Secularising Buddhism: An Ethnography of Roadside Buddhist Shrine Worshiping in the City of Colombo

Anton Piyarathne, PhD, Professor
Department of Social Studies
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences
The Open University of Sri Lanka, Nawala, Nugegoda, Sri Lanka
e-mail: apiya@ou.ac.lk, antonpiyarathne@gmail.com


The construction of roadside shrine rooms in Colombo, Sri Lanka has been a recent phenomenon, a trend which started after the 1970s. These roadside shrines are constructed and maintained by Buddhists, Catholics and Hindus and are a testimony to the increase of religious influence on the everyday social lives of people. Against this backdrop, an ethnographic research was conducted in 2009 and 2019 by the author aiming to explain why and how city folk construct roadside shrines in Colombo and worship at these shrines, and also to identify alternative and emerging religious practices. The paper based on the ethnographic data collected in relation to the Buddhist shrines suggests that roadside shrine worshipping has a lot of functions for the everyday social life which is identified as secularising Buddhism in the sense of Durkheim’s definition. This paper is based on a functionalist approach to discuss those urban religious practices which play a very significant role in explaining how people in the city negotiate their goals, the aspirations of their lives and the means to achieve them. In general, most people visit these shrines to obtain the blessings of the Buddhist pantheon and cosmology to minimize vulnerabilities and get the maximum benefit from the liberal economic trends and globalisation patterns. Moreover, these mini-shrines which give easy and quick access to a people friendly religious place pay more attention to this worldly life than that of considering other worldly benefits, which seems to be the priority of the urban dwellers.

Keywords: urban religious beliefs and practices, roadside shrines, urbanisation, Sinhala Buddhism, secularism, Colombo


How to cite:
Piyarathne, A. (2020). “Secularising Buddhism: An Ethnography of Roadside Buddhist Shrine Worshiping in the City of Colombo.” Journal of Comparative Studies 13 (42), 10–32. https://doi.org/10.59893/jcs.13(42).002