The Cow in the Elevator

An Anthropology of Wonder

Book Pages: 296 Illustrations: 29 illustrations Published: May 2018

Author: Tulasi Srinivas

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Asian Studies > South Asia, Religious Studies

In The Cow in the Elevator Tulasi Srinivas explores a wonderful world where deities jump fences and priests ride in helicopters to present a joyful, imaginative, yet critical reading of modern religious life. Drawing on nearly two decades of fieldwork with priests, residents, and devotees, and her own experience of living in the high-tech city of Bangalore, Srinivas finds moments where ritual enmeshes with global modernity to create wonder—a feeling of amazement at being overcome by the unexpected and sublime. Offering a nuanced account of how the ruptures of modernity can be made normal, enrapturing, and even comical in a city swept up in globalization's tumult, Srinivas brings the visceral richness of wonder—apparent in creative ritual in and around Hindu temples—into the anthropological gaze. Broaching provocative philosophical themes like desire, complicity, loss, time, money, technology, and the imagination, Srinivas pursues an interrogation of wonder and the adventure of writing true to its experience. The Cow in the Elevator rethinks the study of ritual while reshaping our appreciation of wonder's transformative potential for scholarship and for life.


"[The Cow in the Elevator] teased me into questioning what Srinivas has so beautifully and chillingly thought through for decades—wonder as an ethical practice." — Dhruv Ramnath, The Citizen

"Srinivas provides a lively lesson in religious originality with applications and implications far beyond Bangalore or India." — Jack David Eller, Reading Religion

"The central contribution of this book is its presentation of wonder as a new category of anthropological inquiry, and its interdisciplinary approach of parsing wonder from the vantage points of ritual and liturgical lives, socioeconomics, and aesthetic and creative spheres.  Srinivas’s deployment of these specific categories by no means limits its readers; on the contrary, the book inspires readers to revisit their own field experiences, and look for the moments of wonder." — Arthi Devarajan, Anthropology News

"Tulasi Srinivas does us a service in identifying important insights arising from her study of ritual practice that will help us to better understand wonder. Hopefully, her work will prompt other scholars to use an anthropological approach to better understand the dynamics of wonder from the perspective of the interlocutors they study." — Steve Derné, Asian Anthropology

"The Cow in the Elevator captures in lovely detail and theory-rich rumination, the evolution and dynamism of Hindu ritualism in modern Bangalore, calling attention to the unstable and creative dimensions of ritual, and the ethical possibilities and challenges it opens up within this rapidly changing city. Scholars of Hinduism and South Asian urbanism will find much to ponder in this book, as will anthropologists interested in ritual theory and practice." — Andrew C. Willford, Pacific Affairs

"Srinivas has a lovely turn of phrase and can convey poignancy well, especially in the interludes of her field notes, which come bursting upon the book." — Manisha Sethi, Contributions to Indian Sociology

"I treasure The Cow in the Elevator for its sparkle and its positive news about hope and creativity in often bleak circumstances. Rich in original analytic insights, this book is not a tidy package but a cornucopia from which all kinds of sweet and bitter products may be extracted, tasted, consumed, and transformed: high-powered caloric fuel for interpretive intellectual energies. . . . Daring, insightful, and highly engaging, The Cow in the Elevator offers so much that its capacity to provoke unanswered questions in no way detracts from its invaluable qualities. Certainly, no other book on religion in urban India so effectively conveys the ways that ritual excess works wonders." — Ann Grodzins Gold, American Ethnologist

"In this intriguing and richly-textured book, Tulasi Srinivas immerses us in the world of contemporary Hindu ritual practice in Malleshwaram, a suburb of the South Indian city of Bangalore. . . . The Cow in the Elevator is a deeply insightful work that offers us a glimpse of the creativity and wonder that sustain Hindu ritual life in the concrete jungles of modern, neoliberal India." — Tracy Pintchman, Anthropos

"The content and flow of the book are highly engaging: from conceptual backgrounding to contextualising the specific field-sites in modern Bangalore, the reader travels from the past to an urgent present; from modern empty apartments bereft of dwellers, yet needing blessings; to shifting moral and cosmological bearings; to neoliberal economies with their accompanying (il)logics, towards possibilities for hope." — Chand Somaiah, The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology

