Beliefs

East-West Travelblog: Of monkeys, Diet Coke and a Hindu temple

A golden statue of Lord Murugan -- 140 feet high -- marks the entrance to the Batu Caves

Travelblog is a series of occasional posts by RNS national correspondent Kimberly Winston, who is on the road in Washington, D.C.; Nashville, Tenn.; Honolulu; Kuala Lumpur; and Lahore and Islamabad, Pakistan, with the 2015 Senior Journalists Seminar, sponsored by the East-West Center in conjunction with the U.S. State Department.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (RNS) The field trips are my favorite parts of this exhausting, overwhelming, 21-day, six- city, three-country fellowship.

But for all the varied and fascinating stops, this trip to the Batu Caves here has been the best yet.

A golden statue of Lord Murugan -- 140 feet high -- marks the entrance to the Batu Caves

A golden statue of Lord Murugan — 140 feet high — marks the entrance to the Batu Caves

The Batu Caves are carved out of the limestone hills just outside this city, Malaysia’s bustling capitol. It is a Hindu temple, one of thousands in a country where Islam is the official religion and Hindus are a significant minority.

Visitors to the temple pass under a massive golden statue of Murugan and then climb 272 brightly painted stairs to enter the caves and the temple proper. Bring water, tennis shoes and watch out for the monkeys — more on that later.

That's a lot of stairs. Some Hindus pray, with hands together, as they climb them.

That’s a lot of stairs. Some Hindus pray, with hands together, as they climb them.

People pray as they ascend the stairs, passing under arches with colored figures of Shiva, Lakshmi and many other Hindu gods represented by peacocks, cows and other fanciful animals, like a the one that had a cow’s body, a woman’s head and breasts.

Once inside,  more colored figures are arranged in elaborate scenes in niches in the cave wall.

Gods in niches

Gods in niches

But the star attraction is a temple on a raised and roofed dias where about 100 people were praying with several ash-smeared priests bearing lighted candles before throned figures of the Hindu gods. Live music accompanied them.

Main temple inside first chamber

Main temple inside first chamber

Up another couple flights of steps there is a second chamber where only six or so people worshipped in another temple before another manifestation of the gods. The ceiling of the caves is open to the sky.

Open to the sky

Open to the sky

About ten of us journalists — all from different countries, different beats and different religious backgrounds — wandered around in here for an hour. It was a time to experience firsthand what we learned about Malaysia’s religious minorities in meeting rooms during the week.

Two holy men perform a ceremony around a peacock god carved of ebony

Two holy men perform a ceremony around a peacock god carved of ebony

And then there are the monkeys. That kind of a climb in about 90 degree heat makes a girl a little thirsty. Fortunately, there is a little kiosk at the top of the first set of stairs where an American tourist can get a cold bottle of Diet Coke (known as “Coke Light” here) before she starts — carefully — back down the steps.

Some worshippers purchased food from the temple priests and gave it to the monkeys as an offering

Some worshippers purchased food from the temple priests and gave it to the monkeys as an offering

Well, apparently, the monkeys that clamber through the caves and over the temples like Diet Coke too. When I stopped to take a picture of one of them — my first encounter with monkeys in the wild — he launched himself up my left arm and knocked the soda out of my hands.

I hollered, he ran off, and the Diet Coke — partially capped — bounced down about 16 stairs. But I won in the end. I picked it up, dusted it off and toasted the Hindu gods. It was only later it occurred to me they might be trying to tell me to give up the habit.

Back down, Diet Coke firmly in hand!

Back down, Diet Coke firmly in hand!

ANOTHER VIEW: Kim Lawton’s fellowship blog at Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly

TRAVEL ALONG:

POST 7: Criticizing the Catholic Church in paint
POST 6: A gospel moment: ‘Oh Happy Day”
POST 5: Radicalization is not a ‘Muslim problem’
POST 4: From ‘atheist’ to ‘Christian’ over breakfast
POST 3: Walking through God’s doors
POST 2: Terrorism, blasphemy — and cookies
POST 1: A wake-up call in Washington

About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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