Sunday, December 25, 2011

My Little Tour of Kuala Lumpur

The Sultan Abdul Samad building and foreboding rain clouds.

I came to Malaysia to fulfill a promise to visit some friends who now live there. Most of my co-workers left the company for Kuala Lumpur four years ago as soon as our binding contracts expired. It was sad as these guys have almost become family to me. I was team lead but they called me "Kuya Ian" rather than the usual "sir", which was really endearing.

From looking at my friends' Facebook photos, I thought that Kuala Lumpur was on the same level as Singapore  - slick, clean, dynamic, and robotically efficient. When I finally got there myself I found that there is as much dirt and grime as one would find in other third-world Asian countries. Not quite a developed country, but it's getting there, as evidenced by the numerous building constructions going on around the city center.

Kuala Lumpur city center, viewed from the Menara Tower observatory.

Malaysia is multi-cultural, with its people comprising mainly of Malays, Indians and Chinese. Kuala Lumpur however has a somewhat decidedly Islamic flavor. Walking on its streets you could easily catch a waft of the strong musky scent of Arabic perfume and incenses and hear the mystical call to prayer blending with the modern city noise. Everywhere there are niqab-wearing women of different levels of concealment, with middle-eastern tourists being a lot more conservative than the locals.  The eight-pointed star, which is an important Islamic symbol has a prominent usage in infrastructure, from the tiles on the sidewalk to the shape of the Petronas Twin Towers themselves.

Speaking of which, one would think that a building as huge as that would be easy to find. It's just a short distance from my hotel, but the diagonal and curving streets of central KL did nothing for my miserable sense of direction. Why the heck can't we just stick to building cities on rectangular grids? Like in Sim City?

The gleaming Petronas Twin Towers

KL impresses me as a city that has grown out of a jungle. I live in the tropics myself but I've never seen trees so huge and majestic its giant branches battle it out with modern buildings over airspace. I even met an old fat monkey on a sidewalk, but the grumpy chap snarled at me and chased me in the streets before I could take a proper photo. What a douche.

A rainy street scene along Jalan Masjid India.

Before meeting my friends, I spent the day photowalking in the streets of the older districts. Going to the National Mosque, I came upon an old underpass which seemed to have become some sort of a headquarter of an Indian gangster. The evil look given to me by one guy was enough for me to turn around and fuck off, and take the longer way to the mosque instead. The mosque unfortunately has succumbed to ugly modern architectural design and wasn't much to look at in my opinon. The Islamic Arts Museum nearby is a lot more time-worthy, which has a lot of genuine centuries-old artifacts coming from as far as India and the Middle-East. The area around the museum and the mosque is quite lush and peaceful, and is my favorite of all the places I've been to in KL. There was a food stall where I get to try the floral-flavored Bandung drink and some deep-fried Malaysian treats before taking a long walk to Bukit Bintang where I was supposed to meet my friends. By the time I got there I was covered with sweat and rain and pigeon-poop.

I literally jumped for joy seeing my friends all-together. It was quite humbling to know they have spent some of their busy time for a little reunion. We had dinner in a Chinese restaurant in the posh Pavillion mall, courtesy of Ferds who was my co-team lead and the oldest in the bunch (after me). It was just like the good ol' days. We were having so much fun we tend to forget we're in a different country and occasionally spoke to the waiters in Tagalog. Knowing what a coffee addict I am, I was given huge bags of delicious white coffee from Penang as a parting gift. I felt a little ashamed that I've gotten so much but I had nothing to give back. I felt that should've brought with me some pasalubong, like Goldilocks polvoron or something.

Visitors watch in awe as a large shark passes by in the oceanarium in Aquaria, KLCC.

The inverted dome inside the Islamic Arts Museum - one of the favorite places that I have visited. It's quite peaceful and only the solemn recorded chanting of the Koran can be heared throughout the museum proper. 

Bukit Bintang is where the party happens. 

An old street in the suburbs.

 Giant Esprit store at the Pavillion mall.

I arrived just a few days after Malaysia's independence day; 
the national flag is on display in many parts of the city.

Late afternoon sky as seen from the Menara Tower observation deck.

Traditional Malay architecture at Kompleks Kraf.

