The giant teapot is tucked behind a palm grove in the spiritual heart of Malaysia. A painted, concrete structure, it stands two storeys high in the village of Kampung Batu 13. At first glance, you might think it was some sort of advertisement, or part of a theme park. But the teapot is the symbol of a bizarre cult, set up by a 65- year old Malay who claims to be God, and it was built to symbolise the pouring of blessings on mankind.
For nearly 10 years the teapot has dominated Ayah Pin's commune, named 'Sky Kingdom', and worshippers flock to the village to test its healing powers. An umbrella-shaped building stands nearby, and there is a floating ark and a huge vase to store 'holy' drinking water that is distributed to devotees. People from Malaysia, neighbouring countries and beyond come for healing sessions in the mysterious round room under the lid.
But trouble is brewing for the teapot cult, which occupies a six- acre commune in the village. Local authorities in the region, about 400 kilometres (248 miles) north-east of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, have suddenly lost patience with the sect and branded it as a deviant cult. Last month they ordered the structures to be torn down, stating they were illegally built on agricultural land and violate the building code.
Yesterday, about 30 robed figures laid siege to the teapot and the umbrella building. The night raiders slashed tyres with their machetes, pounded in the windows of four cars, and tossed Molotov cocktails over a wall. The umbrella building was soon in flames and the top of the giant teapot was scorched.
'The roof of the teapot structure is slightly charred but since it is made of concrete, the damage is not extensive,' said Ahmad Fakarudin, a fireman.
In one of the first warnings to Pin, enforcers from the Islamic Religious Department entered the Sky Kingdom temple grounds on 3 July and arrested 21 followers for adhering to his 'deviant' vision. Pin proclaims that all humanity will eventually realise that he is God Almighty, no matter how they choose to worship. 'All prayers are go through me,' he claims.
Fundamentalist Muslims worry that Pin is persuading people to renounce their faith, not something that Islam takes lightly. Over the past decade, Pin has built up a following that numbers several thousand.
His followers bring sundry rites from Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam, but such an ecumenical smorgasbord is not appreciated in every quarter. Four followers face two years in prison for possessing documents said to ridicule Islamic teachings; the rest are charged with breaking the state fatwa that has ruled the teachings as deviant. Sect members have been in and out of prison for a decade for continuing to associate with this cult.
When the local authorities ordered the most senior of Pin's four wives, Che Mina Ramli, to tear down the structures, she defied the order because she believes that the blueprints came to her husband in a prophetic dream, and are divinely inspired. The second time she refused the demolition orders, the night raiders did the job for her.
In another country, Pin, born Ariffin Mohammad, might be dismissed as an eccentric with grandiose notions. But in predominantly Muslim Malaysia, this elderly man is seen as a threat. In his youth, Pin was keen on cock-fighting and bird-singing contests, and eked out a living selling scrap iron and trading water buffaloes.
'I want people from all faiths to practise their own religion diligently,' Pin said. 'If you are a Muslim, you must observe the tenets strictly such as praying, fasting, going on pilgrimage and giving to charity,' he added, echoing the authorities' requirements for good Muslim behaviour.
A spot of tea at Sky Kingdom is meant to provide celestial comfort, and the 'Father' (Pin) …