Monday, July 11, 2011

Guan Yin Temple, Pitt Street, Penang

The Guan Yin Temple at Pitt Street is locally known as Kuan Im Teng (觀音亭, meaning Guan Yin's Pavillion). It is located at one end of Pitt Street, facing the intersection of China Street and flanked by Stewart Lane on one side. The actual name of the temple is Kong Hock Keong (廣福宫), meaning the Cantonese and Hokkien (Fujian) Temple.
Goddess of Mercy Temple Penang, Pitt Street, Guan Yin Temple
View of Guan Yin Temple, Pitt Street Penang during the Lunar New Year.

Since many Guan Yin temples in Penang are simply referred to as Kuan Yin Teng (e.g. 車水觀音亭), they are differentiated by the location of the temples. The Pitt Street Guan Yin Temple is sometimes know as 椰跤觀音亭. 椰跤 (Iâ-kha) most likely means Where the Coconuts Fall i.e. Beneath the Coconut Trees' or possibly the 跤 is a contraction of 跤叉 i.e. 'The Coconut Tree Intersection'. 椰跤 is the local name for a section of Pitt Street (now Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling) considered by locals to be the beginning of the street.

This 椰跤 section refers to the section of Pitt Street above the intersection with Chulia Street, (Eu Yan Sang building at the corner of the intersection and Masjid Kapitan Keling nearby). Not too sure as to reasons why Pitt Street is being referred to as 椰跤, but possible due to the coconut trees in that area. When talking about Pitt Street in general, Penangites refer to the as Iâ-kha, hence Iâ-kha Kuan Im Teng (椰跤觀音亭).

The temple's foundation stone was supposedly laid around 1728 and the temple was probably completed circa 1800s. This temple built by the early Chinese settlers was originally not dedicated to Guan Yin. Instead, the temple was built for Mazu, the guardian goddess for seafarers. However, by 1824, temple records indicate that Guan Yin had already been elevated as the main deity of the temple. Regardless of whom the temple is dedicated to, it was a place where the local Chinese devotees could seek solace and plead for divine intervention.
Goddes of Mercy Temple Pitt Street Penang, Kuan Im Teng
Intricately designed and highly ornate roof decorations of the Guan Yin Temple, Pitt Street, Penang.

Until today, the popularity of the temple amongst locals has not dwindled a bit, and the crowd can grow so large, especially during one of the major festival days, that you can hardly move about inside the temple without being afraid of getting stabbed in the eye by burning joss sticks. The resulting smoke from all the incense offered by devotees only serves to make the eyes of anyone inside the temple stream with tears. Perhaps this makes the devotees look more sincere and deeply in need of help from Guan Yin, therefore getting their prayers answered swiftly.
Devotees offering incense at the main altar of the famous Guan Yin Temple in Pitt Street, Penang.

Ok, who's Guan Yin and who's Mazu?
Guan Yin is always depicted wearing the Five Dhyani Buddha Crown or a crown of an Indian prince if the depiction is masculine (i.e. Guan Zi Zai Pusa - Avalokitesvara) or if it is female, she wears a shawl over her head, the hair at the top front section is raised like a bun or usnisha and always having the Amithaba crown. If not, the hair would be covered by her shawl. Her assistants are Long Nü (龍女 and Shan Cai (善財, both having serene looking faces.

Mazu, on the other hand, is usually depicted wearing the Chinese Imperial Crown (flatboard crown with tassels on the front and back, usually strings of pearls) though occasionally she has her hair in a neat bun like a Chinese princess with head ornaments. Mazu's assistants (千里眼 and 順風耳) are usually depicted as fierce looking generals (sometimes somewhat demonic, one of them with one horn another with two horns).

Oh really??
If you look carefully at the main altar, you will see that the back row has a few deities. They all wear a 'simplified' version of the Five Dhyani Buddha Crown, hence it is safe to say that the middle one (the main patron deity always sits in the middle) has got to be Guan Yin. (Two upright banners flanking her reads Namo Guan Shi Yin Pusa - a confirmation of her identity).

