Kek Lok Si Temple, Penang

One thing that has really fascinated me whilst traveling is learning about the different religions and how these influence values, beliefs and rituals of daily life. I’ve seen more temples and shrines that I can count: both ancient and modern, ruined and in all their glittering glory. 

It’s also intriguing how the same religion varies depending on the country or region. Multicultural Malaysia was particularly interesting because of the diversity of faiths and cultures.  In Geogetown, Penang this is evident as one street can showcase Muslim mosques, Buddhist temples, Christian churches, Hindu temples and Chinese temples for ancestral worship all co-existing together.

In the streets of Georgetown, Penang many different faiths exist alongside each other

Situated on a hilltop just outside Georgetown, near colonial Penang Hill, Kek Lok Si temple is possibly the most interesting temple I have visited yet. Construction began in 1890 and took 20 years to build, mainly funded by donations, and the temple is still growing and being added to. Kek Lok Si means ‘Temple of Supreme Bliss’ and it is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia.

The view of the impressive Kek Lok Si temple from below

Despite being a Buddhist temple it’s drastically different from any of the Buddhist temples in Thailand. This is because Thailand follows the Theravada school of Buddhism and Kek Lok Si temple is primarily a Mahayana (‘Great Vehicle’) school of Buddhism temple with Chinese Taoist characteristics.

Intricate pagodas inside the maze like temple complex of Kek Lok Si.

 The intricate details of the many awe inspiring prayer halls, pagodas and sculptures incorporated many signs and symbols I had seen before in Hinduism, Confucianism, Chinese ancestral temples and the Buddhist temples of Thailand all mixed together. It gave me a real feeling of religious fusion showing how these religions were all connected.

Inside the main prayer hall

 Kek Lok Si temple rises up on a hill and the 36 meter high bronze statue of Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy and bodhisattva of compassion, can be seen from far away.

The towering statue of Kuan Yin

 After climbing the steps, lined with the usual touristy stalls, inside the temple is a maze of several temples and prayer halls, shrines, flowers, fruit offerings, burning incense sticks, candles, red lanterns, intricate archways, Chinese characters, multi coloured fluttering ribbons, elaborate wood carvings, carved dragon pillars and pagodas. 

kekloksi collage
Kek Lok Si is such an interesting, diverse and intricately detailed temple.

After exploring the lower prayer halls the highlight is climbing up inside the 7 tier, 30 meter high main Ban Po Thar (Ten Thousand Buddhas) pagoda.

The famous Ten Thousand Buddhas pagoda

Kek Lok Si temple’s famous pagoda’s architectural design represents a blend of beliefs not commonly seen, it combines a Chinese octagonal base with Thai design cream coloured middle tier and golden crown of Burmese styles. This design reflects the temple’s embrace of both Mahayana and Theravada schools of Buddhism.

Thousands of small statues of Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy, line the walls of the prayer halls and the entire surface of the walls inside the pagoda is adorned with images of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Chinese gods and other deities. 

Kuan Yin (the goddess of mercy) statues adorn the temple walls

The Buddha and the Bodhisattva differ as the Buddha has gained enlightenment but the Bodhisattva has chosen to refrain from becoming totally enlightened in order to help others along their path to enlightenment and Nirvana. This is central to the Mahayana school of Buddhism where the emphasis is on teaching and helping others attain enlightenment. 

Buddha statues

The top of the pagoda offers stunning views over the amazing, sprawling temple complex of elaborate rooftops, reaching across traditional houses, over misty, forested hillsides as far as the modern highrises on the outskirts of Georgetown and the sea.

The view over Penang from the top of the pagoda

Kek Lok Si temple combines Mahayana Buddhism and Taoist traditional Chinese rituals in a riotous array of colour, sculpture, design and harmony of both architecture and worshiping activities. It is a truly fascinating, inspiring temple which offered a surprise around every corner.

One of the amazing, intricate archway features with a view over Penang

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