One of Penang’s oldest sites
Published/Last edited or updated: 2nd October, 2017
As one of Penang’s oldest and most celebrated buildings, the Goddess of Mercy Temple is also one of the island’s most historically revealing.
It was the Brits, of course, who laid claim to having “discovered” Penang when Captain Francis Light founded Georgetown on behalf of the East India Company in 1796, but the reality is very different and this iconic temple is living proof that the Chinese were here long before.
Also known as the Kuan Yin Teng, the position where the temple now stands was venerated by Chinese sailors from as early as the 12th century. The site was originally a small hillock, raised above the surrounding swamp and overlooking the sea, and this blessed it with very auspicious feng shui energies of the green dragon.
Generations of sailors believed that the goddess of the sea, Ma Chor Po (Mazu), guided them here towards three miraculous freshwater wells, which still exist today and are said to represent the three all-seeing eyes of the feng shui dragon itself. Voyagers left talismans and made offerings on this spot from that time on, including the great Chinese adventurer, Admiral Cheng Ho, who many believe set foot here in the early 15th century and made the first documentation of Penang island on his maps and charts. If you believe local folklore, you can visit his very footprint at the Sam Poh Footprint Temple in Batu Maung in the south of Penang.
The temple land was “gifted” to the Chinese by the British in 1801, which is the official construction date of the existing structure, although there have been shrines and buildings here for much longer and the transfer of ownership was a mere formality. The site still retains the very special atmosphere that must have attracted the first sailors many centuries ago.
The original dedication of the temple was to the sea goddess Ma Chor Po, although in time it was transferred to Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy and since the former is believed to be a reincarnation of the latter, there is some logic in this. The building’s official title is the Kong Hock Keong, or Temple of the Cantonese and Hokkien, which reflects the makeup of the Chinese community when Penang was founded. However, it’s probably not worth using your newfound knowledge about its real name to ask for directions, since most people simply know it as the Goddess of Mercy Temple.
Today, the building serves as the spiritual heart of the Chinese community in Penang, and if you come here over festivals you will find the granite forecourt and temple itself packed with devotees and worshippers and at this time the whole area becomes a set for Chinese opera performances.
In case you have any problems locating it with your eyes, you can always rely on your nose because the air around the temple is full of smoke, which billows from the giant pink joss sticks out front. People light these and also burn paper money in the large standing urns as offerings to the gods and ancestors. You may also witness people stamping on—and then burning—pictures of adversaries or enemies as a way of purging bad luck.
An ancient fig tree shades a corner of the forecourt harbouring an assemblage of makeshift shrines beneath and you will notice that the temple is well guarded—in addition to the bright chien nien (cut ceramic) dragons which adorn the roofs, two lion statues on either side of the main entrance lend their protective powers to the building. Inside the main sanctum, the dragon motifs continue on the carved stone pillars, which also depict fish and highlight the temple’s original connection with the sea. The front altar is adorned with exquisite gilded carvings and enshrines a host of deities. As incense is no longer permitted to be burnt inside the temple, worshipers hold up bottles of oil as blessing to the gods.
The second hall, at the back of the temple, is where the faithful come to seek advice from the deities, and at busy times the inside of the temple resounds to the clack of fortune sticks. You will see small packets with folded paper and small human effigies. Apparently if your fortune is not favourable, you can pay someone to pray on your behalf and help reverse the situation—note the dates on the packets, which refer to how far in advance one has forked out for the service.
During festivals and especially at Chinese New Year, people light candles in glass jars shaped like pineapples—potent symbols of wealth and gold—in honour of the gods. Don’t forget to look out for the wells, too. One is in the front courtyard, surrounded by an octagonal structure, while the second, reserved for monks, is on the right of the main sanctum. The third lies beneath the main altar and is reserved for the Goddess of Mercy herself.
The Goddess of Mercy Temple is an integral part of the Street of Harmony, which brings together the spiritual buildings of Penang’s four main religions and a walk along here is a great way to experience Georgetown’s varied cultures.
For nearby refreshments, follow Lorong Stewart (which runs just next to the temple) towards the cafes and bars of Lorong Love and Lebuh Muntri.
Sally spent twelve years leading tourists around Indonesia and Malaysia where she collected a lot of stuff. She once carried a 40kg rug overland across Java. Her house has been described as a cross between a museum and a library. Fuelled by coffee, she can often be found riding her bike or petting stray cats. Sally believes travel is the key to world peace.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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