Malaysia is unique culturally in two ways – it is home to three of Asia’s most elaborate cultures (i.e. the Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures) and most of the world’s major religions, all coexisting together in harmony. Malaysia’s cosmopolitan nature traces its roots way back to the glorious era of the Malacca Sultanate in the 1400s, when the city of Malacca became a vital centre for maritime trade and cultural exchange for merchants from all over Asia and the Middle East. With the colonization of the then Malaya under the British, the country’s cultural diversity was further enhanced with the influx of large numbers of labourers and merchants from China and India in the 1800s and early 1900s, who brought along with them their unique sets of faiths and religious systems, thus adding to Malaya’s multireligious identity.
Here are some quick facts about religion in Malaysia:
- Malaysia is home to most of the world's major religions, including Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Sikhism
- While Islam is the official religion of West Malaysia and Muslims form the largest proportion of the Malaysian population, freedom of religion and worship is guaranteed for all faiths under the Federal Constitution
- Major religious festivals of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity are gazetted as public holidays in the Malaysian calendar
- It is not uncommon to see mosques, churches and temples coexisting peacefully in the same town or city, and sometimes even along the same street
- Many of Malaysia's major places of worship serve not only their religious purposes, but have become popular favourites for foreign tourists fascinated with Malaysia's cultural and religious diversity
Having said that, here's a list of the top 15 religious sites throughout the country that are most popular with tourists.
1. Jamek Mosque, Kuala Lumpur
Situated at the confluence of the Klang and Gombak Rivers in the very heart of Kuala Lumpur, Jamek Mosque is undoubtedly one of the oldest mosques in the Malaysian capital. Construction of the mosque began in the early 1900s and was completed in 1907, being commissioned by the British colonial government as part of efforts in developing the capital. The mosque was built atop a former Malay cemetery, with funds partly contributed by the British colonial government and partly raised by the local Malay community. Its architectural style, designed by the then resident Architect General of British Malaya, Arthur Benison Hubback, bears significant Moorish and North Indian influence.
The Jamek Mosque is uniquely situated amidst a tranquil canopy of shady coconut trees in the middle of a bustling metropolis. It is one of the main mosques for Muslims in Kuala Lumpur to conduct weekly Friday noon prayers. Visitors can access the mosque by foot from the nearby Masjid Jamek LRT station.
2. Batu Caves, Selangor
Although the limestone caves of Batu Caves have been utilized as shelters by some of the indigenous tribes (Orang Asli) for centuries, the Hindu temple that lies within it did not come into existence until 1890, when K. Thamboosamy Pillay, one of the most prominent figures in the Malayan Tamil community, installed a consecrated statue of Lord Murugan there. Thamboosamy was inspired by the shape of the main cave’s entrance, which resembled that of Lord Murugan’s spear. After the establishment of the temple within the cave complex, wooden steps were built to allow access to the faithful, which were then replaced with a flight of 272 concrete steps in 1920 that remains until today.
Situated in the district of Gombak within the state of Selangor approximately 13km north of Kuala Lumpur’s city centre, Batu Caves has served as Malaysia’s centre for celebrations of the Hindu Thaipusam Festival since 1892. Every year during the Thaipusam Festival, the temple in Batu Caves draws congregations of worshippers not only from within Malaysia, but also from Singapore, India and Australia, being one of the most renowned Hindu temples outside India. Standing proud in front of the entrance to the main cave is the second tallest statue of Lord Murugan in the world, measuring 42.7 metres in height.
3. National Mosque, Kuala Lumpur
After Malaysia gained its independence in 1957, ideas to construct a national mosque as a symbol of the country’s independence were mooted by several cabinet ministers and state Chief Ministers. Building of the mosque was completed in 1965, with proposals to name it the Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj Mosque, after Malaysia’s first Prime Minister. Tunku Abdul Rahman, however, rejected the idea, instead choosing to name it the National Mosque as a sign of thanksgiving for the country’s attainment of independence without bloodshed.
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The National Mosque underwent major renovations in 1987. It incorporates bold and modern architectural designs reflective of aspirations for a modern, progressive Malaysia. Several fountains and reflecting pools can be found within the mosque’s compound. With a total capacity of 15,000 people, the National Mosque today effectively takes over the role of Jamek Mosque as Kuala Lumpur’s principal mosque.
