By Farish A Noor
A nation is as rich as its geography; and geography is enriched when it is over-determined. 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: from mainland China and South Asia, from Central Asia, the Mediterranean and Europe.
Looking back at the maps, both oral and graphic, left since the days of Ptolemy, 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 humankind’s earth: Angkor, Majapahit, Srivijaya, Langkasuka, Khmer, Mataram, Vijaya, Champa, Indrapura… the list goes on, endlessly.
These settlements were not 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: 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.
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 their daily outlooks. No, we were never a parochial lot, us Southeast Asians.
The Bombing of Borobudur
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, and more to do with the erasure of history: 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, our region was swept by a new wave of conservative religiosity, wedded to the interests of sectarian politics. The great temple complex of Borobudur was bombed in January 1985 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.
These Islamists were undoubtedly disappointed that millions of tourists were flocking to the country to see Borobudur in all her glory; and that these same tourists 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 Indonesian capital.
In Malaysia we have come to hear similar voices being raised. Not too long ago a prominent religious scholar and politician — ironically, 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. In his speech, this polemicist 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.
But municipal name-changing isn’t the worst of it. Of late, we Malaysians have witnessed the erasure of history in no uncertain terms: the destruction of Hindu temples all over the Peninsula.
The Demolition of the Sri Mariamman Muniswaran temple
The Sri Mariamman Muniswaran temple is 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, meaning that the temple may be anywhere between 110 to 130 years old. Further, this 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 temple’s claim to 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 its 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. This combination of Hindu, Chinese and Malay elements was evident for all to see — including those who seem bent of levelling the structure down, all for the sake of road expansion.
On February 26, 2005, the temple structure was smashed by men wielding sledgehammers. Devotees who regularly visit of the temple rebuilt it immediately. Today, the fate of this tiny testament to Malaysian culture is currently being decided in the courts, though opinion on the matter remains divided.
The Bulldozing of Malaysian History
The case of the Sri Mariamman Muniswaran temple is not an isolated one, and this trend continues: last April, the century-old Malaimel Sri Selva Kaliamman temple was destroyed by bulldozers sent by the Kuala Lumpur City Hall; between February and May, eight such structures have been torn down or given notices in the Klang Valley alone.
In practically every case, the demolition of these Hindu places of worship came with the following rationale: it was for the sake of ‘development’, and the temples in question were illegally built anyway — as if the foundations of Angkor Wat or Borobudur were laid on legally-sanctified ground as well, or those who built them had applied for planning permits.
Partisans to the development argument will undoubtedly claim that the loss of one more temple would make no difference to our landscape. After all, many others have fallen under the hammer and the bulldozer — so why not this one? It has often been said that such ‘Indian temples’ are an eyesore, that they have been built illegally, that they somehow do not match the overall flavour and patterns of the Malaysian landscape.
Here one is forced to interject by stating the obvious. Lest it be forgotten, let us remind ourselves of a basic fact: the structures that are being destroyed are not ‘Indian temples’, but rather Malaysian temples: structures 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 or alterity they neither profess nor possess. These temples were built by Malaysian Hindus, on Malaysian soil. They are, therefore, a part of the Malaysian landscape.
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; it 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, Hinduism counts as one of the foundations of Malaysian and Malay identity — it has been part of the organic culture and history of the Malaysian peoples, more than any other cultural or belief system. The Malay language itself is proof of this — 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
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 defence of these temples should be seen by all Malaysians as a Malaysian concern — to see it as a problem solely or exclusively for the Malaysian Hindu community is to make a grave mistake. The systematic destruction of the spiritual landscape of Malaysia should not be pathologised simply as a Hindu problem — or, worse still, an Indian problem.
Employing the legalese of the parties that perpetuate this destruction, one might lawfully say that there are no ‘Indians’ in Malaysia — save for those who carry Indian passports and happen to be citizens of India. Malaysian ‘Indians’, as this shaky categorisation is usually delineated, are citizens of Malaysia who may or may not have ethnic roots in the Indian subcontinent — and 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 should all 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 all of 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 sounds of both the azan from the mosque and the chimes of the Hindu temple, nearby. Today those temple bells are being silenced. My world — and yours — is poorer as a result.
Dr Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist who has just launched OtherMalaysia.org, an online source of articles, columns, travelogues and creative writing for those ‘interested in unearthing aspects of Malaysian history … marginalised or erased in the official historiography of the post-colonial state’.
First Published: 02.11.2006 on Kakiseni