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