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Living remnants of an intangible heritage

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While the homes of labouring class may have been replaced by elevated highways, luxurious condominiums and monumental buildings, modest temples remain as the living remnants of an intangible heritage, observes Yeoh Seng Guan.

I spent the recent Labour Day (1 May) weekend following the annual Hindu temple goddess festival of “my kampung”. I say “my  kampung” rather self-consciously as it was the field-work site for my postgraduate studies some 15 years ago. In more recent times, I have been returning to update myself with the kampung’s changing fortunes.

In the early-1990s, Kampung X was still intact as a human settlement but its days were clearly numbered. As a “squatter” kampung, it stood little chance of survival as “development” slowly crept up to its doorstep over the years. Although the kampung was built on former tin mining wasteland, its proximity to the growth of an up-market commercial and residential suburb in the 1990s meant that this same piece of land became valuable for further “re-development”. Soon after my field-work ended, the kampung was demolished.  While some have managed to remain in the vicinity, many moved elsewhere.
By an ironic twist of circumstances, however, the combination of the Asian financial crisis and a much publicised inter-ethnic local conflict in the late 1990s stalled further development in the area, leaving the kampung temple the only structure unscathed and still standing. From a time when the temple, surrounded by an array of Hindu and non-Hindu homes, was a beehive of daily worship and community activity, the temple today is now largely “alone”. The only major exception is during the annual festival in honour of the temple goddess Mariyamman. Many former residents of the kampung return to pay homage to her and to re-connect with neighbours and friends now scattered all over Kuala Lumpur and the state.

For me as an outsider, the preparations for the temple festival – which include fire-walking, a chariot procession around the locality, a night concert and a whole-day of sports activities – are remarkable and impressive in many ways. Former residents pool their varied resources – financial and labour – not only to fulfil religious obligations but also to make the event a meaningful and enjoyable one. In doing so, their actions perpetuate a cultural and social relevance for the future.   

Since the Hindraf uprising of 2007 and the “political tsunami” of 2008, temple demolition/re-location has become arguably better managed by the Selangor state authorities. Unlike before, the sentiments of the temple authorities and its devotees are given more careful consideration.

Modest-sized Hindu temples, like those of “my  kampung”, are not just functional structures devoid of subaltern history and living memories. Indeed, many small temples that still stand supposedly incongruously to the metropolitan Kuala Lumpur cityscape bear mute witness to a time when plantations and “urban pioneer” kampungs were the norm rather than the exception.

While residential traces of the decades of economic contributions by the labouring class may have been materially erased and replaced by elevated highways, luxurious condominiums and monumentalist buildings, these remaining modest temples are the living remnants of an intangible heritage. If only these temple walls could speak!

Dr Yeoh Seng Guan, an anthropologist, is an executive committee member of Aliran

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