Penang Temple Reborn after 150 Years
Wherever Tamils go, their beloved Lord Murugan follows. Since the 1700s, Tamils have climbed the hills of Penang, first for water, then for blessings.
OFF THE WEST COAST OF KEDAH STATE, Malaysia, floats the beautiful island of Penang, a popular tourist destination and home to the progressive seaport metropolis of Georgetown. Strategically situated at the entrance to the Malacca Straits, Georgetown was a valued haven for ships to anchor after the long trip from India, before moving on to Singapore and Hong Kong. Flowing from the island’s central mountain peaks, known as Penang Hills, there are two giant waterfalls, one in the west and one in the east.
The eastern waterfall drops down to a river that can be accessed by boat from the sea. SBYO founding member and former secretary of the temple, Ananth Viswanathan, relates, “Around 1771, the British negotiated with the Sultan of Kedah to use Penang as a port. Captain Francis Light was the first to establish a settlement. The indentured laborers from Tamil Nadu he brought with him found a source of fresh water at the eastern waterfall. They also wanted a place to pray. Muruga is the most popular Deity for Tamils, and hilltops are His favorite abode. So they established a shrine there. It is the oldest place of worship on Penang Island.”
Map showing Penang island
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By 1791, using subterfuge and military muscle, the British had taken over the island of Penang. Later Malaysia became a colony under British rule and only achieved independence in 1957.
No one knows exactly when the first Vel shrine was established, but drawings done as early as 1879 show a thatched-roof structure on the left bank of the waterfall, and records tell us the annual festival of Thai Pusam was being celebrated there. Ananth says, “Around 1904 the waterfall was declared a catchment area and officially declared the Penang Botanical Garden.” Access by crowds of pilgrims was restricted so as to protect the pristine flow of water. Today these gardens are one of Penang’s top attractions. A small Vel shrine still exists in the original location, and with special permission you can visit the falls.
In compensation for their loss, Hindus were given a 13-acre area on another hilltop, 3km from the Botanical Garden. A small notice preserved from a 1913 issue of the Penang Gazette reads: “The Hindu Temple beside the foot of the Waterfall is being removed to a site near the Chetty temple in order to prevent contamination of the Municipal Town water supply.” Though the new site has no waterfall, the temple is still known universally as the Waterfall Temple.
New temple nearing completion at higher elevation, 2012
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Two other Murugan temples exist in Penang, a small one at the top of Penang Hills and another at ground level in the city, run by the Chettiar community. The Waterfall Temple is the oldest. At first a small shrine was set up on the new site about halfway up the hill on a narrow outcropping. A growing stream of devotees came to worship Sri Balathandayuthapani, the young renunciate form of Murugan holding a staff.
P. Kuvena Raju, 53, chairman of the temple, a surveyor and valuer by profession, explained, “In 1913, thirteen acres were alloted for the temple in three parcels. One was 11.5 acres, and there are two other small parcels. They did a good job locating the new site. It has lot of granite bedrock. In the beginning there was only a small eight by eight foot shrine. In 1933 the first steps were built. Then in 1985 the fourth generation temple was built.
“I became the temple secretary in 1999 and there was talk about renovating the temple, but we could not decide whether to renovate the existing structure or build anew higher up. We also wanted to ascertain what Lord Muruga Himself wanted. For this we used an old traditional method from India. A two-year-old child is asked to chose between two colored packets, each representing one of the options. The child’s choice is considered final, and no further discussion is done on the matter. I had a two-year-old son at that time and we tested him three times. All the three times he picked up the color which meant Lord Muruga wished that He and His temple move to a different place. So a final decision was taken and we proceeded with plans to build the fifth generation temple on a granite bedrock plateau higher up the hill. The inauguration and Maha Kumbhabhishekam of the temple was done in 2012.”
The Sri Baladandayuthapani Waterfall Temple Through the Years
ALL PHOTOS COURTESY SBYO
150 years of worship: First photo of original thatched Waterfall Temple, 1900; second generation temple, 1905.
Tamil devotees, 1900; third generation temple, 3 kilometers away from the original falls.