How Hindu Statue, Temple Became Emblems Of Pluralism In Malaysia

Murugan’s statue and temple at Batu Caves are key emblems of multiculturalism and pluralism in Muslim-majority Malaysia, where Indians (eighth percent) are the third largest ethnic group

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Batu Caves, a major tourist attraction outside the Malaysian capital of Kaula Lumpur in Selangor, were little-known except to the locals until American naturalist William Temple Hornaday came to know about them during a hunting trip in 1878. Hornaday drew the attention of western archaeologists to the hitherto obscure but important site. He discovered the locals would catch bats in the caves within a limestone outcropping dating back to prehistoric times, and retreat into them when wild animals overran the woods. The caves’ popularity grew after British explorers found aboriginal drawings made of charcoal, which have since disappeared, at their entrance.

Over a century and a half after Hornaday popularised the Batu Caves, they are better known for a Hindu temple built there in 1891 and the 140-feet high gold-painted statue of the chief Tamil deity Murugan. The world’s largest Murugan statue and sixth tallest Hindu sculpture is located near the base of a 272-step flight to the entrance to the largest of the Batu Caves, where Tamil trader K Thamboosamy Pillay built the temple. Pillay chose the site to build the temple after finding a similarity between the shape of the entrance of the caves to the tip of vel, the spear Murugan wielded. He is said to have dreamt of the Hindu Goddess Sakti requesting him to build the shrine for her son, Murugan.

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In 1888, Pillay placed a vel before a consecrated idol of Murugan was installed at Batu Caves. The Thaipusam festival, commemorating Murugan’s victory over the demon Surapadman with his vel and the deity’s birth, was first celebrated at Batu Caves in 1892. The Hindus continued praying there until the British rulers stopped the prayers in 1916 and ordered the vel’s removal. The vel was reinstalled and the Hindus were allowed to resume prayers at Batu Caves after a court ruled in their favour.

Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Malaysian prime minister after independence, visited Batu Caves during Thaipusam in 1959. His successor Tun Abdul Razak Hussein followed suit in 1971 to recognise Thaipusam as a national festival. When Tun Hussein Onn, Malaysia’s third prime minister, visited the shrine in 1978, he advised the temple management to take legal action against the companies involved in quarrying activities at Batu Caves. The quarrying continued until Indian-origin Datuk Seri S Samy Vellu became Malaysia’s works minister. Vellu ordered an end to the quarrying activities and relocated them to an alternative site with the help of the Selangor state government. 

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Murugan’s statue, the centrepiece at the site, was added at the foot of the stairs to the caves in 2006 as the world’s tallest statue of the Hindu deity in Muslim-majority Malaysia. One of the caves lined at the site with dioramas, representing scenes from the Hindu epic Ramayana, is known as Ramayana Cave. The cave’s entrance is marked with a statue of Lord Hanuman, one of the heroes of the epic. 

Hundreds of thousands of Hindu pilgrims annually visit the site. The main celebrations of Thaipusam in Malaysia are held at the Batu Caves. Hindu devotees from all over the country, carrying kavadis or symbolic burdens including body piercings, pay annual homage to Lord Murugan after climbing the 272 steps to his temple.

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Murugan’s statue and Hindu shrine at Batu Caves are key emblems of multiculturalism and pluralism in Malaysia, where Indians (eighth percent) are the third largest ethnic group after the majority Malays and the Chinese (26 percent), the dominant economic force. Tamils account for a bulk of the Indians, mostly Hindus, in the country—81 percent—numbering about 1.5 million. They trace their roots to the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and began arriving in the region in the 15th century mostly as textile and spice traders. The British rule in Malaysia accelerated their migration in the 18th century when Tamil labourers were brought to the region to build roads, and railways and to work on plantations. Other Indians in Malaysia include a sprinkling of Sindhis, Bengalis, Telugus, Gujaratis, and Malayalis.

Malaysian Indians, who otherwise lag behind other communities, have risen and held key positions in the country. They have served in the Malaysia Cabinet since independence with Vellu being one of the longest-serving ministers from 1979 to 2008. Vellu was appointed as the special envoy on infrastructure to India and South Asia after demitting office. Gobind Singh Deo became Malaysia’s first Sikh Cabinet minister when he was named as the communications and multimedia minister in Mahathir Mohamad’s government in 2018.