Basbasan Nawa!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Visit to the Batu Caves and the Sri Mahamariamman Temple

Murugan temple. A pandit prepares for a puja ceremony.

The Batu Caves are actually quite far from central Kuala Lumpur, but thankfully getting there is as easy as hopping into a train near my hotel and getting off in the station named "Batu Caves". Ironic that getting to my workplace is far more difficult than getting to a cave.

The giant gilded statue of Murugan can be seen from the train even from afar. After I arrived, a tourist approached me and handed his SLR to me and grunted some incomprehensible word. I understood though that he wanted to have his photo taken, and being the hospitable Filipino that I am I happily did so. With all smiles I also handed my camera to him and politely asked to take a photo of me, but the jerk dismissively waved his hands and walked away. Resentfully I set up my tripod and just took self-portraits, after giving the bastard the evil eye.

The Lord Murugan. Even gods get love-handles.

It takes a grueling 272 steps to get to the cave entrance. I had to stop every 50 steps or so to catch my breath while trying my luck to get a good photo of the numerous monkeys running around, which look really cute begging and trying to steal some food from the visitors. I don't think I'd ever get tired watching these little critters. I was careful around them though as I didn't watch catch rabies.

The rock formations and the natural lighting inside the cave are impressive in itself. There are small shrines for various Hindu deities scattered around, but the icing on the cake was the Murugan Temple in the innermost part of the cave. The way the sunlight from a cave opening illuminates the temple was quite dramatic. It would have really looked astounding in photograph, but I was captivated so much that forgot I was shooting at very high ISO, resulting to a crappy image quality. But even so, it doesn't look that bad at all.

It's a working temple, that is, it isn't for display purposes only. There was actually a puja ceremony going on with the assigned pandit assisting about a dozen devotees, despite the noisy crowd and camera flashes.

Getting my way back was a lot harder now that I could see how high up I really was. It didn't help that I was going counterflow against pushy Korean tourists who believe they have the sole priviledge of holding onto the rails just because they're on a package tour.

Tranquility and beauty.

The Cave Villa
There is a Cave Villa nearby which one could enter for a meager fee. It's a shame that most tourists just seem to pass it by as it is really worth seeing. The cave villa entrance can be reached via a series of walkways and small pavillions over a pond with carps and swans and a little waterfall flowing onto it. I decided to stay a bit longer here to drink in the peaceful atmosphere.

The first part of the cave villa features a series of diorama about the Hindu religion, most of the writings I didn't quite get though, but the drawings were fascinating in an eerie way. Deeper into the cave was a mini-reptile zoo which actually looks like a mad scientist's lab to me. I was very paranoid walking around fearing I might tip over a glass cage containing a deadly snake. There were also weird looking turtles and fish on display, probably several other animals too - I didn't want to linger around too much so I didn't get to see much.

An impressive sculpture at the entrance to the Cave Villa.

Eerie dioramas.

Going deeper into the cave.

A huge snake greets you near the entrance.

A big cage. I don't even want to know what's in there.

A fish with a twisted mouth.

The Sri Mahamariamman Temple along Jalan Tun H.S. Lee

Sri Mahamariamman Temple

The Sri Mahamariamman Temple is founded by the same person who was said to have discovered the Batu Caves. It is the starting point of the Thaipusam procession ending in the Batu Caves, which is quite a long walk. It is also the oldest functioning temple in Malaysia. However, it is so newly painted and garishly colorful you would think you're in Disneyland. It's all pretty, but somewhat sterile.

The colorful interiors.

Jai Durga Ma!

Sri Murugan mural.


Saturday, November 19, 2011

10 Things About Wicca That Wiccans Should Know

1. Gerald Gardner, known as the father of Wicca, never actually used the word "Wicca" nor "Wiccan". He referred to his religion as "witchcraft" or "the Old Religion", and its followers, "the Wica". Ironically it was from his adversary, Charles Cardell,  where the word "Wicca" actually came from.

G.B.Gardner and an unfortunate chap. 

2. "Wicca" is an Old English word simply meaning "witch". In the middle ages this word is pronounced as "witcha". Whether it also denotes the meaning of "wise" is still largely debatable in the field of etymology.

