Although only 6 per cent of Malaysians practice Hinduism, its presence can be felt throughout the country. This is the story of a first encounter with a religion that is followed by almost a billion people worldwide.
Before the temple even comes into view, I can smell it. Incenses, smoky offerings burning in the humid air of Kuala Lumpur. It drifts down the street in gusts. I can hear it too: mystical sounding instruments playing to a simple, yet unrelenting, beat. The music is backed by a drone, a sustained tone of musical continuity heard in the background.
In 29 years I had never been exposed to Hinduism. In the remote part of Eastern Canada where I grew up, one doesn’t find it easily. As far as religions go, its one of the most mysterious to someone of my quiet suburban background. That is also what makes to so intriguing.
As I approach the modest temple, a service is in full swing. A handful of musicians are sitting on the floor, plucking at instruments I can’t identify with sounds that are alien to my ears. In unexpected moments such as this, I feel sheepish at my lack of knowledge about other cultures.
Indians make up the third largest ethnic group in Malaysia, after the Chinese and native Malays, and signs of their culture are present throughout Kuala Lumpur. Temples are scattered through the city, easily distinguishable from Islamic mosques or Chinese Buddhist temples. They are filled with statues of the multitude of gods they worship: multi armed, animal-human hybrids, sitting in positions of contemplation and godliness.
I ask an Indian man outside if it is acceptable for me to enter the temple. He nods enthusiastically and shows me where to put my shoes, and I step inside. The floor is covered in dry grains of rice and patches of water from being scattered about in the service. In a small shrine, several men are continuously pouring water over a statue of a half-elephant god. I later learn it is Ganesh, the Hindu lord of success.
As the story goes, Ganesh had been created one day by the goddess Parvati to guard the entrance to her bathing area. But as her husband Shiva approached, he was enraged to find a stranger at the door of his wife’s bath. He immediately sliced of the the head of Ganesh. When Parvati wept at what her husband had done, Shiva sent for the head of any living creature who was asleep and facing the north. A sleeping elephant was found nearby and Shiva attached to to the body of the boy and revived him. From that day on, Ganesh was placed in charge of Shiva’s troops.
A man in robes walks around the temple, sprinkling us with water. Women stand in quiet prayer, men watch the bathing of Ganesh while offerings are brought to the shrine. After a few more minutes, the service ends. The instruments stop, and people begin to mill about and talk. Without any announcements or vocal prayers, it is understood that the service is over. Men begin to wipe up the floor, and people make their way out. In an instant, the mesmerizing spell is broken, and I take in one last deep breath of spices and incense.
I am not, in any sense, religious. But as I’ve learned from living in Asia, one should never pass up an opportunity to see a culture’s religion in practice. The commonalities of music and ritual, the differences of aesthetics and mythology are captivating and ancient. And while I fail to see the supernatural elements of various religions, I can certainly appreciate the spiritual unity of religious communities around the world.
I may not make my own offerings to Ganesh, but I can certainly appreciate what he means to so many of his children.