Thursday, May 23, 2024

Exploring the Concept of Freehold Columbarium in Ling Shan Temple: A Study of Cultural Significance and Heritage Preservation

This essay is not only addressing the prospect of building a freehold columbarium at Ling Shan Temple, but it acknowledges that preservation of heritage can be greatly achieved through the incorporation of other cultures’ death rituals and at the same time achieving a comprehensive understanding and sensibility of living with people of different cultural backgrounds.

Preserving this significant cultural place of Ling Shan Temple is crucial to ensure that the bronze standing Buddha statue and Buddhist architectural design will continue to represent the Tang Dynasty style. The government has made tremendous advances to further conserve Singapore’s cultural, historical, and religious sites in today’s society. This includes not just places of interest but ancient artifacts and inherited culture. According to the National Heritage Board, its role is for the “preservation of the cultural and natural heritage of Singapore.”

Ling Shan Temple was built in 2005 and stands as a cultural, traditional, and religious landmark for Buddhists in Singapore. It is the largest Mahayana Buddhist temple in Singapore with a tall bronze standing Buddha statue. Ling Shan Temple comprises various devotional halls, monasteries, stupas, and shrines. With over 80 monks, nuns, and laypeople (some of whom are volunteers and devotees), it serves not only as a religious site but as a place of learning for Buddhist doctrines and a sanctuary for all seeking peace and happiness.

Background of Ling Shan Temple

Ling Shan Temple is located in Singapore. An old Ling Shan Temple was built in 1902. It was situated next to the Kim Yam Road and River Valley Road Junction. Ling Shan Temple is the only Buddhist temple of its kind to be built in Singapore. The architectural structure of the temple takes the form of a traditional Northern Chinese Imperial palace. Unfortunately, in the early 1980s, the old Ling Shan Temple had to be torn down due to the acquisition of land by the government for urban development. Hearing that the temple had to be torn down, many devotees came forward to voice their objection. They felt that as Buddhist culture and traditions represent the Dharma and teach us that through the practice of right living and mindfulness, wisdom and compassion, we can liberate ourselves and others from suffering and lay the groundwork for the conditions of happiness in the present life and future rebirths. And this practice can be carried out in a conducive environment, just as what the Buddhists residing in Singapore, whereby the temple will be the conducive environment to lay the groundwork for a happy life and future rebirths. Due to the overwhelming response from the devotees, they managed to persuade the relevant authorities to find a piece of land to build a new Ling Shan Temple. Devotees had to actively participate and play a part in making the new temple a reality. The idea to have this temple constructed felt particularly special to the local community, as it was indeed the first time that an act of rebuilding on a piece of land for a religious purpose was undertaken. In the 1980s, the new Ling Shan Temple building fund was established and since then many campaigns and events were held to raise funds.

Importance of Cultural Significance and Heritage Preservation

There are significant cultural and heritage history in Ling Shan Temple. It is therefore important to first analyze the cultural significance and importance to heritage of such religious site, respectively CCAs to decide on a location which may compromise the significance and heritage of the place. This will help in determining the balance between providing an effective provision of services for the community and preserving the cultural and heritage benefits of the site. The activities and lifestyle of people in late 20th century Singapore had a dramatic impact on the cultural landscape of Singapore today. The fast and successful modernization of Singapore has led to an era where cultural and heritage considerations are often compromised for the benefits of modernization. With the strong emphasis of cultural significance and heritage preservation within present day society, it is good to reflect on the past, understand the present and plan for the future to prevent any more loss of distinctive historic buildings and sites in the days to come. Cultural significance of a site is unique by virtue of its distinctive place in the cultural heritage of a community in public memory. For the older generation, it invokes nostalgia of the good old days, the experiences growing up and the sense of identity and continuity of culture. This identity can unite various groups within the community and promote a sense of belonging. For the younger generation, it provides a chance to understand, interpret and explain their cultural roots and plan for the future. They are important to history provision because providing a future for young historians allows interpreting heritage that 50 years rule should ensure a site or building is retained, because it must undergo rigorous. Which will show our cultural significance of doing something, and at only at 200 years that cultural and heritage impact assessments conducted on development project on that specific site. Heritage is the legacy of the past what we live with today and what we pass on to future generations. It is important to consider how to balance conserving what people value as part of our cultural and heritage with the continuing need to modernize and upgrade our infrastructure. This is particularly relevant to proposed developments projects on site or buildings with past history. The recent case of Bukit Brown, a Chinese grave site is a place of heritage and reverence to the Chinese community in Singapore during the British times. It provides a cultural heritage dating back to early Chinese immigrant settlers and has unique characteristics and hidden stories of past pioneers and is an educational resource that has yet to be fully utilized. This site is being compromised for the sake of new MRT line, road and residential development. This exemplifies how the decision for modernization can compromise the significance of a site and erase a piece of our heritage, and might be a loss in the long run at a higher cost. In the case of proposed development sites, Freehold Columbarium Pte Ltd must first consider the various cultural benefits and opportunity costs to the community, to ensure that their project is an act in aid of enabling cultural and heritage conservation.

