Malaysia Uncut

A Repository of Malaysian Stuff and More

Those are Malaysian Temples We Are Destroying

Hindu devotee hurt in defending temple being destroyed by Malaysian authorities

Written by Farish A. Noor

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


Further reading:  Temple Cleansing’ in Malaysia and Pakistan


Sunday, November 19, 2006 - Posted by | Commentary

1 Comment »

  1. […] Those Are Malaysian Temples We Are Destroying […]

    Pingback by Temple destruction a loss for Malaysian identity « Malaysia Uncut | Saturday, February 24, 2007 | Reply

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