Towers and Temples

Having recently been on a business trip to Kuala Lumpur, I have had the opportunity to visit one or two caves and assess the caving potential of Peninsular Malaysia.

Situated on the northern outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Batu Caves are found in a small outcrop of limestone which rises spectacularly from the midst of one of Kuala Lumpur's less salubrious suburbs. Although small in extent, the limestone outcrop is a classic example of tower karst with sheer rock walls rising hundreds of feet from the industrial plain that surrounds it.

The main cave is situated about half way up the cliff face on the south side of the tower and is approached by an impressive flight of 272 steps. The Temple Cave is a massive void open to the sky in places which, as the name implies, is utilised as an impotant Hindu temple. Inside the cave, amongst the tourists, monkeys, chickens, and other forms of wildlife scurry about the various temple shrines which line the cave walls, whilst above in the vast dome of the cave, doves and cave swifts flutter about. In February each year, the cave is the scene of the Thaipusam festival which attracts thousands of Hindus to witness the faithful in acts of self mutilation with metal spikes and hooks applied to the skin.

The Dark Cave opens out on the left side of Temple Cave and is very much greater in extent. It is now closed to the casual visitor due to concerns about environmental damage but it was subject in the past to tourist development. This concern for the cave environment is gratifying to see in a developing country although perhaps the damage is already done. The limestone hill itself was extensively quarried for roadstone but this too has ceased in the interest of cave conservation.

At the base of the hill are a number of smaller caves (classic cliff foot features of tower karst) known today as the Art Gallery. They are embellished with a bizarre array of gaudily painted statues depicting characters from Hindu stories and the cave walls and ceilings are painted with landscape background scenes. This 'Dulux' extravaganza gives a whole new meaning to the western concept of cave art.

On the other side of the country there is another cave/temple, but this time Buddhist. Charah Cave lies in another small outcrop of limestone which towers above the Kuantan valley near Pancing. A neighbouring tower has already disappeared as the result of quarrying. It is reached along a potholed road through an oil palm plantation. A ramshackle collection of red painted huts at the base of the cliff marks the entrance to the temple where a saffron clad monk shuffles about keeping the place tidy, a cigarette permanently protruding from his mouth. The cave itself is reached by an exhaustingly steep flight of steps which climbs several hundred feet up the face of the limestone tower.

At the top is a large cavern open to the daylight on three sides guarded by grotesque grills of stalactites which form a portcullis to the openings. The main cave is to the right lower down the steps where a slippery path leads off into the mouth of an immense cavern which resounds to the noise of cave swifts which inhabit the roof. An electric cable which leads to the occasional fluorescent lamp beckons the visitor on into a long tunnel about 10 metres in diameter. After some 3 or 4 hundred metres, a huge statue of the sleeping Buddah is found in the middle of the passage. Carved from the natural bed rock, this is the life long work of a lone monk.

The air is thick with the smell of jos sticks and a noisy gaggle of Chinese carry out their devotions around the shrine. The reason for chosing this site to carve the statue becomes evident as a spectacular shaft of light shines down from a tiny aperture in the roof of the cave. At midday, the light strikes the face of the Buddah like a spotlight.

Limestone is widespread in Peninsular Malaysia but nowhere extensive, occuring in isolated outcrops. In most cases it occurs in the form of tower karst which although giving spectacular scenery, does not generally yield extensive cave.

Apart from the caves around Kuala Lumpur, the other western states of Perak and Perlis are also rich in limestone. Many caves are known here and many were worked in the past by tin miners. The longest cave in Peninsular Malaysia is in Perlis near the Thai border. Gua Kelam 2 is 3.6 kilometres long. Langkawi island is also predominantly limestone.

The eastern states of Kelantan and Pehang also have many outcrops of limestone with the greatest concentration around the town of Gua Musang (Gua is Malay for Cave). Much of this area is still jungle covered and it is possible that these areas might conceal other long systems.

Caving in Malaysia is primarily organised through the cave group of the Malaysian Nature Society.

Allan Ockenden