Where harmony reigns

04 August 2015

Despite the searing heat of the midday sun, I’m enjoying the leisurely stroll through Melaka’s street-scape. Clad only in my Audrey Hepburn-esque shades sans hat, sweat dripping like melted ice cream onto my white cotton shirt, I’m searching for Harmony Street, a moniker given to a combination of three streets - Jalan Tokong (Temple Street), Jalan Tukang Emas (Goldsmith Street), which meets the former half way along, and Jalan Tukang Besi (Blacksmith Street) located between Jalan Kasturi (First Cross Street) and Lorong Hang Jebat (First Cross Street).

While Jalan Tokong, a street between Jalan Kubu and Jalan Hang Lekiu (Fourth Cross Street), is where you can find the oldest and most revered Chinese temples in Malaysia, the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, Jalan Tukang Emas, between Jalan Hang Lekiu and Jalan Hang Kasturi is famous for the presence of places of worship from Malaysia’s three main religions all in close proximity to each other. They are the Kampung Hulu Mosque, Kampung Kling Mosque, Sri Poyatha Vinayagara Moorthy Hindu Temple and two Chinese temples, San Duo and the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple.

From the top of bustling Jonker Street, I walk, stopping occasionally to ask for directions from friendly shopkeepers. Suffice to say, I’m in no hurry to reach my destination. The sights and sounds of these charming narrow streets, aligned on both sides by rows of low rise shophouses with facades of different styles and influences are enough to keep me enthralled.

I’m suddenly transported back to my jaunts in Europe’s medieval cities, Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Germany, Edinburgh in Scotland...  memories of their cobbled streets and mysterious narrow alleys coming to mind. In a way, Malacca’s townscape reminds me very much of that. In fact, the naming of the streets after the various artisans that lived here, such as goldsmiths, blacksmiths, etc accentuates the character of medieval cities that tend to locate craftsmen and traders according to their guilds, says Dr Kamarul Syahril Kamal, senior lecturer at UiTM Perak.

 Cheng Hoon Teng Temple

 The streets curve and meander, and soon, I arrive at my destination. I cannot miss Jalan Tokong as the magnificent Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, or the Temple of the Evergreen Clouds, with its ornate carvings, assails my sight. Around the entrance of this 50,000 sq ft temple, colourful stalls offer joss paper, candles and joss sticks for sale to the devotees while flower sellers jostle for space.

The 300-year-old temple, dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin, was founded by Lee Wei King. A major place of worship for Melaka’s Chinese, it’s also the oldest functioning Chinese temple in the country. Buddhists, Taoists and Confucians come together to worship at this elaborately-designed temple, whose main hall was built by Chan Ki Lock in 1704 and rebuilt in 1801 by Kapitan Cina Chua Su Cheong.

Inside the main hall on the central altar is a statue of Kuan Yin, and to her left is the Queen of the Oceans (Ma Choe Poh), the guardian of fishermen, sailors, and sea travellers. The final deity is Hiap Tian Tye Tai or Kuan Ti Yeh, the favourite deity of merchants and traders.

To the left of the main hall is an altar for devotees of Confucius. Ancestral tablets of local Chinese and the "Kapitan Cina" of Melaka, a position created by the Portuguese to act as an administrator of the local Chinese community, are found at the back. The temple’s founder, Li Wei King, was a Kapitan Cina and his portrait is enshrined in one of the back halls.

The smell of incense wafts through the air and I watch in fascination as an elderly man, eyes shut, rhythmically waves joss sticks in reverence. A bell tolls only to be followed by the sound of the azan, the Muslim call to prayer, emanating loud and clear from a minaret of a nearby mosque. I can only guess whether it’s coming from the Kampong Hulu Mosque or whether it’s a call from the Kampung Kling Mosque, both of which are located on the same street.

The Mosques

The Kampung Hulu Mosque is the oldest mosque in Melaka. Built in 1728 by Chinese Muslims, it was one of the first mosques to be built primarily of masonry construction and to possess the distinctive Chinese Pagoda-like pyramid-tiered room form, says Dr Kamarul.

The design of the mosque, he continues, is simple. Designed on a square plan and with an open plan, it is surmounted by two or three pyramidal roofs covered with Marseilles tiles. The mosque used to be one of the bustling centres for Islamic missionary activities during the days of Dutch rule.

The Kampung Kling Mosque meanwhile, was built in 1748 on the foundation of its original timber construction. It was refurbished in 1908 using Dutch roof tiles with that pagoda-like minaret, similar to the Kampung Hulu Mosque. The locals say that the Kampung Kling Mosque was constructed because the local Malay community at the time was not on the best of terms with the ‘Keling’ (Indian Muslims). The Malays centered themselves around the Kampung Hulu Mosque while the Indian Muslim community went on to establish their own mosque, the Kampung Kling Mosque, when given a piece of land nearby.

These mosques share similar plans. “They’re based on a square foundation with three entrances framed within a porch structure,” says Dr Kamarul. There are three doors on each side of the heavy masonry walls that enclose the heavily-ornamented mosque interiors. Chinese tiles are used for the roof while the floor and walls are covered with decorative ceramic tiles.

The Hindu Temple

Just a little further down from the Kampung Kling Mosque is the Sri Poyyatha Vinayagar Moorthi, a Hindu temple built sometime in the 1700s. The land on which this temple stands was donated by a Melaka Kapitan (headman) called Thaivanayagam Chitty in 1781. The temple is dedicated to Lord Vinayagar (also known as Ganesha), the elephant-headed god with a body of a man and having four hands. Revered for his wisdom, he’s believed to be able to remove any obstacles that come in Man’s way. The sculpture of the deity can be found in a room at the back of the temple. The side altars meanwhile are dedicated to Vinayagar’s father, mother and younger brother, the deity, Lord Muruga.

The temple, whose architecture is unmistakably Dutch in influence (see the details and finishing of the entrance, the walls, columns, vaulted domes and temple roofs) continues to be the main focal point for Melaka’s Hindu community, acting as a link to all the other Hindu temples here.

Harmony and Unity

The existence of the different houses of worship on the stretch of street accorded with the rather apt moniker of Harmony Street is testament to the multi-racial nature of residents in the area, says Tiong Kian Boon, a local boy, and an architect by training.

The 57-year-old, whose passion lies in conservation, is adamant in his belief that the houses of worships are extensions of the communities rather than the catalyst for the communities. Says Tiong, who grew up in Melaka’s Jalan Parameswara: “It’s important to remember that these are places where people lived and worked. There’s much to learn from areas such as these. One is that people can live and work together and not care too much for the differences in race and religions. The most important thing is to respect and give each other equal space to exist and express our respective cultural and religious beliefs. The majority at the time gave more room to the minority to do so and not the other way round.”

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