4. Thean Hou Temple, Kuala Lumpur
The Thean Hou Temple, located atop Robson Hill in the Malaysian capital, is one of the largest Chinese Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia. Originally dedicated to Goddess Tian Hou (Heavenly Mother), worship of Goddess Guan Yin (Goddess of Mercy) and Shui Wei Sheng Niang (Goddess of the Waterfront) is also common in the temple. Although the original temple was said to have been built some 100 years ago, the temple that stands today was built from 1981 to 1987 by the Selangor and Federal Territory Hainanese Association, costing a total of about RM7 million.
Today, the Thean Hou Temple is a majestic symbol of traditional Chinese architectural beauty in Malaysia, integrating aesthetic elements of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. The temple complex features, among others, a large prayer hall with altars dedicated to the goddesses, grand statues of the goddesses, a Chinese medicinal herb garden, a tortoise pond and a wishing well.
5. Sri Mahamariamman Temple, Kuala Lumpur
Revered by the Malaysian Hindu community as the oldest and richest temple in Kuala Lumpur, the Sri Mahamariamman Temple is located in the vicinity of the city’s Chinatown. It was originally founded by K. Thamboosamy Pillay in 1873 as a private shrine for his family, but the family decided to open it to public in the 1920s. While its original site was somewhere near the current Kuala Lumpur Railway Station, the temple was shifted to its present location in 1885. The temple underwent major renovation works which were completed in 1968, giving rise to its present-day grandiose structure and intricate architecture.
The most remarkable feature of the temple is its impressive gopuram, the tower adorning the main entrance. The gopuram is embellished with 228 idols of Hindu deities sculpted by skilled artisans from South India. During major Hindu festivals such as Deepavali and Thaipusam, the Sri Mahamariamman Temple becomes the city’s focus of festivities and devotion.
6. St. Mary’s Cathedral, Kuala Lumpur
St. Mary’s Cathedral is an Anglican church in Kuala Lumpur and one of the oldest surviving churches in the capital city. The church’s original structure once stood atop Bukit Aman from its inception in 1887 right up to 1894, when its current building was completed near Independence Square in order to house a growing congregation. Building of the church was funded by, amongst others, the British colonial government of Selangor and local community leaders such as K. Thamboosamy Pillay and Yap Kwan Seng, although they were not Christians themselves.
The church features an Early English Gothic architecture designed by Arthur Charles Norman, who was the then Architect of the Public Works Department of the colonial government. Today, St. Mary’s Cathedral plays the major role of being the Episcopal see of the Anglican Bishop of West Malaysia, as well as one of the major Anglican churches in the country.
7. Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah Mosque, Selangor
Upon the declaration of Shah Alam as the new capital of the state of Selangor, the late Sultan of Selangor, Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah, commissioned the building of a new, majestic state mosque in the city in 1974. Construction of the mosque began in 1982 and was completed in 1988, bearing a combination of Malay and Modernist influences in its architectural design. The mosque has a total capacity 24,000 worshippers, and is both the second largest mosque in Southeast Asia and the second tallest mosque in the world by the height of its minarets. Because of its distinctive blue dome and blue-pointed minarets that give off a stunning glow when lighted at night, the mosque is also widely known as the Blue Mosque. Situated nearby is the Garden of Islamic Arts, a beautiful landscaped park inspired by the Jannah or Garden of Paradise in the Quran.
8. Putra Mosque, Putrajaya
A trip to Malaysia’s seat of the federal government, Putrajaya, warrants a visit to this renowned lakeside mosque. Named after Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, the Putra Mosque has a relatively short history, its construction being completed in 1999 at a total cost of about RM250 million. The mosque is situated by the Putrajaya Lake, a large manmade lake in the centre of Putrajaya, and is conveniently located beside Perdana Putra, where the office of the Prime Minister of Malaysia is. The main feature of Putra Mosque is its large main dome and its smaller domes, all of which are made from pink granite, as well as its interior architecture which bear influences primarily from Middle Eastern and traditional Malay culture.
9. Christ Church, Malacca
In 1741, in commemoration of the centenary of Dutch conquest of Malacca, the Dutch community decided to erect a new church to replace the aging St. Paul’s Church atop St. Paul Hill. Construction works were completed in 1753, and the Dutch community thereafter used it as the main church for the Dutch Reformed Church. It was then known as the Bovenkerk, or the High Church in the Dutch language. When Malacca was transferred into British hands in 1824, the Bovenkerk was renamed Christ Church, and it was reconsecrated under the Church of England by the Rt. Rev. Daniel Wilson, the then Anglican Bishop of Calcutta. Today, the church stands in the middle of Malacca’s Dutch Square as the oldest functioning Protestant church in the country.
