Detailed evocative temple
Semarang’s Chinese population is more visible than in many other Indonesian cities and within the Chinatown area (Pechinan Semarang) tucked around a bend in the Semarang River, a network of narrow laneways and streets are stuffed with gold shops, Chinese medicine stores, and smokey incense-filled temples.
The highlight of this quarter is Tay Kak Sie Temple riverside in Gang Lombok (also called Klenteng Gang Lombok). The small, but evocative temple embodies a homonyms symphysis of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, or “San Jiao” the “three teachings” with more alcoves and colourful alters to a great host of deities than first meets the eye.
The vicinity was a place of worship for Semarang’s Chinese community since the mid 18th Century and the temple as it stands today was constructed by skilled masons, carpenters and other artisans brought from China, and was completed in 1772, originally for the main deity, Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. The artistry and craftsmanship are exquisite: A blue tiled rooftop is decorated with fine ceramic-cut-work mosaics (chien nien) of dragons standing guard over a menagerie of other symbolic animals with a central figure holding aloft a red sphere.
Beautiful detailed carvings and paintings grace the beams and panels of the exterior and within the temple. The interior accommodates an open roof for natural ventilation with a shallow sunken floor beneath for drainage (watch your step). A small statue of Guanyin graces the central altar, along with larger Buddha statues. The altar to the left as you face the front is dedicated to Cheng Ho (Zheng He), the famous Chinese Muslim Admiral represented as a folk god, Sam Poo Kong (Sam Poo Tay Djien).
Doors to the left and right lead to other narrow courtyards lined with a number of altars. A temple guardian was happy to explain a little about the significance of the deities—in Indonesian, but you may be lucky to have someone around to translate. Gods represented include those responsible for Heaven, the sky, and Earth, social justice, law, money, medicine, war and education amongst other—29 in all (if we read the floor plan correctly), so basically covering all bases and consequently the temple is busy with worshipers day and night.
For folk who know their Chinese gods, a handy map inside the temple directs you to the appropriate altar to offer your blessings. Outside the temple a large statue of Cheng Ho stands resplendent in the square. It’s believed that his ship was anchored in the river nearby when he stopped by Semarang in the early 15th century (it must have been a lot less polluted then).
Here you may find bird sellers, sold with the intention of releasing the birds for good blessings (only for the sellers to recapture and resell them). Neighbouring Tay Kak Sie Temple, is another beautiful, but not as ornate or well preserved Chinese temple, Kong Tik Soe. This temple, dating from 1845, is divided into three components: the central area is graced with shrines to honour the ancestors. Here an assemblage of engraved plaques stand vertically, lit with red light and enclosed by elaborate carved dark wooden panels.
The mood seems more reserved and sombre than its more colourful neighbour and other sections of the temple house an administration area for the crematorium, and a benevolent society that administers free Chinese medicine and supports education for impoverished local children irrespective of creed.
While you’re in the area, make sure you try lumpia Semarang, the local take on a spring roll at Lumpia Gang Lombok, around the corner from the temple, follow it up with es buah from Es Cao next door. If you’re in Semarang on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday night, visit Chinatown’s busy nightmaket, Pasar Semawis. Impressive Sam Poo Kong Temple honouring Chen Ho is worth the trip to the other side of town.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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