I have recently spent some time in Kuala Lumpur, on my way to Thailand.
Though I have visited ‘KL’ many times before, I haven’t ever really had time to immerse myself in the city, going underneath the normal tourist hotspots so as to uncover the heart of this bustling capital in one of the most thriving and vibrant societies in South East Asia. Being as yogi as I am, I decided to focus my cultural investigations on the spiritual traditions of this town, and I was surprised to find a pulsing and vibrant vein of spiritual practice across multiple religions and spiritual traditions. Investigating the spiritual life of a city is a good way to discover more about its people and what is important to them on a day to day level.
Malaysia in my mind is quite unique in South East Asia in that it is multicultural and multi-religious and the different ethnic and religious groups seem to co-exist in relative harmony compared with neighbouring countries like India, Pakistan and Afghanistan where there are regions of ongoing ethnic tensions where wars can break our at any time.
I am a bit of a history nerd (I blame my historian mother!) so here is a potted Wikipedia sourced history of modern Malaysia!
And as opposed to a country like Indonesia, where Islam is the dominant religion (with the exception of the predominantly Hindu island of Bali) and where the people are largely Indonesians born in the country – Malaysia is made up of a diverse range of peoples, with native Malays or ‘Bumiputera’ (a controversial Malaysian term describing ethnic Malays and other indigenous peoples of South East Asia) making up about 70%, ethnic Chinese comprising about 28%, ethnic Indians 7%, and ‘others’ occupying 1%.*
To understand how this harmonious multicultural melting pot came to be you need to have a basic grasp of Malaysia’s history, and a visit to the well organised government Tourist Info Point (with a permanent free exhibition on Malaysia’s history) helped me fill in some of the gaps in my historical knowledge.
Inhabited by indigenous people in prehistoric times, the earliest foreigners to settle in Malaysia were the Chinese who came in from Southern China in the 2nd century BCE followed by Indian traders who began settling in the West coast of the peninsula in the 1st century BC, founding the Indian kingdom of Kunan. Buddhist states then developed in the East and Buddhism became the primary religion or faith at this time.
Around the years 1330 – 50, the Javanese controlled the peninsula, and then in the fifteenth century the port of Melacca was founded. At this time its rulers converted from Buddhism to Islam, and traded with Muslim merchants, and then Islam replaced Buddhism across the Malay territories.
In 1511, the Sultanate of Malacca was conquered by the Portugese, and then a century later they were driven out by the Dutch under an alliance with the Sultan of Johor.
The peninsula then became a Malay kingdom ruled from the southern province of Johor before in 1786 the Sultan of Kedah granted the island of Penang to the British East India Company to use as a trading post. Before the decade was out, the British took Malacca from the Dutch, then in 1819 they also acquired Singapore. Singapore, Malacca and Penang then became known as the ‘Straits Settlements’ under British rule.
Then through a series of treaties between 1873 and 1930, the British colonial administration gained control of the foreign affairs of the nine Malay states of the peninsula and in 1896 the Federated Malay States were formed, with Kuala Lumpur as the capital. Around this time Indians and Chinese from the southern states came to work in the tin mines and on the plantations of the newly formed British colony.
During the years of 1941 – 45, Japan occupied Malaysia, and after the war British rule was re-introduced, but saw a lot of resistance, mainly from the Chinese. Eventually in August 1957, Malaysia peacefully won independence from the British and joined the Commonwealth, a political association uniting ex-British colonial territories.
In recent history there have been some racially motivated violence – in the aftermath of the 1969 election a riot occurred in Kuala Lumpur with a suggested death toll of 600 victims (mostly Chinese people), after opposition parties made inroads at the expense of the ruling coalition. And in 1957 during the centenary celebrations of Georgetown in Penang, hostility between races turned into violence, which was followed by similar episodes in between 1959 and 1967, with tension between the more prosperous and powerful city based Chinese and the poorer mostly rural population of Malays.
