voice towards her parent’s tradition than Kartika’s does:

It is very important for them [her parents] to keep the rules in their religion. Those rules concern that we shall not drink alcohol or have premarital sex, apparently this is especially important for girls. I want to call myself a feminist, and I think all that stuff is old fashioned. Therefore, I do not really respect these rules.

Kartika, criticises the material and embodied religiosity of her parents and Hindus in general: “I do not understand why Hindus must fast and punish themselves in order to believe: To fast and to pray to specific gods, in order to achieve good economy, children and safety. I think it is enough just praying to god.” By disentangling food and prayer she advocates a less material and embodied religiosity than that of her parents.

Menstruation, embarrassment and adjustment

In the questionnaire I ask for descriptions of important religious experiences. Dharuna (female 19–21) mentions a trip to the Ganges river, but also her celebration of puberty. “In Hinduism we have a celebration of puberty for girls, which marks the transition from being a girl to becoming a woman. This is a kind of confirmation where a priest is invited and rituals are performed. In addition, [it is] a ceremony with acquaintances present.”

Tamil families invest a great deal of money and time in this ceremony, which is extensively documented through photographs and videos (Bruland 2015). This ritual, which links body, religion and the social, is avoided as a theme for discussions with ethnic Norwegians. Naija says: “[M]any of the girls are embarrassed of talking with persons outside the Tamil milieu about it. I remember it was very embarrassing when my Norwegian friends mentioned it or when we learned about Hinduism in school. Luckily, we don’t talk about it anymore!” Preethi says: “(…) this confirmation, I found it somehow embarrassing, I did not want any Norwegians to know that we celebrate this [puberty].” Several of the participants tend to denote this celebration of puberty as their “confirmation.” Kartika recognises that this celebration may seem peculiar to non-Tamils, but “[f]or Tamils it is pretty normal.” Tania (female, 16–18) finds it strange that others, be they Norwegian or Tamil, should be informed when she had her first menstruation. She says that she will not pass on this tradition.

Bracelet, belonging and similarities

Despite the participants’ commonly held attitude of diminishing the expression of religiosity or Tamilness outside the Tamil milieu, there is one noticeable exception. In the questionnaire, more than half referred to a bracelet they wear made of colourful twisted threads, usually distributed by temples and priests.6 This bracelet is used daily across contexts and has both religious and social significance, although for some “it’s just there.” Priya explains, “According to Hindu belief it shall provide happiness and protect the person.” Although many of the youth display knowledge of this aspect, a striking feature in my material is how the young Hindus distance themselves from this religious content. More than functioning as an amulet, it materialises Hindu identity. In Jenany’s words:

The only visible proof that I am a Hindu is the holy threads I wear on my left hand. To be honest I don’t know what effect it has, but I know it is “produced” at one of the temples that means a lot to my mother. My mother’s family is closely attached to that temple, as my grandfather was one of the founders. It is also located in her home village. Every year during a festival many threads are braided together into one braid at this temple. Which is exactly the braid I wear on my hand. We receive a new long braid every year after this festival, which my family then cut in lengths and give to each family member to wear.

The social significance of the bracelet is closely knitted to its distribution trajectory. Wearing the bracelet literally generates a sense of belonging to the transnational family and to specific temple communities, which are involved in providing the bracelets. As mentioned in the introduction, a temple in the area of my research has been newly inaugurated. Many of the members now wear a bracelet received at this occasion. Hence, belonging to this regional temple and local Hindu community has become publicly visible.

Preethi told me “I don’t use Tamil clothes and forehead mark as those would separate me from the Norwegian people. (…) The bracelet doesn’t attract attention. Everyone has crocheted bracelets.” Pinyanka says: “A thread is a thread, no one would notice it.” The bracelets similarity to other used bracelets and its anonymity are here emphasised.


Young Hindus in Norwegian rural districts proved to be very much aware of the materiality and embodied character of religion. The participants in my study recognised how things like clothes, the mark and the bracelet, as well as certain religious practices materialise religion, making it visible, “tangible and present” (Meyer and Houtman 2012, 8).

