Places to visit: Places of Worship

Penangites are on the whole a superstitious, god-fearing and religious lot. This tendency and the multiracial population has given rise to a very cosmopolitan spiritual form. Mosques, Taoist and Buddhist temples, Indian and Sikh temples, Burmese shrines, Thai wats and churches of different denominations dot the streets of George Town.

Acheen Street Mosque, Lebuh Acheen

Also known as Masjid Melayu, the mosque was built on land donated by Syed Sheriff Tengku Syed Hussain Aidid who came from Acheh in Sumatera. This 1820 mosque at Lebuh Acheen features a small window halfway up the minaret which is said to have originally been a hole made by a cannonball fired during the 1867 triad riots.

Church of the Holy Name of Jesus, Balik Pulau

Antique stained glass from Belgium and a tenor bell from France are just two of the several unique features found in a legendary and historical church.

Dharmikarama Burmese Temple, Lorong Burmah

A pair of elephants guard the entrance to this Burmese temple at Lorong Burma. within the pagoda grounds is a Boddhi tree and a wishing pond. It is the scene of many festivities during the water festival in April.

Han Jiang Ancestral Temple of the Penang Teochew Association, Lebuh Chulia

The French poet Lamartine once said that History teaches everything including the future. Indeed, if no efforts are made to remember the past, it will simply cease to exist. If there are precious lessons to be learnt from our ancestors, then Penang's clan houses are a living and thriving meeting point where past and present virtually meet. The Han Jiang Ancestral Temple of the Penang Teochew Association is the proud recipient of the 2006 UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Culture Heritage Conservation.

Penang Teochew Association
127 Chulia Street, 10200 Penang, Malaysia • Tel: 604-261 5629, 262 5629

Kapitan Kling Mosque, Jalan Kapitan Keling

Named after the Indian Muslim merchant, the “Kapitan Keling” (headman) Caudeer Mohudeen who built it in the early 19th century. It features an ocher yellow facade and dome-shaped minaret reflecting Moorish Islamic influence. Tourists should be properly attired when entering the mosque.

Kek Lok Si Temple, Ayer Itam

Perhaps the finest Buddhist temple in South East Asia, the Kek Lok Si temple stands majestically on a hill in Ayer Itam. Construction began in 1893 and was completed in 1905. Built-in tiers, the beautifully crafted “Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas” took more than 20 years to build and was only completed in 1930. It combines a Chinese octagonal base, middle tiers of Thai architecture and a Burmese crown, reflecting the temple’s wide embrace of Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. The temple also features gardens, a turtle pond, shrines and beautiful sculptures. This is one of Penang’s most popular attractions.

Khoo Kongsi, Cannon Square

Probably Penang’s most picturesque building, the Khoo Kongsi is made up of two buildings on opposite sides to each other. One building serves as the ancestral temple while the other is used for staging plays and operas. The Khoo Kongsi is meant only for members of the Leong San Tong (Dragon Mountain Hall) clan, whose forefathers came from Sin Kang village in Hokkien province, China. Construction of the Khoo Kongsi started in 1894 and took eight years to complete. Its original design was very elaborate meant to capture the splendour of the Chinese imperial palace. Its seven-tiered pavilion, dragon pillars and hand-painted walls engraved with the Khoo emblem were thought to have even outshone the imperial palace itself. On the first night of its completion, the Khoo Kongsi caught fire and many said it was because the gods were unhappy with the scale of its grandeur. It was then rebuilt on a smaller scale but it still retains the distinctive architecture of the master craftsmen from China.

Kuan Yin (Goddess of Mercy) Temple, Jalan Kapitan Keling

Known as the Temple of the Goddess of Mercy, this popular Taoist temple is located close to the Kapitan Kling Mosque on Jalan Kapitan Keling (formerly Pitt Street). Believed to be the oldest temple in Penang, it was built in the 1800s by early Chinese settlers. Kuan Yin was a being who had actually attained Nirvana but stayed behind to save those souls who did not escape the world of suffering. The temple is also dedicated to Ma Chor Poh, the virgin goddess of mercy and saint to sea voyagers. The high roof of the main hall is supported by dragon-entwined pillars carved from a type of green stone. The statue of Kuan Yin as a serenely composed woman with 18 arms sits in an inner chamber.

Nattukotai Temple, Jalan Air Terjun

This temple at Jalan Air Terjun is dedicated to the deity, Bala Subramaniam, and features prominently during the annual Taipusam festival when thousands of devotees throng its premises for the various rites and ceremonies.

Penang State Mosque, Jalan Ayer Itam

The Penang State Mosque at Jalan Masjid Negeri features elegant modern architecture and took four years to complete. It can accommodate 5,000 worshippers for congregational prayers and is usually packed on Fridays. Permission to enter must be obtained from the State Religious Department, Lebuh Pantai. Visitors must dress appropriately and remove their shoes before entering.

Snake Temple, Bayan Lepas

The Snake Temple was built in 1850 in memory of the Buddhist priest, Choo Sor Kong, who is said to have healing powers. Legend, however, has it that the place used to be the home of a religious man who gave shelter to poisonous snakes when they sought refuge there. After his death, the snakes remained and it became a place of worship. Also known as Temple of Azure Cloud, the serpents’ shrine is an extraordinary one: poisonous pit vipers busk on altars, incense burners, candlesticks, vases and tables, underfoot and overhead. Recommended for intrepid visitors.

Sri Mariamman Temple, Lebuh Queen

Penang’s oldest Hindu temple which was built in 1883, is filled with colourful statues of Hindu deities. Among the priceless possessions of this ornate building is a statue of Lord Subramaniam richly decorated with gold, silver, diamonds and emeralds. During the Thaipusam festival, the statue is taken on a chariot procession by Hindu devotees.

