Of all the Chinese temples in Georgetown, Penang, Kuan Yin Temple (also known as the Goddess of Mercy Temple) is the oldest. When Hokkien and Cantonese people started to arrive in the area during the 18th century, they decided to construct a place of worship. Built in 1728, it soon became a major centre for social interaction and the development of community identity. Travellers on a trip to Malaysia looking for where to go in Penang to learn about local history and culture will definitely benefit from a visit to Kuan Yin Temple.
A devoted Buddhist and a patron hallow of sailors
The temple honours two important figures: Kuan Yin and Ma Chor Poh. Even though it is now officially associated with Kuan Yin, there is much evidence that the temple’s initial construction was with Ma Chor Poh in mind.
Kuan Yin (also spelt Kwan Yin and Guan Yin) is the ‘bodhisattva of compassion’. A bodhisattva is a person who has developed the ability to transcend to nirvana but chooses to remain in the earthly sphere, so that he or she can assist those who are suffering. The name ‘Kuan Yin’ represents a shortening of ‘Kuan Shih Yin’ and translates as ‘Observing the Sounds of the World’.
Numerous stories and manifestations of Kuan Yin abound in East Asian Buddhism. Most portraits are female, though some male ones do exist, too. One story (most likely to be Taoist in origin) states that she was the daughter of a cruel man, who eventually ordered her execution. However, as she was about to pass into nirvana, a call of suffering affected her so deeply that she asked to return to Earth, promising that she would never depart until she’d eradicated all pain.
Ma Chor Poh is the patron hallow of all those who spend long periods travelling on the ocean. Given that many of Penang’s Chinese population had risked an unpredictable journey across the dangerous South China Sea in order to resettle, the goddess meant a lot to them. Some historians argue that the fortune sticks inside the temple are covered in poetry dedicated to Ma Chor Pho.
A statue with 18 arms
Kuan Yin Temple features high on the list of where to go in Penang because of the exquisite fashion in which Kuan Yin is represented. Her statue is found in a dedicated room inside the temple, which is decorated with red Chinese lanterns. She is depicted as a female goddess, with 18 arms. Due to having lived an existence committed to compassion and to easing the pain of others, she wears a kind, tranquil expression, symbolising contentment.
Kuan Yin’s earthly followers believe that she is able to assist them on their journey to nirvana. Some visitors to the temple – both locals and those who travel to Malaysia – show their dedication to her by burning incense. The scent of sandalwood filling the temple is something of a sensory delight.
18th century Chinese architecture
Travellers whose trip to Malaysia is driven by a passion for the area’s architecture will find much to interest them at Kuan Yin Temple. Constructed in the classic Chinese style, it features elevated ceilings, held up by pillars made of green stone. Carvings and sculptures of dragons ornament most sections.
There are two wells – one in the outside courtyard, which was accessible to the public, and the other inside, which was dedicated to the use of resident monks.
During late 2012 and early 2013, the temple underwent a restoration programme, which involved improving the front façade and repairing the roof tiles and ornaments.
There’s no doubt that Kuan Yin Temple is appealing for most visitors contemplating what to do in Penang. Somehow, travel to Malaysia without a visit to Georgetown’s oldest Chinese temple wouldn’t be complete.