"I found much of value in this book. . . . The writing displays a lively sense of wonder. The autoethnography is deft, and the homage to M. N. Srinivas, as father and anthropologist, very moving." — Soumhya Venkatesan, Anthropological Quarterly

"Srinivas is able to objectively recount her own situatedness as an ethnographer into the fabric of a compelling study that is equal parts field study, analysis, and narrative of wonderment in modern-day Bangalore. I highly recommend The Cow in the Elevator as a book that successfully pushes ethnographic boundaries while telling a rich and detailed account of religion and ritual in India." — Laura M. Dunn, Asian Ethnology

"This pathbreaking book is about the politics of wonder in the ritual life of a Hindu neighborhood in a major Indian city. The book itself is a wondrously written treatment of the saturation of neoliberal lives by a radical cosmology of performance, affect, and technicity, through which ritual life transfigures the pains and puzzles of modernity. It should be read by all students of ritual, affect, and emergent practices of globalization." — Arjun Appadurai, author of Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger

“Brilliant and erudite, The Cow in the Elevator emerges from Tulasi Srinivas's long-term commitment to making sense of religious life in urbanizing, high-tech India. With ethnographic verve and a keen ear for diverse voices, Srinivas tells lively stories of the Hindu priests and devotees who improvise on existing ritual forms in contemporary Bengaluru. Theorizing the human need for wonder and exploring how ritual may generate wonder in changing circumstances, The Cow in the Elevator is a wondrous book.” — Kirin Narayan, author of Everyday Creativity: Singing Goddesses in the Himalayan Foothills


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Tulasi Srinivas is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson College, author of Winged Faith: Rethinking Globalization and Religious Pluralism through the Sathya Sai Movement, and coeditor of Curried Cultures: Globalization, Food, and South Asia.

Table of Contents Back to Top
A Note on Translation  xi
Acknowledgments  xiii
O Wonderful!  xix
Introduction. Wonder, Creativity, and Ethical Life in Bangalore  1
Cranes in the Sky  1
Wondering about Wonder  6
Modern Fractures  9
Of Bangalore's Boomtown Bourgeoisie  13
My Guides into Wonder  16
Going Forward  31
1. Adventures in Modern Dwelling  34
A Cow in an Elevator  34
Grounded Wonder  37
And Ungrounded Wonder  39
Back to Earth  41
Memorialized Cartography  43
"Dead-Endu" Ganesha  45
Earthen Prayers and Black Money  48
Moving Marble  51
Building Wonder  56
Interlude: Into the Abyss  58
2. Passionate Journeys: From Aesthetics to Ethics  60
The Wandering Gods  60
Waiting . . .  65
Moral Mobility  69
Gliding Swans and Bucking Horses  70
The Pain of Cleaving  74
And the Angry God  80
Full Tension!  84
Adjustments  86
Life and . . .  91
Ethical Wonders  92
Interlude. Up in the Skyye  95
3. In God We Trust: Economies of Wonder and Philosophies of Debt  99
A Treasure Trove  99
Twinkling Excess  107
The Golden Calf  111
A Promise of Plenitude  114
"Mintingu" and "Minchingu"  119
"Cash-a-carda?" Philosophies of Debt  128
Soiled Money and the Makings of Distrust  131
The Limits of Wonder  133
4. Technologies of Wonder  138
Animatronic Devi  138
Deus Ex Machina  140
The New in Bangalore  142
The Mythical Garuda-Helicopter  143
Drums of Contention  152
Capturing Divine Biometrics  157
Archiving the Divine  159
Technologies of Capture  162
FaceTiming God  164
Wonder of Wonders  169
5. Timeless Imperatives, Obsolescence, and Salvage  172
"Times have Changed"  172
The Untimeliness of Modernity  175
Avelle and Ritu  178
Slipping Away  181
When Wonder Falls  183
Time Lords  187
Dripping Time  188
The Future, The Past, and the Immortal Present  204
Conclusion. A Place for Radical Hope  206
Radical Hope  206
Amazement in Turmeric  210
The Need for Wonder  213
Afterword. The Tenacity of Hope  216
Notes  219
References  247
Index  265
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