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The heart of Jaffna Tamil community
IN the course of researching for this series, I noticed that there is often little connection between the streets and the personalities they were named after.
For example, you cannot find anything about Loke Yew in Jalan Loke Yew, as his businesses, properties and even grave are located in other parts of Kuala Lumpur.
In that sense, how Jalan Vivekananda and its surrounding establishments has formed a historical ecosystem is a rarity in the city.
The street in Brickfields is surrounded by the Vivekananda Ashram, SJK (T) Vivekananda, SMK Vivekananda and the Hundred Quarters, which reflects the foundation and development of the Jaffna (Sri Lankan) Tamil community in the country.
These components are tightly interwoven, making this area the best classroom for history lessons about this community.
Therefore, it is little wonder that a redevelopment project to put a tower over the ashram has drawn so much objection from history buffs and the general public alike.
First Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra opened the Vivekananda secondary school, an extension of the primary school built next to the ashram, in 1958.
Furthermore, the Hundred Quarters has already been surrendered for this purpose.
The Vivekananda Ashram started out as a reading hall in 1904.
Its Mughal-styled grand structure was built after a round of fundraising in 1911 while the adjacent Tamil school opened its doors in 1914 with 14 students.
“The area was where the first generation of Jaffna (Sri Lankan) Tamil community in Malaya settled. Many of them were government clerks staying at the Hundred Quarters. Further away, where KL Sentral and Brickfields Asia College are now situated, stood rows of government quarters for Indian civil servants back then.
“They sweated blood to build these establishments to preserve their culture and heritage,” said an old-timer of Brickfields who preferred to remain anonymous.
“The ashram — which denotes a holy place — was in honour of Swami Vivekananda, who was revered as the hero for showing the West how good our religion was.
“His teachings were the heart of the community and the ashram was the centre where religious dignitaries and their followers congregated,” he said.
Vivekananda, the chief disciple of the 19th century Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, wowed the West after speaking at the inaugural 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, preaching oneness of humanity among other things.
Featuring a statue of the spiritual teacher extraordinaire in a flowing robe, the ashram also served to commemorate Vivekananda’s visit to Malaya in 1893.
Many famous people have pleasant recollections of the ashram.
Classical dancer Datuk Ramli Ibrahim held the first class of his Sutra dance school there in 1987; historian Tan Sri Khoo Kay Kim’s son had his first dance performance there, too.
“Among all the Indian spiritual establishments in the country, we feel that the ashram has the strongest significance.
“The ashram can never be replaced. Moreover, how many more century-old buildings can you find in Kuala Lumpur?” he said, adding that he learned Tamil, meditation and religious hymns from the Tamil school.
The people behind the ashram, founded four schools in the Klang Valley and are still managing them.
First Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra officiated at the opening of the Vivekananda secondary school, an extension of the primary school built next to the ashram in 1958.
Another old-timer, who was the son of a former civil servant and raised at the Hundred Quarters, shared that the ashram was a hive of activity on the birthdays of Vivekananda, Sri Ramakrishna and his consort Sri Sarada Devi.
“The celebrations were really grand. Hordes of people, who were basically neighbours, converged on the ashram preparing cauldrons of dishes in the compound while trishaws streamed in with carts of vegetables for cooking,” he reminisced.
“For the children growing up at the Hundred Quarters, our Sunday routine was to gather in front of an altar with the picture of the Goddess of Education, Saraswathi, at the Tamil school and listen to hymns and lectures.
“After that, there was a vegetarian spread for all and we were always so excited about it,” he added with a smile.
Both could not imagine losing the ashram to urban development.
“Many will be devastated,” one of them said, but both were optimistic that Tourism and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz would help make gazetting the ashram as a heritage site a reality.
KL ashram, surrounding area now a heritage site
KUALA LUMPUR • A century-old ashram in Kuala Lumpur's Little India and its surrounding land have been declared a heritage site by the government, Malaysia's Tourism and Culture Minister Nazri Aziz said yesterday.
He said that the government has rejected an appeal by the Vivekananda ashram's board of trustees, who were against turning the building and its 0.4ha land into a heritage site.
The trustees had first tried to sell the land about 26 years ago, and made another attempt 11 years ago to sell it for RM15 million. But both plans were aborted after public protests, including via the collection of more than 100,000 signatures, Malaysian media reports say.
The ashram was built in 1908 in honour of Swami Vivekananda, a famous philosopher from India. The building is used today for community education and spiritual development.
The area around the ashram in Brickfields has turned since the mid-1990s into one filled with glitzy condominiums and high-rise offices centred on the Malaysian capital's main rail transport hub called KL Sentral.
Datuk Seri Nazri said in a Parliament reply yesterday: "If they want to make changes to the building or land, or if they want to do something to it, they must meet the heritage commissioner. Case is closed."