Exploring Malacca’s Religious Heritage
The expression ‘melting pot’ could have been dreamed up just to describe Malacca. During its remarkable 600-year history, this city on Malaysia’s west coast was ruled by one foreign power after another, each bringing its own culture, architecture and religion.
It was founded around 1400, possibly by a Hindu prince from Java; there are lots of legends but few clear-cut facts about its early days. It was later ruled in turn by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British before becoming part of an independent Malaysia in 1957.
In the process, Malacca became one of Asia’s greatest trading ports. Ships thronged its harbour carrying silk and porcelain from China, cotton textiles from India, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg from the Spice Islands, sandalwood from the Malay Archipelago, and camphor and diamonds from Borneo. Settlers arrived from China, India and elsewhere, adding to the cultural mix.
People intermarried or adopted elements of the culture of other groups, giving rise to new communities, such as the Peranakan Chinese, who developed their own, unique customs, clothes and cuisine.
Malacca, also spelled Melaka, is about 150 kilometres (just over 90 miles) south-east of the capital, Kuala Lumpur. With its layered history, it’s like nowhere else in Malaysia. It can be visited in a day from the capital, although travellers seeking a less hurried pace may prefer an overnight stay.
Its enduring blend of cultures and its fine old buildings make Malacca a great choice for senior travellers, especially history buffs. Its relatively compact size means it’s an easy place to explore. And for those with an interest in things spiritual, it has some of the oldest and most interesting places of worship in Malaysia.
Here’s a look at a few of its most important churches, temples and mosques, some dating back hundreds of years.
Christ Church in Malacca’s old town square is the city’s most famous church, and one that almost every visitor sees. It’s the oldest functioning Protestant church in Malaysia. Painted brick red like most other buildings in the square, it has become probably the most easily recognised symbol of Malacca.
The Dutch built it in 1753 as a Dutch Reformed church to celebrate the centenary of their capture of Malacca from the Portuguese. When the British took over in 1824, it became an Anglican church. Despite its imposing exterior, it’s relatively small inside, with about 10 rows of pews, said to be at least 200 years old. It holds services on Sundays in three languages, Malay, Mandarin Chinese and English.
St. Paul’s Church
On top of the hill above the old town square lie the ruins of an even older church, St. Paul’s. It was originally built in 1521 by a Portuguese nobleman, and enlarged in stages later in the 16th century. It’s the oldest church building in Malaysia. When the Dutch took control, they continued to use the church. But it fell into disuse when Christ Church in the town below was completed.
Under British rule, the decline of St. Paul’s continued, and it has now lain in ruins for more than 150 years. The climb up the hill is steep but not too taxing, and should be easy enough for most older travellers.
In and around the church are old Portuguese, Dutch and British graves, the oldest headstone dating back to 1568. The hill affords fine views of the city below.
From the church, one can walk down the other side of the hill to A Famosa, the remains of a Portuguese fortress built in 1511 that is one of Malacca’s main attractions.
St Peter’s Church
Just over one kilometre northeast of the town square is St. Peter’s Church, the oldest functioning Catholic church in Malaysia. It was built in 1710 during Dutch rule, mainly for use by Portuguese Catholics who still lived in Malacca. Its impressive, gabled façade brings to mind old Dutch churches found in other parts of Asia, including southern India and Sri Lanka.
The church continues to play a central role in the lives of Malacca’s Catholic community. It holds regular services several times a week, as well as baptisms, weddings and funerals.
Cheng Hoon Teng Temple
Cheng Hoon Teng Temple is believed to be Malaysia’s oldest Chinese temple. It’s near Jonker Street (also called Jonker Walk) in Malacca’s Chinatown district, across the river from the old town square. Dedicated to Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, it was built in the 16th century and later extensively restored.
The multi-faith temple remains a popular place of worship for Malacca’s Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian communities. It welcomes visitors and draws praise for its decorative woodwork and detailed roof carvings, as well as its peaceful atmosphere.
Sri Poyatha Moorthi Temple
A short distance east of Jonker Street is Sri Poyatha Moorthi Temple, thought to be the oldest Hindu temple in Malaysia. Built in 1781, it serves Malacca’s Chitty community, who are of Tamil descent but intermarried with Malays and embraced Chinese and Malay culture while retaining their Hindu beliefs.
The temple has a far simpler design than the tall, ornate, South Indian-style temples one sees in many parts of Asia. Inside are carved stone statues and figures of animals and Hindu gods.
The Chitty themselves are a community in decline, with many assimilating into the mainstream Malaysian ethnic groups. An exhibition of their history and culture is on display at the Chitty Museum, a kilometre or two northwest of Jonker Street.
Close to these two temples is Kampong Kling Mosque, with its distinctive pagoda-style minaret and Sumatran-style architecture. Indian Muslim traders built it from wood in 1748; it was later rebuilt in brick.
The Jonker Street area has many other attractions, and visitors can combine stops at these three places of worship with a good meal – there’s plenty of choice - and shopping for clothes and handicrafts.
Even older is Tranquerah Mosque, a couple of kilometres to the northwest. One of Malaysia’s oldest mosques, it was also built in Sumatran style in 1728 and extensively renovated later in the 18th century.
A much newer mosque that’s also worth checking out is the Malacca Strait Mosque or Masjid Selat Melaka. Completed in 2006, it stands on stilts just off an artificial island south of the city. The mosque overlooks the Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and at high tide it appears to float. Its location and striking architecture make it a popular destination for photographers, especially at dawn and dusk. It’s a short taxi ride from the central city area.
Header image: © Michael Coghlin