Sunday, August 03, 2008

Visitation to Penang's snake temple

The fame of Penang's snake temple goes back a long way. Two postcards which are believed to date back to the 40s show the temple's altar replete with coiled snakes.

During its heyday, the temple reputedly drew hundreds of local and foreign visitors daily. The scene inside the temple and outside was one of festivity, what with the many stalls selling souvenirs and other items, and the temple hall jam packed with devotees and visitors.


Even today, thousands of devotees make a trip to this "Temple of the Azure Cloud" or "Pure Cloud Temple" (as it is called) during the birthday celebrations of the resident deity, Chor Soo Kong which occurs thrice yearly, on the 6th days of the first, sixth and eleventh months of the lunar calendar respectively.

Local devotees as well as those from as far away as Europe and neighbouring countries in Asia bring offerings of candles, incense and eggs (for the snakes).


Holding aloft sticks of burning incense like bouquets of flowers, devotees turn their gaze heavenward and utter silent yet fervent prayers and making personal wishes. If faith can move mountains, then the large turnout during the deity's anniversary must surely be testament to his powers in working miracles.
In case you were wondering, the names of the temple were crafted to honour Penang's beautiful blue skies.


A monk journeying to Penang from China in the 1800s had in his possession the statue of a famous deity called Cheng-Swee Chor-Soo or Chor Soo Kong, whose name means "an eminent historic figure who is continuously revered by a community generation after generation".


The monk also brought with him myths and legends of this particular deity's power in healing sickness and granting favours to believers. Thus when British resident David Brown (owner of Glugor Estate) heard of this deity and was subsequently cured of an illness in 1873 after praying to him, he donated a tract of land so a temple may be built in homage of the deity who healed him. It is on this land which the Snake
Temple has stood for over a century.

The architecture of the temple is a design commonly found in Southern China. Three dimensional sculptures constructed using a technique knows as Chien Nien (cut and paste) from shards of coloured porcelain decorate the roof.


Legend has it that after the temple was built, snakes from the surrounding forest mysteriously appeared in the building. Sensing this phenomenon as a good omen, the monk immediately gave shelter to the snakes and allowed them to take up residence in the sacred halls. They were even allowed to breed.

A 600 pound bell made in China during the Manchurian Dynasty (1886) still hangs in the main hall. It is rung on the 1st and 15th days of every month of the Chinese calendar to invite the denizens of heaven and hell to pray.

The temple now

Up till today snakes are still found in the temple, although in slightly lesser numbers than before. This is not due to bad omens, but to rapid development around the area which disturbed the natural habitat of the snakes. To help overcome this decline in viper population, devotees donate snakes to the temple on Chor's feast days.


Pit vipers are the only species found. Although vipers are venomous and aggressive, those in the temple appear docile. Devotees say the thick clouds of incense smoke act as a tranquilliser. This is apparently true as the snakes appear to be motionless, even asleep. Be that as it may, one should still handle the snakes (if one wants to!) gently and with care.

Interestingly, a photographer who specialises in snapshots of visitors posing with snakes was spotted milking venom from reluctant vipers one morning! His fees are RM30 for two 5R snaps which can be ready in a few minutes. A collage of some of his photographs is displayed.


A corridor beside the temple houses several cages with fully grown vipers. Just next to these cages is a small altar bearing the Deity of Prosperity & Moral.Some time back, the temple was expanded by the addition of another hall at the back of the original temple. This new wing was built in honour of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy.
The administration and upkeep of the temple is taken care of by the Hokkien Kongsi, a body which comprises four trustees from each of the five clan houses in Penang, namely Cheah, Khoo, Lim, Tan and Yeoh. The Hokkien Kongsi have been appointed as caretakers of five temples in Penang, including of course, the snake temple.


Chanting of the sutras begin at 5am daily, and the temple doors open to visitors at 6am. Usual closing time is 7pm. Admission to the temple is free. Depending on traffic situations, a bus ride from Komtar to the snake temple should take about 30 minutes.

Who was Chor Soo Kong?

Chor was born in Fujian during the reign of the Song Dynasty (960-1276). He became a Buddhist young at a very young age and lead an ascetic life on Gao-Tai mountain. During a journey to attain spiritual enlightenment, he encountered Zen Master Ming-Song on Da-Jing Mountain. Three years later he returned to Gao-Tai where he provided free medical services to the community and to the needy.

In 1073, Qing-Xi in Fujian was stricken by a severe drought. To the rescue came Chor, whose intervention and prayers brought rains and saved the crops.


Grateful for his help, the community built a monastery in his honour called Cheng Swee Giam, or The Rock of Clean water. He continued to help and to heal until he died at the age of 65. It is said that he died in an upright position.

Why does Chor have a black face?

There are two explanations on the colour of Chor's countenance. One tells of his encounter with demons who tried to cook him. Although he was not harmed, the soot blackened his face. Realising that they were in the presence of a great man, the demons quickly became Chor's followers, faithfully assisting him in his noble endeavours.

Another story describes how during Chor's search for medicinal herbs, he accidentally ingested some poisonous herbs which forever altered his facial tone.
Since then, devotees have always looked upon Chor's black face as a symbol of compassion and sacrifice for others.The statue of Chor is located in the main temple hall


Anonymous said...

I have never been to Snake temple all this while staying at Penang for 3 years. I only went to Kek Lok Si. It is a great place that a must for you to visit. Nearby Kek Lok Si (which they called Ayer Hitam), you can taste the famous Penang laksa. It has been a while since I left Penang. Hope you have a great journey and have fun. :)

Wilson Chin said...

hiimeimei - Hi thanks for dropping by. Yap, I've been to Kek Lok Si, and most of the place at Penang, will post them up one by one.
Thanks for the information :)