3. While a sabbat is a gathering of witches for the purpose of religious celebration of the seasons, an esbat is a gathering of witches for any other occasion. It does not necessarily have to fall on a full moon, nor does it even have to be religious at all.

"Wiccans" of the "Alexandrian" tradition - words in quotes were not yet 'invented' at the time of this photograph. Here a coven of witches dance around a magic circle lead by self-proclaimed "King of the Witches", Alex Sanders. 

4. Gardner was initiated into the New Forest coven - not the Black Forest coven. The Black Forest tradition would be established many years later by the American witch Silver Ravenwolf.

5. Only four of the sabbats are based on ancient Celtic festivals: Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh. The Celtic names given to the sabbats are a fairly new addition, in the older books they are simply called Halloween, Candlemas, May Eve, and Lammas. Yule and Ostara are based on Germanic celebrations.  Mabon and Litha didn't get their names until the 1970's. Gardner's coven originally celebrated only the four 'Celtic' feasts. Celebration of the solstices and equinoxes were added later thanks to the influence of the modern druidic movement.

American witches who made Wiccan history (clockwise from top left): Margot Adler, Aidan Kelly, Z Budapest, Selena Fox, Ed Fitch, Starhawk.

6. Hecate, a popular patron deity among Wiccans, while known as a triple-goddess, was never viewed by the ancient Greeks nor modern Hellenic reconstructionists as maiden-mother-and-crone. The same is true with the Celtic triple goddesses Brighid and the Morrighan. The concept of the maiden-mother-crone triplicity is a modern and Wiccan concept and was introduced to the world by the poet Robert Graves in his pseudo-anthropological book "The White Goddess".

7. The athame is used for casting a circle, calling the quarters, and drawing the pentagram on the air - but not for invoking the God and the Goddess. The wand, which is a symbol of the spirit and the connection with the higher world, is much better suited for this purpose.  Pointing a sharp weapon to someone isn't particularly a respectful gesture. (See photo of Gardner above.)

The magician - raising the wand and connecting with the divine source.

8. "All gods are one god, and all goddesses are one goddess" is the general theistic philosophy of Wicca, popularized by occultist and psychiatrist Dion Fortune. Some Wiccans believe that this is the widespread belief among all Pagan religions. But this is actually closer to the theistic belief of the Hindus (monistic), than that of classical Paganism (polytheistic). While this Jungian concept of gods remains popular today, many other pagans are polytheists (all gods are not one, but separate identities), pantheists (all is god), panentheists (all is in god), non-theists (no gods, just spirits), and even atheists (no gods at all).

A note from a reader:  "...The diamond theory, although usually taught in many covens, especially during Outer Court training, is not Wiccan theology. That's propagated by most authors. In actuality, Wicca (that is, the Traditional side aka "original" Wicca) is an orthopraxic system. In other words, practice is more important than belief...they are not taught how to interpret the Gods or even their experiences in the Mysteries; rather, they are told that experiencing those things and practicing in the same, effective manner as the rest of the coven, is enough. It doesn't matter whether they are agnostics, polytheists, monotheists or even atheists..." - Alorer

9. Whether you like it or not, Aleister Crowley - also known as the Great Beast, Frater Perdurabo, 666 - did play a huge part in the formation of ideas and rituals of what was to be known as Wicca.

10. Gardner spent much years of his life living in India, South-East Asia and Ghana, both to earn a living and to study the indigenous religions of these lands, some of which he may have adapted into Wicca. The concept of 'skyclad', for example, came from the digambara practice of the Jains of  India - 'digambara' literally meaning 'sky-clad'. It might be possible that he has studied the  beliefs as well of our local tribes, as he wrote in his historic book:

"Pygmies now live in the same way in Central Africa, Malaya, New Guinea, the Deccan, Ceylon and the Philippines. I have known many of them and they all use poisoned arrows, and are thought to possess magical powers" -- Witchcraft Today


I have been around with our local Wiccan community for many years now, and at times I've been called to teach or lead a smaller group. I listed above some informational tidbits which I find that many among our local Wiccan-folk might not be aware of. While these may be dismissed as trivial I hope that it would encourage beginning Wiccans to learn more about the facts and history of their faith. Although I am no longer Wiccan it doesn't mean I no longer have to put my energy into learning about it. My path today has actually taken me even closer to its origins and beliefs.

