Part of what makes Penang unique is its established mixture of cultures and faiths, but if you are only in Georgetown for a short time, how can you experience all of its varied customs and traditions? Conveniently enough, Penang’s 18th-century town planners have already solved the problem, and a short walk along Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, otherwise known as the ‘Street of Harmony’, draws together the town’s four main religions and provides a quick, easy tour of its different communities.
Start at the northern end of the street, at the junction of Lebuh Farquar, where the bright white edifice of St George’s Church remains a lasting testimonial to Penang’s British colonial roots.
Built in 1816, it was the first Anglican church in Southeast Asia, and architecture aficionados will appreciate its impressive Georgian Palladian design. The churchyard now plays host to Penang’s most expensive car park, but the green lawn at the front, shaded by ancient-looking mahogany trees, is where you can also find a Greek temple-style memorial to Captain Francis Light, who founded Georgetown in 1786 under the auspices of the British East India Company.
The church was an important focal point for the once-extensive British community who set up shop in this northeastern corner of Georgetown. If you have time for a detour, it is worth wandering down Lebuh Light towards Fort Cornwallis in order to take in some of the other colonial buildings and get a sense of British Penang.
The arrival of the British was the catalyst that brought together so many other different nationalities, each of whom came here in the late 18th century to take advantage of fresh opportunities in the brand new port town.
A few hundred metres to the north of the church is the spiritual centre of the Chinese community and another of Penang’s best-known landmarks, the Goddess of Mercy Temple. You will smell it before you see it, thanks to an array of giant pink smoking joss sticks in the forecourt. Dating back to 1800, the existing Chinese temple is one of Penang’s oldest surviving buildings and features an extraordinary number of dragons on its carved stone pillars and roof ridges. The inner chamber, with its hanging red lanterns and 18-armed statue of the goddess herself, is particularly atmospheric at dusk, when devotees come to pray.
A stroll down the side of the temple, along Lorong Stewart and its narrow side streets, reveals a real taste of Chinese Penang. The atmosphere around the area’s bustling stalls and shops, full to the brim with oils, joss sticks, flowers and other temple offerings, seems to have changed little since the settlement’s earliest days.
Just next to the temple is a small Hindu shrine and it is testament to Penang’s multicultural diversity that you will see both Indians and Chinese standing in front to make prayers. The shrine marks the next cultural transition, and to the east, along Lebuh Pasar and its neighbouring streets, is Little India. Here you can experience a whole new set of sights, sounds and smells, where bright saris and silks, fragrant spices, Indian incense, roadside samosas and banging Bollywood music transport you to South Asia in a matter of seconds.
Back on the Street of Harmony, you will also find the Sri Maha Mariamman Kovil. Built in traditional south Indian Drividian style in 1833, it is the oldest Hindu temple on the island and its colourful gopuram (tower) features 38 statues, including the patron goddess Amman in all her various incarnations. Inside, the temple is just as colourful, and the statue of Lord Subramaniam, which is embellished with gold, diamonds and emeralds, is impressive. The temple is only open in the mornings and evenings and is closed between 12:00 and 16:00, so time your visit accordingly.
As you continue along the road, the minaret and domes of the imposing Kapitan Keling Mosque appear above the rooftops to the west. Built by the Tamil Muslim community, it is named after Caudin Mydin Merican, who was the Kapitan Keling – literally, Captain of the South Indians – at the time. The building is a curious mix of styles, combining colonial architecture with traditional Moorish arches, and its interior features some fantastic stained glass and calligraphy panels. Informal tours are available, but remember to remove your shoes and dress appropriately.
After your walk through multicultural Georgetown, the area around the mosque is a great place to try nasi kandar, a traditional Penang Muslim offering of rice and curry. Restoran Liyaqat Ali, right next to the mosque at 98 Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, serves a hearty plate for around 10 ringgit. If you are interested to extend your cultural tour, this is also a good jumping off point to explore the Khoo Kongsi, which is just around the corner.
By Mark Thompson
Last updated on 23rd September, 2014.