But today – in present day Malaysia – a veritable melting pot of religions and cultures in an economically well off region – it certainly looks like people are living in relative harmony.
I wonder if the strength of the Malaysian peoples’ spiritual beliefs and traditions aids in fostering a culture where all of the different religions are respected and given a place in the society?
*According the the Official Portal of the Department of Statistics in Malaysia.
I visited temples from four of the different spiritual traditions present in KL and here is what I discovered!
Just nearby where I was staying in Central KL there was a Sikh temple, or Gurudwara Sahib Mainduab, with an active Sikh community that offered a prasad (hindu term for food blessing) of rice, vegetarian food and chai tea each day (food blessing) to anyone who came to the temple.
The Sikh religion was born in the Punjab region of India in the 15th century by Guru Nanak Dev. Sikhism departed from the dominant Hindu religion at the time largely through its rejection of the caste system. Sikhism is monotheistic, and they believe in One God, as stated in the phrase Ek Onkar. The Sikh’s scripture is the Guru Granth Sahib. This is regarded as the ‘living guru’ after the last living Sikh guru Gobind Singh passed away.
In 1699, this last guru left Sikhs five articles of faith known as the ‘5 Ks’.
- Kesh: Unshorn hair, worn in a dastaar or turban. This is worn by most men to cover their hair, whereas most Sikh women wear their hair long and uncovered, except when entering a Gurudwara or Sikh temple.
- Kangha: A small wooden comb, meant to keep the hair combed twice a day
- Kara: An iron bangle meant to worn on the hand that is most used.
- Kachera: An undergarment for men and women which is essentially a pair of boxer shorts with a drawstring meant to symbolise continence and high moral character.
- Kirpan: A short dagger. Sikh’s are expected to embody the qualities of a ‘soldier-saint’, and to protect the rights of all who are oppressed regardless of colour, caste or creed. Hence the Kirpan, for if ever violence arises and active defence is necessary.
One of the esoteric branches of yoga popular today is Kundalini Yoga, which was introduced to the west by Yogi Bhajan in the 1960s and 70s. Yogi Bhajan was a Sikh, and he often used stories from Sikh history to illustrate concepts in Kundalini Yoga. Mantra chanting and Bhajan singing is an important part of Kundalini Yoga practice. The Adi Mantra – ‘Ong Namo Guru Dev Namo’ is chanted before each class to align the students with their higher selves of the ‘Infinite Creative Energy’ of the universe. This is also the reason why Kundalini Yogis also wear the Sikh turban.
Just nearby where I was staying in Jalan Pudu, close to some of Malaysia’s biggest financial centres – Maybank head office and the Malay Bursa (Stockmarket), was a Hindu temple devoted to the God Ganesha (the Elephant God famed to be the remover of obstacles). I was amazed at how busy this temple was – filled with people from dawn to midnight, with various blessing and offering ceremonies taking place at different times throughout the day.
According to Wikipedia, Hinduism is the world’s third largest religion, most likely thanks to the fact that the majority of Indians are Hindus and India has a population of 1.33 billion!
Hinduism has also been referred to as the ‘oldest religion in the world’ and some practitioners / scholars refer to it as ‘Sanatana Dharma’ (the Eternal Tradition’). The major texts of Hinduism include: The Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas, the Mahabarata, the Ramayana and the Agamas.
Hinduism is regarded by scholars as a fusion of various Indian religions and cultures. Hinduism is also the birthplace of Yoga, which is a whole life philosophy in and of itself. Important Hindu beliefs include the four Purusarthas (the correct aims or goals of human life) which are
- Dharma (an ethical life following one’s truth or path)
- Artha (prosperity / work)
- Kama (desires / passions)
- Moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and death).
There are literally hundreds of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, all believed to represent different aspects of Brahman or ‘Ultimate Reality’.
The big guns though are Parvati, Vishnu, Lakshmi, Shiva, Sati, Brahma and Saraswati.
