One of Ipoh’s tourism assets is its serene and scenic cave temples, especially the Chinese temples. Most of them were built in the characteristic style of temples one can see in some of the old Chinese Kung-Fu movies from China.
Their facades are colourful with glazed tiles roof and symbols of dragons on the rooftops, and on the ground and inside the caves large statues of Buddha or other deities, such as Kwan Yin (Goddess of Mercy) abound.
However, amidst their splendour and attraction, the estimated 30 cave temples in and around Ipoh can be a worrying factor. These temples are increasingly popular among local and foreign devotees and sightseers, and as such the safety aspect needs to be given more attention as there is a danger of rockfalls which can occur at any time.
Some of these temples, having been established about a century ago, have attained international recognition. Among them are Sam Poh Tong and Perak Tong. Started as small shrines, many have developed over the years without interruption from the authorities. Some were built precariously on cliff-faces, as though clinging on them and others underneath huge cliffs.
Their massive renovation plans have transformed them into magnificent and colourful structures, which are attracting both devotees and visitors by the bus-loads daily.
Over the years, there have been a number of rockfalls in the state, some of which were disastrous. Among the incidents was at Gunung Cheroh in 1973 which killed 42 squatters living at the foot of a limestone cliff behind a Hindu temple.
The most recent one occurred inside Perak Tong on January11, 2009, when a big chunk of rock fell in the main cavern of the temple killing a security guard and injuring two tourists; while 16 other tourists were rescued in a three-hour operation. As a result, the temple was closed for about six months.
According to a study carried out, the primary causes of rockfalls are attributed to the rainwater along the many joints and fissures present in the limestone and it is inevitable that the rock slabs will break from the cliff where such action has sufficiently reduced their stability.
Rockfalls could have also been hastened by a number of secondary causes, such as vibrations like low intensity earthquakes, quarry blastings and passing vehicles nearby and oscillation related to wind blowing through vegetation growing on cliff faces and loss in cohesion due to prolonged periods of wet weather. Rock slabs and blocks will therefore fall off occasionally although the time and period of successive rockfalls are unpredictable.
Therefore, the cave temples have often been described as “time-bombs” in view of the dangerous situation in which most of them were located and built, and the relevant authorities had not checked on the development of the temples to ensure they are safe despite the existing safety directives.
Though the state government may be aware and concerned about the situation, it has continued to find great difficulty to evict the occupants or demolish the structures. Any action taken against the temples can create some sensitive problems. So, it places the authorities in a dilemma.
Although such rockfalls are rare and unpredictable, the authorities must continuously monitor the situation in the cave temples and their surroundings to ensure necessary precautionary measures are observed for the safety of the visitors.
Perhaps the respective temple’s management committees need to carry out regular safety checks of the surroundings, such as tell-tale signs like rock-fall debris strewn about the cave floor or near the entrance or outside the caves. If rock debris is seen, then the cave should be closed and not reopened till the stability of the rocks have been ascertained by the Geological Sciences Department.
However, these should be done without scaring away worshippers and visitors from frequenting the cave temples.
Safety guidelines have been in existence for years, but have not been strictly enforced. Among them are conditions for construction and the safe distance buildings need to be from the foot of limestone hills.
Do we have to wait for another rockfall to take safety measures at the cave temples seriously? Safety cannot be compromised, but should be a priority at all times. Therefore, what is needed is less talk and more action from all relevant agencies and departments, and as well as those responsible for safety.