Flesh & Devotion in KL

29 Mar
Singapore skyline with Merlion fountain righthand corner - (2008)

Singapore skyline with Merlion fountain lefthand corner – (2008)

The shared southern border between Myanmar and Thailand separates the Andaman Sea from the Gulf of Thailand and is a sliver of tropical paradise and sporadic guerilla fighting that ultimately ends in the bulbous Malay peninsula. The city-state of Singapore is an island at the tip of this peninsula where the Strait of Johore sets it apart from Malaysia. Although geographically it is part of Southeast Asia, Singapore is very different from the rest of the region. I arrived there in 2008 and my plan was to use the city as my jumping off point as I traveled by bus to the old colonial town of Melaka in Malaysia, then on to Kuala Lumpur (KL), and from KL I would fly to Jakarta — the goal being to travel to central Java and visit Borobudur. The pyramid-like, walk-through mandala structure of Borobudur is one of the most incredible creations of the Buddhist world, and interestingly, is found in Indonesia — the most populous Muslim country in the world. While most of the big cities of Southeast Asia are busy putting up skyscrapers, investing in public transportation, and leveraging their natural resources for economic gains, there is still a noticeable push-pull between the old and the new — and in most of these cities, the Theravada Buddhist tradition provides a (usually) progressive socio-cultural heartbeat. Remarkably, the tension between the old and the new is not present in Singapore. Given its small size and the vision of its founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore is a gleaming testament to modernity without the baggage of the past.

Raffles Hotel - (main building completed in 1899)

Raffles Hotel – (main building completed in 1899)

Singapore does contain remnants of the colonial era as evidenced in the hillside residential quarters, the Raffles Hotel, and in old government buildings. There are also certainly economic disparities between newly arrived immigrants and the established majority population which consists of Malay people who have mixed with the descendants of Chinese merchants and traders — many of whom decided to remain in the area after the Great Wall was built and sealed off their overland return to China. Singapore also has many distinct religio-ethnic quarters such as Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and even has its own Chinatown. I was able to walk to the Chinatown district from the city centre of Singapore and saw some interesting Tao-Buddhist temples. As I walked further into the Chinatown area, I came across a sparkling building. It was four-stories tall and perfect in its design and symmetry. This was the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple which had just opened one year earlier. The temple had been built by contributions and endowments from prominent Singaporeans and Chinese Buddhists and it contained a tooth relic said to have belonged to the Buddha which had originally been enshrined inside a pagoda in Burma. Similar to the sad fate of other pagodas in Burma [see post: Bones of Reverence at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-qv], this unfortunate pagoda was destroyed by a WWII bombing raid and found in its ruins was a small reliquary containing the tooth relic.

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple - Singapore

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple – Singapore

The relic was thereafter kept in the care of the Burmese sangha for decades until it was brought to Singapore. In contrast to its arresting exterior, the inside of the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple seems a bit too museum-like and artificial — not much mystery. On the 4th floor of the temple, one can see a gold 2-meter high stupa where the tooth is kept [no photos are allowed inside the temple].  I was happy to have found the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple while in Singapore, but it brought to mind no comparison at all to the history, majesty, and spiritual power of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka [see post: Ecce Dens (Behold the Tooth) at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-kB].

Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya - Temple of 1,000 Lights

Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya @ Temple of 1000 Lights – Singapore

Another Buddhist sight of a note in Singapore is the Thai-influenced Temple of 1000 Lights. This temple was built in 1932 and contains a large (15m high/300 tonnes) seated Buddha. As recounted in my previous post [see post: Remains of the Wat-age at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-F6], the features of this large Buddha are strikingly reminiscent of those of the Standing Buddha of Wat Intharawihan in Bangkok. The 2 faces are like mirrors of one another — although constructed out of different materials and built over 3 centuries apart.

Christ Church (built in 1753) - Melaka, Malaysia

Christ Church (built by Dutch in 1753) – Melaka, Malaysia

From Singapore, I hopped on a bus north to Melaka in Malaysia. Melaka — like Goa, Galle, and Macau — is a former Portuguese (later Dutch, then British) colonial enclave in Asia. The food and people there have a mixed ancestry and the old colonial center is bathed in roseate colors which pop out. The passageway of ocean that lays in front of the town is called the Strait of Malacca which is one of the busiest trade waterways in the world — and full of piracy. After a day’s worth of exploring the town, it was time for me to get to the capital. KL is a bustling, fun metropolis — not quite on par with all the efficiencies of Singapore, but gaining traction each day and also not as sterile. In contrast to the secular nature of Singapore, KL is the capital of Muslim-majority Malaysia. The skyline is dominated by the minaret-capped Petronas Towers and the KL Menara (Tower).  I began in the old city center — Merdeka Square — and strolled towards KL’s Chinatown district where I walked along a major street called Medan Pasar.  Along this road stands a small group of 5 or so weathered early 20th century buildings — out of place with the rest of the area given their coloring and Victorian-influenced design, but there is something organic about them — as if they could belong nowhere else.

