Temples helping heritage language maintenance in Australia

Murugan Temple, Colombo by Andy Nobes

Murugan Temple, Colombo (Source: Andy Nobes)

Do you know which non-Christian religion has grown the fastest in Australia since the new millennium? You might be surprised to hear that it’s Hinduism. Hinduism has different faces in Australia but I want to show how it is helping language maintenance for one particular group of migrants.

Hinduism is not brand new to Australia. Hindus and Hinduism have existed here since the early days of colonisation and Hindu temples and centres have been around since the 1970s. The term “Hinduism” is an overarching one for a religion that is diverse in its forms. The way Hinduism is practiced can vary between regions; the various forms can focus on different deities and encompass different cultural and linguistic practices. For this reason, there are approximately 50 Hindu temples in Australia.

One reason Hinduism is growing quickly is because of the large number of Indian migrants coming to Australia. Indians form the country of birth group (for Australia’s overseas-born population) that increased the most in size between 2001 and 2011 (up by 200,000 people).

The Hindus I want to talk about are Sri Lankan Tamils. They form the fourth largest Hindu group in Australia after Indians, Fijians and Nepalese. There were about 15,000 counted in the last census and most of them are located in New South Wales and Victoria.

Previous research has found that a devout Hindu faith can assist in heritage language maintenance. This generally relies on an ideological view about the need for a particular language in order to practice one’s faith appropriately. In a diaspora context, it is important to distinguish between the language(s) seen as necessary for the performance of Hindu rituals and the language(s) seen as necessary for communication to and amongst an often more linguistically diverse group of devotees.

Lord Murugan

Lord Murugan

Most Tamil Hindus follow a branch of Hinduism known as Saivism which views Lord Shiva as the preeminent god. For Tamils, there is a particular closeness to Lord Shiva’s son known as Lord Murugan. He is seen as the Tamil god and is considered a big part of Tamil culture. Many Tamil Saivites who have migrated from Sri Lanka “believe from generation to generation that Tamil means Saivism and Saivism means Tamil” (Suseendirajah 1980, p. 345). In this sense, the Tamil (தமிழ்) language is seen as an essential part of the practice of Saivism; “how are we going to pray in English?” asked a leader of one Tamil temple in Australia.

There are seven temples dedicated to Lord Murugan by name in Australia and these have been built and consecrated by Sri Lankans in the last 20 or so years. Located in several capital cities, they are not only sites for religious worship but important for bringing Tamil migrants together. The temple spaces promote traditional music and dance, host weddings and festivals, and serve Sri Lankan food from canteens. Some temples also play a role in educating the younger (second and third) generations and providing a space for them to perform and participate in Tamil religious and cultural activities.

So how can these temple spaces help with language maintenance? The answer is not obvious when you consider that the language of formal ceremony in the temples is Sanskrit, a language known by the priests who conduct them, but, largely not understood by most devotees. Add to this the fact that the ethnic and linguistic backgrounds of devotees in these temples are becoming increasingly diverse with the growth of Hinduism. Sometimes English is the only common language amongst them.

Despite these factors, the temples are still able to maintain the use of Tamil in various ways. When I visited and spoke to temple leaders at three Murugan temples, I was given the distinct impression that I was entering predominantly Tamil spaces; most signage was in Tamil script and the majority of people around me were conversing in Tamil. If you look at the temples’ written communications such as notices, newsletters, websites or Facebook sites, there is certainly evidence of English being used, but substantial content is presented in the Tamil script.

While the formal rituals in the temple occur in Sanskrit (as they would back in Sri Lanka), there are forms of group worship in the temple spaces that occur in Tamil. Worship such as the singing of hymns (based on ancient Tamil Saiva literature) and particular devotional songs, called bhajans, occurs in Tamil. The traditional music that is performed in the temples’ cultural halls contains a lot of Tamil. Religious lectures are delivered by visiting speakers in Tamil, communication with temple volunteers working at the front counters or serving food will all occur in Tamil if you can speak it. And if priests address the crowd in the temple they will do so in Tamil.

Not all the younger Tamil generation are proficient Tamil speakers so there is the risk of losing their interest if they cannot fully participate in the above activities. But at one temple, a weekly religious school is taught in Tamil to approximately 60 students indicating that some younger devotees are proficient in the language. This is on top of a secular external Tamil language school attended by many more Tamil children on weekends in the same city.

Sydney Murugan Hindu Temple (Source: Global Hinduism)

Sydney Murugan Hindu Temple (Source: Global Hinduism)

In this way, the temple might not be able to succeed in teaching the language, but for those members of the younger generations who wish to use Tamil, there are many opportunities to do so, from one-on-one communication with other devotees to the Saiva school.

Devotees who cannot speak Tamil still visit the temple for worship but many are excluded from the group activities that are conducted in the Tamil language. This is a salient point given that the number of Indians attending these temples is increasing. Will the temples eventually change their language policies to accommodate non-Tamil speakers? Or will they prioritise their role in Tamil language and cultural maintenance? This may, in part, depend on how many newly arrived Tamil-speaking migrants join the temple.

The evidence given from several temple leaders and devotees I spoke to indicates that they don’t see the younger generations as being that interested in maintaining the language in general, and so, if the religion is all they can keep then maybe the language of the temple will change in the future. As one temple leader said, “the religion will live for a hundred years but the language won’t”. Perhaps, while the languages (Sanskrit and Tamil) used in the worship aspect of the religion are likely to be upheld, we may see change in the languages (that is, a shift to English) used for communicative purposes, such as for information and education, in the temples.

Incorporating more English into the temples’ language policies will accommodate both the younger generations and the non-Tamil devotees. But will the ideology that connects Tamil and Saivism be so strong for the first generation members in charge of the temples that English will continue to be used only when necessary? Questions such as this seem yet to be addressed by the temple boards and indicate that language change is likely to occur gradually, and with complexity, in these spaces.

Details about my research about language maintenance in Tamil Hindu temples in Australia is available in Perera (2016).


ResearchBlogging.org References

Perera, N. (2016). Tamil in the temples – Language and religious maintenance beyond the first generation Multilingua : 10.1515/multi-2015-0059

Suseendirarajah, S. 1980. Religion and language in Jaffna society. Anthropological Linguistics 22. 345–62.

Author Niru Perera

Niru is completing her PhD in Linguistics at Monash University. As a Sri Lankan, she is interested in the migration experiences of people from Sri Lanka, and in particular, the interplay of language, religion and identity for their children.

More posts by Niru Perera
  • Sana Bharadwaj

    Really interesting work! As a young-adult member of the Indian diaspora who has spent most of my life in Australia, I can definitely see places of cultural practice such as temples as a site for heritage language maintenance. Though I was born a Hindu, I have never really attended a lot of religious events at temples – but I am trying to be more active attending other cultural events within my community to try and improve my language skills. Thanks for a great read!