Every evening at the Ganesha temple on the corner where i was staying there was an elaborate blessing ceremony that involved the priests making offerings of fruit and flowers to the Elephant God housed in a special ‘inner sanctum’ in the middle of the temple, while musicians played the
Over sixty percent of Malaysians are Muslims, although until about the 1400s it was a largely Buddhist region. Now most of the ethnic Malays identify as Muslims, and walking around the streets, I would say about half of the women are wearing headscarves, a tradition symbol of Muslim identity.
There are many stunningly beautiful mosques in KL, most of which are decorated in the traditional Islamic style, with fairy tale like domes with spires reaching skywards and minaret towers standing like sentries on each corner.
Once evening I visited the Jamek Mosque which is located at the confluence of two rivers, the Klang and the Gombak, after which Kuala Lumpur takes its name (Kuala Lumpur literally means ‘muddy confluence’!). It was the time of the call to prayer, with this long and mysteriously sounding lament beaming out from loudspeakers to all the different office workers and ancillary staff heading home for the evening.
I also visited another Mosque in the city of Putrajaya, where the 5 Pillars of Islam and the 6 Pillars of Faith were nicely posted on a noticeboard for all the non-muslim visitors.
The 5 Pillars of Islam are:
- Zakat (charity)
The 6 Pillars of Faith are:
- Monotheism – belief in Allah as the one and only God
- Belief in the existence of Angels
- Belief in the Holy Books (the Koran being Islam’s main book of Scripture)
- Belief in the Prophets
- Belief in the Day of Judgement
- Belief in Predestination
Comprising nearly 30% of the population of Malaysia, the Chinese are a strong and tight knit community who come from an ancient culture, with spiritual traditions dating back millenia into the distant mists of time :).
Personally, the Chinese temples I visited in KL were the most exotically beautiful in terms of their aesthetics. Predominant colour schemes for most seem to be red and black, and very beautiful intricate wood and stone carvings inside and outside the temples. This is not surprising, given red is the colour that symbolises luck, joy and happiness for the Chinese. All over the Chinatown area of central KL you also see red lanterns floating above you in the streets.
Black is a colour that corresponds to water in Chinese philosophy and the I Ching or ‘Book of Changes’ regards black as the colour of Heaven. Rather than wearing black to funerals as we do in the West, in China, white is the colour (or non-colour) traditionally associated with death.
The temple I visited, Guan Di Temple in Chinatown is a Taoist temple, named after one of China’s greatest warriors, General Kwan, Guan Di or Guan Yu. Within this temple is also a 59 kg copper Guan Dao – or Chinese pole weapon. Many people believe this sword has a special power and touching it will bless them or turn their luck around.
The Temple I visited was a Daoist one. Daoism arose around the same time as Confucionism and has its roots in the nature worship and divination of the earliest Chinese people.
“The word ‘Tao’ 道 (or Dao) translates into “path”, ”method”, “principle” or “way”, the character 教 translates into ‘”teach” or “class” and Taoist belief is based on the idea that there is central or organizing principle of the Universe, a natural order or a “way of heaven”, Tao, that one can come to know by living in harmony with nature and hence with the cosmos and the Universe”
from the website Nations Online.
I use the Tao Te Ching book of poems by Lao Tzu and translated by Ursula Le Guin in lots of my yoga and meditation classes and I love this poem called ‘Taoing’.
The way you can go
isn’t the real way
The name you can say
Isn’t the real name
Heaven and Earth begin in the unnamed
name’s the mother of the ten thousand things
So the unwanting soul sees what’s hidden
And the ever-wanting soul sees only what it wants.
Two things, one origin,
but different in name,
whose identity is a mystery.
Mystery of mysteries!
The door to the hidden.
And so we come to the end of my spiritual tour of KL! It is far from exhaustive, but I think an overview of some of the main religions and traditions present in the city.
Have you been to KL? What did you feel about the spiritual activity there?
All photos are by Michelle E Taffe except for the one of the Sikh Temple by Jagdeep Sodhi.