She is flanked (in the front row, at extreme left and right) by a young female (on the left, looking at the altar) and a young male (on the right, again facing the altar). They are unmistakably depictions of Long Nü and Shan Cai. Now, that leaves us with the front row, where a maternal looking deity sits wearing the Chinese Imperial Crown, and having two fierce looking deities flanking her. This looks like the typical depiction of Mazu with her generals.
main altar, Goddess of Mercy Temple, Guan Yin, Mazu
Possible identities of the deities on the main altar of the Guan Yin Temple, Pitt Street, Penang.

Ok fine, so what??
This might explain the puzzling arrangements of the incense burner for the temple. Usually for a Chinese temple (i.e. syncretic with Taoist influence), there is an altar (or free standing censer) to Jade Emperor (altar to heaven) outside the temple building. There is none in this temple. Instead, there is a censer sitting on the table more than a metre from the main door. Then there is another larger, free standing censer closer to the main offering table.

Hence it appears as if there are two censers belonging to the main deity at the main altar. The outer censer on the the table cannot be for the Jade Emperor for two reasons. One, it is rarely put under the roof of the temple (as it must 'face heaven' if there is no image of the Jade Emperor), and if so placed, it will be at the edge of the door (not more than 3 feet as to be able to 'see' the sky).

Secondly, in this temple, the altar to Jade Emperor is on the inner courtyard, at the edge of the open air well (counted as facing heaven. I know this as that is where you pray to Jade Emperor on his birthday and devotees would put their offerings there.
Inner courtyard with an open air well and the altar to Jade Emperor. Noticed how the censer is exposed to 'heaven'. By the solitary yellow Chrysanthemum are rows of  'thay sin' (literally replacement body) to represent the devotees, placed on the altar table.

I believe the two incense censer at the front can only be accounted for if one is for Mazu and the other for Guan Yin. It is after all, a sea facing temple. In the past, you can see right up to the coast by looking out of the temple (roughly in the direction of China Street). The coast in the past used to be at Beach Street, and the steps down to the water's edge at the end of China Street was called 'ghaut'. Land reclamation works by the British circa 1880 - 1904 extended the coastline outwards, and China Street was extended, thus creating China Street Ghaut.

Since the alignment of China Street Ghaut is not in line with China Street, the erected of buildings and godowns blocked the view of the sea (see this article about China Street Ghaut and also the Malayan Railway Building on the interesting story of the feng shui of the temple).
Air well at the inner courtyard. A divine glimpse of earthly matters.

Interesting facts about the temple 

The Dragon Eyes
Besides the sea facing position of the temple, there is another interesting fact about the temple that supposedly contributes to the powerful feng shui of the temple. There are 3 wells within the temple compound. Two of these wells are visible with one located outside the temple building near the old tree where one can see many old statues of deities. The other visible well is inside the temple. The third well is hidden and is actually under the front altar! These wells are the 'dragon eyes' of the temple.
View from inside of Kuan Im Teng Pitt Street
In search of guiding light...  - photo taken by LHK.
Oil lamps and joss sticks to convey the sincerity of devotees.

Inner sanctum/chamber of the main altar
When I was young, the inner chamber of the main altar was strictly for women only, sort of like a 'pink' train coach. No men were allowed into that section, and however desperate their pleas for help to Guan Yin may be, they would have to do so from the front of the main offering table. This means that only women can have access to stick divination as the stick buckets are placed right in front of the deities, on the inner chamber. Prepubescent boys are however permitted to enter the inner sanctum (else Shan Cai would have to leave too...chuckle). Even so, I remembered that when I was young, my grandmother and mother would still make me stay at the sides when we enter the inner chamber and I am not to take up space in front of the deities. Nowadays, I noticed that the temple isn't that strict on the rule of the inner chamber being for women only.
Old women and a young boy inside the inner chamber of the main altar.
Side view of the main offering table in front of the main altar. Men would just have to do their prayers here as they are not allowed into the inner chamber.