Kek Lok Si Temple is the most famous temple on the island – situated in Ayer Itam, facing the sea and commanding an impressive view. It is built over a plot of an area of 12 hectares (30 acres) and it is said to be the largest buddhist temple in Malaysia. It is also an important pilgrimage centre for buddhists from Hong Kong, the Philippines, Singapore and other countries in Southeast Asia.
Most visitors approach the temple as they ascend a stairway, roofs of which provide shelter to a multitude of shops selling souvenirs and other – mostly secular – commodities. They pass by a so-called liberation pond, following the buddhist tradition of merit-making, turtles may be released into freedom, albeit a limited one.
The temple itself consists of several large prayer halls and pavilions for assembly and prayer, statues of Buddha; various Bodhisattvas as well as Chinese gods are being venerated. The architectural features include carved pillars, fine woodwork, mostly painted in bright colours, and a plethora of lanterns add to the visual impression. Flower gardens are also part of the temple complex.
There is a cable car to carry pilgrims and visitors further uphill. On the elevated platform, there is a fish pond, and the towering statue of Kuan Yin, Goddess of Mercy which is worshipped by women to beget children. The monks and nuns, who are housed in a monastery and who are in charge maintenance and operation of the temple complex, consider it as a spiritual retreat to attain salvation.
This entire complex of temples was built over a period from 1890 to 1930, an inspirational initiative of Beow Lean, the first abbot of the temple. The main draw in the complex is the striking seven-storey Pagoda of Rama VI (Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas) with 10 000 alabaster and bronze statues of Buddha, and the 36,57 metres (120.0 ft) tall bronze statue of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy.
Mahayana Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism and traditional Chinese rituals blend into a harmonious whole, both in the temple architecture and artwork as well as in the daily activities of worshippers. The temple is heavily commercialised with shops at every level and inside the main temple complexes selling all religious paraphernalia.
The construction of the temple began in 1890 and completed in 1905. It was inspired by Beow Lean, the chief monk of the Goddess of Mercy Temple at Pitt Street in 1887; he had served earlier in the Kushan Abbey in Fujian in China. The site chosen by Beow, a spiritual location in the hills of Ayer Itam, was named “Crane Mountain”.
It was established as a branch of the Buddhist Vatican in Drum Mountain in Foochow in Hokkien province. The buildings of the temple complex were sponsored by five leading Chinese business people of Penang known as “Hakka tycoons”. Collection of funds for building the temple was also facilitated by dedicating the structures and artefacts in the name of the temple’s benefactors.
The main hall, which was completed first, housed a shrine to Kuan Yin, in a recessed area where many other female goddesses called the Queen of Heaven, the Goddess of the Earth, and Goddess of Childbirth are housed; which is said to represent, on a miniature scale, the island of Potalaka where there is a large shrine dedicated to Kuan Yin in the China Sea.
People compared this shrine to the Amitabha Buddha’s Western Paradise and started calling it the “Kek Lok Si” (“Jile Si”). There are also many other shrine chambers, which have stately statues, all gilded, of the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, saintly Lohans, guardian spirits, and Heavenly (or Diamond) Kings of Pure Land Buddhism.
The consular representative of China in Penang reported the grandeur of the temple to the Qing Government. Following this, the Guangxu Emperor invited Beow Lean in Beijing in 1904 and bestowed on him, 70 000 volumes (7 000 is also mentioned in some references) of the “psalms and other sacred works of Buddhism” and also presented him edicts anointing him as “dignity of the Chief Priest of Penang” and also declaring “the Chinese temple at Ayer Itam as the head of all Chinese temples in Penang”.
On the Abbot’s return to Penang, a royal procession, carrying the edict in a rattan chair and the scriptures in pony driven carts, was organised leading to the temple complex. Prominent Chinese dignitaries of Penang in their royal mandarin attire accompanied the Abbot in the procession.
In 1930, the seven storey main pagoda of the temple or the Pagoda of “Ban Po Thar”, the Ten Thousand Buddhas, a 30 metres (98 ft) high structure, was completed. This pagoda combines a Chinese octagonal base with a middle tier of Thai design, and a Burmese crown (spiral dome); reflecting the temple’s amalgam of both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism.
It represents syncretism of the ethnic and religious diversity in the country. There is a large statue of Buddha donated by King Bhumibol of Thailand diefied here. King Rama VI of Thailand laid the foundation for the pagoda and it is hence also named as Rama Pagoda.
In 2002, a big statue of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, was completed and opened to the public. It replaced the previous white plaster statue which was damaged due to a fire a few years earlier. The bronze statue is located on the hillside above the pagoda and is complemented with a 60.9 metres (200 ft) three-tiered roof pavilion (with 16 columns made of bronze supporting the pavilion), which was completed in 2009.
It is the tallest Kuan Yin statue in the world. One hundred statues of the goddess Kuan Yin, each of 2 metres (6 ft 7 in) height, are set around the main statue of the goddess. However, its height was restricted to avoid its shadow falling on the Penang State Mosque. This shrine also has other 10 000 statues of Buddha, apart from a statue of 12 zodiac animal signs of the Chinese calendar.
The temple complex has a large hydraulically operated bell, which tolls with a high pitch at frequent intervals. Wood and stone carvings are profusely seen in the temple. In front of each deity there is a cushion, impressive scrolls, and candles set in very attractive suspended lamps, and with a large number of priests in attendance.