St. Anne’s Church, Bukit Mertajam

From a small chapel built atop a hillock by visiting priest Fr. Adolphe Couellan in 1846, it grew to become a center of pilgrimage in the region. Hence a bigger church was built next to the old one, now called the Shrine. The dedication of the new church with its multi-tiered Minangkabau roofs and Gothic architecture was held on 26 July 2002. The church was named after St Anne, mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and has a sitting capacity of 1,800. Celebrations are held on a grand scale annually in conjunction with the annual St Anne's Feast (in the month of July) which is usually followed by two nights of candlelight procession by thousands of devotees at the church grounds.

St. George’s Church, Lebuh Farquhar

Built with convict labor in 1818, the Anglican Church was named after the patron saint of England, and is one of the region’s oldest. The Greek temple in the church grounds is a memorial to Francis Light. Today, churchgoers still flock to the church for service and it remains virtually unchanged.

Wat Chayamankalaram, Lorong Burmah

The world’s third-largest reclining Buddha which measures 33 metres in length, is draped in gold-leafed saffron and reclines on a large crematorium. This Buddhist temple is reminiscent of Bangkok’s many wats. The intricate finish of the interior in vibrant colours and designs is a sample of Thai architecture. Behind the temple is a small Thai village as well as a Thai cemetery. At this temple, the local Thais celebrate the traditional Buddhist festivals, the Sonkran and the Loy Krathong.

Church of the Assumption, among Penang's historical landmarks

Church of the Assumption © Adrian Cheah

George Town, located in the heart of Penang, has perhaps one of the most diverse religious communities in Malaysia. Here, almost every religion has its own distinct religious architectural abode to serve believers.

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Minor Basilica of St. Anne: monument to faith and enduring legacy

Church of St Anne © Adrian Cheah

The humble legacy of 19th century French missionaries have become among the greatest pilgrimage centres of the region.

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Church of the Holy Name of Jesus – a historical church in a sleepy hollow

Church of the Holy Name of Jesus © Adrian Cheah


Old churches are fascinating buildings. Aside from their obvious roles as houses for worship and community gathering, old churches are also well known for their sublime architecture and illustrious histories. The Western continent has some of the finest and world-renowned churches, the mind immediately recalling structures like the early Gothic-styled Notre Dame in Paris (1163), St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican (349AD) and St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City (19th century). Equally fascinating ones also include the Santa Maria Maggiore (430AD) and Santa Prassede (780AD) in Rome and the Saxon Brixworth and Escombe churches in England (around 670AD).

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Tow Boo Kong Temple – an epic edifice where gods descend on Earth

Tow Boo Kong Temple © Adrian Cheah

This is the most famous place of worship in Raja Uda, and indeed in the whole of Seberang Perai. The intricately designed Tow Boo Kong Temple sited on the northern end of Jalan Raja Uda was built in honour of the Nine Emperor Gods.

Originally set up as just an attap-shed shrine in the early 1970s, the temple was rebuilt to its current scale and grandeur in 2000. The majestic archway was completed in 2009.

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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.

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Sanctum sanctorums of the Thai and Burmese communities

Dhammikarama Burmese Temple © Adrian Cheah

In 1845, a large endowment of land in the Pulau Tikus area was made to the Theravada Buddhists, principally Thai and Burmese, whose importance is recorded in local street names to this day. Today, the extensive lands surrounding the Thai Wat Chaiyamangalaram are home to a small and thriving kampong of about thirty families (approximately 120 persons) of Thai Chinese and Hindu Indians. (The Changing Perceptions of Waqf, as Social, Cultural and Symbolic Capital in Penang, Judith Nagata)

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Acheen Street Mosque, priceless legacy of the Penang Muslim community

Acheen Street Mosque © Adrian Cheah

The history of the Acheen Street mosque (also known as the Malay mosque), began in 1792, which marked the arrival of its founder Tengku Syed Hussain Al-Aidid who had come from Acheh to settle in Penang. A member of the royal family of Acheh, Sumatra and descendant of a sovereign Arab family, Hussain became a hugely successful entrepreneur and one of the wealthiest merchants and landowners in Penang.

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The Han Jiang Ancestral Temple of the Penang Teochew Association – linking past and present

Teochew Temple © Adrian Cheah

You cannot miss the building. Nestled among rows of old Indian Muslim carpet stores, jewellers and eateries, the ancestral temple of the Teochew Chinese stands out with its pronounced Chinese architecture and imposing doors featuring twin larger-than-life Chinese warriors in full regalia. This silent and formidable pair with their red faces and weapons, frightening to foes yet welcoming to members and visitors, have been standing guard to the temple's peaceful interior for more than a century. Their presence recalls to mind a rather popular Chinese tercet: "Like the spring rain to a lotus blossom, thou art welcome; come, rest within".

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Kek Lok Si Temple, the monastery on Crane Hill

Kek Lok Si © Adrian Cheah

In Chinese iconography, the Crane holds special significance. It is an auspicious symbol denoting longevity, and wisdom that comes with age. The Crane is said to manifest a peculiar interest in human affairs and is also often associated with good luck, high-mindedness, purity and freedom.

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Sri Mariamman, the temple of an ancient goddess

Sri Mariamman © Adrian Cheah

Penang has a large community of Indians, broadly divided into those from the North (Bengalis, Sindhis, Gujerati, etc.) and the South (Tamils). It is not surprising then that the Penang landscape is dotted with Hindu temples, from the large and ornate to the unostentatious makeshift huts and lean-to's.

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