Finding “culture”: a passing stroll through the museum of gods…
Flying all the way to Malaysia just to see the city is a little counterintuitive. It’s the equivalent of going to Africa to visit the zoo.
Don’t get me wrong; Kuala Lumpur is a nice place. But I’ve always believed that the real appeal of Malaysia lies in that ambiguous category known as “culture”.
You can’t define “culture” or find it on a map. Rather, it’s something you stumble upon accidentally, at some point between losing your orientation in a market place and finding that you’ve just been ripped off.
During my brief stay in Kuala Lumpur, “culture” has unveiled itself to me through religion. It has requested that I take my shoes off before entering temples. It has tempted me to light candle tributes to unfamiliar deities. It has made me feel guilty about snapping insensitive photos of Muslims, deep in prayer.
I have found the city to be a museum of gods, an eclectic gallery for Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. I admit it’s quite crude to lump these three complex faiths into a singular sentence, however that says more about my upbringing that anything else. As a token WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant), it’s easy to dismiss the field of comparative religion by reading a couple pages from apologetic literature. Yet subjective non-fiction and Wikipedia entries can only give you so much insight into a system of belief. One can learn so much more in just a few minutes of first hand observation.
Hinduism, for example, is a faith I’ve never give much time. To naive me, the prospect of worshiping a plethora of peculiar statues has never made much sense to me. I thus approached KL’s Batu Caves as a bit of a novelty. For me, the attraction of the caves was to take creative photos of colourful gods, to laugh at coconut-stealing monkeys, and to mount the 300-odd steps for a nice view of the distant city. While I did manage to tick each of these off my list, the take-home message for me was completely different.
Walking through the accompanying temples, it fast became evident how genuine these Hindu believers were; followers gave each statue the respect an atom gives to the laws of physics. There were no irreverent jibes about the accompanying monkeys or pigeons, dancing upon the temple roofs. There were no cynical remarks about the nearby presence of camera-laden foreigners. Rather, there was solemn and unwavering dedication from each and every pilgrim.
Unknowledgeable about Hindu customs I watched this take place with utmost curiosity. While the practices seemed unusual to me, who was I to question their customs? I’m certain these followers would have similarly raised an eyebrow were they watching me participate in Holy Communion.
While I didn’t leave the caves converted, my eyes were certainly opened up to an unfamiliar world. Other tourists, meanwhile, got even closer to the act. They not only took tacky snapshots outside the temples, but went inside to undergo their own Hindu ceremonies. The five minute inductions left each European traveller with a trademark red dot on their forehead. The photos will last forever, but the realist in me says the sentiment will be dead by lunchtime.
Before I jump on my high horse, though, I must concede that I still know little about the Hindu faith. Nor can I can claim to be holier than thou standard international visitor. Heck, just a day earlier I had dressed up in a full bodied robe for the sake of visiting a cool-looking Muslim temple. I’m still just a thrill-seeking tourist, and a very hypocritical one at that.
What I have leant, however, is that Hinduism demands more respect than I’ve previously given it. It may make little sense to little white me, but it makes a hell of a lot of sense to millions of my fellow world dwellers.
They’re not weird, they’re just different. And that goes some way to explaining “culture”.