Understanding Freehold Columbarium

Freehold columbariums provide an option to devotees who wish to store the ashes their departed ones at a location near to their place of residence, which is less costly when compared to overseas niche internment and is a possible contribution to building and its services offered by the temple.

Freehold was to be an option that was considered more feasible than a request of allocated land for public construction of temple buildings, which might be a lengthier and more costly process with land premium and construction costs. This is through a change of land use from an existent place of worship to a columbarium by pulling together the “Memorandum of Understanding on Freehold Land Tenure for Jointly Owned Places of Worship” schemes from the government. This concept was conceived by an ad hoc committee formed by various Buddhist organisations and has been an ongoing discussion with temple leaders on the possibility of a more practical and efficient way to preserve religious sites and culture, with specific regard to the development of freehold columbariums at existing temples to serve devotees and the local community.

“In property law, the term “freehold” means “to have and to hold.” When applying this to a freehold columbarium, it suggests indefinite holding and storage of the ashes. In other words, the ashes will not be removed from the premises unless the temple is closing down or if a transfer of the storage is needed with consent from all parties. This is a contrast to public columbaria where lodgement of ashes are usually on a lease basis for twenty to twenty-five years and it debunks the possible misconception of “freehold” referring to release of ashes from the government run AFCD private columbariums discussed in early 2008.” (Cheung, 2008) This definition of freehold is derived from research on the Housing and Development Board’s policies and the term “freehold” does not exist for HDB flats and is indeed closer to the above example in the context of the idea of leasing spaces at existing public columbariums.

In Buddhism, a columbarium refers to a hall or building for the storage of funeral urns containing the ashes of the deceased. It is an important facility found in many Buddhist temples. This definition carries strong religious and cultural significance with the emphasis on the preservation and memorialization of the deceased. In garnering support to preserve cultural heritage that is closely linked with religious practices, a freehold columbarium is one way of doing so.

Definition and Purpose of a Columbarium

Definition of columbarium in the dictionary, a columbarium is a building that contains a series of niches and small chambers for the storage of cinerary urns. In Roman antiquity, it did not have the connotation of a place of interment for an urn but was employed in its literal derived sense. The same is true of columbary. The modern columbarium is a building used to store the remains of people who have been cremated. It is often a wall with cubicles in which the urns with the ashes are placed. Sometimes the walls are niched. In traditional Christian, Islamic, and Jewish cemeteries, they never allow for the free intermixing of remains between different people. This leads to each person’s remains being able to be located according to which niche was purchased. Free mixing of remains is less of an issue. Free mixing of people who are alive is often a consideration, so you will often find separate non-public columbariums and urn gardens at the avant-garde cemeteries and mausoleums.

