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Lost in Translation

My Travel Writing Scholarship 2011 entry - Journey in an Unknown Culture

WORLDWIDE | Monday, 28 March 2011 | Views [205] | Scholarship Entry

I was greeted by the sight of flocking pigeons pecking furiously on strewn pieces of food on the cobblestone ground as I slowly made my way across the road towards one of the oldest temple in the heart of Georgetown, Penang. Standing grandly acting as a backdrop was the Goddess of Mercy temple or more commonly known as the Kuan Yin temple. This temple, being the most visited temple on the island was believed to offer the best experience of seeing a Taoist temple in action.
It’s impossible not to when Cantonese and Hokkien influences were portrayed in its architecture. A big tree surrounded by unwanted deities stood on the right, next to a few big pink joss sticks on steroids, as a friend would term it, which were burning nearby. Stall operators began their call for business, offering wide arrays of different prayer items for sale. Walking past two lion statues, I was greeted by the smell of sandalwood incense before entering the temple. The only lighting inside was from candles and sunlight from the windows and entrance. Despite the roaring vehicles passing on the streets outside, the dimly lit place managed to offer some sort of peace and serenity. I took a deep breath while slowly immersed into the scene before me; staring in amazement the dragon entwined pillars, carefully carved altars housing the deities, big gold plated urns, massive candlestick holders and blackened signboards, bells and floor from years of being exposed to smoke. Devotees were seen busy lighting joss sticks with squinted eyes while some were seen praying with closed eyes, hands clasped together concentrating hard with occasional lips movement. RM1.50 worth of joss sticks got me walking around, praying to different deities in the temple.
The temple bell rang a few times, chanting of prayers can be heard in the distance and the sounds of holy sticks shaking in bamboo cases were not hard to miss. Offerings such as flowers, fruits, Chinese cakes and selected vegetables like spring onion and tofu can be seen placed in red plates on the altars. Sticking the remaining joss sticks in the last urn, I washed my incense-dust covered hands under a running pipe. Walking back to the main prayer hall where the final step awaits me, the joss papers were there where I last left them. I picked them up with both hands, held them close together and stared straight ahead to the deity before me. I prayed for blessings and other good things in life, bowed 3 times and proceeded to light the joss papers. Seconds later, I watched as the fire slowly swallowed the lighted papers in a huge metal container.
I took one last look outside at the temple. Built for more than two centuries now, this temple has definitely seen better days. It had successfully made it through the gruesome Japanese occupation and is still standing strong despite its blackened outlook. From afar, this ancient temple stood out like a sore thumb, but in a good way.. Quaint and unique amongst the newer, fresher looking buildings around it, an emblem of a thousand year’s old Chinese culture.

Tags: #2011writing, travel writing scholarship 2011

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