Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Street of Religious Harmony

Last week, stories swept the news about anti-American attacks in the Middle East and North Africa. When we first considered moving to Malaysia, a moderate Muslim country, I will admit that I was a tad concerned about what the atmosphere here towards Americans and Christianity would be. Thank goodness, I've found this country to be overall tolerant of various religions. Well, it's against the law to proselytize to Muslims, and we weren't allowed to bring over goods made in Israel. But other than that, it's a Freedom of Religion kind of country, a remnant of England's multi-century rule over Malaya. Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, nicknamed The Street of Harmony, in Penang's historic George Town is an excellent example of this. As you stroll down the street (dodging motor scooters and trishaws), you'll find a mosque, Chinese temple, Hindu temple and an Anglican church. All are evidence of the waves of immigrants who shaped Penang.

St. George's Anglican Church

Major renovation completed in 2011

St. George's Church, the oldest Anglican church in Southeast Asia, surely must have made the early British colonists feel quite at home. Completed in 1818, it is the one and only church on Malaysia's official list of 50 National Heritage Treasures and received government money for its recent restoration. Surprisingly, the congregation is mostly local Chinese, not Westerners as I had assumed. They no longer open the many windows that line each side of the building during services, but I can just imagine what a lovely crossbreeze would have come through in the pre-air-conditioning days. The docent here is very well informed if you have a chance to chat with him. Once again, I came off as an idiot by asking if the church bell is real or just a recorded sound.

Kuan Yin Temple is Penang's oldest Chinese Temple

Kuan Yin Temple, also known as "Temple of the Goddess of Mercy" as well as "Temple of the Hokkien and Cantonese Communities" (Kong Hock Keong), is hard to miss due to the massive plumes of incense smoke curling away from enormous joss sticks out in front. Construction on this Taoist temple began in 1728. It was built according to feng shui principles and originally dedicated to Ma Chor Po, the patron of the seas. In the mid-1800's the growing Chinese community began to splinter. Instead of everyone being united at the Kuan Yin Temple, each group tried to outdo the others by building the most opulent clan temple in town.

Small stand selling offerings for Taoist temple on one side of the street. Tiny, yellow Hindu shrine on the other corner.

Flower garlands, milk and coconut halves left at the Hindu shrine by both Chinese and Indians.

Selling flower garlands for the Hindu temple and shrine on this street.

Chinese goods for sale near the flower garland stall

Eventually, you'll reach Kapitan Keling Mosque, built in 1800, after which the street is named. This was my first time inside a mosque, and our Muslim guide was open to answering the many questions my group asked.

Kapitan Keling Mosque

Rows of prayer rugs line the prayer hall.

Across the street from the mosque, you'll see the back side of Sri Mahamariamman Temple.

Sri Mahamariamman Temple - Penang's oldest Hindu temple

The front of the temple faces Lebuh Queen (Queen Street) in Little India. It started out in 1801 as a simple shrine for the Indian community that was enlarged into a temple in 1833. Alas, we arrived here just after it had closed for an afternoon break between morning and evening prayers. So, we did not have a chance to go inside. I guess it's an excuse for me to head back!

Many goddesses adorn the facade over the main entrance.

Related Post:
Ramadan and Penang's Kapitan Keling Mosque
Cue the Bollywood Music: Part 1
Cue the Bollywood Music: Part 2
Strolling down Armenian Street

This post is part of Friday Daydreamin' at R We There Yet Mom? Check it out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.


  1. This is fascinating to me that you can walk down ONE street and see the varying cultures - in big cities here, you have to go to different areas of town to see all the different churchs, mosques, etc.

    Very cool post - thanks for linking up this week!

    1. All these houses of worship are within a half kilometer stretch, so it's not even a long street. I think the town was tiny 200 years ago when these were built, and this must have been the equivalent of Main Street.

  2. I love that the Street of Harmony seems to stand for religious tolerance - and it's good to know that in Malaysia people from different religions are managing to coexist without the turmoil that we see in other parts of the world. Your pics are beautiful!

    1. As soon as I posted this, the State Department sent out an email that the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur was closing early due to protests. Americans were warned to stay away from the area. In the end, the crowd was angry but not violent.

  3. I was at the Temple of the Goddess of Mercy last Wednesday or Thursday, too. Apparently the Goddess of Mercy was stolen, and brought to Penang. What did the goddess think of that? I was expecting an imposing goddess, but she is quite small.

  4. Although I'm not religious, I do enjoy visiting churches when traveling. They are such a huge part of history that it is a shame to skip them. Its interesting that all religious buildings are on this one street. Do you know why they aren't spread around more?

    1. Penang was quite tiny when the immigrants started moving in and building these houses of worship. Not much of the jungle had been cleared. I imagine that this must have been the main street.

  5. It struck me as interesting that you weren't allowed to bring anything made in Israel into the country. I've never encountered restrictions like that before.

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