Exploring the Concept of Freehold Columbarium

The term ‘freehold’ is not defined in the act, although it may be regarded as the greatest right which a person can have with regard to land. The holder of freehold land is the absolute owner, entitled to use it or dispose of it in any way he wishes, for an indefinite period subject only to compliance with legislation in force and payment of rates and taxes. Freehold land is transferable and inheritable property. The enjoyment provided by freehold land commences with the pleasure of possession, and it may continue for a very long time. Freehold land offers security of title and the possibility of development or an increase in value. It offers a sense of stability and permanence and as a form of property, is seen as conferring prestige. There is general social acceptance of the desirability of obtaining and retaining freehold land. Freehold land is the most common form of land tenure in Singapore today. By the year 2000, 89% of the total supply of land had been sold on 99-year leases, most having been granted by the government, since the abolition of land grants between private individuals. Rising land premiums, competing demands on land use, and to contain rising costs of public housing and other infrastructure, have prompted the sale of increasing amounts of land on lease rather than by way of a grant in fee simple. This trend has renewed public consciousness about the nature and benefits of freehold land. Freehold land offers potential to the generations that follow, as the land or the profits arising from it can be left without any time limitation. The gift of land has an effect akin to the creation of perpetuity. The holder of land may be moved to improve it because his descendants will benefit. Finally, freehold land is often considered to be the best type of security for a loan. High Chief Justice Yong Pung How has said freehold land ‘stands at the top of the hierarchy of rights and interest in land’ and has described it as ‘the best security one can have’ (Wah Seong Corporation Sdn Bhd v Chiang Yong Wai [1992] 1 SLR 898 at 904). Freehold land is of interest to people from all walks of life and from various ethnic groups. Land is an asset and the desire to buy or have land is almost universal. A newer concept, that of freehold strata title to landed dwelling houses and non-landed housing units, is now also gaining popularity. This allows individual ownership of a unit while shared ownership of the estate, enabling more efficient use of land. It is becoming the preferred form for new residential developments. A root of freehold land tenure and the attitude towards it can still be seen in the tradition of burial on consecrated land at churches, temples, or private burial grounds. An understanding of the cultural significance of freehold land contributes to an understanding of the attitudes and expectations that certain sectors of the community now have about more modern forms of freehold land tenure or rights to land. Freehold land and the rights to it are a reflection of social values and contribute to social identity.

Benefits and Challenges of Freehold Columbariums

Ancestors once buried or cremated at Mandai will have to make way for development of the area in the near future. There will no longer be any available niches for new burials at Bukit Brown Cemetery while Choa Chu Kang Cemetery will be cleared in a few decades time. Freehold columbarium will provide a long-term alternative for families to be able to find niches for their ancestors and to carry on with the tradition of Qing Ming.

Retrieving the land post lease would also mean that future generations would not be able to find urns and niches of the ancestors as it would have been disturbed and moved to another location. With more and more people finding out the rich history of Singapore and doing ancestry searches, a freehold columbarium will definitely be the best answer to preserve culture and ancestry.

Unlike a leasehold columbarium, where the land will be returned back to the government after the lease has expired, the management will then have to go through the process of exhumation and cremation of the remains to another location or urn burial plots. A once common practice, it is fast becoming a social stigma as the current generation of Singaporeans are more reluctant in doing so due to the inconvenience it brings.

Singapore is a land scarce country. Land is of utmost importance not only for living spaces but also in the building of infrastructure such as roads, drains, and MRT tracks. Freehold columbariums are ideal in making full use of land as it allows the management more flexibility and will be able to plan better for the usage of land as it is an asset to the temple.

Cultural Significance of Ling Shan Temple

Since its establishment in 1905, Ling Shan Temple has played an important part in the history and development of a small village situated at the foot of the Kallang River Bend. Provided the affordable housing estate for the squatters around the vicinity, it managed to create a warm and comfortable environment for the residents. Through its efforts, Ling Shan Temple has gained acknowledgment from government bodies and received awards for being an exemplary religious establishment, as recently as 1999. This alone defines Ling Shan Temple as an important part of the heritage for both the public and its devotees. Also, being the primary place of worship for the majority Hakka Chinese community, Ling Shan and its influence has reached a national level, in which it is recognized as the state temple for the Hakka Community in Singapore. The death of those unaware will likely have some impact on how the temple preserves its identity and cultural significance, as the elderly are the few who are most affected by spiritual changes, and Ling Shan Temple being the focal institution for the Hakka community.

