Fri, 27 Jun 2003

Nimmala temple, more than a place of worship

Multa Firdaus, The Jakarta Post, Tangerang, Banten

At first glance, Vihara Nimmala, or Boen San Bio, simply looks like a small, brightly colored Chinese shrine with a unique roof adorned with a couple of dragons.

But upon second glance, the 314-year-old temple on Jl. Pasar Baru, Tangerang municipality, is actually a large and glorious Buddhist temple decorated with a total of 5,800 red-colored paper lanterns suspended from its vast ceiling.

Right inside the main gate, visitors to the temple are greeted by the replicas of two lions brought by traders from Tiongkok in the late 16th century. The lions, flanking the temple proper, are believed to be the eternal guardians of the temple.

"The temple's main building was burned down in 1998 and we managed to renovate it after collecting funds from members of our congregation," Sukyatno Nugroho, the Vihara Nimmala promotion consultant, told The Jakarta Post.

Despite the destruction, several sacred legacies, like the grave of Mbah Raden Suryakentjana -- a prince of Banten Kingdom, -- the dragon canoe figureheads of Pendopo Peh Cun hall, the Dhamasala building where the Buddha statue is worshiped, and an ever-flowing old well that is believed to be the source of life, were not touched by fire.

A three-meter-high statue of Dewi Kwan Im -- believed to be the reincarnation of Avolakitesvara or Bodhisattva among the Chinese -- which is ready to help anyone who worships and calls her name, stands along the outside wall of the Dhamasala building facing a beautiful park.

In conjunction with the temple's renovation, Nugroho also initiated the construction of a five-ton Thian Sin Lo, a massive bowl made out of onyx into which worshipers place their joss sticks. Since the Thian Sin Lo is the heaviest of those found in Buddhist temples throughout the country, Vihara Nimmala was inducted into the Indonesian Museum of Records (MURI) in 2000.

When visitors step onto the veranda of the main building, they will face the main altar upon which stands Sinbeng Khong-co Hok Tek Ceng Sin, the highest deity in Buddhism. The main building has 10 rooms of worship with a total of 17 statues of deities.

Tagara Wijaya, a senior advisor of the Vihara Nimmala Foundation, said that congregation members mainly worshiped God, Buddha, prophet Khon Tze and prophet Lao Tze in addition to the 17 gods, including eight gods that represent the good aspects of human nature.

"However, this complex is not only for Buddhists or congregation members -- all visitors are welcome here. The doors to this temple is always open, and it never sleeps," he said.

He explained that the daily activities at the Dhamasala building included the storage of a three-meter-tall Buddha Rupang statue and religious activities. Every Sunday, worshipers of all ages come to the temple, and new brides and grooms come to receive their blessings from the priests.

"Many people also come to the temple just to visit Mbah Raden's grave," he said. He said the grave was first found on the riverbank of the Cisadane, but was later removed to the temple complex to save it from erosion and development projects.

A small building with a dome was built over the grave to honor the Banten Kingdom, because Raden Suryakentjana was a member of royalty. Even today, many people pay their respects by visiting the grave.

The Pendopo Peh Cun is small shrine displaying a couple of preserved figureheads of two dragon canoes painted in red and yellow. Close to midnight on the fifth day of the fifth month in the Chinese lunar calendar, hundreds of Buddhists will flock to the hall with the same intention: to wish for prosperity and happiness in the year ahead, after taking part in a Chinese traditional ceremony called Peh Cun.

The round well located behind the temple hall of the main building, is another favorite spot among visitors. Visiting Japanese, Korean and Chinese tourists will not leave this temple without drinking its water, said Tagara, who spends most of his time at the temple.

The temple, he said, was first constructed in 1689 with bamboo pillars and bamboo walls by Lim Tau Koen, a merchant who hailed from Tiongkok. Back then, the simple temple, located about 100 meters from the riverbank, had only a roof made of palm leaves.

These days, with houses and other buildings sprouting up in the area, the 5,000-square-meter temple can no longer be seen from the river.

"At first, only Chinese residents who lived around this temple regularly came to worship. But now, many people from Greater Jakarta regularly visit the temple for similar purposes," said Tagara.

Sukyatno and Tagara said the Vihara Nimmala Foundation founders hoped that the municipality's largest temple, which has been declared by the administration as an historical building, could be further preserved and developed into a large religious recreational site with various facilities.

"We have opened a medical clinic for people next to the temple. In the future, we plan to set up schools and open a public cemetery," Tagara said.