Penang’s oldest mosque
Published/Last edited or updated: 2nd October, 2017
Kapitan Keling Mosque is one of the most prominent landmarks in Georgetown, with its Mughal-inspired minaret and copper-clad main dome, oxidised to a striking black against the (sometimes) bright blue sky.
If you’ve never stepped foot inside a mosque before, welcoming attendants are on hand to make it less daunting and explain a little of the history of the mosque and the lowdown on Islam in Penang. The mosque’s founder and first superintendent, Caudeer Mohudeen, popularly known as Captain Kling (Kapitan Keling), “Kling” being a Malay term for people of Indian origin, lends his name not only to the mosque but also more recently to the entire street.
A “Chulia” as Tamil Muslims were called, this Southern Indian mariner and trader, had made Penang his home in 1770, well before the British landed and had already become one of the most distinguished members of the local community by the time Lieutenant Governor Leith made him the official headman of the South Indian locals (Kapitan). He subsequently applied for a land grant to build a mosque and on its approval made sure subscriptions flowed in from his fellow Muslim merchants and mariners to fund the materials and builders drafted in from India. Soon a site of 18 acres became a religious centre but also a bustling village, the rentals from shophouses providing funds for the mosque’s upkeep and charities.
Today Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, is colloquially referred to as The Street of Harmony as most of the world’s major religions are represented along its length, although it wasn’t always so harmonious. In 1867 some members of the mosque’s community are implicated as being involved in the “White Flag” secret society who joined forces with the Cantonese Chinese in a street battle against the Malay “Red Flags” of the Acheen Street Mosque together with Penang’s Hokkien community. The nine-day skirmish involving musket and cannon fire is known as the Penang Riots. These days though, the setting is decidedly peaceful.
The present mosque is the result of major “extensions” in the early 20th-century (the tradition is that mosques are not rebuilt) based on the ambitious designs of a Henry Alfred Neubronner, in himself a fine example of Penang’s cultural melting pot, being a Melaka-born, London-trained Eurasian of German descent. Its impressive ensemble of buildings incorporates some of the older mosque and includes a madrasah for religious classes, quarters for Imams, a kindergarten, a mausoleum, gardens, wells that feed ablution pools and shady galleries.
The prayer room lies at the heart of the mosque, a large, light-infused hall that can hold 1,500. A huge sparkling chandelier beneath the central dome, a legion of slender white columns supporting horseshoe arches, geometric patterns and elaborate carvings combine to conjure an inspiring space. Interesting features are the wooden pulpit from which the Imam addresses the devotees and just to its left the mihrab, a semi-circular niche in the western wall which denotes the direction of Kaaba in Mecca where Muslims face when they pray.
Kapitan Keling Mosque deserves a visit, if not just for the beauty of its architecture and the proud place it holds in Penang’s history, but also as a reflection of the important role the Muslim Indian community played and continues to play in this area and on the island as a whole. Non-Muslim visitors are welcome outside of prayer time, Saturday to Thursday 11:30–13:00 and 14:00–18:00 and Fridays 14:30–18:00, with robes and scarfs on hand if you are not properly attired. Take off your shoes and avoid the carpeted areas in the main prayer hall. Photography is permitted, but videos and selfies are not.
A small visitor centre is on the ground floor of the minaret. History buffs may be interested to stop by Caudeer Mohudeen’s (Kapitan Keling’s) mausoleum, known as Makam Ma’Amah not far from the mosque, on Jalan Kampung Kolam in the forecourt of the Ar Raudhah Suites and Hotel. Other examples of Islamic architecture can be seen at Nagore Dargha Sheriff, a shrine to the 13th century Tamil Muslim Saint, Syed Shahul Hamid, built on Chulia Street around the same time as Kapitan Keling Mosque. Additionally, the Acheen Street Mosque in nearby Lebuh Acheh is worth a peek, if only to contrast the more Arab-Malay style architecture as is the mansion of Syed Al-Attas, a wealthy Achenese merchant, and leader of the “Red Flag” secret society during the Penang riots, in nearby Lebuh Armenian, as an example of Muslim civic architecture, however at the time of research it was under renovation.
To complete the experience, Little India beckons with its delicious banana leaf thalis, cups of chai, wafts of incense, blasts of Bollywood music and riots of colourful shopping. If you are keen to learn more about Penang’s Chuila community, local publisher Areca books have produced an absorbing social history in the form of a coffee table book.
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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