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Religion: Those are Malaysian Temples We Are Destroying

Contributed by Anonymous on Thursday, March 01 @ 01:38:54 CST

by Farish A. Noor
Sunday, 03 December 2006
A nation is as rich as its geography; and geography is enriched when it is overdetermined. In this respect, we in Malaysia are - or were - rich indeed. Rich because of the fact that being located as we are at the crossroads of Asia this patch of earth was the meeting point of so many cultures and civilisations that stretched from mainland China to South Asia, Central Asia, the Mediterranean and Europe.

Looking back at the maps (both oral and graphic) left since
the days of Ptolemy and others, we see that this was indeed a land blessed in many ways. Across the archipelago we find some of the greatest kingdoms and empires that have ever graced the earth of humankind: Angkor, Majapahit, Srivijaya, Langkasuka, Khmer, Mataram, Vijaya, Champa, Indrapura... the list goes on endlessly. Nor were these settlements isolated: They traded with the empires of China and the numerous dynasties that ruled over mainland India and Lanka. During my trip to Sri Lanka earlier this year, I stood amidst the ruins of the great monasteries of Anuradhapura, and sat awhile in thought as I contemplated the journeys that were made by the monks of Lanka as they travelled all the way to Java, bringing with them the Theravada tradition as well as a sprinkling of Tantraism along the way. In turn the landscape of Southeast Asia bears silent witness to the great migrations of the past, with the great temple complexes of Pagan, Angkor and Borobudur reminding us of the days when the peoples of Southeast Asia were indeed global in outlook and their daily lives. No, we were never a parochial lot, us Southeast Asians.

Sadly, geography has not evolved a means of defending itself against the writing of a political and politicised history, and landscapes have precious little means to defend themselves against the onslaught of ideological reconstructionism.  Southeast Asia today remains a contested landscape though the contestation in question has less to do with the scramble for resources but more with the need to erase the past in order to plant ever more firmly the stamp of the present.  We should have seen it all coming when, in the 1970s and 1980s the region was swept by a new wave of conservative religiosity that was wedded to the interests of sectarian politics: The great temple of Borobudur was the first victim, when it was bombed by radical Islamists who claimed that the time had come to ‘cleanse’ Indonesia of its Hindu-Buddhist past, and that the destruction of the magnificent Buddhist monument would signal the coming of a new age. Some of the more radical Islamists were undoubtedly disappointed that millions of tourists were flocking to the country to see Borobudur in all her glory, and were not equally awe-struck by the Soviet-realist statues and monuments of Jakarta dedicated to the inflated egos of Indonesian politicians, or worse still, the painfully ugly utilitarian-modernist edifices built by Saudi money in the same capital...
In Malaysia we have come to hear similar voices being raised.  Not too long ago a prominent religious scholar and politician known more for his arcane knowledge of Djinns and other assorted spirit-folk uttered the lament that a town up north was still named ‘Indera Kayangan’; and in his speech stated quite bluntly that the name of the town should be changed to something more Islamic to mirror the mood of the day. (One wonders what would serve as an appropriately Islamic name then, as if pronouns had a religious identity...)

Of late we have also witnessed the sad spectacle of the erasure of history in no uncertain terms: The destruction of Hindu temples all over the Peninsula has been cited as a case in point, though in practically every case of Hindu temple demolition we have been told that it was for the sake of ‘development’ and that the temples in question were illegally built anyway. One wonders if the foundations of Angkor Wat or Borobudur were laid on legally-sanctified ground as well, or whether those who built them had applied for planning permits.

One such case is the Sri Mariamman Muniswaran temple, located at Batu Lima, Jalan Tampin, near Seremban. Historical records of the estate that used to sit at the site indicate that the temple was built around 1870-1890, and so the temple may be anything between 110 to 130 years old. Furthermore the temple - a modest structure with a simple roof sheltering the image of the local deity - is backed by a spectacular specimen of the Banyan tree species, a sprawling mass of vegetation that would bolster the claim of its relative antiquity. Even more interesting is the fact that during my visit there a couple of weeks ago, I found a tiny Chinese shrine situated behind the temple and tree, with - of all things - what appeared to be a small statue of a Javanese King as the primary totem of devotion! Here was multiculturalism at its best and most unapologetically hybrid. The combination of Hindu, Chinese and Malay elements was evident for all to see, including those who seem bent of levelling the structure down for the sake of road expansion.  Those who speak the jargon of legalese may be able to understand the rationale for its scheduled demolition. In fact on 26 February 2005 the temple structure was smashed by men wielding sledge hammers, though it was immediately rebuilt by regular devotees who visit the temple. The fate of the tiny temple is now being decided in the courts, though opinion on the matter remains divided.          

Partisans to the development argument will undoubtedly claim
that the loss of one more temple would make no difference to the landscape. After all, many others have fallen under the hammer and the bulldozer, so why not this one? But here one is forced to interject by stating the obvious. It has often been said that such ‘Indian temples’ are an eyesore, that they have been built illegally, that they somehow do not ‘match’ with the overall flavour and patterns of the Malaysian landscape.  Lest it be forgotten, let us remind ourselves of some basic facts:

Firstly, these are NOT ‘Indian’ temples that are being destroyed, but rather Malaysian temples that are just as much a part of the Malaysian cultural-religious landscape as any other mosque, church or pagoda in the country. To call them ‘Indian temples’ would suggest an Otherness and alterity they do not profess nor possess. They were built by Malaysian Hindus on Malaysian soil and are therefore a part of the Malaysian landscape.

Secondly the recognition of the Malaysian character of these temples would mean recognising that Hinduism has been and remains part of the cultural fabric of Malaysian society, and is not some alien faith and cultural system that was transplanted to the country yesterday while we were all sleeping. There is nothing new, odd, alien or unusual about Hinduism in Malaysia. In fact it counts as one of the foundations of Malaysian and Malay identity and has been part of the organic culture and history of the Malaysian peoples more than any other belief and cultural system. The Malay language itself is proof of this, and if you wish I can cite you a Malay sentence that is made up almost entirely of Sanskrit words: “Mahasiswa-mahasiswi berasmara di asrama bersama pandita yang curiga”.

Thirdly, the defence of these temples should be seen by all Malaysians as a Malaysian concern, and not that of the Hindus of Malaysia solely or exclusively. Living as we do in a country whose history is being diluted on an hourly basis, we all need to recognise the fact that this land of ours is rich in culture and history only as long as we collectively preserve and protect it. The systematic destruction of the spiritual landscape of Malaysia should therefore be seen as a Malaysian concern, for all Malaysians; and this should not be pathologised as simply a ‘Hindu’ problem, or worse still, an ‘Indian problem’. (To which one might add that there are no ‘Indians’ in Malaysia save for those who carry Indian passports and happen to be citizens of India. The rest are Malaysians who may or may not identify themselves as believing, practising, nominal or even atheistic Hindus.)

In short, what we are witnessing today is the destruction of Malaysian temples, and that is why we Malaysians should be concerned. It doesn’t matter what religion you may or may not choose to profess: this is an issue that needs to be addressed by us collectively. To recognise that these temples are Malaysian temples means locating them here, at home, as part of our collective identity and what defines us as what we are.  I grew up in a neighbourhood of Kuala Lumpur where at dawn I could hear the sound of the azan from the mosque and the chimes of the Hindu temple nearby. Today the temple bells are being silenced; and my world - and yours - is poorer as a result.
(This article was first published in



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