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Finding Religions—Plenty of Them—in Kuala Lumpur

This is part of our Window on Southeast Asia series.

I'll never forget the feeling of getting off the plane at the Kuala Lumpur airport and realizing that I was finally standing in a city with what must be the most exotic name in the world. The name Kuala Lumpur is magical and makes one think of an ancient and exotic city. Before I left the United States, I remember hearing a pop song at the gym in which the singer mentioned a couple of locations in Mexico and Brazil, then adds, "All the way to Kuala Lumpur, I will follow you wherever you may find." The history and the translation of the name, however, may lead to disappointment. The name is Malay and means "Muddy Convergence [of rivers]." Yep, that's it. Its history is a bit of a disappointment too. It was founded only in 1858 when a group of miners looking for tin deposits (this is when tin fetched huge prices) reached the convergence of two rivers and realized they could go no further. So they set up a small settlement and called it "Muddy Convergence." They would have left soon after had they not discovered tin nearby. By the next year half the miners had died of malaria. (Well, it was a muddy convergence in the tropics after all!) It remained a small mining town until the 1880s when a local sultan moved his capitol to the city as it was further away from the territory of another sultanate that was raiding his territory. In 1908 the British made it the capitol of their colony. If the translation of the name and the history of the city are disappointing, a visit to the city is anything but. Today it is the capitol of an independent Malaysia. It is a clean, easy to get around in, compact and not very polluted. It's also a melting pot of people and, as I was to discover, of religions.

Despite its lack of history, Kuala Lumpur has a vibrant culture. This is a city in which the train station looks like a Moorish/Malay palace. This is a city filled with cultural performances of all kinds. This is a city where even the most modern buildings, even skyscrapers, make use of Islamic and Malay motifs. This is a city where Chinatown is as good as Chinatown in San Francisco and Little India is a smaller, cleaner version of Delhi or Mumbai (Bombay.) It has one of the best museums of Islamic art in Asia—bright, towering, artistic mosques, eye-catching Chinese temples, colorful Hindu temples and cathedrals that come straight out of Europe. If you've never been a people watcher, and I've never really been, Kuala Lumpur will change that. If there's one thing Malays seem to love it's color. You can see it in their brightly painted houses, colorful dances, treasured kites, famous weaving and most of all, clothing. Most Malay women wear bright colors wherever they go, often with elaborate decorations. In fact, Malays are famous for a type of woven cloth that actually uses gold thread. Not gold-colored thread, but thread made from gold. I'm not kidding. Fewer Malay men wear traditional cloths, but those who do are just as colorful. Kuala Lumpur's many Indians also wear colorful sarongs. Only the Chinese prefer western clothing, which seems drab in comparison. All this makes any crowded street seem like a kaleidoscope of people.

Islamic style fountain in Kuala Lumpur

Islamic style fountain in Kuala Lumpur.

That description certainly fits Little India. The Indian part of town is full of the sights and smells of India, but only the more pleasant smells. You can smell the aroma of incense, Indian spices, and Indian food cooking as you look at the prayer rugs and jewelry for sale in the Muslim part of Little India. In the rear of that area stands a mosque that combines Moorish and Malay designs and stands at the convergence of rivers that gave Kuala Lumpur its name. In the Hindu part, you can see small jasmine garlands hanging from kiosks as you look through the shops selling Hindu statues and colorful pictures of the Hindu gods... By 6:00 PM the Hindu and Moslem parts of town converge in the Indian night market, conveniently located on the street that more or less divides the two communities. The Indian night market is a welcomed assault on the senses, assuming you're not too easily overwhelmed. Any number of bizarre things can be found, even leeches. No, I don't know why anyone would be in the market for leeches. Muslim women with their bright headscarves do business with Hindu women wearing bright sarongs, and curious Malays drop by to add even more color.

This seems as good a time as any to point out that the word "Malay" refers to the indigenous ethnic group. The word "Malaysian" refers to any citizen of Malaysia, be they Malay, Chinese, Indian, etc.

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