There is a saying that goes, “Kovil illathe ooruleh kudi iruka koodathu.” It means one should not occupy an area that doesn’t have a temple. I am afraid that Malaysians of Indian descent who are Hindus have been adhering to the adage above too closely, losing sight of what’s really important. It resulted in a glut of temples, which are mismanaged, dilapidated and mostly, needless.
In India, the matters of temples are different – they preserve the temples built in ancient times, not build new temples in every nook and cranny. If they are building new temples, those are temples dedicated to politicians, matinee idols, politicians and actresses.
Even if they are building new temples, them lots in India number up to 1 billion and although India is secular, Hindus make up the majority. Going by the sheer numbers and statistics, they can afford it. We, on the other hand, neither have the numbers nor the capacity to upkeep numerous temples – we make up only 8% of the Malaysian population but have the most places of worship in ratio.
There are Hindu temples built along highways, below robust neem or mango trees and even beside drains. In the area where I live itself, there are 4 mini Hindu temples, scattered here and there as opposed to 1 Buddhist temple and 1 mosque and 2 surau. All four temples are in bad condition and cyclic kovil vasool are conducted. And, I didn’t include temples built in home extensions in the perimeter of where I live.
Are that many temples necessary now?
Let’s rewind a bit and get a glimpse on our arrival here, our forefathers’ arrival in Malaya and how temples have been integral to their lives as per the saying, “Kovil illathe ooruleh kudi irukathu.”
Malaysia is one of the earliest places Indians migrated or were forced to ‘migrate’ in colonial times, the majority of them being South Indians, particularly from Tamil Nadu. Tamils have a saying “kallile kalai vannam kandar.” They see arts in stones and it is their habit to build statues and temples wherever they go. Their British “masters” who brought them here needed a way to let them live as they wanted, as in build temples to their whims to keep them here and work for them. Due to improper regulations in those days to build such places of worships, people just built those places at random.
So, we are left with many temples in estates bequeathed to us by our forefathers but we can’t seem to stop building more and more temples, wherever we see fit and it is at this point where temples lose their significance. We don’t need more temples and it is as clear as day. It’s just that we don’t want to admit it in fear of being blasphemous. This topic is a topic to broach indeed. That is also why we readily give when kovil vasool roundups are made – we fear that if we don’t give, it would become a deiva kuttham. We are indeed a god fearing bunch but MIC goons don’t seem to fear god’s retribution when they swindle the money allocated for Tamil schools. Belakang kira kot.. They’ll cross the bridge when they come to it I suppose. The way I see it, we should stop giving money to temples and start giving money to Tamil schools. But, that’s a topic for another day.
How Indian Hindu diaspora in other countries manage and use temples
The United States have a significant number of Hindu Non Resident Indians, Permanent Residents and citizens and they number 3.18 million. We have less than 2 million Indians, including those who are Christians and Muslims in Malaysia but we have over Hindu 33,000 temples. Indians in US and temples are tax exempt ‘business.’
In the US, Hindu temples are considered as community centers where the premises are used to teach Mahabaratham, Ramayanam etc. Languages such as Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, Gujarati and so on are taught in language classes within the temples to children and adults alike. Arts such as barathanatyam, kuchipudi, kathak, odissi are taught in temples as well as classes teaching the playing of traditional music instruments such as tabla, flute, veenai etc are conducted. Religious classes promulgating Hindu shastras and slokas, purans, Upanishad Hinduism, stories etc are held. Then they have competitions, activities, library, hall, room to practice mantras and so many things. I mean it will be a place that you gain knowledge about Hinduism, life, language, art, and make new friends.
Compare that to Malaysia and we have temples that don’t have proper parking lots, built in the size of my toilet, dotted here and there, under trees, beside drains, at home extensions, poorly maintained, no proper management and organization, no hall, no resource center and not enough space to conduct religious classes or any other beneficial activity. Even the priests themselves are underpaid and overworked and have no idea on the meaning of the mantra they mumble.
The reality of Hindu temples in Malaysia
It won’t be fallacious to say that temples in Malaysia have become a place to eat free food, start a fight, check out chicks, flirt with aunties, compare sarees, and all other useless shit. Temples in Malaysia are not building any unity or understanding anymore. A temple which should be a center of knowledge, identity and community development is now just a place to lepak when there is free food. Temples here have become entertainment hubs instead of religious and educational institutions.
And, given the surplus of temples, mushrooming where there are a concentration of Indians only make matters worse. If we see churches and mosques here, they operate the way Hindu temples in America, as I have described above, operate. They double up as community centers and places of worship.