Historical and Religious Importance of Ling Shan Temple

A tale reflecting the relationship that existed between the first temple to be built for Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty and the eventful instructions that Yuanshou received in a dream. After arriving with his family in Nanjing, Yuanshou dreamt that the emperor instructed him to climb a nearby mountain and seek a divine personage whose teachings could benefit the emperor and China. After receiving the help of a young monk in finding the spot the Emperor had described to him, Yuanshou learnt that the old monk he had met was in fact the divine personage instructed to reach out in prayer to the great bodhisattva the Medicine King on his behalf, in order to restore the emperor’s health. Imparting to Yuanshou the message of his dream and the healing powers of the bodhisattva, the monk suddenly disappeared and Yuanshou searching for the monk to learn more, came across a cave with a seated image of the Medicine King. Enshrining the image within the temple he subsequently constructed has since come to be known as the Mountain Gate Temple to the Medicine King. An original record of this event and the subsequent complete destruction of the temple due to the encroachment of Japanese forces during World War Two, has been preserved and written into a stone tablet which now serves as a reminder for the tale and a commemoration to the Ling Shan mountain residents who aided in the temple’s construction. Pictured in the book is Yuanshou’s idol worship and the finding of a ‘living’ specimen of the bodhisattva as an elderly gentleman, and it has become quite elusive to produce.

Role of Ling Shan Temple in Heritage Preservation

Ling Shan Temple is a living heritage of Chinese Mahayana Buddhism established in the early 1900s and owing its roots to the Kao Clan Association. The idea to build a Buddhist temple came after Kao Rong Feng experienced a dream in which Kuan Yin instructed him to build a temple in her honor at Jurong. It existed at various locations until the early 20th century. The temple was officially registered at its present location in 1902. During the Japanese Occupation of Singapore, the temple community hid the statues of deities in a nearby forest and felled banana trees to cover up the altar in order to prevent desecration of the temple. This is a demonstration of their commitment to safeguarding their cultural heritage despite facing adversity. Ling Shan Temple also has a record of participating in various cultural and heritage events. An example would be the 2008 Singapore Heritage Festival, when the temple organized an art exhibition and cultural trail showcasing artifacts from its history and promoting understanding of Chinese culture to the wider Singapore community. Ling Shan Temple does not rest on its laurels and its role in heritage preservation has extended beyond the preservation of its own history. It has contributed towards safeguarding the intangible cultural heritage of Singapore by partnering the National Heritage Board in a project featuring the rituals and ceremonies at a typical Chinese temple. This resulted in a documentary and with the guidance of folk enthusiasts, the publishing of a book on the same topic. Such efforts have significantly raised awareness to the importance of culture and heritage in multi-racial Singapore. It can thus be inferred that Ling Shan Temple is an essential stakeholder in the heritage preservation of not just Chinese culture and Buddhism, but also a contributor to Singapore’s cultural heritage.

Impact of Freehold Columbarium on Cultural Significance

The public may perceive a freehold columbarium as an area where there will be less new developments in future which affects the use of surrounding areas. The elderly may rejoice in an area with less noise and dust pollution, while the younger generation may perceive this as an area they would not bring up their children and grandchildren. This perception may lead to decrease in community involvement around the temple from younger generations. The temple will also have lesser opportunities to hold events and activities known as ‘church (or temple) fairs’ that are used to foster community bonding and cultural exchange between the local and foreign communities.

Though the temple has a significant amount of land for the addition of a freehold columbarium, it affects the land and surrounding areas’ use and perception. The perception of a freehold columbarium being on the temple land will affect its religious image and also public image. Being a freehold means that it is a guaranteed land space that stays in place forever until an agreement has been met to move it. Comparing to a lease columbarium where the land is only rented for a 30-40 year period, the image that a lease columbarium is temporary in nature may not pose many negative perceptions as compared to a freehold.

In this section, we aim to examine how the building of a freehold columbarium by the temple impacts on its cultural significance and what it represents to society.

Balancing Heritage Preservation and Modern Needs

Extrapolating from this, we might say that the new traditions of a community are to be held as heritage in the future. Therefore, any action which helps secure the future of the pre-existing community is effectively heritage preservation. Measures to ensure that development suits the needs of the existing community are therefore justified insofar as they ensure the long-term survival of that community.