10. Harmony Street, Malacca
So named by the locals because of the harmonious existence of the houses of worship of three different religions along the same street, Harmony Street in Malacca is one of Malaysia’s two most prominent living testimonies of the country’s peaceful multi-religious society. The street is officially known as Jalan Tukang Emas (“Goldsmith Street” in English), and is located within walking distance from the renowned Jonker Street. As one takes a stroll along Harmony Street, one would be able to see the Kampung Kling Mosque, the Cheng Hoon Teng Chinese Temple and the Sri Poyatha Moorthi Hindu Temple located within close proximity to each other.
The Kampung Kling Mosque, which was originally built by Indian Muslim merchants in 1748, features a unique blend of Sumatran, Hindu, Chinese, Moorish and Malay architecture, with a minaret that prominently resembles a Chinese pagoda. It was originally built with wood, but was later rebuilt with bricks in 1872, retaining its original design until today. The mosque gained its name from the place where Indian merchants used to live in the city, Kampung Kling or Kling Village (“kling” or “keling” being a derogatory term for Malaysian and Singaporean Indians today).
The Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, which is now the oldest functioning Chinese temple in Malaysia, was erected in 1645 by the then Kapitan (Captain), or Chinese community leader, in Malacca, Kapitan Lee Wei King. It was constructed with materials specially imported from China, and served as the main temple for the local Hokkien community. Since then, the temple has been renovated and added unto, giving rise to its present building and architecture. The name “Cheng Hoon Teng” itself literally means “Temple of Green Clouds” in the Hokkien dialect.
The Sri Poyatha Moorthi Temple is the oldest functioning Hindu temple in Malaysia and the Malay Archipelago. Constructed in 1781 by Thaivanayagam Chitty, the leader of the Chitty Tamil community in Malacca, the temple is dedicated to the Hindu elephant deity, Lord Ganesha. It was built atop a piece of land granted by the Dutch colonial government to the Chitty Tamil community for the purpose of setting up a Hindu temple. Unlike most other Hindu temples, the Sri Poyatha Moorthi Temple features relatively simplistic designs of Hindu deities and motifs.
11. Harmony Street, Penang
Harmony Street in the northern island-state of Penang is the other living testimony to Malaysia’s harmonious coexistence of most of the world’s major religions. Located within the vicinity of Penang’s state capital, Georgetown, the street is officially known as Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling or Kapitan Keling Mosque Street (formerly Pitt Street). Along this street and its adjacent areas stand the Kapitan Keling Mosque, the Sri Mahamariamman Hindu Temple, the Kong Hock Keong Chinese Temple and the St. George’s Church.
The Kapitan Keling Mosque was established in 1801 by Indian Muslim traders who arrived and settled on the island since the late 1700s. The local Indian Muslims, under their community leader Cauder Mydin Merican, was granted a piece of land for religious use by the British colonial government, after which they decided to construct a simple mosque based on Indian Moghul architecture. Since then, additional buildings and decorative designs were added onto the original structure, producing the magnificent mosque that stands today. As Cauder Mydin Merican was then the “Kapitan (Captain) of the Indian Muslims,” the mosque and the street along which it stands are named in his memory.
The Kong Hock Keong Temple is indisputably Penang’s oldest temple, which remains functional to this day along Kapitan Keling Mosque Street. It was founded by early Chinese settlers on the island in 1728, being dedicated to both the Chinese Goddess of Mercy, Guan Yin, and the Goddess of the Sea, Mazu. The temple was so named for its incorporation of Cantonese (Kong) and Hokkien/Fujianese (Hock) architecture, as well as the fact that it was built by both Cantonese and Hokkien settlers on the island. Hence, the name “Kong Hock Keong” literally means “Temple of the Cantonese and Hokkiens.”
