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A bit of history

Hinduism arrived the shores of Malaysia (then called Swarnabumi) during the Pallava (4th - 9th century) & Chola (9th - 13th century) empires. Archaeological findings on more than 30 sites in the state of Kedah by Dr. Quaritch Wales indicates continuous occupation of the region by people of South Indian origin.

A stone tablet inscription from the Chola age found in Bujang Valley, in Kedah

A statue of Ganesha found in the Bujang Valley

Images with thanks from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bujang_Valley

Today's name Kedah for the state was derived from the Tamil word Kadaram. The word "Melayu" referring to the Malay race was said to have been derived from "Malaiyur" which meant a mountainous country.

There were many inscriptions that showed Hindu and Buddhist influence during the early days particularly in Kedah.

These temples and shrines were destroyed either by weather or by sheer ignorance and lack of maintenance during the subsequent periods when Malaya was occupied by other empires from the West. The Malaysian government has protected many of these artefacts and displayed them in the Bujang Valley Archaeological Museum built in 1978 near Bedong, Kedah at the foothills of Mount Jerai.

Today's Hindus in Malaysia

The Hindu temples and culture that we see today in Malaysia are predominantly developed during the British era when indentured Indian labourers were brought in to work in the railway and plantations. Many also came to work in supervisory and administrative jobs that ultimately saw many Indians who held high positions in government service as well as in plantations.

Thus several forms of temples developed in Malaysia during that era:

  • Chetty temples: Mainly built by small Chettiar communities in areas where they dominate. Such temples can still be seen in Malacca, Ipoh and Penang.

  • Clan temples: Mainly built by North Indians (Gujeratis, Punjabi Hindus and others) whereby the temple would feature the North Indian flavour. One such temple is the Laxmi Narayan Temple in Jalan Ipoh in Kuala Lumpur.

  • City temples: These were usually initiated and built by the efforts from Indian government employees and businessmen who work and reside in towns. Such temples include the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple in Kuala Lumpur and many similar ones in the country.

The Sri Maha Mariamman Temple in KL that was founded in 1873

  • Cave and hill temples: These were the result of some priests, holy men or "lonely" men who meditated or frequented the place and eventually built a place of worship. This may include the Sri Subramaniar Temple of Batu Caves, the Sivan Temple of Bukit Gasing, the Vinayagar Temple of Pudu.

The Sri Subramaniar Temple in Batu Caves

  • Plantation temples: Most plantations would typically have a Mariamman temple built by the estate (plantation) management for the benefit of the large Indian Hindu labour population. Then some larger plantations would see the creation of Muniandy temples, Kali temples and others that are built by the workers to serve their needs or sometimes to feed the ego of a split community due to different clans or different castes.

The Sri Maha Mariamman Temple in an estate in Johore

  • Home temples: There are a minority home temples that sometimes evolve into a regional temple. This are mainly some religious families that build a shed in front of their houses or under a tree and the followers gradually increase.

  • "Consultancy" temples: These are a specific category where a priest (mostly those who would act as a medium, come into a trance) offer solutions and guidance to the followers who approach him/her with various problems ranging from illness right up to wanting lucky numbers.

Whatever temples that remains active (whether legally registered or not, whether sitting on properly owned land or squatting on "un-owned" land) are from one of the above origin. It is said that there are more than 17,000 Hindu temples in Malaysia where the Hindu population is probably approximately 1.2 million.

Given the scenario above, the changes and developments taking place in Malaysia are so rapid that there are many temples that are caught in a dilemma when it comes to the legalisation process.

Modernisation of Malaysian Hindu temples

The most affected category of temples are the ones that were once a plantation temple. These are temples that often become "orphaned" due to re-settlement of the population and development of the plantation into new towns or construction of highways and the like.

The city temples that had been there for more than 100 years are stable due to it having its own land, a Board of Trustees and proper registration with the Registrar of Societies.

The plantation temples frequently become abandoned. Meanwhile there are many surviving ones where the remaining devotees of the area and newly settled Hindus try to revive the temples. This becomes tricky when the temples have been sitting on plantation-owned land and would have now become a new town where the developer then owns the land! This immediately makes the temple an illegal structure sitting on squatter land!!

My own thought is this: There is no meaning in trying to protect and revive all such temples as many would have served its purpose during the heydays of the plantation sectors glory. And if the remaining devotees in that area have shrunk it is in the best interest of everyone to merge such temples with a legally built regional temple.

One step towards modernisation may be to enlist all remaining temples squatting on illegal land and plan a proper merger and relocation so that Hindus can enjoy the existence of larger and better managed temples that serves a wider community area.

This change cannot be avoided as the original scope of those plantation temples were merely to serve the basic prayer needs of the people living in that particular estate while now the population has migrated out and needs a different religious foundation.

Modern objectives of a temple: With modernisation of the country, the Indians have equally changed into urban dwellers and many are no longer associated with plantations. The community is no longer living in a small confined territory of an estate, instead the Indian population fills a broad area in the urban cities.

What we need today are community temples that are strong in patronage and involvement. If temples are merged and built with the required infrastructure such as community hall, meeting centres and religious libraries; then it would serve the present purpose while also keeping the objective of being a community centre.





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