Exploring Hinduism in Malaysia
February 20, 2019
Malaysia’s Batu Caves are a famous cave system atop a towering mount outside Kuala Lumpur. These cave systems have witnessed many important parts of modern Malaysian History. Orang Asli tribesmen first discovered the caves, which were later exploited by Chinese workers, researched by British and American colonial authorities, and finally opened to the general public as a natural landmark. Today, the Batu Caves welcome Malaysian Hindus who come worship the Hindu deity Murugan. A massive gold-plated status of the deity stands outside the cave.
Stepping into a Hindu place of worship was an overwhelming experience. The heavy smell of incense clouded my nostrils and cave’s vast hollowness made seeing the towering, intricately colorful buildings a challenge. The warm, moist air carried the sound of cyclical chants in Sanskrit and the jagged 400-million-year-old cave walls resonated every noise. Swarms of people moved at a very calm pace. It was an unhurried but boisterous scene.
I went into the temple where an attentive woman told me to leave my shoes at the door. Walking gingerly over the cold stone floor, I approached a large group of people who were worshipping a figure. I felt as if I was floating through the repeating chant; I was a complete foreigner in the colorfully decorated temple. Around 50 devotees stood outside a metal pen while four priests, dressed in impeccable white or clear orange robes, conducted a ceremony. The priests spread fragrant vapors, offered oils to the crowd, moved around offerings for the deity, and walked energetically between the cave wall and the people.
I could not decipher a clear order in the worshipping rituals. Old women stood with young children, adult males moved around freely, and a gutsy young girl confronted me with her unflinching stare as I took a picture of the whole situation. As I walked through different spots in the caves, I saw interesting and varied scenes. In one spot, I saw a Hindu family with two parents and two fidgety daughters. The daughters had shaved, yellow ash-covered heads. In contrast, I also noticed a group of female Chinese tourists taking selfies with a statue behind them.
The temple’s roof was full of pigeons and statues. Outside, monkeys were being noisy and stealing objects. People would talk loudly and then music would overtake their voices; the intensity of the scene grew and grew. I began to think about these experiences inside the Batu Caves in contrast with previous religious experiences. Compared to Christianity, there was very little linearity in the Batu Caves. In a church, I had always seen a hierarchy: there was the father, the son, the holy ghost. There was one altar, one priest, and one crowd facing one direction. I found the Hindu religious ceremonies to be far more varied and multipolar.
My initial confusion and struggle to make sense of the Hindu religious tradition stemmed from my lack of exposure to different systems of religion. In the Batu Caves, I was not only encountering a new religion but a systematically different one. I perceived disorder when I saw hundreds of deities—but in fact, it was an alternate systemic organization. Visiting Malaysia’s Batu caves gave me exposure to this universalist, pluralist, encompassing, diverse, polytheistic, religion that was, for me, as intimidatingly large as it was interesting.