Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Heritage: Muslim influence in George Town

Here are three of the heritage sites that participated in the George Town UNESCO heritage celebration over the weekend. For once, I should feature the Islamic influences in George Town's 200-plus years of heritage.

This is the Syed Alatas Mansion in Armenian Street. Syed Mohamed Alatas was the leader of the Red Flag Secret Society that allied with the Khian Teik Secret Society to fight the Ghee Hin and the White Flag Secret Society in the 1867 Penang Riots. Today, it houses the Penang Islamic Museum.

Most of the visitors to the museum were non-Muslims. I guess we were rather curious to learn more about the Islamic influence in Penang and boy, I should add that the exhibits were very interesting, especially the ones on the upper floor. There was only a lady manning the information counter and she was friendly, sharing her smiles with everyone that walked in. But we were left pretty much to ourselves to wander through the building, which was what we wanted.

The Acheen Street Mosque was founded in 1808 by Tengku Syed Hussein Al-Aidid, a member of the Achehnese royal house who moved to Penang in 1792 at the invitation of Francis Light. He was followed by his clan and followers. Over the following years, the mosque became the centre of Islamic studies in George Town, frequented by traders from the surrounding Malay archipelago, Arab and India.

There were people but little activity going on in the mosque when we arrived. Basically, we were very much ignored. Taking into context that the Acheen Street Mosque was participating in the George Town heritage celebration weekend, nobody there acknowledged us or even offered any kind of assistance.

But what a difference at the Kapitan Kling Mosque in Pitt Street. We felt welcomed here but more about that later. First, I should say that this is the biggest and grandest mosque in George Town. It was founded by Caudeer Mohudeen Merican, a prominent trader and leader of the Indian Muslim community in 1800. The word Kapitan was a term that the British gave to him and contrary to popular belief, Keling is not a derogatory word. It just meant people from South India, just as the word Benggali referred to the people from North India. The original mosque on the 18-acre land was a single-storey structure but over the years, the mosque underwent plenty of renovation until this is how it looks like today.

The guards at the entrance into the building were friendly enough but we were pleasantly surprised when a chap - Mohamed, I think his name was - ended up as our guide. We donned some robes before being allowed into the mosque and we think it looks just as beautiful inside as well as outside.

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