One of the most interesting things that I found about the Pearl of the Orient – Penang was its confluence of cultures. I suppose this struck me as familiar for quite like India, there were people from different origins who have settled here over generations. From the Chinese to the Indians, some British and even Armenians, the melting pot of diverse culture is what makes the atmosphere so vibrant. And though as diverse as it is, it sure is united in a lot of ways. The best example of this unity as I discovered was the Street of Harmony in George Town, Penang.
The Street of Harmony is called so for this one single stretch is home to a church, a mosque, a Hindu temple and a Taoist temple. We were to drive past this interesting street, just after my hair-raising experience at The Skywalk in Komtar Penang. After that adrenaline high, it was only befitting that we had something as calming as this name to experience. However, drive-through did not feel right. With a little insistence and united voice of Bloggers, we finally got our guide Gillian to agree for a walk along the Street Of Harmony. And Boy, am I glad we did!
About the Street of Harmony
The Street of Harmony in Georgetown, Penang is actually a stretch between St. George’s church at one end and the Kapitan Kelling Mosque at the other end. It is also, referred to as Pitt Street. Besides these two religious monuments, you also, have Shri Mahamariamman temple for the Hindus and the Goddess of Mercy temple for the Chinese on the street. All these landmarks have been constructed in the 18th century by the migrants from various places.
Owing to its strategic location, Penang was a popular choice for various migrants and conquerors. The British East India Company had this as a base for several years while the Indians, Chinese and Armenians migrated here owing to wars. Over generations, these diverse cultures have mingled and created their own unique space – while at the same time, preserving their heritage faith. The Street of Harmony stands as a testimony of the same.
St.George’s Church on the Street of Harmony
This 18th-century church was built by the British East India Company. An Anglican church, this one has a fair bit of connection to India. For one, the supervisor -Captain Smith, who built the church was a colleague of the architect Col. James of Madras Engineers. These were the same guys who built St. George’s Cathedral in Madras (Chennai) in India. The second is that the church was congregated by Bishop of Calcutta (India). The stark white church against that blue sky did beckon me to get in and start exploring but sadly, it was closed at that time. I would have loved to see the Stained Glass decor inside – And how do I know about it? Well, I do believe every church has one and that frankly, is what draws me inside 😉
Goddess of Mercy Temple, Penang
Further down the same street is a Taoist temple of the Goddess of Mercy. The actual name of the temple is Kong Hock Keong which means “Temple of Cantonese and Hokkien Community“. Interestingly, the initial temple was built for Goddess Mazu, who is the Sea Goddess. This was specifically to Thank her for the safe passage on the sea. This is why the temple was built at this place as it is close to the sea. However, owing to the communal clashes between the Cantonese and Hokkien community, the Goddess of Mercy Guanyin replaced Goddess Mazu as she was worshipped by both the communities. And thus, the new name for the temple – Kong Hock Keong.
You are greeted by the sight and scent of huge incense sticks and the smiling statue of the ever Cheerful Laughing Buddha. What caught my fancy was the gorgeous Chinese roofs with Dragons etched on them. Anyone is welcome into the temple and seizing that opportunity, I made my way in to quickly check out the colorful lamp decor. Though dark, the interiors were quite vibrant with the prominent red color and I spend a fair amount of time watching people around the Altar.
The other thing that caught my fancy here was the lovely ornate doors. Wandering further in, I even came across a well within the temple. As I checked the same out, one of the local residents kindly explained to me that the temple had three wells – one which was for everyone and was outside, the second one was this one for the monks and the third was hidden under the altar. The three wells were in accordance with Feng Shui and represented a Dragon’s head. 🙂
Fortune telling by way of dice seemed to be a regular practice and if you do have the time, you might want to see yours. Me – I just was rushed out to move further on the Street of Harmony.
Shri Mahamariamman temple, Penang
Walking along the Goddess of Mercy temple, I happen to spot a small shrine of our Good Luck God – Ganesha. It seemed obvious that the next in line on the Street of Harmony was a Hindu temple. And yes, I was right. The Shri Mahamariamman temple stood high and beautiful across the road with its temple bells ringing rhythmically. For me, it was a sense of Deja Vu for the temple was a typical Dravidian styled Indian temple – specifically found in South of India.
This was an obvious design considering that the Indian population in Penang is dominated by people from Tamil Nadu and South India. The temple was built on a land granted to the head of South Indians in Penang – Betty Lingam Chetty. The population of this sect consisted of Money Lenders, Sepoys, Merchants and Labourers. The initial structure was just a small shrine dedicated to Goddess Mariamman – who basically is the Goddess of Mercy and Power. (Mari in Tamil means Power) Later, as funds poured in, this temple was reconstructed to the present form.
What we first saw on the Street of Harmony was the back entrance of the temple while the main entrance lies on the other side. A quick hop over to that lane, also, helped me glimpse the area called Little India – complete with hawkers and street food.
Kapitan Keling Mosque on Street of Harmony
The final stop on the walk along the Street of Harmony is the Kapitan Keling Mosque built in the 1800s. The name of the mosque is after the head of the Indian Muslim community – Caudeer Mohuddeen. Kaptain essentially refers to Captain and Keling refers to the Indian place where he hailed from. The gentleman was the first superintendent of the mosque. Like most of these other monuments, this one too was a small structure which later was constructed to its present state – a beautiful white mosque that glowed orange against the setting sun.
Yap temple, Penang
We continued a little further down the mosque and discovered another small Taoist temple – Yap temple. This is unmissable for you tend to start your Street Art tour on a Trishaw from here. Quite unlike the Goddess of Mercy temple, this one belongs to a clan and is called the Choo Chay Keong temple. Though a small one, this one is quite a colorful addition to the Street of Harmony.
Glimpses of Heritage homes & Street Art
All through our walk on the Street of Harmony, I came across plenty of interesting sights. Chinese mansions with their sloping roofs, wrought iron street art and colorful lanes. There just seemed so much to see and absorb that the 800 m walk could have lasted another hour or more for me. And that does not include the Street Art tour, which itself is a separate walk.
The magical thing about the Street of Harmony is that it is not just the marriage of cultures but also, the way the heritage has merged with modern day. It’s fascinating to see how the heritage homes are interspersed with modern art and the old landmarks of faith are still alive and buzzing with people. It is precisely this that makes the Street of Harmony one of the must do things in Penang. Don’t you agree?
- There are plenty of airlines like Malindo Air that fly you straight into Penang – either from the other cities of Malaysia or from major cities of the world.
- You can even drive into Penang from Kuala Lumpur.
- Map the Street of Harmony on your mobile or hand device by clicking here. You can reach the place by cab or Trishaw in Georgetown.
- Start the heritage walk of the Street of Harmony at the St. George’s Church and continue further down as indicated on the map.
- Though the distance is just 800m , there is plenty to see around. Hence, this will be a slow walk.
- You can even hire a Trishaw to take you along the street but the essence of the place would be quite lost.
- Only Hindus can enter the Mariamman temple. Remember that you will have to remove your shoes before you do.
- Similarly, only Muslims are allowed into the Mosque during the prayer times.
- There are no entrance fees at any of these places.
- Keep plenty of water with you during the walk.
- Rest rooms and restaurants are in plenty along the Street