Sri Maha Mariamman - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (2008)

Sri Maha Mariamman – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (2008)

After continuing south in this area for about 10 minutes, I stopped and looked across the street at the Sri Maha Mariamman. This is the oldest Hindu temple in KL and dates back to 1873. Its front entry has a 5-tiered tower that is 23m (75ft) high and filled with all sorts of colorful Hindu deities which look to be climbing all over one another and clamoring for attention. This temple is dedicated to the Hindu goddess Mariamman who is venerated as the protector of Hindus during their travels in foreign lands. But, the temple also serves as the launching off point for the annual “Thaipusam” festival and procession that began in KL in 1892. It originated with those Hindus — mostly from the Tamil state in India — who the British had brought to Malaysia as indentured servants to provide the workforce that built the roads, buildings, and homes throughout the British imperial realm.

Entry Gate to Batu Caves

Entry Gate to Batu Caves – 15km outside KL

“Thaipusam” comes from the combination of the Tamil word “Thai” which is the time of year that corresponds to January/early February (when the festival takes place) and “Pusam” which is the name of a star that is at its highest point in the sky during that time. The focus of the festival is Lord Murugan (a son of Lord Shiva) and it allows the faithful to both physically and spiritually re-enact and remember the moment when Murugan was given a special spear by his mother (Parvati), so he could defeat an evil demon.

Lord Muruga Statue and stairway into Batu Caves

Lord Murugan Statue and stairway up to Batu Caves

Inside Sri Maha Mariamman is a silver chariot which is used to carry statues of Lord Murugan and his 2 consorts through the streets of KL all the way to the Batu Caves — which are about 15km outside of the city. The devout follow the chariot and pierce their torsos with crescent-shaped metallic objects while carrying heavy containers of milk on their shoulders or by hand. This milk is then poured as offerings made at the shrines found inside the Batu Caves.

Step 211 - getting there...

Step 211 – getting there…

Thaipusam is a festival that smacks of pain above all else. It is extremely punishing and long (lasting up to 8-hours), and because it was designed for the specific purpose of worshipping the super-masculine traits of Lord Murugan, the displays of strength and endurance are integral and cannot be shirked. I had to take a local bus from the temple to the Batu Caves which appeared before me like an unnatural monolith soon after the urban sprawl of KL had faded. After passing through the entry gate, the first thing I saw was the giant statue of Lord Murugan and at 43m (140ft) high it is the world’s tallest statue of him. To the left of the statue is a wide staircase consisting of 272-steps — each step is numbered so the faithful know exactly where they are as they put one foot carefully in front of the other while nearing the end of their difficult march.

Inside main chamber - Batu Caves

Inside main chamber – Batu Caves

Needless to say, many people pass-out or collapse on these stairs during Thaipusam. So, there are many medics and ambulances ready to whisk away the afflicted or injured. The Batu Caves are like a limestone amphitheater with prowling monkeys and eye-catching statues sitting in crevices and outcrops of the Caves.

Ganesha, Vishnu, Shiva, Muruga, Nandi

Hindu Holy Family: Ganesha, Shiva, Parvati & Murugan with Shiva’s Nandi (Bull)

The nerve-center and focal point of the Caves is the shrine containing the “murti” of Lord Murugan – which is  considered by Hindus as the literal embodiment of the divine spirit of Murugan himself. This small image — made of silver and adorned with garlands — was consecrated over a 100 years ago. Even though I visited the Caves when the Thaipusam festival was not taking place, I still had to maneuver through a ravenous pack of pushers and shovers  — each vying for a look at the murti.  I tunneled my way through the throng, got close, and raised my camera above the rest in order to take a photo.

Murti of Lord Muruga

Murti of Lord Murugan – Batu Caves

Jockeying for position amidst the crowd made for a not so steady hand when snapping the pic. Besides, my legs were still wobbly from the walk up all those stairs. I could not fathom the stamina and steely resolve necessary to complete the procession during Thaipusam. An uninterrupted, 8-hour march with one’s flesh flayed like a fish and bleeding — all the while having to carry heavy jugs of milk?!?! AND THEN, the pay-off for having made the 15km walk is facing 272-steps of vertiginous torture?! Even if I were to be ensnared by the pageantry of the festival and motivated by the fervor of the faithful around me, I don’t think I would be able to complete this rite. So, my only photo of the murti of Lord Murugan came out a bit shaky — O, me of little faith.

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