Monday, September 25

A meaningful restoration


FROM June 3 to 5, all eyes will be on the few thousand strong community of Hindu believers in Sarawak as they celebrate a most significant occasion – the Maha Kumba Ahbi Segam (or Most Holy Consecration Ceremony) of the Mount Matang Sri Maha Marimamman temple.

NEARING COMPLETION: Sasindran Nair standing in front of the Sri Munisperan shrine at the foothills of Mt. Matang. The shrine combines both local and traditional Indian aesthetics with the brightly coloured statue reflecting more towards the latter while the shrine itself is painted in more subdued colours.

Sasindran Nair, chairman of the temple as well as vice president of the Hindu Temple Association of Kuching, has been busy fielding enquiries from as far as West Malaysia from people interested to attend and participate in the event.

Not only will the ceremony herald the restoration of an important place of worship for the local Hindu community but also the return of an important piece of the state’s history.

Humble beginnings

Standing majestically on the slopes of Mt Matang with a beautiful panoramic view of the plains and jungle below, the approximately 150-year-old Sri Maha Mariamman temple is the earliest known Hindu temple in Sarawak.

The temple was built in the 1860s by tea plantation workers from India and Sri Lanka during the rule of Sir Charles Brooke, the Second White Rajah of Sarawak.

It is thought to be the only Hindu temple in Southeast Asia, dedicated to the goddess Sri Maha Mariamman which is built of belian (ironwood).

During the plantation’s peak, there were about 1,000 ethnic Indians working there, making this the first known major Indian settlement in Sarawak.

The plantation closed down for unknown reasons in 1912 and workers were given a choice of moving to Kuching or returning to their homelands. Many opted for the latter option but about 100 to 200 of them decided to stay in Sarawak and adopt it as their new home.

People forgot about the temple’s existence over the next 50 years until it wasrediscovered by chance – some would say by divine fate – in 1967.

A villager from a nearby Javanese-Melanau village stumbled across the structure during a hunting excursion. He managed to send word of the find to the Indian community in Kuching who quickly made their way to the site.

The dismal sight which greeted their eyes was of a building covered in jungle creepers, run down from decades of neglect and unchecked exposure to the unrelenting forces of nature.

Sasindran recalled there were even trees growing through the roof.

The close-knit community set about restoring the temple as best as they could, removing jungle over-and undergrowth, from in and around the building and clearing the path leading to the temple.

The first restoration started around 1970 followed by additional minor work in the late 1980s which involved cement being airlifted into the area.

However, it was only in 2007 when the current restoration works started. It is the most extensive effort to date, involving the construction of two shrines and reworking of most, if not all, of the existing temple structure and its compound.

Even though most of the old temple structure has been replaced, the extensive use of belian wood, a central feature of the old temple, has been incorporated into the new structure.

The temple restoration committee managed to secure approval from the Forestry Department to chop down four belian trees to build the temple.

Craftsmen from India were brought in to carve intricate patterns on belian doors, walls, pillars and furnishings of the temple and fashion statues and motifs bearing elaborate details.

Four years later, the restoration and reconstruction work is almost complete.

Sasindran is confident they are on schedule to finish by mid-May as only minor details and painting remain to be done.

For the time being, there is a makeshift temple on site for pilgrims and devotees to worship. The temple also hosts relics recovered from the old temple, including bronze and wooden religious artefacts.

From the foothills

It takes roughly an hour of walking at a moderate pace along the rough but scenic 3km path to reach the main temple site from the base of the mountain.

The current restoration also includes the construction of two shrines which visitors and pilgrims will pass by on the way up the mountain to the main temple site. All materials to build the temple and the two shrines were sourced locally.

The first shrine is the Sri Munisperan Shrine at the foothills of Mt Matang. It will host the guardian deity of the same name.

Sasindra said this site will also have a small shrine for the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha as Hindus believe he is the first god they should pay their respects to before beginning a trip or pilgrimage.

The shrine costs between RM70,000 and RM80,000 to construct with a significant portion coming from a single donor.

According to Sasindran, the donation was made by a local Chinese businessman as a token of his gratitude after experiencing much good luck following a visit to the Sri Maha Mariamman temple.

