Hello and Vanakkum- that’s ‘hello’ in Tamil.
Welcome to a short and insightful guide to the famous Sri Maha Mariamman Temple in Kuala Lumpur.
So what’s the story behind this temple? A wealthy businessman, tin miner, and government contractor by the name Thamboosamy Pillai built this temple. It was initially used as a private shrine for his family. The family opened the temple doors to the public in the late 1920s and later handed the management of the temple over to a board of trustees.
The Sri Maha Mariamman Temple is one of the oldest functioning Hindu temples in Malaysia. The temple resembles the human body on its back, with its head positioned towards the west and the feet towards the east.
The tower or ‘gopuram’ is the tallest structure in the Temple, and represents the feet of the body. The dramatic 22.9 metre tower is symbolic as the threshold between the material and spiritual world. Look closely at the magnificent sculptors that depict of Hindu gods- they were sculpted by artisans from southern India. Each figure is often seen performing a different action. They tell wonderful Hindu tales from the Bhagavad Gita or Mahabrata.
Don’t forget that in Malaysia, religious places they are not tourist places, but are actual religious venues used by believers to worship. If you see some worshippers deep in meditation or prayer, be as discreet as you can.
The Inside Of The Temple
Inside the temple, one can see an elevated court made from red marble. Straight far ahead is the shrine of Sri Maha Mariamman.
There are eight statues on eight pillars. They are the eight manifestations of one of the most popular Hindu gods, the goddess Lakshmi. Lakshmi is the Hindu goddess of wealth, prosperity, light, wisdom, fortune, fertility, generosity and courage; and the embodiment of beauty, grace and charm. She is believed to protect her devotees from all kinds of misery and money-related sorrows.
The first manifestation of Lakshmi is the ‘Sri Santhana Lakshmi’, meaning ‘the giver of offspring’. She has two pairs of hands; and holds two water pitchers with mango leaves and coconut; while the lowest pair forms the ‘Abhaya and Varada Mudra’. A mudra is a religious gesture with deep spiritual meanings attached, usually performed with the hands and fingers. Here, her right fingers face up and left fingers face down, and this mudra is repeated in all eight manifestations. This gesture is common in many eastern religions, signifying friendship and the banishment of fear. Women pray to her if they want wish to get pregnant or have troubles conceiving.
The second manifestation of Lakshmi is the ‘Sri Maha Lakshmi’, meaning ‘the great Lakshmi’. She has three pair of hands; and holds the elixir of life, a chakra or discus, a torch and a lotus; while the lowest pair forms the same mudra, or gesture. She is an ancient form of Lakshmi and daughter to one of the seven creators of the universe. Devotees pray to her for wisdom and light.
The third manifestation of Lakshmi is the ‘Sri Sowbagya Lakshmi’, meaning ‘the giver of wealth’. She has four pairs of hands; and holds a mace, a spear, the elixir of life, a bow, and a divine shell; while the lowest pair forms the mudra. Devotees pray to her for wealth and prosperity.
The fourth manifestation of Lakshmi is the ‘Sri Gaja Lakshmi’, meaning ‘elephant Lakshmi’. She has two pairs of hands; and holds two lotuses; while the lower pair forms the mudra. Devotees pray to her for abundance of cattle as well as protection for their cattle.
The fifth manifestation of Lakshmi is the ‘Sri Veera Lakshmi’, meaning ‘courageous Lakshmi’. She has two pairs of hands; and holds two lotuses; while the lower pair forms the mudra. Devotees pray to her for strength and valour during war, and in peace times, for courage and strength to overcome difficulties in life.
The sixth manifestation of Lakshmi is the ‘Sri Vijaya Lakshmi’, meaning ‘victorious Lakshmi’. She has four pairs of hands; and holds a knife, a torch, a shield, a rope bondage and the elixir of life; while the lower pair forms the mudra. Devotees pray to her for victory in battles.
The seventh manifestation of Lakshmi is the ‘Sri Thanya Lakshmi’, meaning ‘goddess of grain’. She has three pairs of hands; and holds a paddy crop, a lotus, sugarcane and a banana plant; while the lower pair forms the mudra. Devotees pray to her for protection for their crops and good weather.
The Main Shrine
As for the main shrine, it is situated the back of the main hall, which is called the ‘garbagraham’. It is a structure with its own roof and walls and has a single entrance that faces east. This is the inner sanctum where the main deity Sri Maha Mariamman is installed. On the sides there are two statues of female gods. The priest will stand in front of the garbagraham when performing the daily puja or prayers.
Before I explain about the main shrine, let’s go to the smaller shrine on the right first.
You will see the statue of Sri Ganesar. Sri Ganesar is of the most beloved and worshipped gods in Hinduism. He is widely revered as the Remover of Obstacles, the patron of arts and sciences, and of intellect and wisdom. He is honoured at the beginning of rituals and ceremonies and invoked as Patron of Letters during writing sessions. One popular way Sri Ganesar is worshipped is by chanting a ‘Ganesha Sahasranama’, a prayer that means “the thousand names of Ganesha”.
Now, we will explore the main shrine, the reason why this temple was built. This is Sri Maha Mariamman. She has two pairs of hands; and holds two lotuses; while the lowest pair forms the mudra. She sits on a lotus and on her sides are two elephants.
