One day back in the 1960s, a Dayak hunter living in the outskirts of Kuching, Sarawak named Abi Benggali was walking through the jungle areas of Matang when he came to the slope of a mountain. To his surprise, he found a deserted but sturdy building structure there. The interior was made of belian wood, which strangely remained undamaged despite being abandoned for ages. From the relics he found inside, he finally realized that this was an old Hindu temple. He was most attracted to a carved wooden elephant and took it home with him.
The very next day, Abi returned the wooden structure to the temple. His decision the day before to take it home with home proved unwise, as he suffered from terrible nightmares the night before. He talked about his strange discovery to the press. When the news of the discovery of a lost Hindu temple in the rain forest reached the ears of the local Hindu community, much effort was put in to unravel the mystery of this abandoned temple and to restore it to its previous condition.
A few elders from the local Hindu community revealed that the existence of the temple was not completely unknown to them. Their parents who first arrived in Sarawak in 1867 built the temple by using simple tools and belian wood from the surrounding jungle, dedicated the temple to the Mother Goddess Sri Maha Mariamman, or Amman. Some were even convicts from South India, banished to work in Sarawak in the mid-nineteenth century. The temple was mainly built by Tamil Hindus workers from India and Ceylon recruited by the second White Rajah of the Sarawak Kingdom, Sir Charles Brooke through the Kangani system to work in his tea and coffee tea plantations on the mountain slope.
The Matang Coffee Estate was opened by the Brooke family t in 1867. The estate was managed in the same way as those more larger ones in Sri Lanka by a Superintendent, Mr. Anderson who had worked as an estate manager in Sri Lanka for many years and was specially hired by Charles Brooke.
Following the completion of the temple two to three years after the arrival of the Hindu workers, a priest from India was brought in to hold the consecration ceremony. More workers were brought in from India and Ceylon, and Brooke's 600 acre plantation employed more than a thousand workers during the height of his commercial success. The workers lived in barracks close by.
However, live was not all easy for the workers. They were oppressed by the foremen, also known as Kanganis, thus the name the Kangani system. The workers were very poorly paid. The local temple, like all other temples, functioned as the center of the community's social and religious activities.
It was later revealed through much research and interviews with the local elders that this Amman temple was not the only place of worship that the plantation workers built. There was another Murugan temple built as the number of Hindu workers increased. Some Catholic workers build a chapel for the Blessed Virgin Mary. There two prayer houses are yet to be located, though after almost two centuries, it is more likely that they have lost to the jungle.
The plantation was eventually closed in the early 20th century due to poor management and the workers were given a choice to either return to India or move to the now developing Kuching to work in road construction. Due to their bitter experience under the Kangani system, most of the older generation returned to India and Ceylon, while more than 50 families of the new generation, being born here and having lived in Sarawak all their lives, stayed back. The younger workers took the main bronze statue of Amman with them to a small shrine they had built near the Sarawak club in the city
As more Hindu workers were brought into Kuching to build roads, a small temple was build along Batu Lintang Road to serve their growing community. Decades later in 1991, a brand new Hindu temple was built in Road Rock, and the statue was relocated here permanently. Though the idol continued to be well-maintained, the temple in Matang was left forgotten. Had it not been built by belian wood, it would have completely collapsed.
As Abi's story went public, local Hindus in Kuching started to campaign to restore the colonial era temple. An expedition to its location in 1968 soon led to the path build by Brooke to be cleared. In its place, a proper road was built.
The renovation was completed on December 4th, 1970 and the high mass was attended by more than half a thousand members of Sarawak's small Hindu community. The temple was then placed under the administration and care of the Kuching Hindu Association of Ban Hock Road.
In 2007, the temple once again went through another major renovation. The new Mount Matang Sri Maha Mariamman renovation committee rebuilt the temple with belian wood from the mountain, thanks to the permission granted by the Sarawak Forestry Department. Craftsmen from South India were brought in to carve the belian posts and plaster decorations on the temple walls. Apart from being a colonial heritage, the temple is probably the only Hindu temple in the world made of timber and the temple committee intends on maintaining that position.
In 2011, the renovation was completed and wall attended by hundreds of worshipers Strangely enough, most of the temple's devotees today are Chinese merchants who have contributed to the temple through various donations. The government granted announced a grant of RM5 000 for the temple committee to carry out general maintenance of the temple as it recognized the temple as an important historical building.
The consecration ceremony was also attended by James Lionel Brooke and Jason Desmond Brooke, the grandson and great grandson of the third and last White Rajah, Charles Vyner Brooke.
His excellency James Lionel Brooke
Though the temple has been successfully reconstructed, there is one more nearby building that is yet to be worked on; the Brooke bungalow. It has been recorded that the Rajah and Ranee of the Sarawak Kingdom have steyed in the Coffee Estate for about three weeks in 1870. Visitors to their grand bungalow in the area have described the gentle gradient of the road contrived by the superintendent of the place; “The Rajah’s garden is arranged on terraces cut in the slope of the hill; there the roses bloom magnificently and the jasmine attains a luxuriance I have not yet seen. All the different flowers we have in Sarawak seem to thrive remarkably well.” Sadly today, it is nothing more than an old wooden building. Something needs to be done to restore this place too.