The Vivekananda Ashram, Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Campaign to Preserving History and Heritage, by Dr. Swagata Sinha Roy

The Vivekananda ashram in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia has been in the news these days for the wrong reason(s). A protest was carried out today, 9 November by Malaysian Indians and local heritage lovers against a proposed condominium project at the site of the ashram in Brickfields at the centre of the Malaysian capital city.

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The spiritual leader and social reformer Swami Vivekananda visited Malaysia in 1893 and the Ashram was built in 1904 by the Sri Lankan Tamil immigrants.  An elegant statue of Swami Vivekananda, attired in his usual flowing robes, stands on a pedestal at the centre of a circular lawn in front of the Ashram building.

In the past, besides spiritual discourses and related activities, the ashram also conducted yoga, dance and music classes. The Ashram is in an area called Brickfields in Kuala Lumpur, a prime location also known as Little India. Many shops, stalls and other business are owned by the Indian community. The Ashram area is surrounded by many tall residential buildings and major business establishments, shopping complexes and malls. The area is also well connected through the modern metro rail and historical railway network.

Brickfields’ cultural significance also lies in the mosques, Chinese and Buddhist temples and churches which are present in the area and apparently are of heritage value for the city and the country. The Vivekananda Ashram is one of the structures of historical and heritage importance.

According to the trustees, the institution is facing financial crisis, a situation that can be solved by selling the area to some builder. The trustees say that the decision to sell the property was made in order to have funds for schools run by the trust and for other charitable activities. The trustees say that the ashram per se will not be demolished but people protesting feel that the proposed new building will overshadow the Ashram. The board of trustees maintained that the 110-year-old structure together with the bronze statue of Swami Vivekananda, will be retained to preserve its symbolic value. The protesters strongly feel that it is not right for the trustees to sell the ashram and the surrounding land which will become ‘invisible’ by the super imposition of  a multi-storeyed sky scraper, thereby undermining the  spiritual, cultural and historical value of the structure.  The Save the Vivekananda Ashram Action Committee, the group spearheading the protest feels it is disrespectful to have the ashram dwarfed by the condominium. The group has also written to UNESCO to save the heritage building, stating that the ashram has, ‘historic importance in the Malaysian history, its social and cultural association, its richness in exhibiting diversity and evolvement of the multicultural social fabric of the Malaysian community’.
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The protestors demand that the ashram be gazetted under the Heritage Act, to save this historical building from ambitious developers who want to buy and develop the area with a 23-storey residential tower with 264 units and an eight-storey car park, just above and behind the ashram building.

The person who till recently was the honorary treasurer of the ashram is also the CEO of the building developer which has got the bid for developing the site.  Now the public is questioning the whole nature of the tender process, the transparency as well as the functioning of the trust. It is reported that the government offer to gazette the building as a heritage site was rejected by the board of trustees in the year 2008. People are questioning, why the gazette notification offer rejected by the trustees.
This is not the first time that the ashram land has made news about its sale. In fact, this is the third time since 1989 that the ashram land issue has been raised. In both the previous occasions when the trustees tried to sell the heritage site, it was strongly objected to by the public.

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This time the Indian community has raised the issue at various levels to preserve the site and its heritage value. Looking at the scale of mobilisation of the Indian Community as in the morning march on Sunday, the 9th of November, the declaration as well as the preservation of the ashram as a heritage site seems plausible.

 

 

The author can be contacted at   swagroy@hotmail.com

 

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