Mariamman is the goddess of rain, and she is very popular in South India. In Tamil, one of the many languages of India, ‘mari’ means rain, referring to her association with rain. But ‘mari’ also means change, referring to her changing forms into many other gods.
She is also the god of diseases. During the summer months in South India, in March to June, people walk miles carrying pots of water mixed with turmeric and neem leaves to ward off illnesses likemeasles and chicken pox.
Devotees who pray to Mariamman are often Tamil immigrants, who look to her to protect them as they travel into foreign lands. Devotees also pray to Mariamman for progeny, a good spouse and just about everything.
The most favoured offering is “pongal”, a mix of rice and green beans, cooked mostly in the shrine itself, in terracotta pots using firewood. In some festivals of Mariamman, devotees carry oil lamps in procession, symbolizing light over dark. Hindu priests would stand in front of the shrine and perform pooja or prayers.
There is a smaller altar on the right. It is the shrine of Sri Thandayuthapani, also know as Lord Murugan. He is the God of War and is the patron of the Tamil people. Look closely and you will see him holding a spear, which is a very significant item in his stories. Despite looking much less elaborate than the other gods, he is a very popular god and if you have heard of Batu Caves, he is worshipped there as Lord Murugan in a very big way. There is a vault in the temple where a silver chariot is being kept. During the world famous Thaipusam festival, this silver chariot is paraded from this Temple to shrine in Batu Caves. It is actually made from 350 kilograms of silver.
The Three Rooms
On the right side of the temple are three tiny rooms. In there, are three key Hindu Gods. Just look up for the carving of each god, and peep inside the shrine for the actual object of worship. Start from left to right. The first one is Lord Ganesha, and you can recognize it as the elephant god. Next is Lord Shiva, ‘The Destroyer and he is portrayed here as Nataraja, the cosmic dancer. And lastly, that’s Lord Murugan again in the shrine on the right.
Outside on the left of the temple is a bronze statue. This is Shiva.
Shiva is a major god in Hinduism, and he is known as ‘The destroyer’. Shiva is one of the three Hindu triads who form the Great Trinity together with Brahma and Vishnu. He is sometimes known as ‘Sabesan’ which in Tamil means ‘The Lord who dances on the dais’. Here, he is shown dancing around a cloud of flames. Shiva’s dancing is one of the most powerful images of him, as his divine dance symbolizes the destruction of a weary universe to make preparations forstart the process of creation. His left leg is the one often lifted, and if you look closer, you will see his right leg crushing Apasmara, the demon of ignorance.
Lining up to worship Shiva, are 65 statues of deities; each has a story to their own. One of the deities was Nadaraja. After years of prayers and devotion in the jungle, Shiva finally appeared to him. But one of Shiva’s eyes was bleeding so Nadaraja plucked out the bleeding eye and replaced it with his own eye. Then the other eye started to bleed as well, but Nadaraja could not offer his other eye or else he could see no more, so he offered his leg, as soon as he did that, he disappeared.
The Back Of The Temple
At the back of the temple are two other South Indian gods- Sri Pechayee Amman and Sri Karruppana Swamy. Sri Pechayee is manifestation of divine design, to establish peace and harmony in the world. As for Sri Karruppana Swamy, he is commonly known as the village guardian of Tamil Nadu, the land of the Tamils. He is believed to protect the poor, and ensure justice and self-discipline among his believers. These two gods are very popular gods in South India.
Just next to this shrine, is the shrine of Sri Durgai Amman, yet another popular god from South India, and is pictured here sitting on a lion amidst a cloud of fire.
The Four Gods
Right beside the two gods, are four more statues of gods. The first one is Sri Anjaneyar, or more commonly known as Hanuman. He is a little hidden, so look to the extreme left. Sri Anjaneyar is one of the most important Hindu gods, and is featured prominently in the Indian epic Ramayana. His most famous feat, as described in the Ramayana, was leading an army of monkeys to fight the demon King Ravana.
Next is Sri Devi, the “Mother Goddess,” meaning that she is the mother of all. Her name means goddess, and she has many forms or incarnations. She is synonymous with Shakti, the female aspect of the divine. She is the female counterpart without whom the male aspect, which represents consciousness or discrimination, remains impotent and void. As you might have noticed, worshipping female gods is very common in Hinduism.
After that, the biggest statue in the shrine is the statue of Vishnu, one of the major gods in Hinduism. He is one of the five primary forms of God, and is one of the three Trimurti, together with Shiva and Brahma.
And lastly, Poo Devi, yet another popular South Indian god.
At the last stop, we have the Navagrahas, loosely translated as the cosmic influencers. There, you will see the English translation as Nine Planets, but in reality, it really refers to the nine markers of influence. That’s why you see the sun and moon there as well. Each of the Graha is personified as celestial beings; and each of themcarries a specific energy quality, which is described in an allegorical form through its scriptural and astrological references. As per Hindu customs, the nine Navagrahas are typically placed in a single square with the Sun or Surya, in the center and the other deities surrounding Surya; no two of them are made to face each other. The arrangement that you are looking at is the Vaidika Pradishta arrangement, and there are a few other types of arrangements.
I hope you will yourself visiting this famous temple and the stories of Hindu Gods and Indian mythology.
Take your time to linger around. You might see the high priest dressed in white robes walking around chanting in Sanskrit.
Until the next time, “Poithu Varren” and goodbye!