All that glitters

Pillars and walls embellished with six
different colours of shiny glass
The Arulmigu Sri Rajakaliamman Temple in Johor Baru is listed in the Malaysian Book of Records as the first and only glass temple in the nation, writes PEGGY LOH
“It’s official. On May 12, Arulmigu Sri Rajakaliamman Temple in Johor Baru was entered into the Malaysian Book Of Records as the first and only glass temple in the nation,” says Sri Sinnathamby Sivasamy, temple chairman and chief priest.

As my eyes adjusted to the dazzling sparkle and shimmer of thousands of shiny glass pieces, I feel very privileged to be personally guided around by Sinnathamby, also known as Guru Bhagawan Sittar, the inspiration and driving force behind the temple.

It’s even more meaningful as the Hindus celebrate Deepavali tomorrow and devotees will be offering prayers at this stunningly beautiful temple.

The old days
Facade of Arulmigu Sri Rajakaliamman
Temple in Johor Baru

The temple, one of Johor Baru’s oldest Hindu temples, is situated next to the railway tracks between Jalan Tun Abdul Razak and Jalan Mohd Taib (or close to the Tebrau Highway). It started in 1922 as a simple shelter on land presented by the Sultan of Johor.

Sixty-nine years later, when Guru inherited the role as temple chairman after his father retired, he made a commitment to rebuild it. In spite of difficulties and challenges, the temple was rebuilt and officially reopened in 1996.

Guru points to old pictures on the wall to show me the humble hut that once housed the temple deities, a structure in such stark contrast to this magnificent monument I am standing in.  I simply marvel at how the temple had transformed beyond recognition after a makeover which started two years ago.

When renovation was completed in October last year, it reopened as one of the most beautiful Hindu temples in Johor. It is now recognised as one of the city’s tourist attractions.

Sparkling glass
Temple interior sparkles and shimmers with shiny glass
Light from crystal chandeliers is reflected on doors, pillars, walls and ceilings in a bright blaze that’s quite blinding initially. 
As my eyes adjust to the glitzy finishing on almost every surface, I begin to appreciate the meticulous craftsmanship that goes into creating the montage of designs and colours.

At least 90 per cent of the temple is embellished by a mosaic of 300,000 pieces of red, blue, yellow, green, purple and white glass.
Why glass?

Guru recounts his experience one day when he was in a tuk-tuk (auto-rickshaw) in Bangkok. He saw a light shining like a diamond, some 2km away. The driver told him that it was a wat (temple).

When he went there, he found that it was the glass artwork at the temple entrance that had caught his eyes.  He was amazed that a small glass artwork could capture his attention from a vast distance. This inspired him to use this technique in the Arulmigu Sri Rajakaliamman Temple.

He believes a temple fully embellished with impressive glass artwork will attract local devotees and visitors from the world over.  As I look around at the crowd of devotees and tourists, I think he has succeeded.

Stunning sights
Sculptures that portray the cycle of life
Through the front entrance, I immediately spot 10 gold-finished sculptures close to the ceiling.  Of the two figures on the left, one appears to be lying down and the other crawling, while the one on the far right seems to be reclining too.
Upon closer look, these interesting sculptures portray the cycle of life, from birth, youth, adulthood, to old age and death.

On the left wing, I see two large panels on the ceiling painted by specially commissioned artists to convey a universal message of social and racial harmony.  In one picture, a cow is next to an Indian girl, a dog is near a Chinese girl while a Malay girl holds a cat in her arms.

Paintings on ceiling that convey the universal
message of social and racial harmony
The other picture has an Hindu motorcyclist being helped up by a Muslim after he fell off his bike, while a Buddhist is picking up his helmet and a Christian is lifting up the motorcycle.

The centrepiece in the Athma Lingam sanctuary is a lotus for Lord Shiva, on which devotees can pour rose water and perform their prayers.

Guru says this special sanctuary is the first in Malaysia to be designed with walls that are fully covered with 300,000 mukni Rudraksha beads from Nepal.  At a glance, the walls appear to have an unusual embossed texture but I am told that each bead is embedded in the walls with a chanted prayer!
While the temple is dedicated to Sri Rajakaliamman, I notice 10 white marble statues, standing 120cm tall. According to the name plaques, these are Gautama Buddha, Guru Nanak Dev Ji, Sai Baba and Mother Teresa.  Guru notices my surprise and explains that he believes all these are messengers of god, and visitors of other faiths will be happy to see them here.

The fully air-conditioned temple has a cafĂ© that serves vegetarian meals for special events, and a function hall in an adjoining building.  As I leave, I am dizzy from the glittering glare, but in a delightful, memorable way!

Fast facts

The temple, located in 22 Lorong 1, Jalan Tebrau, Johor Baru, is accessible through Jalan Tun Abdul Razak and the lane that borders Gim Shew Building.  Car and coach parking is available and there’s also a shoe storage service.  It is open for devotees from 7am to 10pm daily, while visiting hours for tourists are between 1pm and 5pm.  For guided tours and enquiries, contact the guest relations officer at 07-224 5152, 019-766 7151 or fax 07-224 5153.
A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 3 November 2010

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