Situated between Kapitan Keling Mosque Street and Queen Lane (Lebuh Queen) is the oldest Hindu temple in Penang, the Sri Mahamariamman Temple. The temple started off as a small shrine for Hindu worship as early as 1801 and was officially consecrated as a temple in 1833, standing at the very same spot until today. As the main focus of Hindu worship on the island, the temple is adorned with intricate sculptures of Hindu deities and floral motifs on its gopuram, and its interior features fascinating statues of some of the major Hindu deities. The name “Sri Mahamariamman” refers to the South Indian Hindu Goddess of Rain, Mariamman (i.e. the Powerful Mother), thus “Sri Mahamariamman” literally means “The Exalted Great Powerful Mother.”
Revered as the oldest Anglican church in Penang and Southeast Asia is the St. George’s Church, situated along the nearby Farquhar Lane (Lebuh Farquhar). On the initiative of the then Penang Colonial Chaplain, Rev. Robert Sparke Hutchings, the church was constructed under the British colonial government, with major contributions from the East India Company. The church was modelled after a similarly structured church in Madras, and was named after Saint George, the Patron Saint of England. One of the most striking features of the church is its unique Greek-Roman columns and architectural style. In addition, there is a pavilion in the church compound built in 1886 in commemoration of Sir Francis Light, the founder of Penang.
12. Kek Lok Si Temple, Penang
Perhaps the most well-known of all Buddhist temples in Malaysia, the Kek Lok Si Temple in Penang is presently the largest Buddhist temple in the whole of Southeast Asia, situated in the town of Air Itam on the island. The temple’s name in the Hokkien dialect literally means “Temple of Supreme Bliss.” Construction of the temple began in 1890, initiated by the then Chief Monk of the Kong Hock Keong Temple, Venerable Beow Lean, who was said to have been inspired by the sprawling hills in Air Itam that resembled a majestic crane spreading its wings open. Amongst the main benefactors who contributed substantially to the founding and subsequent expansion of the temple were Emperor Guangxu of Qing Dynasty China and prominent Kapitan of the Chinese in Malaya, Chung Keng Quee. Some of the major highlights of the temple include the Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas, laid by King Rama VI of Siam himself and featuring rows of Buddha statues on display; the Liberation Pond, where tortoises are reared as a symbol of longevity and endurance; and a 30 metres tall bronze statue of the Goddess Guan Yin.
13. Sam Poh Tong Temple, Perak
Surrounding the city of Ipoh, the capital of the state of Perak located some 200 km north of Kuala Lumpur, are numerous limestone mountains and hills. Within one of these limestone mountains lies an extensive cave complex that was said to have been the meditating grounds for a monk from China from 1890 until his death 20 years later. In 1912, a Buddhist temple was established within the cave complex by the Chinese community in Perak, being named “Sam Poh Tong,” which means “The Cave of Three Gems,” in reference to a Buddhist meditation technique. This temple is highly popular with Malaysians of the Buddhist faith, serving also as a famous international tourist destination due to its artistic Buddhist works within the cave itself. Furthermore, there is a marvellous landscape garden and large fish pond in front of the temple complex said to have been modelled after the gardens of imperial Chinese palaces.
14. Wat Phothivihan, Kelantan
Wat Phothivihan in the northern Malaysian state of Kelantan stands out as a prominent Buddhist temple in a state where more than 90 percent of its population are Malay Muslims. Located in the district of Tumpat, this temple serves mainly the Thai Buddhist community in the state, and its architecture itself is very much influenced by Thai culture as well. The temple was completed in 1979, and one of its most renowned attractions is the 40 metre long statue of the Reclining Buddha, which is arguably one of the largest in Southeast Asia. Although not very well-known to even many Malaysians outside Kelantan, this temple may be worth visiting if one would like to experience a taste of Thai Buddhist culture in Malaysia.
15. Gurdwara Tatt Khalsa Temple, Kuala Lumpur
When it comes to promoting religious or cultural sites for tourism in Malaysia, Sikh temples or gurdwaras are often missed out, perhaps due to the fact that Sikhs form less than one percent of the entire Malaysian population, despite the community’s tremendous contributions to the country’s development since the colonial era. One gurdwara that may be worth visiting to have an overview of Sikhism in Malaysia is perhaps the Gurdwara Tatt Khalsa, located between the suburbs of Chow Kit and Kampung Baru in the Malaysian capital. The original gurdwara was built in 1819, where the Kuala Lumpur General Hospital now stands, after which in 1922 the British colonial government granted the local Sikh community the piece of land where it is currently located. Today, this gurdwara is one of the largest Sikh temples in Southeast Asia, if not the largest itself, and it is the main centre for Sikh activities in the bustling capital.
© 2013 James