The constructing of Hindu temples here had gone out of control, with temples being built at every corners/inside the housing compartments and the temples have become a place for making money, them offering cult like services which are all round dubious and almost spurious and nefarious. Many of such mini temples are built on illegal land and nearly every day there are issues of such temples being demolished and that stir up hues and cries here, on allegations that religious freedom is being curtailed.
What can be done to salvage the temples situation
We don’t need more temples; we need to use the ones already existing to extend some usefulness not only for the Indian Hindu community but also communicate our culture and customs to other races here.The tiny, tiny temples are of no much use if you ask me – the scenario only divides Hindus here further.
Instead of erecting one temple for each estate or residential area and mini temples under trees or in plantation areas and other unlikely and could be unlawful sites and spending much valued money in maintaining the buildings, use the existing temples as operational hives for beneficial activities besides fulfilling one’s spiritual needs. This way, decadence in the Indian community can be doctored to say the least.
Going by Malaysian fold, a part of a temple can be converted into a library, free tuition for those children who can’t afford tuition fees can be conducted as well as fundraising events for Tamil schools reconstruction so that our children in Tamil school can enjoy conducive learning environment, organise motivational speeches on weekends, hold sporting events for youths and make those activities available not only for Hindu Indians but for all Malaysians, regardless of race and religion. These type of activities need space and amenities – they cannot be conducted at temples under trees and beside the roads. They only can be conducted in big, spacious temples which already exist.
The operators of the mini temples are not well heeled – in fact, they belong to lower middle class and they struggle like anything to maintain those temples, running on low, relying on kovil vasool. As a result, the temples are rickety and rest on squalor. Hinduism has 333 million gods but that doesn’t mean we have to build temples for all of them. Those mini temples are better off non existent I’d say. Instead, that money used for maintaining the temples can be collectively collected on a monthly basis and used to ferry those who don’t have transportation to major, well established temples in major areas, in towns and city centers say every Friday evening and weekends to attend religious, community and educational activities in the aforementioned spacious, already existing temples, the way churches do. All we need is a little route planning, vehicle acquisition and organization. A marginal transportation fee can also be collected if the money isn’t sufficient. Isn’t this a more effective way to gather our community to be more effectively spiritual and wholesome worldly wise too?
To those saying such activities in temples are sacrilegious, I have another saying for you. Makkal sevai, Mahesan sevai, which means service to people is akin to service to god.
The challenges to overcome for the sake of temples and the Malaysian Hindu community
One might argue that unlike other countries Malaysia is one of the countries where mostly Tamil and Hindu Indians migrated and comparing Indians here with those of other countries with proper regulations and enforcement might be not that of a good idea. (I am referring to my comparison of temples in India and the United States above) We can either keep making excuses and turn a blind eye or we can pick ourselves up and cut us a new path to progression. We need to keep up with times and preserve our ethos and disseminate them by harnessing new ways and apply paradigm shifts to benefit and stay relevant.
Race and religious issues have long been our government’s trump card to fan prejudice among Malaysians of different descents and religions and most of us are super sensitive to religious issues. Temples and Tamil school are the ace up the sleeve of certain Indian political parties here. That is the tool for their political survival and that tool is well worn due to liberal usage. Our politicians don’t have the political will to organize temples at both macro and micromanagement levels, hence this status quo of temples here.
Malaysia Hindu Sangam is responsible to regulate the buildings of temples here but the organization doesn’t play its role effectively. It’s existence seems to be just titular – a namesake. Maybe they have guidelines and maybe the temples don’t abide by those guidelines and regulations due to lack or nonexistent enforcement. Temple issues is literally the aforementioned political parties’ political survival and they, by no means are gonna commit political suicide by regulating and monitoring and officiating the flux of the building and the consequent and subsequent demolishing of temples.
But, conversely and in the most welcome and long overdue way, Malaysia Hindu Sangam has upped its ante early this year, coming up with temple building regulations like this one for Thaipusam. Malaysia Hindu Sangam has its work cut out for it indeed.
Better late then never for Hindu Sangam but that doesn’t mean we, the ordinary people abandon the cause of temples completely, relying solely on Malaysia Hindu Sangam. We should take some matters into our own hands in support of the Hindu Sangam. Temple management, please take some actions to make your place beneficial to the community and educate the next generation and thwart building a surplus of temples. Temples, existent and major ones are the only places where you can gather all Indian community in Malaysia because machas wont even go to Tamil schools anymore. When you have such responsibilities, why are you wasting it on unnecessary mini temples add on, kambing sembelih and chicken curry?