The Lost Temple of Matang
Extracts from the Borneo Post...
"Sri Maha Mariamman Temple – The Lost Temple of Matang
THE Sri Maha Mariamman (goddess of Mercy) temple, 1000 feet up the slope of the Matang mountain in the Kuching district was ‘lost’ for more than 50 years before it was discovered accidentally by a hunter back in the mid 1960s.
It was said the hunter Abi bin Bengggali, stumbled upon an abandoned building on the slope of the mountain while searching for game. Intrigued, he explored the interior of the sturdy building made of belian which despite the ravage of time was still largely intact.
Inside, he discovered relics of what was clearly a Hindu temple and taking fancy of a carved wooden elephant, he took it home. It proved to be a traumatic mistake for that night his house shook violently and in his sleep Abi dreamt that he must return the statue to the temple.
Needless to say the hunter lost no time returning the statue to the temple and his strange adventure became the talk of the village. When it spread to the ears of Hindus in Kuching the mystery of the abandoned temple was quickly unraveled.
The temple was built by Indian and Ceylonese (Sri Lankans) workers recruited by the second White Rajah Charles Brooke to tend his tea and coffee plantation on the slope of the mountain.
Some of the Indian elders in the 1960s still remembered their childhood spent in the plantation and vividly recalled their parents telling them how the workers, who arrived in 1867, using simple tools, built the temple dedicated to Sri Maha Mariamman from belian taken from the surrounding jungle.
When the temple was completed they invited a priest from India to consecrate it, possibly two or three years after their arrival. At its height, the 600 acre plantation employed more than 1000 workers who were housed in barracks nearby.
The workers were oppressed by the canganees (foremen) and managers and were poorly paid. Most of them were Hindus and to practise their religion they first built a shrine near a mountain stream. When they were more settled they set about erecting the temple which like in any Hindu community became the centre of their social and religious activities.
The Sri Maha Mariamman temple was not the only place of worship built by the workers as they also built another temple for the deity Subramaniam. Some of the workers were Catholics and they built a chapel in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary. These two buildings have not been located. After more than 150 years they are likely to be permanently lost to the jungle.
Due to poor management, the plantation was closed down in 1912 and the workers were given a choice to move down to Kuching to work in road construction or go back to India.
Perhaps of their bitter experience in the plantation most of the workers decided to go back to India and only 40 or 50 families decided to stay back. When they left the plantation those who chose to stay behind took the bronze statue of the deity Maha Sri Maha Mariamman with them to shrine near the Sarawak Club in Kuching.
Later they moved it to a small temple built along Batu Lintang Road. Much later a big temple dedicated to the deity was built on a piece of land at Jalan Rock and was completed in 1991. The statue was then moved there where it remains until today.
While the statue of the deity continued to be venerated and properly housed, the temple on the mountain was left to the elements and had it not been built of belian the whole structure would have collapsed to the ground.
Abi’s story sparked a campaign among the Hindus of Kuching to restore the temple leading to an expedition to its site in 1968. The path built during the Brookes leading to the plantation was cleared and it turned out to be a very well built small road meandering up a gentle slope.
Although the walk up to the temple is three kilometers up hill all the way, you do not have to be an Olympian to get there as the path is wide and well constructed and the gradient is gentle.
From then on work on the renovation of the temple under the supervision of Lechamanan Ragua who is also known as R.L. Jimmy began in earnest and there were many tales of strange happenings encountered by visitors and workers involved in the repair of the temple.
Lechamanan recounted how while at work at the temple one day in 1970 he saw a cobra on the roof. Taking a stick he tried to shoo the snake away but was stopped by elders present there. The snake left after the elders entered the temple and said a few prayers.
Later the imprint of a cobra appeared on Lechamanan’s forehead and only disappeared one month later after he sought forgiveness for his impulsive act. It is believed that the snake is the guardian of the temple.
There was another story about a man who tried to take a way the doors of the temple and was blocked by the snake on his way up. He managed to get past the serpent and reached the temple where he dismantle the doors and took it down.
On the way back he was chased by the same snake and had to leave the doors behind as he fled down the mountain. The doors were never recovered but that man fell ill and went berserk when he reached home. He was only cured after he was brought up the mountain and prayers were said over him ridding him of the spirit that possessed him.
On Dec 4, 1970 the repair works were completed and a poojai (high mass) attended by about 500 people were held to mark its restoration. Since then devotees regularly offered prayers there and it was put under the care and administration of the Kuching Hindu Temple Association Ban Hock Road.
Today the temple is again going through another major restoration and this time it is more than just repairing and repainting. The Mount Matang Sri Maha Mariamman Temple Renovation Committee under the chairmanship of Sasindran Nair is rebuilding the temple on its original site and except for minor alterations of the inner sanctum, follow its exact design.
Like the workers of the plantation, the building committee is using belian wood from the mountain to build the temple. The Sarawak Forestry Department granted them permission to cut down five belian trees from the slope for the timber.
“This temple is the only Sri Maha Mariamman temple in the world made of timber and we want to keep that record,” said Sasindran.
Vice chairman T. Kaliani @T. Morgan who was with Sasindran inspecting the construction when I visited the site recently added, “It is difficult and expensive to bring the building materials up the mountain. We are thankful to those who contributed to the cost of the restoration so far but we need more fund to complete the job. We hope more people would come forward to help us restore the temple.”
Surprisingly many of those who prayed at the temple are Chinese who helped contribute to its upkeep through their donations. “Our appeal goes out to devotees and well wishers of other races. We are grateful to Chinese worshippers who come here to pray for their contribution and we also appeal to them to help us restore this temple.”
Morgan added the committee had engaged the services of craftsmen from India to carve the belian posts and plaster other decorations of the temple. They are expected to start work next month.
Those who wish to donate to the restoration of the ‘lost’ temple of Sri Maha Mariamman can contact Sasindran at 019-888 1837 or Morgan at 019-816 8017 for more information."
Source : The Borneo Post - Francis Chan 2007