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Monday, May 20, 2024

Indian Temples of Sumatra

There are more than 70 Indian temples of varying sizes and importance in Sumatra

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Raghu Gururaj
Raghu Gururaj
Ambassador of India to the Republic of Sao Tome and Principe

INDONESIA: For the devout and pious Indian (or Indian Indonesian), the province of Sumatra is like comfort food. Replete with Indian temples of bewildering variety and preferences, Sumatra offers spiritual solace to seekers on a daily basis and draws them on festive occasions. There are more than 70 Indian temples of varying sizes and importance in Sumatra.

In North Sumatra alone there are 40 of them. Given the size of the Indian origin population in Sumatra, estimated between 100,000-125,000, it may not be incorrect to say that there are more Indian temples in North Sumatra per person than in India itself.

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Opinions may be divided as to how Hinduism came to Indonesia – one theory attributes it to South Indian sea traders, scholars, and priests bringing it with them to Sumatra, Java, and Bali in the 1st century AD. The other theory is that the then-existing Indonesia Royalty actually invited Indian priests to bring their spiritual ideas and culture. However, the former theory is widely considered as valid.

But whatever the theory, it should be remembered that there already existed a Javanese tradition based on certain Hindu and Buddhist ideas in Indonesia, which made it easier for Indian culture, spiritualism, and ideas to fuse seamlessly into the pre-existing Javanese folk religions, traditions, and animistic belief system.

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Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

The advent of early Indian settlers led to the creation of early Kingdoms of Indonesia in the 4th century such as the Kutai in East Kalimantan, Tarumanagara in West Java, and Holing (Kalinga) in Central Java. Excavations made between 1960 and 2005 at the Cibuaya and Batujaya sites unearthed the Tarumanagara revered deity Wisnu (Vishnu). Ancient Hindu kingdoms of Java built many square Hindu temples and named local rivers on the island as Gomati and Ganges. These ideas continued to develop during the era of the Srivijaya Empires in Sumatra.

However, it is widely reckoned that the tradition of Indian temple building took a firm foothold in parts of Indonesia around the 8th century when the first Shiva Hindu priests arrived in Bali after traveling through Myanmar, Cambodia, Sumatra, and Java in their search for a place similar to their homeland of Mahabalipuram, an area near today’s Chennai in India.

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Beautiful Indian Temples in Indonesia

In Indonesia, there are three types of Hindu temples – the ‘Candi’ which is the Javanese style, Puras of Bali, and Kuils which is the traditional Hindu temple of Sumatra. The architectural features of the Indian temples in Indonesia differ widely among various ethnic groups. For instance, Balinese Hindu temples do not have a Gopuram adorning the top of the temple, unlike the Hindu temples in South India, where a Gopuram is a prominent feature.

Another distinction is that while Indian temples in India are primarily indoor places of worship, Balinese temples are designed as open-air structures enclosed within a walled compound that is adorned by decorated roofed gates. However, the Indian temples in Sumatra follow the structure of the South Indian temples.

Today Sumatra boasts of the largest congregation of traditional South Indian temples. Built by early Indian settlers, mainly from Thanjavur in 1850-60s, the Mariamman, Kartikeya & Shiva temples in Binjai, 40 km from Medan, today serves as important places of worship to 6000 Indians in North Sumatra and happens to be one of the oldest structures to be built.

Mariamman Koil, Binjai. Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

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The Mariamman temple in Medan city is one of the oldest Hindu temples in Indonesia. Built-in 1884 by early Tamil settlers & traders and located in the ‘Little India’, area, it is a meeting point for people of Indian descent during the festive season.

Mariamman Temple Binjai. Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj
Marriaman Temple, Medan, built in 1884. Photo Credit: Google


Inside of the Mariamman Temple, Medan. Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

The local authorities of Sumatra actively support the celebration of major Indian festivals like Diwali, Thaipusam, Pongal, and Navaratri by the Indian Indonesians. In particular, Thaipusam is celebrated with much devotion by the Tamil community in Medan who gather at Little India (Kampung Madras) to accompany a 125-year-old chariot or Radhoo through the street leading up to the Mariamman temple. The Kavadi Attam (dance) can be witnessed even to this day, along with the traditional practices like carrying a pot of milk, mortification of the skin through piercing of the tongue or cheeks with vel skewers (spears).

The Balaji temple on the outskirts of Medan is one of the modern structures. The construction of Shri Balaji Venkateshwara Koil was based on the request of the Indian Hindu community who live around the temple, which requires the presence of a house of worship. Built about 20 years ago, this temple is modeled on the Tirupati temple in India and some local Indians even refer to it as the mini-Tirupati, though it does not measure up to the Indian version in any way.

Balaji Temple, Medan. Photo Credit: Google

The Sitti Vinayagar, Hanuman, and Ganesha Temples of Medan draw devotees all through the festive seasons.

Sitti Vinayaka Kuil, Medan. Photo Credit: Google
Hanuman Kuil, Medan. Photo Credit: Google

The Balaputradewa Museum, Palembang, West Sumatra has as one of its collections, a statue of Ganesha dated back from Sriwijaya Kingdom (7th – 13th Century).

The Palani Andawer Koil (temple) in Banda Aceh City in Aceh Province has been in existence since the 1600s. However, it fell into disuse and disrepair till the 2000s. This small temple was rebuilt by the local government with the contributions received from Hindu communities in Malaysia and India. The Aceh Government officially inaugurated this temple in 2012 after the 2004 tsunami.

Today this is the only place of worship in Aceh province for Hindus. Like in other parts of Indonesia, Hindu believers in the sharia-based region of Aceh Darussalam province continue to practice their traditions to this day. This Lord Murugan temple is flourishing today and thronged by Acehnese of Tamil-Indian descent and other Hindu devotees.

Traditional practices such as the piercing of cheeks with metal rods during the rituals to mark the Panguni Uthiram festival, playing of Indian percussion instruments as the flower-covered status of Lord Muruga is carried around in a procession on the roads of Banda Aceh, continue to be practiced to this day.

Palani Andawer Kuil, Banda Aceh, Aceh Province. Photo Credit: Google

During the procession, Hindu devotees even break coconuts on the road, like it is done in South India, as a tribute to and plea for a blessing from the deity. Even Muslim Acehnese join the procession which is exotic for them. 

What distinguishes the Indian temples in Sumatra from the South Indian temples is the vibrant colors painted on them. It is clear that these temples drew inspiration and financial support from similar temples built across Southeast Asia, particularly in Singapore and Malaysia.


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