The argument here is that a paramount concern, when young Tamil Hindus deal with visible and material religion, is achieving and maintaining belonging to non-Tamil friends. To this end, an adjustment to what they perceive to be secular cultural scripts is a central step. This does not necessarily mean that religion is rejected or deemed unimportant; rather, it is choosing the form, the place and the time to allow its appearance.

Transition and belonging

On an individual level, things, topics and behaviours originating from Tamil Hindu environments often evoke unease or discomfort, instead of religious emotions, when exposed to non-Tamils. In other words, a process of transition has taken place (Svašek 2012). Since belonging to and fitting in with Norwegians is highly valued, discomfort seems to be the outcome when these things, topics and behaviours point to the difference between Tamil and non-Tamil environments.

Svašek’s (2012, 5) theory on materiality, mobility and change states that transition and transformation are dialectically related. Changes in objects’ efficacy are connected to changes in subjects. I interpret the young Tamils’ reluctance to display Tamil or Hindu things and rituals in non-Tamil or non-Hindu contexts as a resistance to expected transitions and transformations. Transitions and transformations they assume entail emotions of discomfort and expectations to take on identities and roles that point to being different.

The bracelet that many of the participants wear does not disturb their relationship to non-Tamils, and its anonymity and similarity to other bracelets used in Norwegian settings is a suggested explanation why. Still, the bracelet generates a sense of belonging — not, however, to Norwegians. For the first generation of Tamils in Norway, the bracelet made belonging to their homeland tangible. The bracelets’ ability to protect was also accentuated (Grønseth 2012). Relocated to Norway, the bracelet over time has undergone transition, and the reduced “amulet value” is an example of this. The bracelet still relates Tamils to kin and temples in Sri Lanka or India; however, its new efficacy is in how it materialises belonging and affiliation to a specific religious group resident in Norway and contributes to a “group feeling” in Norway. Wearing the bracelet is certainly an individual yet social performance of belonging. The act of tying these threads around one’s wrist and claiming Hindu identity echoes what Day (2011) calls “believing in belonging,” which is a common feature of religion in Europe and North America. However, the social feature of family and belonging is not novel to Hinduism but is rather central to Hindu religiosity (Holtmann and Nason-Clark 2012, 67). It is not a straightforward task to determine sources of religious features, as also demonstrated by Gupta (2006). He argues that similarities to Western religions that he observes among North Indian youth are not necessarily imprints of cultural and Protestant resources found in Norwegian society. It could be that the diaspora context catalyses “certain strata already embedded within the tradition” (Gupta 2006, 164) or a combination of both.

Sensing and adjusting to a secular script

By removing things they wear, by eschewing certain gestures or habits, and by avoiding certain conversation topics in everyday life, young Tamil Hindus manage religion in a way that it becomes occasionally invisible. To some extent, their choices can be understood as an act of dematerialization (Meyer and Houtman 2012, 8) of religion: “Above all, ʻdematerialization’ refers to a semiotic operation that downplays or overlooks (usually one’s own) materiality, placing it in opposition to spirituality and establishing the antagonism between religion and things.”

With few exceptions, the young Tamils do not see materiality as opposed to spirituality, but they certainly do occasionally downplay religious materiality. I understand “semiotic operation” (in the quotation above) to be an interpretative mechanism based on collective, more or less automatised, understandings. These collective understandings are found in the social imaginaries as well as contextual and cultural conditions surrounding the young Tamils. Nonetheless, keeping Gupta’s (2006) argument in mind of how the diaspora situation can activate certain inherent traditions in Hinduism, the argument proposed here is that when young Hindus downplay religious materiality—or even make it invisible—in interactions with non-Hindus, they perform a semiotic operation grounded in a cultural script influenced by a strong tradition in Norwegian culture that religion is primarily a private matter. Clothing, bodily decorations and regulations on eating and drinking are not merely private features of religion – they are also social and public. The discomfort the adolescents experience when these are exposed in Norwegian settings indicates that they sense the cultural expectation of religion being a private matter. This argument follows Svašek (2012) and Scott (2009), who suggest that emotions can provide insights into contextual orders.

