There has always been a sense of solidarity with the folks from Johor. Regardless of race and religion, a certain aura of pride lingers about the people who hail from this southern-most state of Peninsula Malaysia. Engage one in a conversation and be prepared for a long discussion of all the treasures, gourmet discoveries, historical landmarks and attractions the state has to offer.
But as a true blue Johorean myself, I have to say that the biggest joy of growing up in Johor was its distinct local culture that didn’t differentiate between colour and belief. A sense of innate together-ness that made the community one that was diverse yet unified. Malaysia is constantly referred to as a “melting pot” of cultures, and in my humble opinion, Johor is a prime example of that.
Beyond Racial Tolerance
Racial tolerance is something that the government of Malaysia is constantly striving to achieve but Johor is going beyond that. The state puts in an enormous effort to not just build tolerance but also harmony and a concrete assimilation of all races and religion. This is where “Bangsa Johor” comes in.
“Bangsa Johor” was coined by the state authorities to harvest a sense of national integration despite the differences in beliefs and culture. The main goal was to give birth to a community that kept its age-old traditions and origins while still thriving as a unified society that would defend our cultures and our neighbours’ as well.
A Street Of Cultures
The latest endeavour that the state government has announced to cement this racial harmony has been named ‘Persiaran Muafakat Bangsa Johor’, which loosely translates to ‘The Blissful Johorean’s Avenue’. In collaboration with ThinkCity, this project took place in the heart of Johor Bahru, with the aim of creating a landmark street that united five distinct houses of worship, whilst highlighting cultural activities, which further amplified the conservation of ‘Bangsa Johor’.
These five sacred architectures represent the main five religious sects and are legacies of Johor which existed from the days of “The Father of Modern Johor”, Sultan Abu Bakar who reigned in the 19th century.
These five revered landmarks are Arulmigu Rajamariamman Devasthanam Temple, Masjid India Johor Bahru (mosque), Sikh Gudwara Sahib temple, Johor Ancient temple and The Catholic Church of Immaculate Conception – all of which are connected along a two kilometre long road which stems from Jalan Trus, Duke Avenue, Jalan Abdullah Ibrahim and Jalan Ungku Puan.
The Church Of Our Lady
When you do find yourself in Johor Bahru, do take a stroll down ‘Persiaran Muafakat’. We suggest starting at The Catholic Church of Immaculate Conception, a chapel that has truly stood the test of time. Built in 1883, it was initially named as “Our Lady of Lourdes” by the late Reverend Fr. C. Saleilles.
The reverend first came to Johor by boat from Singapore when Johor was an outpost of the island to guide poor catholic families and tend to their needs. His Highness Sultan Abu Bakar would later graciously donate the land to the people and in 1883, “Our Lady of Lourdes” became an established chapel. In time, the building also served as a funeral parlour.
The present day magnificent church was revived by Rev. Fr. M Duvelle in 1921 and is the oldest church in Johor. Visit the chapel and marvel at the huge statue of Our Lady which was donated by the late Sultan Ibrahim.
Work your way down Jalan Gereja (Church Road), and onto Jalan Trus. Keep walking and soak in the juxtaposition of downtown Johor Bahru passing modern hotels, old school kopitiams and timeworn tailors with their ancient Singer sewing machines upfront. 10 minutes down the road, you’ll reach the Johor Ancient Temple.
The Johor Ancient Temple has a history of more than 140 years. For those who want to immerse themselves in the complex intricacies of Taoism, this is the spot for you. Each main dialect group; Hakka, Hainan, Cantonese, Teochew and Hokkien, worship their individual deities, and all these Gods are represented here in this historical temple.
Once a year, a legendary parade called “Chingay” (Parade of Deities) – the largest of its kind in Malaysia takes place on the 20th to the 22nd of the first month of the Lunar calendar, attracting almost half a million of worshippers and tourists. Be forewarned, there is a bit of jostling involved for this eye-opening experience. Men, usually of the younger generation, are selected to carry their respective deities on huge floats and walk for miles from the temple all throughout downtown on the 2nd day of Chingay.
As it is considered lucky to touch the deity, there will be a fair bit of shoving and pushing and the deities amidst their sedans will rock quite violently with the worshippers yelling “Huat ah!” or “Heng ah!” which calls for prosperity and fortune. Chingay in JB was officially acknowledged as a National Cultural Heritage event in 2012.
Right opposite the Johor Ancient Temple stands the Gurdwara Sahib Sikh Temple. Built in 1916 and fully constructed by 1921, this Sikh temple is one of six in Johor. Back then, the Sikh people first settled in Johor as part of the police force. Some even served as the Johor royal Sultan’s Guard.
