Preserving Indian heritage in Johor

When I saw the invitation to the Ground-Breaking Ceremony for the Indian Heritage Centre at the Arulmigu Raja Mariamman Devasthanam Temple, my thoughts flashed to my story on Johor Baru’s Street of Harmony that features this temple among other places of worship in my book, My Johor Stories:True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage.

To Jalan Ungku Puan, off Jalan Trus in Johor Baru
Just as immigrants from race groups like the Chinese, Sikh, Ceylonese, Javanese and Arabs arrived in Johor to seek their fortunes, the Indians found employment here as labourers and supervisors or mandore in rubber plantations developed in the outskirts of Johor Baru in the early 20th century.

A mandore* in Sultan Sir Ibrahim Abu Bakar’s plantation at Pasir Pelangi appealed to the sultan for land to build a temple to meet the religious needs of Indians and a site was granted at Jalan Ungku Puan.

*Born in 1887, this man was Kutha Perumal Vandiyar, who had settled in Johor Baru and realized that Hindus here needed a temple to meet their religious obligations.

Flower garlands for sale at the row of flower shops
Vandiyar was privileged to have a close friendship with the then ruler of Johor, Sultan Sir Ibrahim, and it was said that they would often have tea together.

When Vandiyar approached the sultan for a place to build this temple, His Royal Highness magnanimously granted him an acre of land at Jalan Ungku Puan and also contributed M$500, a sum of money worth more than RM10,000 towards the construction expenses.

Vandiyar, with the help of other Hindus, built the original temple and when it was completed in 1911, the word, “Raja” was incorporated into its name as the Arulmigu Raja Mariamman Devasthanam Temple, in honour of the sultan.

Members of the temple committee in the temple compound
The original temple has since been demolished. Over the years, the new building (1986) was upgraded and expanded with an adjacent multi-purpose hall, usually used for weddings, a row of flower shops, a meeting room and a carpark in its compound.

In June 2011, the temple marked its 100th year anniversary with a grand celebration.

This property, which occupies the site at No. 1-A Jalan Ungku Puan, is a popular tourist attraction and a heritage landmark accorded the coveted status as a Heritage Religious Institution on the Persiaran Muafakat Bangsa Johor route by the State Government.

Temple president, K. Kiruppalini [Seated Left] and temple
priests performing the religious ceremony at the event
The plan to add an Indian Heritage Centre to its property is an exciting prospect and when it is ready, this will be the first of its kind in the city.

On my way to the event, I walk pass the flower shops in front of the temple grounds and notice that they have recently had a facelift. This project, I later learnt was accomplished with the support from Think City Johor Baru.

I enter the temple compound and am greeted by my friends with a warm welcome.

I’m ushered to the event site where (I’m told) a religious ceremony will take place before the Ground-Breaking Ceremony, to be officiated by Guest-of-Honor, Member of Parliament for Johor Baru, Tan Sri Shahrir Abdul Samad.

MP for JB, Tan Sri Shahrir Abdul
Samad, handing the first brick over
in the Ground-Breaking Ceremony
I’m glad that I’m among the witnesses of this historical event, where the first brick will be laid by Tan Sri Shahrir, to symbolically start the construction of this Heritage Centre!

Two years ago, Tan Sri contributed the sum of RM200,000 to the temple to kick-start the project and in 2017, more funds were raised from a charity dinner to boost the building fund for their Heritage Centre.

Now they are ready to construct a tw0-storey building at a total cost of about RM1 million, designed to showcase the vibrant history of the Indian community in Johor since the days of its pioneers.

The temple aims to promote greater awareness and appreciation of Indian heritage – first to the Indians and also among fellow citizens and visitors – through valuable artefacts, art and cultural exhibits and events, with an emphasis on traditional musical instruments.

Speaking of musical instruments, my reflections are interrupted by the dramatic beats of a traditional Indian drum and the fanfare from a traditional Indian trumpet!

This signals the prompt arrival of Guest-of-Honour, Tan Sri Shahrir.

Temple priest puts a sash on
Tan Sri Shahrir's forehead
Temple president, K. Kiruppalini, and members of the temple committee usher Tan Sri to his seat where he joins us to witness the religious ceremony happening at the site of the future Heritage Centre.

In his speech, Kiruppalini thanks Tan Sri for his generous support and explains that the Heritage Centre project includes refurbishment of the flower shops as well as upgrading the meeting room and multi-purpose hall.

Based on the work schedule, he said the construction should be completed by 2019.

For the Ground-Breaking Ceremony, Tan Sri leads the number of participants who handed one brick each to the temple priest who then ceremonially placed the bricks as the foundation inside a pit, dug into the ground.

According to temple tradition, Tan Sri and the participants are honored by having a sash tied to their foreheads and a flower garland placed around their necks.

Tan Sri congratulated the temple committee on the occasion and said that the Heritage Centre will be a wonderful addition to the character of Johor Baru as it will add value to the temple attraction.

Tan Sri Shahrir speaking at the event
He is pleased that the Heritage Centre will soon become a reality and it will stand as a legacy to the Johor Indian community by offering opportunities to all sectors of the community to better appreciate and understand Indian cultural practices and heritage.

Kepada semua!” Tan Sri exclaims in Malay [translated: “To all!”] and goes on to explain that it is his policy and practice throughout his career as a politician, to support the needs of our multi-cultural community.

From the loud applause, the appreciation from the Indian community is apparent.

The temple is more than
just a place of worship
In addition to an event souvenir, they also presented Tan Sri with a traditional garland and wrapped a beautiful shawl across his shoulders.

The event closed with light refreshments. And while I’m enjoying Indian delicacies like vadai and kesari, a South Indian sweet made from semolina that’s usually served for special events, Kiruppalini is sharing more details about the temple’s plans.

He said besides valuable artefacts, the Heritage Centre will also showcase the temple’s golden chariot.

The building project will also include the construction of modern toilets designed to cater to the elderly and physically challenged, an elevator as well as living quarters for temple priests.

The temple is not only a place of worship as they also oversee an Education Fund for needy students and a Special Charity Fund to help single mothers and needy families annually.

With an annual cultural events calendar that organizes classical dance classes, yoga classes, kolam contests and the Ponggal Festival, the temple is a center that develops a healthy and vibrant community that contributes positively to the state and nation, as a whole.

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