Visiting Penang, you are sure to visit Georgetown. From a melting pot of cultures and historic gems that are preserved over a century, there is plenty to see and people to meet in Penang, especially in the Street of Harmony, one of the oldest roads in the city centre with harmony in diversity.
It all began in the 1800s, when the early settlers found refuge in Penang in their pursuit of finding a home, business ventures and protection from their overseas explorations. Religion is an embodied phenomenon that they believe kept their journey in navigating the world in an open environment safe, and form bonds with those who shares the same beliefs by faith.
The 5 major houses of worships standing solidly on this street are a reflection of the communities we see in Penang today. Each, was once built and identified as their places of worships and assembly. And behind each architecture? The intricacy and aesthetic choices are the expression of religious beliefs and capacity of those who created and designed it then — now, filled with century old stories and events.
On this bustling street today, you will find mixed communities, cuisines, street sellers and businesses offering a diversity of experience — all, with stories that reflect the harmonious coexistence in the past, present and future.
Start your exploration at the oldest Anglican Church in Southeast Asia, the St. George’s Church. The church was built based on the architectural plans drawn by the Governor of Prince of Wales Island with a big picture in mind. It was carefully planned and situated at Pitt St. at the seafront to welcome people from all around the world to settle, and to visit upon disembarking from the ship to perform acts of devotion. The church is one of the 50 national treasures of Malaysia, preserved by the federal government and cared by the locals from diverse races at the church.
Down the road is Kuan Yin Temple, dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy by Taoist believers. The temple was first built by the early Chinese settlers, based on an ancient Chinese practice, Feng Shui to achieve harmony with our environment. The temple was the centre for the Chinese communities to worship to the Goddess of Sea for safety of the seafarers in the 1800s.
Soon, the temple was surrounded by more Chinese communities, forming a settlement that lives harmoniously together. The temple would serve as neutral ground for mediation of conflicts and disputes. To this date, the temple remains the focal point and of religious significance amongst Chinese descent and visitors of various races who come to pray for healing and blessings in their lives.
Next, head over to Queen Street, the Little India of Penang to be in awe of the oldest Hindu temple in Penang where you will find the perfect balance in everything that encompasses a universal idea of worshipping. With its stunning sculptures of the gods and goddesses over its facade and shrines in the temple, Arulmigu Sri Mahamariamman temple was built back in the 1900s to welcome the early Indian settlers and its growing community who were here to toil and trade, a place they can come to worship and pray for protection away from home. Today, Little India remains a bustling street with old and new Indian descents who call Penang home.
Another historical house of worship, one that the road is named after, is Masjid Kapitan Keling. A prominent Islamic centre today for the Indian Muslim community, it was the first congregational mosque to be built in George Town. The architecture and religious practice drew influence from its founder, an Indian Muslim merchant, Cauder Mydin Merican. Today, it is one of the only ones that conduct weekly sermon in Tamil and Malay, for Muslims to come together, and many generations after from all walks of life to pray religiously every week.
As Penang attracted more Malay traders and mariners from Sumatra, Jawa, Rawa and as far away as Armenia, it became necessary to provide a house of worship for Malay speaking Muslims. Built in 1808, the Masjid Melayu is one of the oldest mosques in Penang today. Built by an Achehnese merchant of Arab descent, the mosque’s Arab-style minaret and Achehnese roof is a reflection of the past that has became the allure for many locals and visitors. The descendants still lives on this ground with the mausoleum of his ancestor, the founder located within the compound of the mosque.
The Street of Harmony is a gem of the century rich in heritage and culture that may be unnoticed as you drive along this street, but felt as you look around and discover the harmonious spirit that is very much alive today. As you walk along the area, you will find street names reflecting each settlement and historical buildings that found home in these places. There’s more to these houses of worships that are yet to be discovered. A place of past, present and future of harmonious coexistence so evident in the Penang culture, that you may not find anywhere else in the world today.