19 May 2015

The Guardians of Lim Chu Kang

Unbeknownst to most, the Hindus of Singapore observe something similar to the Chinese 'Qing Ming' Festival, where family graves are venerated and cleaned annually. The Hindu Day of Remembrance takes place on the sunday before Deepavali and Indians can be seen visiting Lim Chu Kang Cemetery to pay respects and place offerings such as fruits, flowers and Indian confectionaries on their ancestors’ tombs. They will also light oil lamps and place incenses in burners around the tomb as a mark of respect while they remember the faithful departed.

Hindu Indians are traditionally cremated within the day of death in India so it is rather uncommon for their deceased to be buried in a grave unless they were wealthy. However, it seems that several Straits Indians in both Singapore and Malaysia have chosen to bury the dead over cremation.

The Lim Chu Kang Hindu Cemetery takes up one of the smallest plots of land in the area. However, a peculiar sight awaits those who make their way up a small knoll overlooking the numerous rows of old gravestones. As you tread up a narrow path, flanked by the neat arrangement of graves on one side, the small but conspicuous shrine presents itself.

This curious looking tree stump would give goose pimples to most at first sight. After asking some of the Indians who were offering their respects to a grave nearby, I found out that this was a shrine devoted to worshiping the Hindu goddess Kali, who is also known as the Goddess of death, destruction, and sacrifice.

As if a nod to Singapore's identity as a melting pot of cultures, there was a motley mixture of several Buddhist & Taoist deity idols, in addition to a small figurine of a dog (left here in jest?) placed before the tree stump. There was also an orange box painted around the shrine, as if to demarcate the sacred ground on which the shrine stood.

A second tree nearby was marked in similar fashion and adorned with a flower garland to worship Shiva, the husband of Kali and one of the main deities of Hinduism. A trident, the weapon of Shiva and also a representation of Muneeswaran, one of Shiva's many forms, protruded out from the concrete floor before front of both shrines. (There are a few temples devoted to Muneeswaran in Singapore and Malaysia).

We found limes with some red saffron powder placed upon each of the pointed ends on the trident before Kali. Hindus believe that limes have the ability to absorb negative energy and transfer it away from the devotee. It is also usually offered to more fierce or protective forms of Kali and it is not uncommon to find lime combined with Indian chili to make a protective charm to repel the evil eye.

What are the purpose of such shrines in these macabre surroundings? According to the teachings of Hinduism, a certain form of both Shiva and Kali live in cremation grounds or cemeteries. Known respectively as 'Shmashana Adhipati' and 'Shmashana Kali' (a 'shmashan' is a Hindu cremation ground), the pair of deities are known to ward off evil spirits lurking in the vicinity. Hence, most Hindus will pray at these shrines while visiting the tombs of their ancestors.

As we went closer, it was evident that the trunk of the Shiva shrine had been liberally slathered with vibhuti, a thick white ash made from a special kind of burnt wood. Shiva is often depicted with his body is covered with fresh ash from the cremation ground, the ash itself being a symbol of death, regeneration and change.

There was also a tripunda (literally "three marks" in Sanskrit) embellishment , a holy symbol attached to the 'forehead' area of the face on the tree trunk.

Earth dug up from a recent fresh burial.
As I took a leisurely walk among the myriad of tombstones, I found solace in the tranquility of Lim Chu Kang. This was an area where most city dwellers would avoid like the plague, except for remembrance services. The absence of people allowed me to soak in the beauty of Mother Nature I trudged along the dew soaked grass while birds fluttered and sang in the trees around the cemetery.

Concrete bollards along the tree line, possibly blocking access to the steep drop at the edge of the cemetery.
An inescapable part of the cycle of life, people generally confront death only when they are forced to do so. For most, it remains safely hidden away until it ultimately appears, seemingly out of nowhere.

For the grave diggers and cemetery workers of Lim Chu Kang, there is nothing ghastly or morbid about the atmosphere of the cemetery. For them, the cruel reality of death is just another day on the job, toiling under the hot tropical sun.

You can find more photos in my Flickr Album.

Article & Photos copyright of Aaron Chan / Andrew Him

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1 comment:

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