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Kulasegaran Murugeson (human resources) and Xavier Jayakumar (water, land, and natural resources), Waytha Moorthy Ponnusamy (national unity and social well-being), and Sivarasa Rasiah were other ministers of Indian origin to serve in Mahathir’s seventh Cabinet. Saravanan Murugan, another Indian-origin minister, succeeded Murugeson as the human resources minister in 2020. Edmund Santhara Kumar Ramanaidu is the second minister of Indian origin in the current Prime Minister Muhyiddin bin Mohamad Yassin’s government.

Tunku Abdul Rahman-led Malaysian ruling alliance set the tone for an inclusive system in the country. He ensured representation to all ethnic communities including Indians as nation-building overshadowed divisions. His rule coincided with harmony and political freedoms in the country, where the Constitution’s Article 3 guarantees the freedom of religion. Rahman’s United Malays National Organisation worked with Chinese and Indian political parties and formed a national coalition, which later expanded and was renamed National Front (Barisan Nasional, or BN). The interethnic coalition, which included the Malaysian Indian Congress, governed the country from 1957 to 2018 when BN, which delivered robust economic growth, lost power for the first time.

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There was a rupture in Malaysia after 1969 when the alliance lost its two-thirds majority in parliament for the first time. The racial riots and the 18-month emergency rule that followed led to a rise in Malay nationalism. In 1971, the government launched New Economic Policy as an affirmative action plan favouring Malays as the democratic space narrowed and sparked ethnic tensions. Over a decade later the Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Sikhism was established in 1983 to promote harmony among Malaysians. There have since been efforts to address Malaysia’s polarisation and to adopt an inclusive Malaysian national identity with civil society groups playing a key role in bridging differences through dialogues among different faiths and ethnic groups. 

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Indonesia: Beacon Of Hope In Times Of Bigotry 

The Indonesian state promotes the coexistence and diversity needed to keep together a country of multiple languages, geographies, and faiths

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country and home to 12.7 percent of Muslims globally.

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

From a backwater to one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, Indonesia’s westernmost Island of Bali has come a long way over the last four decades. It is also no longer just a beach destination for around 20 million tourists, who visit the island annually. Bali has emerged as a lifestyle destination; a gourmet getaway with an array of gastronomic delights. Babi guling, traditionally served on special occasions such as weddings, is among the most sought-after dishes at open-air restaurants dotting Bali. Literally meaning ‘turning pig’, babi guling is the roasted suckling pig dish made with garlic, ginger, and turmeric. Tender and juicy, the delicacy is cooked on a hand-turned skewer over the fire.

Foodies relishing the pork dish is a rare sight in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country and home to 12.7 percent of Muslims globally. Pork is forbidden in Islam and Muslims consider pigs unclean. But Muslim dietary restrictions are not applicable in Bali, a Hindu enclave. Hindus account for Indonesia’s two percent population. Around 90 percent of them or around 3.4 million Hindus are concentrated in Bali. Virtually every street has a temple dedicated to Hindu gods in Bali, which is among Indonesia’s most developed parts with just under five percent of the people below the poverty line compared to 12 percent nationally.

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The world’s tallest Hindu statue of the God Vishnu sitting astride the mythical bird Garuda, said to be his companion and vessel, is also located in Bali and is one of the region’s centrepieces. The 75m high sculpture is known as Garuda Vishnu Kencana. Atop Ungasan Hill in the Garuda Vishnu Kencana Cultural Park, it is the world’s largest copper statue and the third tallest. With a wingspan of 65m, it stands on a pedestal, making its total height (121m) 30m taller than the Statue of Liberty. The statue showcases Vishnu, who is believed to be the preserver and protector of the universal equilibrium, in a meditative state, riding on Garuda’s back with his eyes half closed. 

