Kek Lok Si Temple in Penang, Malaysia

Kek Lok Si Temple Introduction

The Kek Lok Si Temple complex is located on the Island of Penang in a George Town suburb called Air Itam. In George Town, Penang there is a very large Chinese population. The common dialect spoken by the Chinese is known as “Hokkien”. In Hokkien, Kek Lok Si translates as “Temple of Supreme Bliss“.

Historical Significance of Kek Lok Si

The Kek Lok Si Temple was the brain child of a Chinese monk named Beow Lean. Initially, construction of the complex was began in 1890 and was completed in 1905. A majority of funds for the temple construction was provided by prominent members of the Hakka clan who had immigrated to Penang from China.

In recognition of his work at Kek Lok Si temple Beow Lean was summoned to Beijing by the Qing Dynasty. Qing emperor Guangxu bestowed 70,000 of the “Psalms of the ancient works of Buddhism” to bring back and store at the temple complex.

This was prudent thinking by the Qing emperor because the end of the dynastic period in China was imminent. It is likely, these treasured texts would have been destroyed during the political upheaval that would follow the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912.

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Kek Lok Si Temple Points of Interest

Kek Lok Si Temple sits in the foothills behind Air Itam on a hill that the temple’s founding monk called “Crane Mountain”. As a result of the hilltop location, Kek Lok Si Temple has a commanding presence overlooking the city of George Town and the distant Strait of Malacca.

The temple grounds are very large and they are spread out over 12 hectares.  As a result, there are several sites of interest included within the Kek Lok Si Temple grounds. The most prolific is the 30.2 meter tall bronze statue of Guanyin. Plus, the Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas, the popular Turtle Liberation Pond and much more.

Guanyin Statue at Kek Lok Si Temple

Kek Lok Si Temple’s most commanding feature is the 30.2 meter tall bronze statue of the Mahayana Bodhisattva Guanyin. This is the largest statue of Guanyin in the world. Additionally, of note is that Kek Lok Si is the largest Buddhist temple complex in all of Malaysia.

Kek Lok Si Temple - Guanyin Statue

Guanyin Statue at Kek Lok Si Temple is the largest statue of Guanyin in the world.

Historical Origins of Guanyin

The goddess has many phonetic spelling variations such as Kwan Yin, Kuan Yin, Quan Yin, Guanyin plus many more. However, they all mean the same thing which is “regarder of sounds”. This is because Guanyin is believed to be an incarnation of venerable Bodhisattva, Avalokitesvara.

As such, Guanyin hears the cries and prayers of the world just like Avalokitesvara. She is also known as the “Goddess of Mercy” while Avalokitesvara is known as the “Bodhisattva of Compassion”.

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Guanyin is a very popular Buddhist symbol in China and regions that have a large Chinese population such as Penang, Malaysia. Chinese Buddhists believe that her crystal vase holds the waters of creation. Additionally, Guanyin devotees believe that she is the goddess of fertility and she grants it to all who ask.

This bronze Guanyin statue is the most recent addition to Kek Lok Si Temple. Her statue was constructed in 2002 to replace the white plaster Kuan Yin statue that was damaged by fire several years earlier.

Additionally, the new Guanyin statue was fitted with a 60 meter high roof pavilion that was completed in 2009. However, the height of the structure was limited in order to avoid casting a shadow on the Penang State Mosque. Indeed, one should not forget that Malaysia is a Muslim majority country.

Kek Lok Si - Guanyin Statue Penang Malaysia

Photo of Guanyin in her Hill Top Pavilion at Kek Lok Si Temple.

Chinese New Year at Kek Lok Si Temple

Kek Lok Si Temple is of Chinese origin and therefore, Chinese New Year (CNY) is celebrated annually at the temple. As a result, during CNY the opening hours are extended and the temple grounds are decorated with 10,000 lights.

The light decorations and extended hours last for 30 days starting the first day of Chinese New Year. Of course, fireworks are also a big part of the annual celebrations at Kek Lok Si Temple during CNY. The annual fireworks display is a must see event for visitors. 