Blessed Be!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Remembering the Departed

I have to admit, I still am afraid of death despite all the wisdom teachings that tell me I shouldn't be. I think fear of death comes with the survival instinct implanted by Mother Nature herself and it would just be unnatural not to be afraid of it. While not having fear may mean transcending my lowly animalistic self and my attachments to the mundane world, being afraid on the other hand means I am still finding reasons to live in this world despite all its faults, and it also makes me focus on what's really important and "live my life to the full" as the cliché goes.

My fear of death must have its roots from the fear of the unknown. I always say that death does not mean an end but rather a transition from one form to another. But what form comes next after life? The wisest gurus in history and scientists of recent years have given us ideas some of which I have adapted to believe, but deep inside I know that in the end they are all but a product of human experience and do not tell us what really is beyond there.

Samhain altar

Three nights before undas, a beautiful ritual in the style of the Babaylans was led by Pol to honor the dead (umalagad). Food, flowers and dance were offered to the ancestors and the recently parted under the watchful eyes of the diwatas.

I think the ritual actually does more benefit to us, the living, than to the departed. In remembering them, we recall that part of us that has gotten lost when they left this world.

Samhain altar
Pol calls upon the spirits of the land.

Samhain altar
Candles are lit in remembrance of the dead. Names, photos and belongings of the departed are placed on the altar. 

Samhain altar

Samhain altar
Dancing and drumming around the altar.

Samhain altar
Ancestors of the babaylans were also honored during the ritual.

Samhain altar
Papa Legba.

Samhain altar
The feast is shared among the participants after the ritual.

Basbasan Nawa!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Lights of Diwali

Somehow I find myself always having an affinity with the goddesses of the arts and beauty. Yeye Oshun has been for me a symbol of gaiety and elegance. Brighid of the Gaels provides me with artistic inspiration and the energy to turn it into craft. Now I pray to Maha Lakshmi, the lotus goddess of wealth, for material providence and sustenance - because the reality nowadays is that art and beauty often costs money. I was also feeling a need to get acquainted with the vedic gods being that the Philippines is a part of Greater India.

The feast of Diwali is traditionally a time to make puja to Lakshmi. Being my first time to do puja I made a  research on the internet, and gods, the information was very overwhelming. Aside from the procedure and materials needed, it is also of course necessary to know what each act, gesture or material offering symbolizes to get a deeper significance out of it.

Thankfully Taj grocery in Makati sells a puja ritual kit for only 100 pesos, which is a great value considering it is packed with almost all the ingredients needed to do puja - different colored kum kum powders, incenses, camphor, mauli thread for decorations, janeau thread to be used as wicks for ghee lamps, a small bottle of anointing perfume, a small clay dish, a mantra booklet which is unfortunately written in devanagari, and lots and lots of different offerings.  

Even with all the preparation, I wasn't sure if I did everything 'right'. By the start of my puja prayer I just let go of my anxiety and let Maha Lakshmi know that I did all I can with utmost sincerity.

Drawing a swastika and lotus flowers on the kalasha, a symbol of Lakshmi

Offerings of kumkum-colored rice, seeds, nuts, grains, and a bottle of anointing oil.

Mixing aksatha (uncooked rice) with sindoor powder.

Lotus rangoli (mandala-shaped art) made from abeer, sindoor and gulal powder.

Aarti plate containing diyas (lamps). The flowers are more than just decoration, the coronets of baby's breath stems holds the lamps into place.

Making a panchamitra of milk, ghee, sugar, honey and yogurt (traditionally curd) to be used to bathe the Hindu statues.

The sacred mauli thread is worn during and after the puja.

The puja items are now prepared.

Burning camphor purifies the space.

The diyas are lit on the aarti plate.

Shri Maha Lakshmi sits on the rangoli wearing a garland. The rangoli sits on the purna-kalasha which is placed on kumkum-colored rice on a banana leaf. It is filled with water, coin, leaves and other items related to Lakshmi. Offerings are placed nearby.

A puja is also made to Ganapati.

दिवाली की शुभकामनाएं
Basbasan Nawa!

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