President Joko Widodo inaugurated the sculpture in September 2018 at a gathering of thousands of people including the country’s top leaders and one of his predecessors, Megawati Soekarnoputri. Traditional dancers performed and fireworks lit up the night sky in a grand celebration of Indonesian multi-culturalism at the inauguration ceremony of the statue. Widodo, in his address at the event, called the statue a masterpiece and a source of Indonesia’s pride. He said the statue shows his country has not only inherited extraordinary masterpieces such as ninth-century Buddhist temple complex Borobudur and Hindu temple complex Prambanan. Widodi said they are capable of creating cultural masterpieces such as Garuda Vishnu Kencana. He called the statue, which took over 28 years for its completion, a historical footprint of Indonesia.

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Hindus in Indonesia also include converts who adopted Hinduism in the 1960s and 1970s on the neighbouring Java island and over 100,000-strong Indian Hindu diaspora community, mostly Tamils and Sindhis, in places such as the capital Jakarta and Sumatra’s Medan. In the Muslim-majority island of Lombok, both Hindus and Muslims, adhering to the Waktu Telu tradition, pray at the Pura Lingsar Temple complex. Built in 1714, the complex nestled in rice fields is a multi-denominational site for Hindus and the followers of Waktu Telu and includes a lily-covered pond devoted to Lord Vishnu.

Indonesia, where the national airline Garuda is named after the Hindu god Vishnu’s vehicle and the country’s currency notes carry another deity Ganesh’s picture, promotes the coexistence and diversity needed to keep together a country of multiple languages, geographies, and faiths. Its moderate and syncretic approach to religion complements its belief in Islam. The ceremony for the installation of a white and gold statue of Saraswati, the Hindu Goddess of learning and wisdom, to honour the country’s Hindu population on the premises of the Indonesian embassy in Washington in 2013 illustrated this. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono presided over the ceremony on the Jewish New Year. He made blessings of Saraswati ‘in the name of Allah, the most benevolent,’ and spoke about religious tolerance. 

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Hindus account for Indonesia’s two percent population with around 90 percent of them or around 3.4 million Hindus concentrated in Bali. Alamy Stock Photo

Yudhoyono also participated in the ceremony for the statute’s purification. Mayor Anak Agung Gde Agung from Bali’s Badung and the sculptors of the statue performed the ritual for it. They burnt incense and offered palm leaves and fruits to the deity. The holy water needed for the ritual was transported on Yudhoyono’s plane from Bali to avoid restrictions on carrying liquids on regular flights. Agung sprinkled the statue at the ceremony, where Yudhoyono underlined Islam as a religion of peace while denouncing the so-called Islamic State and calling for ‘more love, tolerance, and knowledge.’

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Dino Patti Djalal, the then Indonesian Ambassador to the US, told news website that the 16-feet high statue atop a lotus in front of the embassy of the country with the largest Muslim population says a lot about the religious freedom in Indonesia. Sculptors were flown from Bali to carve the statue on-site of the goddess worshipped on Basant Panchami as the embodiment of learning. Yellow is Saraswati’s favourite colour. Basant Panchami is celebrated at the onset of spring when yellow flowers of the mustard crop bloom.

Basant Panchami is celebrated as Hari Raya Saraswati (the great day of Saraswati) in Bali, marking the beginning of the Pawukon calendar. Prayers are organised at homes, educational institutions, and public places to mark the festival. Teachers and students dressed in brightly coloured clothes carry cakes and fruits to schools for temple offerings. 

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The installation of the statue was not decided on religious grounds alone but more for what it symbolised. The Hindu goddesses represent education, creativity, and music. A swan and a peacock flanking Saraswati represent beauty and pride sans ego and vanity. Saraswati idol holds a book depicting learning. A stringed instrument (veena) of the goddess represents the harmonising of mind and body. Prayer beads of Saraswati depict spiritual knowledge. Saraswati represents simplicity and elegance. She is depicted wearing a white dress representing knowledge for overcoming darkness and ignorance.

The statue was installed over a decade and a half after the 9/11 attacks globally sparked a virulent form of Islamophobia. Indonesia remains a beacon of hope as state-sponsored bigotry tears apart large parts of the world with Muslims being mostly at its receiving end. The statue is among its best reminders. Djalal told that the goal of installing it was to have the sculpture as a symbol of religious tolerance. Busts of national heroes and flags otherwise adorn the embassies in Washington’s Embassy Row. Sculptures of Winston Churchill, the UK’s Prime Minister in the 1940s, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish secular republic, and Mahatma Gandhi, in loincloth and sandals, adorn the British, Turkish, and Indian missions nearby.

