Wat Rajaphohong - one of Malaysia’s oldest Siamese enclaves
Where traditions and festivals of a minority community of Penang are preserved
Northern Malaysia has a small but culturally rich Siamese community whose enduring legacy includes a string of historic Buddhist temples that are today vibrant landmarks in Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan and Penang.
Among these is the sprawling Wat Rajaphohong monastic complex, founded in the 1860s by a monk from Siam whose name is not known today, at the outlying Penanti area near Bukit Mertajam town in Penang. Though not well known to people outside the district, the temple draws many pilgrims and visitors from surrounding vicinities in Seberang Perai and Kulim in Kedah. It is in fact just three kilometres away from Kulim town which is across the nearby border between the states of Penang and Kedah.
The temple was originally built by the community’s forefathers in a Siamese village called Kampung Teluk Wang. The remaining settlers today trace their ancestral links to the village all the way to the late 1800s when it was first established near the Sungai Kulim river which still flows. The premise is therefore also known as Wat Teluk Wang, “wat” being the word for temple in the Siamese or Thai language and several other tongues spoken in the Indo-Chinese region.
In 1890, a monk by the name of Luang Phor Dam came to stay at the temple and went on to contribute significantly to its development before passing away in 1910. Another monk, Luang Phor Khong, then came from Siam and took over that very year. He oversaw the construction of the pagoda, the monks’ residence and renovations of old buildings before passing away in 1948.
A tranquil mausoleum in honour of Luang Phor Khong stands within the grounds of the temple today. Many other monks subsequently came and stayed, lending their inspiration and services to the gradual expansion and improvement of the complex.
There are at present some 38 Siamese families at the village who still maintain the living heritage of one of the oldest communal enclaves to exist in the country. Traditionally, many Siamese had their homes in villages around temples. They include the people who used to reside in an around Penang island’s Kampung Siam where the famous Wat Chaiyamangkalaram, which houses the iconic “reclining Buddha” statue, was originally built in 1845 and is now a magnet for tourists.
Incidentally, the Wat Rajaphohong is just six kilometres from another major Siamese Buddhist temple, the Wat Chanthraram, in Tanah Liat. Both are among a handful of temples and monasteries in Penang being managed by the small but resourceful Siamese community of about 2,000 people in the state.
The temples are famed for hosting a number of colourful festivals that have been observed for centuries in peninsular Malaysia and across neighbouring Thailand. These include the Songkhran water festival to celebrate the Thai new year some time around April and the Loy Krathong around November. The latter famously features picturesque sights of decorated floral leaf baskets being lit before they are set afloat along a river.
Most Malaysian Siamese also observe Vesak, the festival to celebrate the birth, enlightenment and passing of Gautama Buddha, around May every year. Vesak is also participated by many Chinese and Indians who join their Siamese brethren to flock the temples and pay their respects in the Buddhist tradition during the holy occasion.
The Wat Rajaphohong’s rich history is reflected in the antiquated and charming feel of its cluster of buildings. Some of the ornate wooden and semi-concrete structures radiate with unique Siamese-Malay aesthetic architectural details. At the heart of the premise is a small old original temple building which still stands. Within it is a plaque marking the year of its conception in 1931.
The entire compound heaves with the sight of enchanting sculptures from the Buddhist-Hindu sacred mythology. In fact, the very first structure one touches upon coming through the complex’s grand entrance arch is a gazebo that houses a statue of the Buddha under the shade of a multi-headed serpent. Also in the gazebo is an spectacular idol of the four-headed Brahma, the god of creation, whose pedestal base is made as though it is lifted by resplendent miniature elephant statues. Further within the complex one finds various other divine sculptures such as that of the Taoist goddess of mercy, Kuan Yin, and the august elephant-headed god Ganesh.
The most imposing and visible building though is the towering main worship hall called the Dewan Dharmasala Wat Rajaphohong that was officially opened by then Penang chief minister Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon in 2001. Its interior has a serene hallowed feel with large paintings of Buddhist sacred lore adorning both sides of the high walls leading towards the main altar which presents three statues of the Buddha in serene lotus sitting posture.
The hall also houses a lifelike wax image of the temple’s former revered head monk Luang Phor Rern who passed away in 2011 at the age of 90. Having arrived at the temple on 1977, his reputation grew and he became highly respected. He was particularly known for strengthening the Buddhist faith among followers in northern Malaysia. Many people came to him for consultation and advice. In 1994, the king of Thailand, Bhumiphol Adulyadej, conferred on him the revered monastic title of ‘Phra Khru Anurakphothikit’.
Luang Phor Rern oversaw the building of not only the worship hall, but also the monastery’s kitchen, the monks’ quarters and the magnificent portal arch at the entrance of the temple premise. He also saw to the development of a fish pond, a traditional sauna facility and a mausoleum in honour of a previous chief monk named Luang Phor Khong, who had also contributed greatly before passing away around 1948.
Interestingly, the temple once housed a gigantic maze which was listed in the Malaysia Book of Records as the country’s “biggest bamboo maze”. Constructed in 2007 with some 16,000 pieces of bamboo sticks, it snaked along in 40 rows over an astounding 2.2 km inside a circumference of only about 140 feet.
While the maze is no more, the sauna service still continues to operate freely for the public, providing herbal tea and steam bath with infused ingredients of fragrant fresh herbs and spices - including lemongrass, basil, mint, rosemary and eucalyptus in the best of Siamese healing traditions. The bath provides an important reminder that the healing and rejuvenating power of physical nature, blended with a contemplative and balanced state of mind, is a matchless gift to usher happiness in the present life and hereafter.
Across the temple grounds the few bodhi trees, with their gentle flame-shaped leaves reflecting dew drops on the earth, stand as reminder of the mortality of our fragile existence and the significance of this balance in helping to make life as fulfilling as possible.
The writer, left, receives a commemorative book in memory of the late abbot Phor Cau Rern from Wat Rajaphohong's resident monk.
Written by Himanshu Bhatt
Photographs © Adrian Cheah
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