By Ian Anderson
I have lived in Malaysia for more than 28 years, the first 27 months in the Shangri-La Hotel KL. I call this period of my life “Anderson in Wonderland”, but it was not the hotel that made it that, it was the staff and local guests who took me into their hearts and homes and made sure I took part in every special occasion; festival, weddings and even funerals, of every race or religion. Those months were an unforgettable kaleidoscope of sounds and sights, colours and exotic food. It was a miracle I actually found time and energy to go to work!
My first Deepavali was arranged by a local friend, a university professor, who took it upon himself that I should learn about how to celebrate the Hindu New Year. It was an evening I shall never forget! Around 8pm that fine evening we arrived in a street somewhere near Brickfields and the view was stunning! Every house was brightly lit with a myriad of coloured lights, both inside and outside. The whole street glittered and sparkled like a child’s imaginary fairyland. Beams of light pouring from open doors and windows, added to the brilliance of the scene.
But that was not all, for as we entered my professor’s home I was struck by the incredible scene before me. For apart from a table loaded with special festival delicacies, the room was bereft of furniture which had been replaced with lights and lamps of every description; hundreds of them; and on the floor, a delicate Kolam decorated with miniature oil lamps, their flamed dancing in the gentle evening breeze. It was time to savour the special menu, flavoured with exotic spices from the shores of India and beyond. But my journey did not end there for it was time to visit the neighbours, on both sides of the street, for more tastes of India, served by the prettiest of girls in multi-coloured, silk saris reflecting the multitude of lights in every home.
Then, around 10pm, it was time to visit the temple. In the Brickfields area, there are nine temples, five of which are said to be more than a century old. On arrival, I was greeted by the priest and presented with a garland of flowers, which I am assured is an honour reserved only for VIP guests. He then applied the red Tika (dot) to my forehead and I was escorted into the outer courtyard. Here, there was an enormous Kolam with every coloured grain of flour meticulously positioned, with dozens of those flickering oil lamps to enhance it.
Finally, in the inner courtyard, I was presented with two sticks – it was time to do the Dandiya or traditional stick dance. About 60 people formed themselves into two concentric circles facing each other. When the music started each circle moved clockwise, clicking their sticks against those opposite. As the tempo increased the circles moved faster and knuckles were clearly in danger.
As I left the temple, exhausted, around 11.30pm the priest kindly presented me with two bags of rice and I returned to my hotel, looking, to the amusement of the staff, more like a reformed Hindi than a Christian!