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, 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.
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 further 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 new-found 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. 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. You can also pay to release caged birds, as a way of earning spiritual brownie points, but this offers the poor creatures only a fleeting glimpse of freedom as they are immediately re-captured. If you are worried about your karma, both activities are probably best avoided.
Before entering, you will notice that the temple is well guarded, and in addition to the bright jian nian (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 green stone pillars, which also depict fish and highlight the temple’s original connection with the sea. The front of the altar is adorned with exquisite gilded carvings, and a sixteen-armed statue of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, sits above, each limb signifying a different cosmic symbol or expressing a significant ritual position. Behind are altar tablets representing Ma Chor Po and Kuan Yin, and you will see further offerings of flowers, fruit and incense sticks covering the table in front.
The second hall, at the back of the temple, is dedicated to the pantheon of Chinese gods, whose statues you will see on the altar. This is also where worshippers come to seek advice from the deities, and at busy times the inside of the temple resounds to the clack of fortune sticks. 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.
At the time of writing, an extensive renovation is still in progress and there is a rather ugly roof structure over the forecourt. However, this will soon be removed to give an unimpeded view of the temple from the street. It is already much cleaner, brighter and more streamlined than it was, and almost feels a bit too perfect but at the same time, the restoration reveals the former glory of the temple and gives visitors a real sense of how important the building is, both historically and spiritually.
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, including Mews Cafe.
By Mark Thompson
Last updated on 23rd September, 2014.