To say that Malacca is one of Malaysia's most history-rich cities is only telling half its story.
Malacca is just as grounded in the present as it is in the past: the ancient houses of worship in this UNESCO World Heritage Site are just as popular with devotees as they were in the heyday of colonial Malacca.
Just take a look at the “Street of Harmony” in Malacca, formally known as Jalan Tukang Emas but also known as Malacca's Jalan Tokong (Temple Street): worshipers from local ethnic communities worship at their respective altars on a regular basis, almost little changed in fervor over the years.
The devotion reaches a peak during their respective holidays: Sri Poyyatha Vinayagar Moorthi Temple becomes a major focus of the local Thaipusam or Deepavali Hindu celebrations, the same for Kampung Kling Mosque during Ramadan or Cheng Hoon Teng Temple during Chinese New Year.
You don't have to visit during a major festival to see these side-by-side temples (and their still-fervent devotees) at their best: on any sunny Malaysian afternoon, you can stop by Jalan Tokong to discover each of these places for yourself.
Why Do They Call It the “Street of Harmony”?
The “Harmony” part of the street stems from Malaysia's history as a multicultural country with occasional ruptures between cultures.
Unlike in the West, race remains an official fixture of everyday life in Malaysia. What you are remains intimately tied into where your ancestors came from and what your tribe believes. The Malay majority and some Tamil Indian communities subscribe to Islam; Tamil Indians mostly subscribe to Hinduism, while the Chinese community – rooted in Taoism and Buddhism – today subscribes to a diversity of faith traditions.
Relations between these communities have not always been smooth. Race riots in the 1960s have led to today's political compromise, where the economically privileged Chinese community concedes political privileges to the Malays. Thus the value of the “Street of Harmony”: it showcases Malacca's historical religious and cultural tolerance, in the hope of defusing any race-related explosions in the future.
Cheng Hoon Teng Temple: Devoted to the Chinese “Three Teachings”
The Chinese ethnic community in Malacca was once led by a powerful “Kapitan Cina” (Chinese captain) appointed by the European colonial authorities.
One of Malacca's most influential Kapitans left an indelible mark by commissioning Cheng Hoon Teng Temple in 1645; later Kapitans enlarged and improved the temple over the following decades. The name translates to “Clear Clouds”, relating to the Goddess of Mercy Guan Yin, to whom this temple is dedicated.
Cheng Hoon Teng was intended as a focus of worship for the Three Teachings that formed the basis for Chinese society: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism.
Built early in the colonial era, created by Chinese expatriates, the temple amounts to a piece of China in a foreign land: craftsmen from the Chinese provinces of Guangdong and Fujian designed and finished the temple as an example of Southern Chinese architecture, lacking any apparent influence from local cultures.
Seeking Guan Yin's Help at Cheng Hoon Teng's Altars
Cheng Hoon Teng's ancient age aside, this Confucian Chinese temple remains one of the most popular in Malaysia – no surprise given the vibrant Chinese ethnic community that still calls Malacca home.
Locals converge regularly on Cheng Hoon Teng to pray for help, ask for divination to solve their problems, or pay their respects to their ancestors.
After you get past the front yard, you'll encounter the main prayer hall, divided into three altars. Images in lacquered gold above the three altars depict episodes from the life of the Buddha.
The central altar bears the image of Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy and the patron of the temple. Guan Yin is a major deity for Daoists and Buddhists: as Guan Yin is a Bodhisattva of compassion, Mahayana Buddhists pray at her altar for mercy, invoking her aid in difficult times.
Safe Childbirth, Successful Businesses Requested at Side Altars
To the left of Guan Yin's effigy stands the combined altar of the Queen of the Oceans Mazu (protector of fishermen; traditionally invoked for safe voyages), and Jin Hua Fu Ren (fertility goddess; traditionally invoked for safe pregnancies by women heavy with child).
The altar to the right of Guan Yin (pictured above) is popular with businessmen praying for the success of their ventures. The male gods at this combined altar represent the deity Kwan Ti, the god of war and patron of justice, and Tai Sui, the god of wealth.
The buzz of activity around the altars tells you that the images here are no mere museum pieces. Following eons of tradition, Chinese Daoist Malaysians still come here to pray for help or to express gratitude for divine aid.
Help in tough times; good business; safe travels; and successful childbirth – these, after all, are concerns that never, ever go out of style.
Historic Stone Tablets in Cheng Hoon Teng Temple
Step behind the main temple chamber and you'll find rows upon rows of stelae (tablets carved with characters), with the earliest dating all the way back to the 17th century. The oldest stelae expresses gratitude to Kapitan Cina Lee Wei King for donating land for a Chinese graveyard.