The late Sultan Ibrahim granted the Sikhs the land to build their sacred temple when they helped put out a fire in 1916. During the Japanese occupation from 1940 to 1945, the temple was overtaken by the Japanese and the Sikh community were forced to flee to various nearby communities. They returned after the independence of Malaya in 1957 and reconstructed the temple, adding in the Darbar Sahib (prayer hall) on the first floor and the ground floor was utilized as a Langar Hall (kitchen/ canteen).
To cater to the growing Sikh community, in 1980 the community raised donations to upgrade the new building and officially re-declared it open in 1992. Symbolizing selfless service, Langar represents the love and brotherhood among Sikhs.
Everyone is seen as equals in this hall regardless of age, gender and social status and are encouraged to sit together to eat the same meal and follow the same rules. When visiting this particular temple, visitors must cover their hair out of respect for the Sikh’s way of life.
A Temple Of Devotion
As you exit Gurdwara Sahib, follow the fragrant Indian flower stalls and you’ll find yourself standing in front of the magnificent Arulmigu Rajamarimman Devasthana Temple. This amazingly intricate temple was built in 1911 and houses more than 120 statues and 26 wall paintings inside.
Back in the early 20th century, Indian labourers were brought in to work for Sultan Ibrahim around various areas in Johor. The head labourer, Kootha Perumal Vandayar, requested permission from Sultan Ibrahim to allow them to build a temple so that they could hold their religious ceremonies. Ever benevolent, the late Sultan not only granted them the land, he also gave them money to construct the temple. Back then it was only called Mariammam Temple. In 1985, it was changed as Arulmigu Rajamariamman Devasthana, as the word “Raja” (meaning king) was as a nod of appreciation towards the goodwill of Sultan Ibrahim.
It could possibly take you hours to really appreciate the detail that went into the construction of this temple as you gaze upon the many Gods, each representing the different virtues esteemed in Hindu tradition. One notable feature is the Rajagopuram, a five tiered, gold plated Kalasam, built according to ancient religious texts. The gigantic, grandiose 75 feet Rajagopuram is also the highest in Johor.
Annually, the main festival, Adipourum is conducted for 10 days in the month of Aadi of the Tamil year. 15,000 devotees and worshippers line the streets of Johor to witness a chariot procession bearing the Gods, Sri Vinayagar, Sri Murugan and His consorts followed by another Chariot carrying Arulmigu Rajamariamman in his full glory.
When you’ve had a fill of dazzling your eyes, walk further down Jalan Trus and turn into Jalan Dhoby and then unto Jalan Duke to visit Masjid India Johor Bahru. While there are many mosques in Johor, with Islam being the national religion of the state, Masjid India has its own unique history.
Built in the 1950s, the land was previously a bread-making factory and was bought for RM20,000 by Dato Hj Abdul Majid and Haji Mohamed Ibrahim. Together, over time, they constructed a small mosque. Sultan Ibrahim alongside 300 Indian Muslims elected Dato Hj Abdul Majid to be the first president of the mosque.
Under this tutelage of 23 years, the mosque saw two renovations and after his death, the administration of the Surau was handed over to his son-in-law Dato Haji Abdul Wahid. Remembered for his humility and modesty, with his own money, Dato Haji Abdul Wahid purchased a piece of land right by the mosque to build the majestic three-storey building it is today.
Enriching The State
The geographical closeness of each of these sacred places exemplifies the togetherness of the people of Johor and proves that diversity does not nullify the people but instead enriches the state as a whole. ‘Persiaran Muafakat Bangsa Johor’ also plays a huge role in tourism by promoting the state’s unique history and richness in culture, emphasising on the concept of preserving and cultivating Johor’s age-old legacy.
Think City is one the parties involved who have been promoting the project and aims to highlight each of the religious houses’ cultural activities. By working in close collaboration with the private sector and government, Think City’s main goal would be to facilitate the communication between all parties to further position JB as a hub for creative and culture cultivation in Malaysia. For example, communities may leverage on Think City’s partners like Go Asean who will be able to increase awareness for the religious units’ festivals and cultural activities.
Another example would be Think City’s efforts to compile all the activities into one calendar to alert others outside of the respective communities so that their net is cast wider in order to reach a larger audience.
The focus and emphasis here is also to strengthen the creative ecosystem in JB and to add value to the city by running public grants programmes to attract interest from the public to initiate a mechanism within the communities to champion their own causes.