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View from Novellara, Italy

Italy’s rural flatlands are home to a growing population of Sikh farmers who are transforming the landscape with their temples and presence

In just 20 years Italy has developed from a clear Catholic majority to a complex and unique pattern of religious diversity. Italians are experiencing this shift later than other Westerners, who are more familiar with adapting to the social challenges that such a demographic change entails.

Reading the new map of faiths in the country is not easy, for two main reasons: the estimates, based on migrant origins, are insufficient, and a map of places of worship is far from accurate because, to the naked eye, most of these places are not yet spatially visible. The construction of a non-Christian place of worship is legally regulated by a messy web of normative sources, mainly regional, chaotic and inorganic. Therefore, urban change and the use of space for religious purposes happens much more swiftly than any change in urban planning policy or legislation.

In major urban contexts, sacred places take shape treading a thin line between what is legal and what is illegal. They are widespread but fragmented, standing everywhere there is available space: in former garages, storage, factories, or in private apartments.

By contrast, the countryside hosts an incredible variety of cultures and the economic importance of immigrants coupled with the availability of land seems to guarantee more rights in the construction of worship places. For these reasons, the rich Italian religious landscape becomes most evident within its rural landscape.

The Italian Po Valley’s main economic resource is agriculture, renowned for its artisan tradition of food and wine production. But as largely family-run farms struggle to pass on skills to the next generation, foreign labourers provide essential support to keep the Po Valley’s output of Parmigiano Reggiano and balsamic vinegar flowing.

Novellara, among other tiny villages spread over the flatland, is home for many recent Italian migrants, who are increasingly taking on the bulk of agricultural work, especially in the dairy farms that produce milk for Parmesan cheese. The village accommodates many different religious groups and places of worship, but especially Sikhs. This group is well established and rapidly expanding − they are already the second largest Sikh community in Europe after the United Kingdom’s.

Owned by an association of Indian Sikhs, the Novellara Gurdwara opened in 2000: the first of its kind in Italy. The temple has played a fundamental role in representing the Indian migration to the north of the country from the 1980s up to today. Every year, the village plays host to a huge Vaisakhi feast. During the festival the diversity of the rural population suddenly becomes evident − Sikhs from all over Central Europe congregate, flooding the public spaces in a riot of colourful celebratory outfits, transforming the appearance of the village with their bodies and presence. The festivity involves the entire city, from the main square to the local stadium, to the periphery, where the new Gurdwara stands, in the middle of the industrial area.

Novellara is not the only case: many Gurdwaras are now scattered around the Italian flatland and each of them celebrates its own Vaisakhi, moving the festival-going Sikh community from one village to another. Entirely built and paid for by the communities themselves, and resulting from a difficult public bureaucracy, temples now populate the somnolent expanse of corn and wheat fields. Waiting for the Golden Dome to be built, as the one in Amritsar, Punjab, their mother region, Gurdwaras and their ceremonies form the new architectural landscape of the Po Valley, where Sikhs have become the residents and developers.

Fact File

Photographer: Delfino Sisto Legnani

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