The same Lee Wei King donated the land on which this temple was built: Cheng Hoon Teng sprawls over 49,500 square feet of real estate, not counting the land on the other side of the street where Chinese operas are staged during days of obligation.
Kampung Kling Mosque's Many Cultural Influences
Unlike Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, the Kampung Kling Mosque a few meters down the street embraces a riot of multiple cultural influences.
Built in 1748 to serve the Muslim Chitty (Indian Peranakan ethnic community) that settled in this neighborhood during the Dutch colonial era, Kampung Kling Mosque betrays a more syncretic aesthetic approach, with design cues borrowed from European, Chinese, Hindu, and Malay sources.
Like many Malay or Southeast Asian mosques, Masjid Kampung Kling follows a square floor plan. The roof shows off its allegiance to design cues from the region, such as the triple-tiered roof typical of Malay mosques.
The number of tiers designates three important relationships innate to humanity – the top symbolizes faith in Allah, the middle symbolizes relationships between individuals, and the lowest tier symbolizes a relationship with nature. (Source)
The roof is crowned by a mastaka, an ornament common to mosques from Java in Indonesia. A mastaka also crowns the minaret (seen behind the main mosque above), but the tiered design hearkens back to a Chinese stupa.
Wash Here Before Praying, Kampung Kling Mosque
A fountain behind the Kampung Kling Mosque serves a practical purpose: Muslim worshipers are required to wash themselves before praying at a mosque, and devotees at the Kampung Kling Mosque stop here before entering the carpeted prayer area.
Immediately behind the fountain area stands a small cemetery, reserved for Muslim dignitaries and teachers.
Fake Tiles Forestall Theft in Kampung Kling Mosque
Minute detail suffuses almost every open surface on the Kampung Kling Mosque; even the steps and walls are covered in beautifully painted ceramic.
In the Age of Sail, European trading ships used to ballast themselves with heavy ceramic tile from the Netherlands. Upon arrival in Malacca, the ships would unload their ballast and sell the lot, contributing to the beautifully-tiled homes and public buildings around Malacca's Chinatown and historic quarter.
Kampung Kling also boasted of plentiful tile surfaces, but its wide-open access meant that thieves sometimes got to the precious old tile.
After a recent renovation, most of the more easily accessible surfaces were stripped of the old tile; the tiles that now adorn the Kampung Kling Mosque are almost exact copies of the old surface, with tiny stamped serial numbers betraying their more recent provenance.
Entrance to the Sri Poyyatha Vinayagar Moorthi Hindu Temple
The easternmost of the three temples on the Street of Harmony caters to Malacca's Hindu population, the descendants of Tamil Indian immigrants brought here by colonial powers.
Like Cheng Hoon Teng and the Kapitan Cina who ordered its construction, the Sri Poyyatha Vinayagar Moorthi Temple was also the brainchild of a parallel Kapitan, the appointed leader of the Chetty (Indian) Hindu community: Thaivanayagam Pillay, who spearheaded the construction of a temple for his faith community on a parcel of land donated by the Dutch colonial government.
Long isolated by time and distance from their home communities in southern India, the Chettys who built the temple incorporated European influences into the architecture. The gopuram, or gateway tower, lacks the rich, riotous decoration of its counterparts in the subcontinent. The tower feels more European than Indian: arched niches and molded edges recall only the general shape of its inspiration.
Worshiping a Remover of Obstacles at Malacca's Top Hindu Temple
The “Vinayagar” in the temple's name refers to the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha, revered as the “remover of obstacles” and lord of learning. “Poyyatha”, on the other hand, refers to the divine blessings given to devotees who pray at this temple with utmost sincerity.
Both names indicate the value of the temple to those who visit: a source of consolation, an outlet for supplication, and a beacon of hope for those who have so little of it left.
Hindu priests at the temple intercede for worshippers, so long as the proper forms are followed.
The worshippers bring a silver tray with the following offerings: a garland of flowers, a whole coconut, and bananas. The priest takes the lot and offers it up to Ganesha in prayer – then returns to the worshipper, breaks the coconut, and accepts the bananas. The worshipper takes the flowers back home to hang up on their personal altar.
Ganesha worship is a family affair at the Sri Poyyatha Viyanagar Moorthi Temple: beside the black statue of Ganesha Vinayagar at the central altar stand secondary altars dedicated to to Ganesha's parents Shiva and Parvati, and his brother the god of war Muruga.