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At the Saraswati statue installation ceremony, long sleeve blouses and headscarves of observant Muslims contrasted with the brightly colored strapless and tight sarongs of Balinese dancers at the event. In its report on the ceremony, the Huffington Post noted this and added that there were some moments during the celebration, where the faiths abutted but did not clash, and in essence summed up what Indonesia is about.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Budapest: City Of Belonging In Bookshops, Longing

We kept discovering bookstores often returning for the memories they carried of a lost world

The Hungarian Parliament and the Chains Bridge in Budapest at sunset. Getty Images

By Anwesha Rana

In October 2018, my friend SB, a travel companion and observer extraordinaire, and I managed to make a longish travel plan by the standards of millennials such as us. The plan was essentially about roaming across three countries on a tight budget. We were happy to forego the comfort of renowned airlines and the luxury of European hotels. The money saved, we agreed without arguments, would be better spent on the cost of tickets to museums, eating seven times a day just because we wanted to, and buying countless things we decided at a glance were made for this friend of ours or that.

We travelled from New Delhi to Vienna via Kyiv and then moved to Budapest and Bratislava. Our experiences in each city were intriguing but Budapest captivated me. Budapest is a city of belonging in bookshops and longing reflected in what Yurii Andrukhovych wrote in ‘Nothing but Budapest’:

I could even wash the locomotives at Keleti station – just to be nearer Buda with her green hills. Not to say a word to sit and listen, as everyone around me talks about something in Hungarian.

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My good friend AD, now a seasoned traveller in Europe, always insisted Budapest is the most beautiful of European cities and that I would certainly appreciate it as much as he does. Having been enchanted beyond measure by London, which was the first city I had seen away from my own country, I was wary of his claim. Could anything surpass the beauty of London? AD, wizening under the European sun for years, was right once again. Travelling in Budapest captured my mind inextricably and I have been planning to revisit its comfort from the moment we left it.

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The beauty of Budapest lies in its casual and at once intense embrace of the scores of bookshops and makeshift bookstalls scattered across the city. I have learnt from my father to read and understand a city through its bookstores and habits of reading. Budapest has stores, shops, carts, and other interesting kinds of temporary stalls to sell books. The charm is furthered once you look around deeper within the narrow lanes in an old shop and discover dusty shelves stocked with old photographs, postcards, and maps from the Soviet era.

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We walked around the city on all days we were there and kept discovering more bookstores each day, often returning to the same one because of a particular scent it had, or for the memories it carried of a lost world. These shops and carts carry books old and new, small and large; ancient greeting cards, sometimes even keepsakes, all placed together in jumbles and mostly in no particular order.

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There are Hungarian translations of all kinds of books–from Harry Potter to Balzac to Roald Dahl, even Bridget Jones! In these stores, the books and memorabilia come together to form a curiously lovely smell–one that warms both your body and your soul and is so insistently inviting that you want to nestle into a corner and never leave the comfort they offer.

We stumbled upon a number of books from Soviet publishing, and despite some of them being in Hungarian, we could not resist buying them for the compelling sake of history and the need to relearn a lost world order. We stuffed our bags with all books on Hungarian folktales, history, and poems by Hungarian poets.

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There is much to learn from spending time in these corners of the city. The lane of our hostel housed a bookstore–Atlantisz Könyvsziget–complete with beautiful Hungarian artwork postcards, stationery, and prints, besides a spellbinding collection of books. This store became more interesting to us once we had a conversation with the staff managing it.

We were intrigued by a poster on the wall that said the bookstore encourages reading and studying translated works and books in English, and that should readers want a particular book, they only had to place a request for it and Atlantisz would have it brought to them, even if it included costs of post and shipping, which Atlantisz would bear. In a cynical world, there are few things that bring hope and joy. I felt this was one such. A bookstore willing to bring you any book you want, for no reason other than the fact that you want to read it, is nothing if not astoundingly sincere.