Gone to an extreme, this view would critique major construction at any historical site, but a more nuanced understanding is possible. JS Furnival makes the general point that “actions which help to maintain the traditions, customs, and folklore of a society or a social group assist in the preservation of its culture.”

Certain tensions arise when considering the installation of a modern institution into an ancient place of communal memory and the sites of historical events, particularly since modern needs are very often destructive of that which is being preserved. Modern needs can be said to have a short shelf-life and a changing nature. Often the very reason why a site is slated for heritage preservation is because it no longer serves the needs which helped shape it.

Design and Architecture of the Columbarium

The Columbarium is made up of 6 floors. The development of Phase 1 will see completion of two office blocks and one atrium block with a total of 1800 niches. Each niche is highly customised with individual slabs carved out of Jade which can elegantly accommodate 2 standard urns or 1 oversized urn. Niche doors are available in two designs: round pivot doors or sliding doors to allow further customisation. Each niche is also equipped with a QR code providing visitors with a convenient way to find out more about their ancestors through modern technology. Prices for the niches vary from $6,000 to $16,000 and are classified into various categories based on pricing. An expensive niche can cost as high as $35,000 which includes an urn made of pure Jade.

Adjacent to the Ling Shan’s Award Winning Chinese Garden, the Freehold Columbarium has a total built area of 3,200 sq m and is able to accommodate an estimated 25,000 niches when fully developed. The overall design of the Columbarium is influenced by contemporary Chinese architectural style with emphasis on simplicity and elegance. In the design process, the architects have drawn on the principles of feng shui, taking into consideration the surrounding natural and built environment to achieve a design which is well integrated with nature aimed at providing solace and comfort to the visitors.

Cultural Practices and Rituals in the Columbarium

Columbariums are designed to store the ashes of the deceased, and often the use of the word columbarium is restricted to an underground structure. The term comes from the Latin word for a dovecote, which was a structure for the nesting of doves and pigeons; in early Christian and Jewish art, the dove was used to represent the soul. The modern design of columbariums, and the services and rituals associated with them, originate in 15th-century Italy where large public buildings were constructed with niches to house the urns of the wealthy. Ashes were placed in urns and niches were sealed with a plaque to permanently record the details of the deceased. This design was emulated by Christian communities who used them to house the ashes of martyrs and saints. Nowadays, the design and architecture of columbariums vary significantly between cultures and religious traditions in accordance with different beliefs about the afterlife, and whether the soul remains with the ashes. In the case of the Ling Shan Temple columbarium, the target audience is meant to be the ethnic Chinese community in Singapore. This is a key point as there are different cultural and religious groups within the Singaporean population, and understanding the notion of a cultural group is key to understanding attitudes towards death and death rites.

Cultural rituals are an important part of death and burial practices. Rituals surrounding the death of a loved one and the treatment of their body are ways to help overcome the finality of the loss, while expressing love and devotion to the deceased. Rituals provide rhythm and order at a time of great confusion and offer the bereaved an opportunity to access help from those not directly involved in the immediate situation. These rituals, and remembrance of the dead through visits to graves and other forms of memorialization, are an important part of life for those who are left behind, enriching and giving meaning to their continued existence. Death rites and their associated practices also give insights into the values and beliefs of a culture.

Community Engagement and Support for the Columbarium

These factors are identified to play an important role in the community support for the construction of the Columbarium. Benefits and/or disadvantages are further discussed with consideration to other religious institutions in Singapore on the relevance and significance of these factors with respect to the community support of constructing a Columbarium in an evolving society.

For religious buildings, where there is a strong presence of beliefs and cultural practices within the community, the support in the construction of the Columbarium grows due to its convenience and easy accessibility for the families of the deceased. The five factors that contributed to the community support and engagement in the construction of a Freehold Columbarium in Ling Shan Temple are: – Tangible benefits from the Columbarium – Perceived importance of Columbarium in the Temple – Consideration of alternative options – Reassurance of the safety and accountability – Ling Shan community’s trust and faith in Abbot and Temple Management

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