The Golden Stupas of Pulau Tikus


Historic and breath-taking, these places of worship were once the tallest edifices in the quiet suburb.

The temples of Pulau Tikus reflect some of the neighbouring cultures that once immigrated to Penang – most notably from Burma and Thailand. Jalan Burma itself used to cut through Burmese plantations, and the lanes that branch off from the main artery – all 3.2km of it – usually took inspiration from Burma for their names: Rangoon, Mandalay, Tavoy, Irrawaddy, Salween and Moulmein, for example.

Burmese Days

The Dhammikarama Burmese Temple on Lorong Burma is the only Burmese temple in Penang. Founded in 1803 as “Nandy Moloh Burmese Temple”, it is also one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Malaysia. In typical Burmese style, the temple complex is typified by traditional Burmese stupas, shining golden above Pulau Tikus’s shophouses.

Its history is an interesting one, most notably because of the characters involved. Nyonya Betong donated the site after she bought it for 390 Spanish Dollars from a British man named George Layton. The sale was granted by Major General Sir George Alexander William Leith, the first Lieutenant-Governor of Prince of Wales’ Island.

Devotee at Dhammikarama Burmese Temple.

What would eventually be the group of trustees for the temple deserves equal mention. Nyonya Betong was joined by three other women: Nonia Meerut, Nonia Koloh and Nonia Bulan. But that is where the documented history ends. To understand how four women were rich and influential enough to found the temple, we need to look at documented Burmese genealogy. Datuk Mary J. Ritchie, patron of the Penang Burmese Society, shared that her grandmother first came to Penang trading in gemstones, and we can imagine Dhammikarama Burmese Temple’s first patrons doing the same.

Standing 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 garuda, a humanoid bird prevalent in Buddhist and Hindu mythology.

The complex is capable of housing devotees and monks who have travelled to the temple, complete with monks’ quarters, a preceptor’s lodge and a library. 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 fallen into disuse. In recognition of its great value to Penang, the temple was identified as one of 15 historical sites launched under Visit Penang Year in 1988, and since then has been preserved and promoted as one of the state’s main tourist attractions.

Wat Chayamangkalaram's reclining Buddha.

The Siam Connexion

Just across the street from the temple is Wat Chayamangkalaram. Much like its Burmese neighbour, this Siamese temple is a feast of colours – particularly shades of gold. Britain’s Queen Victoria first granted the land to the Buddhist community in 1845 to promote trade between the British Empire and Siam. And, like its Burmese neighbour, it was presented by then Governor of the Straits Settlements, William Butterworth, to four female trustees. With the men presumably working, women played an important role in protecting and developing Penang’s early settlements and communities.

This temple’s most prominent characteristic is the reclining Buddha, “Phra Chaiya Mongkol”, which is 108ft long. It is the temple’s centrepiece and main place of worship. However, as well as serving as a stunning backdrop for prayer and incense, it also serves as a columbarium.

The gold-plated reclining Buddha rests on his right in the position of enlightenment, his head on his right hand pointing north and his left leg curled over his right. His position represents Buddha’s Mahaparinirvana, the final step in the process of crossing over into nirvana, an idyllic state in which an individual transcends bodily suffering, desire and the impact of karma. To the trained eye, however, the smaller shrines hold equal importance. Underneath each shrine surrounding the main temple and pagoda are Loog Nimit (sacred stones) that were put down in 1910 to consecrate the site.

Unique offerings are made at different shrines; one can sometimes even 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 at Wat Chayamangkalaram. The first monk in the temple was Phorthan Kuat, a Theravada Buddhist monk from Siam also known as the “Powerful Monk”. It is said that he was very fond of assam laksa and, to this day, the dish is still offered at his shrine by devotees.

Wat Buppharam on Jalan Perak.

Then there is Wat Buppharam, on Jalan Perak. This temple was founded in 1942 by Phothan Srikheaw, a Thai-Buddhist monk, who was also its first abbot. Wat Buppharam began as a small temple but over the years, through donations and gifts from believers, was able to embark on several expansion programmes. In early 2000 it completed its gateway arch, which is one of the grandest entrance arches found at a Buddhist temple in Penang.

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 the Loy Krathong, a festival of lights where observers light candles and joss sticks in lotus vessels and set these afloat in the sea – usually at Gurney Drive – to release all negative feelings, making a wish as they do so.

The temple’s most endearing feature can be found in the two-foot statue of Buddha. Known as the “Lifting Buddha”, this 100-year-old gold-encrusted statue is said to have the ability to grant wishes; legend has it that if you concentrate on your wish hard enough, the tiny statue will lift in the air. At the second attempt, if the statue does not lift, the wish will come true.

Holding On

In 2014, the residents of Kampung Siam, adjacent to Wat Chayamangkalaram, had to defend their right of abode after the land occupied by the village was sold to a property developer. Residents were handed eviction notices in April that year and the promise of a RM30,000 compensation fee. Previous plot divisions and the lack of title deeds or rental contracts meant that the residents held a loose claim to the land based on Grant No. 2655 issued by the East India Company on behalf of Queen Victoria on May 30, 1845.

As well as being the home of Noo Wan Aroonratana, grandmaster of the menora dance, a shamanistic ritual, the village has also been graced by Thai princes, princesses and members of parliament, including Thailand’s first prime minister, Phraya Manopakorn.

It would be a pity to lose this proud village, for what would the temples mean without its rich communities, which are as old as Penang itself?

Well travelled and having read International Relations at university, James Springer is interested in political and social history, and what we can learn from past events. He believes that problems highlighted by literary greats from the past still hold true in the world today. If the written word is one of man’s greatest achievements, then we should be learning from it now more than ever.

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