Paving new paths and building new bridges

One should also notice, however, how new meanings and understandings are produced in a process characterised by friction, negotiation and plurality (Fuglerud and Wainwright 2015). For instance, when Rani argues, contrary to many in the Tamil milieu, that what she sees as Norwegian clothing is compatible with sincere and individualistic Hindu religiosity, her reasoning paves a new path for how Hindu religiosity can become suited to a Norwegian context. Her reasoning can be seen as an act of improvisation in a situation affected by transit (see Svašek 2010). However, it also echoes Hindu bhakti religiosity in which an emotional and personal relationship to God is to the fore (see Jacobsen 2009, 61), which again has some resemblance to the lay Protestant Christian focus on inner piety, which has strong traditions in the context in which Rani lives. It is possible to suggest that the inherent complexity and diversity of the “mosaic of Hinduism” (Jacobsen 2009), provides the young Hindus with resources when adjusting to and relating to social, cultural and religious diaspora environments.

The girls’ embarrassment when the celebration of puberty is discussed with non-Tamils may be caused by a shyness to talk about bodily cycles and sexuality. In addition, the renaming of the ritual in non-Tamil contexts can be seen as an act of silencing the embodied aspect of the ritual; disentangling food and prayer is another example. Separating bodies, as well as emotions, from “proper religion” is a notion that has emerged in Europe and America after the Long Reformation (McGuire 2008). The embarrassment the participants report might have to do with sensing traces of this notion. Renaming the celebration of puberty as “confirmation” may also have another efficacy. It can be interpreted as an act of creating a sense of belonging that bridges Hinduism and the majority religion by accentuating a similarity. Adjusting to secular scripts in some cases means rejecting religious traditions passed down from the participants’ parents. Examples of this are when Kartika and Divija drink alcohol with non-Tamil friends, despite the advice of both their parents and religion, or when the forehead marks are wiped off when exiting Tamil settings. When the participants in my study advocate new practices and new terminology, they actively construct new meanings, helping to establish context-specific features of Hinduism.


This article demonstrates how material and visual religion can produce, but also threaten, relationships. Central to this argument is how objects change efficacy when relocated. Young Tamil Hindus avoid exposing religious objects, practices and topics in everyday life encounters with non-Tamils because these are perceived as interfering with the fitting in with them. When the youth in this sample makes religion occasionally invisible, they modulate their appearance in accordance with secular scripts encouraging privatisation of religion. This wish to adjust is possibly enforced by living in smaller towns and rural areas with few other Tamils to connect with in everyday life and encounters. Handling material and visual aspects of religion in a secular society illustrates how meaning-making processes can be highly emotional and embodied processes. What the young Hindus wear, eat, drink and talk about are the result of improvisations and negotiations in daily life that secure a desired sense of belonging, and help them in locating religion to spaces with which they are comfortable. A religiously relevant bracelet is not removed when entering Norwegian settings. The bracelet seems to elude the scepticism towards public religiosity as it resembles other accessories young people wear. Sensing and adjusting to non-Tamil and non-Hindu cultural scripts does not necessarily erase religion; it is rather a matter of location and form. Young Tamil Hindus in this study mostly located their religiosity in Tamil realms where its materiality and visibility, for the most part, goes unchallenged.


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1This is measured by the following variables: general faith/doubt in god, sporadically attending church, being «moderately» religious, praying «a few times a year or less» (Botvar 2010, 206).
2See Douglas (1966).
3The number was received in an email from Statistics Norway, 28th August 2014.
4The participants’ names in the article are pseudonyms. To enhance their anonymity, their age is given in age spans.
5Puja is the ritual act of religious devotion, and the home altar is placed in the puja room.
6Tamils I met called it «Temple braid» (kovil nool) or just «the thread» or «the bracelet.» In other Hindu contexts, similar bracelets are called Kalava (Sanskrit), Mauli (Hindi) or Charadu (Hindi).

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