The Kapitan Keling – a mosque rich in history

Kapitan Keling Mosque © Adrian Cheah

The Kapitan Keling Mosque along Jalan Kapitan Keling (once Pitt Street) is a monumental structure crowned by copper domes. This is the largest historic mosque in George Town, founded around 1800.

The name of the mosque was taken from the Kapitan Kelings, people who were appointed leaders of the South Indian community by the British.

The term "keling" derived from the ancient Hindu kingdom on the Coromandel coast of South India. It was generally used to denote all those who came from there. As the Indians found it difficult to pronounce certain English words, the title "Captain" was somehow transformed into "Kapitan". From there, the Kapitan Kelings (or Captains of the Kelings) came about.

Kapitan Keling Mosque © Adrian Cheah

Although sources vary, it is believed that an 18-acre lot was granted to the Muslims, for religious use, by Sir George Leith, then Lieutenant Governor of Penang in November 1801. It was on this land that the mosque was built. Cadeer Mohideen, who was the headman of the Indian Muslim settlers at the time, was credited with the founding of the mosque which was subsequently named after him.

Unfortunately, due to poor management of the property, the area for the mosque was reduced to only eight acres. The rest was used for building roads and houses. Mohideen died in 1834 and was buried not very far from the mosque.

Initially, the mosque was nothing more than an old rectangular-shaped building with a sloping roof on all sides and surrounded by a stone bench. It was not until about a hundred years later that the colonial government set up the "Mohammedan and Hindu Endowment Board". The purpose of this board was to supervise the administration of trust lands. With this new setup, the mosque began work on an initial facelift.

Kapitan Keling Mosque © Adrian Cheah

British architects commissioned by the Muslim and Hindu Endowments Board gave the mosque its British Moghul Revival appearance in 1916. The elegant minaret dates from this time.

The mosque complies with the ancient rule of the Kiblat, which means to face in the direction of the Ka'aba. This is also the direction Muslims must face when praying. The Ka'aba is a building in the centre of the Great Mosque at Mecca, the Muslim Holy of Holies, containing a sacred black stone. It is square-shaped and built during pre-Islamic times from granite and marble, and is said to have been constructed by Abraham on divine orders. It is regarded by Muslims as the "navel" of the earth. The sacred stone is made of basalt and is lodged in the eastern corner of the shrine. It is said that on Judgement Day the stone will speak as a witness to the sins of humanity.

Kapitan Keling Mosque © Adrian Cheah

A second facelift was carried out in the 1930s because the design of the Kapitan Keling mosque was found to be rather 'impractical'. Work was set to redo the roofing along with other major renovations, including doubling the height of the central prayer hall. This improved the ventilation system and allowed more natural light into the interior.

With this major transformation, the mosque finally achieved its present splendour. It features domes, turrets and minarets. The exterior is ochre yellowed while the interior had white marble floors and a high ceiling. Interior aisles are formed by a series of horseshoe arches, crowned with King Edward's plaques. The facade of the building and its interior were decorated with only geometric designs as human and animal forms are traditionally forbidden in Islam, as these were believed to encourage animism or idol worship.

There is a tall tower on the ground where the azan or call to prayer is announced. The Islamic Information Centre is also located in that tower on the ground floor.

In 2003 with a RM5 million grant, the Kapitan Keling Mosque was refurbished as water seepage and poor drainage were adversely affecting the building. It was closed for about a year. Penang-based Azza Associates, Architects and Conservationist HY Consultant was appointed the task of bringing back the splendour of the historical mosque.

Besides the restoration work, new alterations were added which did not compromise on the aesthetic value of the majestic mosque. These new extensions included a covered walkway and the women's ablution area situated beside the existing washroom at the north side of the mosque. Calligraphy was added to the interior of the main dome and on the walls which were originally decorated with intricate floral motifs.

Kapitan Keling Mosque © Adrian Cheah

The Kapitan Keling Mosque is used by Muslims five times a day, seven days a week. It is full on Fridays and overflows during Muslim celebrations of Hari Raya Aidil Fitri and Hari Raya Haji.

Just as the mosque has grown over the past two hundred, so has the number of worshippers and the strength of faith.

Kapitan Keling Mosque © Adrian Cheah

Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
© All rights reserved
Updated 12 June 2018

If you are interested in visiting the interior of the mosque, just head for the minaret at the front of the building where the information counter is located. It is open to the public and non-Muslims, although the worship hall is out of bounds to non-Muslims. All visitors are required to wear robes which will be provided.