Kek Lok Si at night

Kek Lok Si night photo taken during Chinese New Year.

Additionally, the majestic hilltop location of Kek Lok Si Temple provides excellent night time views of the George Town city lights.

George Town City Lights

Kek Lok Si Night View

Kek Lok Si Pagoda of “Ten Thousand Buddhas”

The Pagoda of “Ban Po Thar” is the main pagoda on the Kek Lok Si Temple grounds. Construction of the pagoda was completed in 1930. “Ban Po Thar” means “Ten Thousand Buddhas” and they are built into the pagoda on the interior and exterior.

However, the 10,000 Buddhas are not the only interesting element that is featured at the Ban Po Thar Pagoda.

Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas – Three Tiers

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In Malaysia, there is a cultural divide between ethnic Malay, Chinese and Indian citizens. As such, the State of Penang is also very culturally diverse. Therefore, cultural harmony is very important in Malaysia.

As a tribute to cultural harmony the pagoda has been split into three tiers. The octagonal base is Chinese, the middle portion is Thai and the spiral top is Burmese. As a result of the cultural inclusiveness it is also called the Rama Pagoda after King Rama the VI of Thailand.

However, the tiers do not only pay tribute to these three cultural and architectural styles. The 3 tiers of the Ban Po Thar Pagoda also symbolize the divide between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. In Myanmar and Thailand they practice the more conservative Theravada Buddhism. In China, the more progressive Mahayana Buddhism is practiced.

Therefore, these religious and cultural considerations were taken into account during construction of the pagoda.  

Rama Pagoda sections – Kek Lok Si Temple

Additionally, the top of Rama Pagoda has excellent 360° views of the Kek Lok Si Temple grounds, Air Itam and George Town. Simply climb to the top of the spiral stairs and if you are so inclined, you can count the Buddhas along the way.

The Ban Po Thar Pagoda Buddhas

The Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas does indeed have at least this many Buddhas featured inside and outside of the pagoda. Most of the Buddhas are on the interior in the form of alabaster tiles and many more Buddhas have been incorporated into the architectural design of the exterior.

"Ban Po Thar" Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas at Kek Lok Si Temple

As you climb the stairs inside the “Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas” you will see thousands of tiles depicting Buddhas.

Plus, there is a healthy inclusion of Buddha statues inside of the “Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas”. The more observant visitor will notice the different artistic styles of the Buddha statues which reflect the different cultures and the form of Buddhism that they adhere to.

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Inside the pagoda, the Buddha statues display different themes according to the different sculptural styles found in China, Thailand and Burma. Additionally, they are situated inside the pagoda according to their ethnic origins.

Avalokitesvara status inside the "Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas" at Kek Lok Si Temple

This is a beautiful statue of Avalokitesvara located at Ban Po Thar. In contrast with the human features of Guanyin, this statue displays Avalokitesvara with 11 heads, so he can better hear and see the suffering of sentient life. In China, “Guanyin” is usually depicted as an elegant female. However, in Burma and Thailand “Guanyin” is depicted with the traditional nonhuman features.

Thai Buddha Statues inside Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas at Kek Lok Si Temple

These are Thai Buddha statues inside Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas at Kek Lok Si Temple. The statues is done in the “Sukothai” style and they are located in the middle tier of the Ban Po Thar Pagoda.

Giant Chinese Style Buddha Statue at Ban Po Thar Pagoda

This giant Chinese Buddha statue is located in the base tier of the Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas at Kek Lok Si Temple. Included on the same altar is a smaller statue of the ubiquitous “Happy Buddha” found throughout China.

Kek Lok Si Liberation Turtle Pond

Located below the parking area is the liberation turtle pond. The idea is that the turtles have been liberated in dedication to the Buddhist concept that respects all sentient life forms.

One of the universal precepts of Buddhism is to never harm another life form which is a core element of the Buddha’s teachings.

Over the years, the turtle pond has gotten pretty crowded and they are not taking in new admissions. However, the turtles seem rather happy and the environment is very friendly in the pond.

Liberation Turtle Pond Kek Lok Si

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Additional sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kek_Lok_Si