We had just left the Kuantan Firefly Park and driven up the road surrounded by mangrove trees. When we came up to the main road a brightly lit building shining across the road caught our attention. It stood out like a New York theatre on Broadway in the darkness.
“Wait, what is that?!” I asked my friend as I pointed through the windshield.
“A Hindu temple.”
“Wow I’ve never seen the inside of a Hindu temple before.”
“Want to go in?”
After managing to edge across the traffic, we strode up to the temple doorway. I had to convinced my friend, a Muslim, to come inside with me.
A gruff man at a side table by the door looked at me from head to toe as we approached. He began to shake his head with evident exasperation. While we stepped up he yanked a hot-pink skirt from under the table, shook it at me and watched as I stepped into it. The fabric slipped over my three-quarter length jeans as I knotted it around my waist.
Giving the dress a good hip-shake to test it out, I struck a pose for the table-guard who waved us through with a cheeky head bobble (note: this could mean something culturally that I don’t know).
Catching our attention just before we were through he pointed at my camera. Picking up the hint, I dutifully twisted it behind me.
From the outside the temple—which displayed no name—had looked like it was fully enclosed. To my delight we stepped through the gate and the roof retreated to show the stars glittering overhead. From within we could see that the outer wall surrounded a grass courtyard, which encircled an enclosed and elevated inner sanctuary.
Being the shortie I am, the skirt was proving to be a bit long. I was constantly tripping as my toes bit into the front fabric.
Fortunately, the Barbie pink had put me in a goofy mood. Holding my chin up regally, my stride became smooth as I turned myself into a queen. I lifted the skirt clear of my toes with a subtle flourish. Its soft swish could be heard as it dragged behind me. Skipping forward with my bare feet I was all but silent on the elevated stone surrounding the courtyard.
The setting was Hollywood perfect. The air was clear and the stars twinkled merrily overhead as the lights gently lit the walls. Statues stared down from every niche.
Chuckling, my friend and I slowly strode around the courtyard softly joking about being royal delegates.
“What’s that spout for do you think? Who’s that god? Why is that symbol everywhere?” I bombarded my friend with quiet questions.
“I don’t know. I’m not a Hindu,” he whispered back with endlessly amused patience. Around us people went about their prayers and devotion. We tried to give them as much space and peace as possible as we slipped by. This was evidently not a tourist showpiece.
Technology had infiltrated the space in the form of massive televisions mounted overhead at the four corners of the temple. The contrast was astonishing. Somehow before this I’d found it difficult to muster images of religions harnessing technology to spread their message. And yet they are. Religious institutions are starting to taking to the Internet and electronics like crazy. The church, mosques and temples are moving online.
I was almost sad to leave as we approached the gate once more. Our tour complete I wiggled out of the skirt at the doorway and passed it over. I must have behaved appropriately inside the temple because I earned a nod and smile from the gatekeeper when we waved goodbye.
Sliding up to the door on the passenger side of my friend’s car, I reached for the handle.
“That was fun,” I told my friend across the roof. His nod was interrupted as we whipped our sights to a group of older women in saris crowding up to my side of the car. They bundled around me.
Putting their hands out in greeting I presented my own hands as their smiles melted my initial tension.
“Thank you, thank you,” they cheerfully chattered as each enclosed my hands within their own. Baffled by the sudden attention I only nodded and smiled back. Pressing close, the women gave one final wave and turned around to walked back the way they’d come.
Looking across the car roof to my friend, who’d passed through the experience un-noticed, we blinked at each other.
“Well that was something,” I said as a smile began to form. I pulled the door open.
Ducking down into the seat a memory flashed across my mind.
As my friend and I had circled the grass courtyard one of the women had been sitting on a platform attached to the innermost building. Within the dim light of the temple the smile following her subtle nod had radiated across the courtyard.
Diving into articulation as the car pulled out of the temple parking lot, I blurted out that I believed the group’s fawning had been a show of appreciation for the respect I’d shown at the temple.
So close to a tourist destination the temple must garner a lot of unwanted attention, especially from foreigners who don’t know about the cultural and religious dos and don’ts.
It would explain the rough reception at the door and the appreciation as we left.
I’m grateful for their willingness to let us into their temple.
In my opinion we should all have a right to enter places of worship. The more you enclose a religion or spiritual place from society the more vulnerable it is to corruption and misunderstanding.
On the other hand though I realized that opening the doors to outsiders has its drawbacks. How can people go about their prayer and devotion in peace if the curious are always stumbling about the halls and accidently disrespecting protocol? Places of worship are meant to be a place of safety and contemplation. If a family member has just died or someone is really sick—people can go to the nearest church, mosque or temple to pray, ask, hope for health. If they need advice they can do the same thing. They can soul search.
I know I would be upset if people were interrupting my deep thoughts or hopes with their chatter and camera flashes in a place I consider a sanctuary.
Have you ever experienced this? What can be done to avoid it?