Other donations were also received in the form of construction materials, including tiles from a local corporation.

The second shrine which will host the guardian deity Jada Munir, lies about 2km up the mountain side, in a small, picturesque clearing ringed by towering trees.

The only movement to be seen is a handwritten “No Entry” sign swaying gently in the warm afternoon breeze as it hangs on a branch between two pillars.

Even though painting work has yet to start, the sculpted works on the temple’s walls and pillars give passers-by enough reason to stop and admire the meticulous details.

Running parallel past the temple, a small earthen path leads to Vallembrosa, a bungalow retreat, built by Charles Brooke and his wife within the tea estate.

According to Sasindran, only an outline of where the bungalow structure used to stand can be seen now as the rest of the building has disintegrated away.

Sasindran explained that a Hindu temple must perform the Maha Kumba Ahbi Segam ceremony once every 12 years as it is believed to help re-energise the temple.

The ceremony is expected to be a large affair with more than 500 local Hindu devotees expected to attend and a number of devotees from West Malaysia already confirming their attendance.

For the ceremony, the committee plans to bring in a team of Brahmin cooks, 11 priests and seven musicians

The ceremony and temple restoration committees as well as a host of volunteers and devotees have worked tirelessly over the years to make this temple a source of pride for the local Hindu and Indian communities.

Among the many unique features of the temple will be a custom-made wooden chariot weighing about 3.5 tonnes (without the base) which will be used to carry a bronze statue of the goddess Sri Maha Marimamman during religious processions.

The project to create the chariot was initiated by one of the advisors for the temple and managed to be realised with the support of the temple’s Indian and Chinese devotees.

This is just one of many examples how the generosity of devotees, well-wishers and other members of the public have helped bring about the restoration of one of Sarawak’s most historical sites.

Sasindran believes once the temple is completed it will become a prominent historical and tourism attraction for Sarawak.

The climax of the Maha Kumba Ahbi Segam will take place on the third and final day when the various deities are installed in their respective places.

“According to Hindu beliefs, one of the greatest blessings one can get is to attend a Kumba Segam ceremony,” Sasindran explained.

“Because not everyone will have the opportunity to attend, people will try to attend as many as they can in their lifetime.

“When they start installing all the deities, they’ll start sprinkling the holy water, and if you are also sprinkled with the water, you will be blessed.”

The grand consecration ceremony will be followed by the Mandalaya Ahbi Segam or 48 days of continuous prayers, complete with temple musicians. Individual devotees or groups can choose to sponsor each day of prayer for RM1,100 per day.

Much more required

Despite how far the temple’s restoration has come, much work remains to be done – all of which requires a huge amount of financial commitment.

Future expansion plans for the temple site include improving the visitors’ lodge, constructing a small library and building a meditation centre which will be open to everyone with no restrictions on religion.

Sasindran said rather than focus on ritual practices, the overall objective in mind is to provide an environment for wholesome spiritual development.

The condition of the road leading to the temple also needs attention as it is quite narrow and passes quite close to the edge of the mountain in places.

But for now, restoration of the main temple structure and its immediate compound is the main priority.

So far, RM550,000 has been collected and spent on the restoration but Sasindran estimates about RM200,000 is still needed to complete various works as well as to help offset the costs of the grand consecration ceremony.

Even though restoration work is on-going, the temple has already drawn hundreds of visitors, well-wishers as well as Hindu devotees because of its cultural, religious and historical significance.

The surrounding jungle and mountain landscape add to the uniqueness of the overall experience as much as the one-of-a-kind hardwood carvings, sculptures and statues which decorate the temple and should be preserved in their natural states as much as possible.

Thus, any construction or clearing work to be done should include measures to protect the surrounding natural environment.

Among various options to develop and promote the site are working with the Forestry Department, Tourism Ministry, and the Museum Department but so far, nothing concrete has materialised.

For the time being, all eyes will be on the Sri Maha Mariamman temple and the temple committee is determined to ensure that the Maha Kumba Ahbi Segam goes without a hitch.

Members of the public interested in finding out more about the temple and the upcoming ceremony can contact Sasindran Nair on his handphone (019-888 1837).