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Fusing tradition and aspiration is PHEB dilemma

S.Ramakrishnan, 31/01/17

The move by the Penang Hindu Endowment Board (PHEB) to introduce the golden chariot to carry the Murugan Vel from Queens Street Maariamman temple to the hilltop Murugan Temple is to replace the usual informal practice of carrying the Vel. The Murugan Vel is usually carried by PHEB officials informally before Thaipusam every year and brought back after the festival.

This is in no way challenging the silver chariot of the Trustees of Nagarather Nattukkotai Chettiars (TNNC) which carries the idol of Lord Murugan. Infact both the chariots complement one another. But the move was seen as a threat to the TNNC which has refused to cooperate and work with the PHEB.

Besides the 2 chettiar temples in Penang, the TNNC also manages the Chettiar Temples in Alor Star, Sungai Petani, Teluk Intan and Kuala Lumpur. They have been managing these temples for many decades. But it’s only now that the general public knows that the TNNC trustees are all foreigners and come to Malaysia to conduct these temple festivals and return to their homeland after completing their work. They do manage their temples well without attracting any attention. Apart from maintaining the temples, the TNNC does not undertake any social or societal benefiting programs.
There is no public disclosure or accountability as to what they did with all donations for the past 126 years. This has now become a ‘tradition’. Do we continue with this so called ‘tradition’ or explore ways to meet the Indian peoples’ aspiration with temples as the center for the community? The Indian community has supported all temples, including NNC Chettiar temples. Temples play an important role in the Hindu community but in Malaysia, they remain aloof and do not play the important supporting role for the community. Many a time, government allocation for the community is diverted to temples. 

The Penang state government allocates funds annually to the PHEB with the deputy chief minister as its chairman.  The PHEB also started an educational aid program for 280 students in 2015 for Indian students. For temples to remain relevant and part of the Hindu community they must undertake meaningful educational and skill development programs. The marginalized Indian community need temples to become community centers. Sikh temples are community centers.
But the PHEB’s task to bring about this aspirational change is no easy or small matter. The Thaipusam festival is celebrated by people from all walks of life and has become a major tourist event. Lord Murugan has devotees from Tamil, Chinese, Sikh communities and occasionally even westerners. They may have undertaken penances and come to Thaipusam festival to fulfill their vows. PHEB has the responsibility to provide the space and time for these devotees to fulfill their vows. Coconut breaking, making offerings and giving donations are traditional ceremonies and rites that devotees perform during chariot processions. Both TNNC and PHEB have to work together and solve all arising issues for the greater good of the community.

The trustees of Nagarather Nattukkotai Chettiars (TNNC) by working with PHEB can create a more harmonious and permanent place in the chariot procession and the Thaipusam festival of Penang which attracts tourists from all over the world. After all, Thaipusam is celebrated as a victory of goodness over evil. In the same spirit, let’s forget and forgive our past misunderstandings and come together to make Thaipusam festival more sacrosanct and well organized celebration.   

The MIC and their supporters still keep fabricating stories and are trying to create confusion among the Hindu population. They are only making themselves more irrelevant and unwarranted in the struggle of the PHEB to be more aspirational yet respected and provide all the space for tradition to continue to flourish. Let’s make use of the Thaipusam occasion to transform temple institutions to meet the aspirational needs of Hindu community and yet remain traditional.      



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