Exploring Batu Caves

We take the train to Batu Caves, the last stop on the line running from the center of Kuala Lumpur.

Batu Caveswww.hotfoottrini.com

The streets near the caves are lined with vendors selling technicolor Indian sweets and plump flower garlands. Above, pigeons roost on electrical lines. The ground beneath is stained with a history of their droppings. Someone throws some birdseed on the ground and they rush to the spot. The air is ripe with the smell of dirt and pigeon mess. One man shoots large, iridescent bubbles from a machine gun.

Further ahead is the entrance to Temple or Cathedral Cave. A giant, gleaming statue of a Murugan, the Hindu god of war, guards the base of a flight of 272 stairs that rises sharply and disappears into the cave. At the base, a woman stops a group of girls dressed in shorts. “No short pants in the temple!” she shouts and shows them some gauzy sarongs to cover their naked legs. Macaque monkeys run up and down the ledges, jumping to and from nearby branches, nibbling food they’ve found or stolen from unsuspecting tourists.

At Temple cave entrance, little kiosks sell miniature brass gods, incense sticks, toys, smartphone covers, and flash drives. A girl stands against the wall. Her eyes are downcast. She holds her shawl open like a hammock for charitable donations. The scent of stale food and wet gravel lingers within. Water dribbles from the roof. In the cave’s many nooks and crannies, there are statues of gods and goddesses illuminated by lurid light.

Next, Cave Villa: an art and reptile gallery. Dusty peacocks roam freely. The air smells of damp earth and peacock droppings. Sculpted paintings with pithy sayings hang on the irregular cave walls:

“There are two looks in the dyed eyes of this (fair) one; one causes pain and the other is the cure thereof.”

“The pipe is sweet, the lute is sweet,” say those who have not heard the prattle of their own children.”

In the depths of the earth, creatures sleep in glass cases, drowsy from the cave’s humidity. Slow moving albino snakes, a bumpy-skinned alligator, turtles, fish, rabbits. “Would you like to take a picture with a snake?” someone asks. “No thank you,” I reply. It starts to feel creepy and claustrophobic so we exit for the sunshine.

Next, we head to another part of the temple complex where a stage has been carved out of the rock. A dancer sits backstage, waiting for her next performance. She looks tired. We sit on red plastic stools. Two glossy peacocks strut around, oblivious to the cameras and smartphones recording their every move.

Three dancers begin. The music sounds like a mashup of Indian and American Western music. Then the diva arrives: red mohawk, sculpted eyebrows, dramatic eye makeup. A fake-gold choker drips from his slim neck. A russet bodysuit clings to his lithe form, the armpits already stained with sweat. Around his waist, a fabulous tail of glossy peacock feathers. His eyes dance; his smile is electric; his movements are fluid. The tourists seem more interested in documenting the peacocks’ languid movements.

When we return to the train station, I ask the ticket seller which platform heads back to the city center. He points to a piece of paper desultorily. We descend the stairs to the correct platform and get into the train. As we wait for it to depart, two women quickly sweep the carriage’s already spotless floor. The air conditioning dries the sweat from our backs and faces. The sweepers leave and we glide back to the modern city.

Photos: © Live Lyfe Photography

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The story behind the Temple in the Sea, Trinidad

Did you ever listen to the words of the song, “The impossible dream?” Little did I know that the words I sang applied to Siewdass Sadhu, the folk hero of the fishing village where I went to primary school.Temple in the Sea, Trinidadwww.hotfoottrini.com

Never heard of him? Let me fill you in. Sadhu migrated to Trinidad from India with his parents at the turn of the 20th century. At the time, Trinidad was a British sugar colony so he and his family came to the sugarcane fields in this part of the Caribbean to work as indentured laborers.

Sadhu and his family settled in Barrancore and worked on the Waterloo Estate in Central Trinidad. After fulfilling his indentureship on the sugar estate, Siewdass returned to India many times. He visited Hindu temples there and vowed to build his own in Trinidad.

In 1947, he purchased a plot of land near Waterloo Bay from the estate owner, Caroni (1937) Limited, and built a temple on it.Villagers freely held prayers in this temple for four years. Then in 1952, Siewdass was ordered to demolish the building. He refused and was fined and jailed for trespassing on state lands. His temple was then torn apart by the colonial authorities.

You would think this would have broken his spirit. Not Siewdass Sadhu. Shortly after his release, he declared that he would build the temple in “nobody’s land,” the sea, where no one could destroy it.

Sadhu got broken bricks from the brick factory in Barrancore (now known as Brickfield) and dumped them into the ocean to create a path stretching some 500 meters from the coastline. Every day, for seventeen years, he carried buckets of cement, gravel, sand, and stones on his bicycle to build the path. Then, he filled steel oil drums with concrete and tied them with steel to make the temple’s foundation. People laughed at him and called him mad. In the end, he built a simple structure with a prayer room, kitchen, and a small room for guests.

When I visited the temple in the late 1980s and early 1990s with my classmates, this story seemed too good to be true.  At low tide, we walked the pathway of barnacle-covered boulders and tires to reach the temple. The air was thick with the smell of mangrove mud. The building appeared quite small and solitary against the wide, gray Gulf of Paria. Inside the temple was empty and abandoned. Our faces fell.

Near the temple, children dug for oysters in the sticky, gray mud, amid the hibiscus flowers, deyas, and religious murtis that washed ashore from the cremation site nearby.  Then in 1994, the government finally decided to rebuild the temple in honor of Sadhu.

Today, colorful prayer flags line the tiled pathway to the temple, flapping rhythmically in the sea breeze. All you can hear are black birds quarreling in the mangroves and the water lapping the mud flats. Boys squeal with laughter as they help their fathers prepare nets for the evening’s catch. It still smells strongly of mud. And the blue and white temple still stands, a testament to one man’s realization of the impossible dream.

Photos: © Hot Foot Trini

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