Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Save this iconic landmark

Along The Watchtower: The Star

Published: Wednesday November 5, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Wednesday November 5, 2014 MYT 8:09:34 AM

Save this iconic landmark

Redevelopment of the Vivekananda Ashram in Brickfields would end its spiritual and historical role and sully the legacy of the revered monk.

THE pavement in front of the Vivekananda Ashram in Brickfields was a hive of activity during lunchtime on Monday.
Scores of people stopped to sign a petition objecting the proposed massive condominium to be built – behind and above – the faux Mughal-styled landmark.

By noon, some 4,000 had already added their names to the list at the makeshift booths.

Before going there, I found that more than 14,000 had signed the petition online while the Save Vivekananda Ashram Facebook page showed close to 11,000 likes.

The plan to build on the 0.4ha of prime land at Lot 33, Jalan Tun Sambanthan is not new, though.

It is the third since 1989 and it has certainly not been the case of being three times a charm. The trustees of the building are facing thrice the level of ire instead.

Under the plan, a 23-storey apartment housing 264 units would tower above the ashram along with an eight-storey car park.
In architectural terminology, the block would be “cantilevered” above.

Those in the forefront of the protest have made their reasons clear. The ashram has served the community since 1904, two years after the death of Swami Vivekananda, India’s most prominent spiritual philosopher who visited Malaya in 1893.

Pioneered by Sri Lankan Tamils, it started out as a reading hall. According to a 1911 newspaper report, funds for a permanent building were started with a donation of $1,500. That means the grand structure is less than 103 years old.

Vivekananda, whose elegant statue clad in flowing robes stands in front of the building, was a disciple of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, 19th Century Hindu saint.

Among other things, he preached the oneness of humanity and that all paths led to enlightenment.

Vivekananda became world famous after speaking at the inaugural 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, a pivotal moment for different religions to come together for peace, where he called for the end of sectarianism, bigotry and fanaticism.

During his brief life – he died at the age of 39 – Vivekananda touched the lives of many, including John D. Rockefeller who donated much of his wealth after meeting the monk.

He also inspired scientist Nikola Tesla on matter and energy.

Reclusive American author J.D. Salinger was influenced by his works while Russian literary giant Leo Tolstoy was another enthusiast. The late Beatle George Harrison was also a Vivekananda devotee.

Those against the development feel that any development over the building would effectively end its role as a spiritual landmark and dishonour the legacy of the monk.

“The proposed development not only demeans the work of pioneer Tamils but also sends a signal that no historic spiritual or cultural site, whether Hindu, Christian or Muslim, is free from the ravages of property development,” states the preamble to the online petition.

The ashram’s board of trustee’s chairman Tan Sri Dr K. Ampikaipakan has said that the decision was made because funds were needed for schools under its trusteeship – the nearby SJK (T) Vivekananda, the Vivekananda primary and secondary schools in KL, SJK (T) Thamboosamy Pillay in Sentul – and other charities.

“People talk about the ashram’s symbolic value, but the reality is we don’t even have the money to paint the building,” he was quoted as saying by Star Metro.

In an interview with a radio station, Ampikaipakan expressed his disappointment with critics.

“Have they dropped a ringgit for the welfare of the students?” he asked.

Raja Singham, owner of the Brickfields Asia College and a member of the “Save the Vivekananda Ashram Action Committee”, responded immediately by pledging to donate RM500,000 if the plan is scrapped.

“Many want to donate to preserve the building, both in Malaysia and as far away as Germany,” he said, claiming that the trustees had rejected applications for new members since 2004.

One of those who turned up to sign the petition said the lack of money was a poor excuse.

 “We hear that there are 300 members but only 80 are active and only three are trustees. How can they decide for the community?” asked another man who signed the petition.

Veteran journalist Balan Moses, who has written two books on the neighbourhood – Brickfields: A Place, A Time, A Memory (2007) and Brickfields and Beyond: Stories from the Past (2012), said development should not be at the expense of heritage structures.
“I cannot imagine Brickfields without the ashram as it is now, just as I cannot imagine the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church or the Buddhist Maha Vihara dwarfed by an immense structure above it,” he said.

Yesterday’s revelation by Tourism and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz that the ashram could not be listed as a national heritage because trustees were refusing to allow it is likely to fuel the mounting anger.

But although DBKL has urged those against the project to submit objections by Nov 11, statements by Federal Territory Minister Datuk Seri Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor and Kuala Lumpur Mayor Datuk Seri Ahmad Phesal Talib have given the impression that City Hall’s hands are tied.

That is not quite true. The minister has enough powers under Section 3 of the FT (Planning) Act 1982 and Section 18(1) to reject the plan.

> Associate Editor M. Veera Pandiyan’s favourite Vivekananda quote is: The greatest religion is to be true to your own nature. Have faith in yourselves.

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