George Town’s heritage extends beyond its city limits. Despite a change in postcodes, Penang Island continues to display the various cultures that have called it home, at one time or another, south or west of its capital city.
This is certainly true of Pulau Tikus. The temples situated in this suburb reflect a handful of minor cultures that immigrated to Penang. The Dhammikarama Burmese Temple, on Lorong Burma, is the only Burmese temple in Penang State, making it a unique to the State itself. First established in 1803, it is also the oldest Buddhist temple in Penang. In typical Burmese style, the temple complex is typified by traditional Burmese stupas, jutting above Pulau Tikus’ shophouses and shining golden under Penang’s blue skies.
On first entering under the complex’s ornate portico, a covered, open-air walkway leads you to the rear shrine. Lining this walkway is a huge mural depicting the Renunciation of Buddha, the story of how Buddha renounced his earthly desires while being plagued by tempting demons. The central gardens are filled with mythical creatures such as the chinthe, a lion-like guardian, and garudas, a humanoid bird prevalent in Buddhist and Hindu mythology. There is also a statue called ‘Pance Rupa’, comprised of two chimeras either side of a large globe. If you look closely you may be able to spot the three elements of land, air and sea in their bodies.
The complex is an active Buddhist one, still capable of housing devotees and monks who have travelled to the temple. The complex comes with a monks’ quarters, a preceptees’ lodge and a library within the temple grounds. It also includes a well that was originally dug for use by the surrounding Burmese community; with the advent of piped water, the well has since been disused. It is a refreshing, living piece of history well worth visiting.
Across the street, closer than a stone’s throw away, is the Wat Chayamangkalaram. Much like its Burmese neighbour, the temple is a feast of colours – particularly gold. Queen Victoria first granted the land to the Buddhist community in 1845 to promote trade between the British Empire and Siam.
By far the temple’s most prominent characteristic is the one hundred and eight foot reclining Buddha, ‘Phra Chaiya Mongko’. A thing of beauty, if not dominance, the reclining Buddha is the temple’s centrepiece and main place of worship. However, as well as serving as a stunning backdrop for people praying and burning incense, it also serves as columbarium. A visitor can walk completely around the statue and, at the back of the statue, can view where the urns of the cremated are housed. It is the third longest reclining Buddha in the world.
One thing to notice when visiting the temple is the offerings made at different shrines. Of note, you can sometimes find a bowl of laksa sitting at the base of a shrine. It is not unusual for offerings of food to appear at Buddhist places of worship, but laksa supposedly has a specific relevance. The first monk in Wat Chaiyamangkalaram was Phorthan Kuat, a Theravada Buddhist monk from Siam also known as the ‘Powerful Monk’. It is said that he was very fond of asam laksa and, to this day, the famous local dish is still offered to his shrine by devotees.
Wat Buppharam Buddhist Temple, on Jalan Perak, also holds some pleasant and significant surprises. A distinct mix of Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism, the temple complex is considered the largest in Penang. Also known as the ‘Flower Temple’, it hosts one of Penang’s Hindu festivals, Loy Krathong Festival. Originated over 700 years ago from Brahmin culture, it is a floral offering to the Water Goddess. Lighted candles and joss-sticks are placed in lotus vessels (loy krathongs) and set afloat to release all negative feelings like anger, envy, resentment and grudges, and devotees then make a wish for the new year.
The temple’s most endearing feature can be found in a two-foot statue of Buddha. Known as the ‘lifting Buddha’, this 100-year old gold encrusted statue has the ability of granting a wish, without confirmation. Legend has it that if you concentrate on your wish hard enough, the tiny statue will lift in the air. If you try to lift the statue a second time, presumably with the same level of concentration, and do not lift the Buddha, then your wish will come true. A good thing for those finding problems with consistency.
Burmese Temple, 24, Jalan Burma, Pulau Tikus, 10250 George Town, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia
Wat Chayamangkalaram, 17, Lorong Burma, Pulau Tikus, 10250 George Town, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia
Wat Buppharam Buddhist Temple, 8, Jalan Perak, Pulau Tikus, 10350 George Town, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia