Mapping Faith and Place: Exploring cultural values in the buildings of South Asian Faiths in Leicester

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leicester
Department Name: Sch of Archaeology and Ancient History


The city of Leicester is the most ethnically and religiously diverse in the UK outside London. In addition to established Christian and Jewish communities, successive migrations since the 1960s have resulted in the establishment of a range of faith communities , including Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Muslims and, to a lesser extent, Buddhists. There are several new constructions but places of worship for these faiths have been constructed mostly through the reuse of earlier buildings, often redundant places of worship for other faiths, but also reusing industrial and other buildings. In all, Leicester has about 50 mosques, 10 Sikh temples or gurdwaras, 15 Hindu temples or mandirs, a Buddhist hall, and Britain's only Jain temple. These places are increasingly recognised as an important cultural element in the urban townscape.

This project aims to identify the cultural values of these faith buildings in the 21st century. At one level they may be considered as 'sacred' architecture, but it is clear that they also fulfil other important roles in redefining the shape of the city, creating a sense of belonging (and potentially also alienation) and serving a range of practical functions for their members.

Clear objectives have been identified. A group of five buildings, drawn from all of the faith groups noted above, located in different types of neighbourhood , will form the key case studies. Using interviews and observation, members of faith communities, and also non-members, will be invited to share their understandings of the cultural values of these places; and plans and visualisations prepared with expert assistance will be used to chart the relative importance of different aspects of the internal and external spaces and features (Objective 1).

The project aims to disseminate the results through local groups and schools, and to the wider academic community, through local outreach, meetings and seminars (Objectives 2 and 3).

A final objective involves the development of an existing simple data base to bring it up to date and link it in to a project being developed by Leicester City Council, which provides a platform for social and economic analysis of the city on a ward by ward basis, using census and police data as well as the information collected by the Council (Objective 4).

The idea has developed from some earlier work by the applicants in the city (see CVs), which has helped us to establish good networks and links with faith groups. The outputs from the project will reflect this dynamic research process. In addition to academic analysis, short guides and interpretive texts will form a concrete outcome from the case studies. Visualisations will be created, to serve as discursive tools. The developed database will serve as a significant new resource.

Through the analysis of this research, we plan to engage with the identification of cultural value from a range of perspectives. Traditionally, within both planning and cultural frameworks, buildings have been valued aesthetically as architecture; a recognised set of further criteria, including integrity, antiquity and uniqueness, as well as association with particular events or people can enhance their value. Judgements are most usually based on acknowledged expertise, which, in the case of these structures, usually foregrounds 'primary function' at the expense of 'secondary use' ; this is in itself potentially a serious limitation in the cultural appreciation of these buildings. Current theories about how culture is valued more broadly, such as the distinction often drawn between 'intrinsic', instrumental and institutional value, for example, likewise offer a rather flat and restrictive framework. As a starting point, we aim to extend understandings of value to include such things as emotion, experience and performance, which may prove more significant for the case studies; but we expect that further qualities will arise during the research.

Planned Impact

We expect that the impact of the research will be locally strong, as we believe we are in a position to engage directly with the creation of local policy. Members of the School of Archaeology and Ancient History are developing increasingly significant links with Leicester City Council, and directly with the City Mayor, through active participation in a number of local initiatives. The most important of these is 'The Story of Leicester' initiative, aimed at regenerating and improving the city centre through heritage and other cultural means. This initiative, currently focussed mostly in the city centre, will move at a later stage to the neighbourhoods, where the majority of the South Asian places of Faith are located. We have had strong impact into the debates, and staff of the City Council have in turn participated in the earlier seminars organised through the AHRC funded initiative on Faith and Place in 2011-12 (see Other Support), and at the launch of the Faith Trail, as well as a recent series of meetings organised around the theme of local migration, organised by the Leicester Migration Network.
We also expect that our project will have direct impact on the perception of places of faith in the city among local communities. We aim to move beyond obvious figures in the faith communities, engaging with the ideas of people who are less visible, such as the elderly, women, and young people, helping to articulate what is perceived as valued or sacred, and what it might be important to protect and promote. The PI has also organised a workshop on faith and neighbourhood, as part of a recent (Oct 2012) ESRC Festival of Social Science event , which brought two large groups local 6th formers to the campus to create a 'Youth Manifesto' for the city , subsequently presented to the Deputy City Mayor.

A very important dimension of this is the creation of relationships of trust. Building on local networks and contacts we can see a process of increasing participation in wider connective networks, between local people and the University of Leicester, De Montfort University and the City Council, and also with central institutions such as English Heritage. It is a common perception that minority faith groups are perceived as not relevant to the creation of the heritage of England, and therefore do not seek to participate in and benefit from, the resources and expertise of national bodies. This should help to create and support continuing dialogue in which the cultural value of Asian places of faith is considered.

It is hoped that the Leicester experience of Interfaith dialogue within a multi-faith but also secularised society, can serve as a model for other towns and cities within Britain and abroad. This model recognises the global/local connective strength of faith communities and provides active solutions to tensions and enriched understanding of cultural values for all.


10 25 50
Description We have used the metaphor of translation to describe how practices of faith move from one country to another and are embodied in different places
Exploitation Route publication and conference presentation
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description cultural value of new places of worship of South Asian faiths is being recognised
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Policy & public services

Description Collaborative Doctoral Award
Amount £60,000 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/L008807/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2013 
End 09/2016
Title South Asian Places of Worship Interviews 
Description A collection of recorded interviews and transcripts of community members at south Asian places of Worship in Leicester 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact the collection of data made the participantsand interviewees aware of the potential for wider cultural value of their places of worship 
Description Sikh Heritage studentship 
Organisation English Heritage
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Provide supervision and research environment, contacts and research facilities; research training
Collaborator Contribution Joint supervision; additional bursary to cover costs of student placement; research training
Impact The studentship is progress; the candidate has passed her probation review (August 2014).
Start Year 2013
Description Tour with Ramblers group 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Visiting different places of faith with people from across a broad range of social environments highlighted the cultural and historic significance of different buildings, and the communities that supported them, and raised the profile of interfaith dialogue in the city.

After the trip emails indicated that the group had engaged with places that they would not otherwise have visited, and appreciated the cultural diversity of the city, as well as learning more about different religions.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
Description open workshop, Leicester 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Overall, the workshop helped to develop new connections outside purely academic circles and it seemed clear that the interactive map of places of worship in the city had been picked up outside the immediate circles of our own faith networks.

connections with the Indian business community have been maintained
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014