Friday, July 1, 2011

Buddhas, Hindu Temples, Mosques and a hike through the jungle, Penang (June 22-23, 2011)

Burial urns in wall behind the Buddhas

My time on Penang will be a highlight of this trip.  Tuesday, June 21, began with a leisurely breakfast at Hutton Lodge, where I spent time talking to one of the workers who was a Christian.  He spoke about how Christians had to be careful in how they talk about Jesus Christ to Muslims in order to avoid being prosecuted for evangelism.   It is against a law for a Muslim to convert or for a Christian (or Hindu or Buddhist for that matter) to encourage a Muslim to convert. 
Cyclops had taken the day off work and picked me up at 10 AM.  We spent the time touring temples in and around the island.  Our first stop of the morning was a “Thailand Buddhist temple,” which featured a large reclining Buddha.  It is hard to capture something so long in a photograph, but I amazed at the detail of even the toe nails of the statue.  I had seen this Buddha before in one of Cyclops blog posts and was anxious to see it in person.  We walked around the temple complex.  Crowds of people were coming in on buses, as this was a highlight of touring Penang, an island that has a mixture of religions and traditions.  Most of Malaysia is Muslim, but Penang has a large European, Indian and Chinese communities and in addition to Muslims, there are Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh temples as well as Christian (I saw Anglican, Baptist, Catholic and Methodist) Churches. 

After visiting the reclining Buddha, we walked across the street to the Burmese Buddhist temple.  Cyclops had never been to this temple and it was a wonderful surprise for both of us.  First of all, there were few people here.  There were also more monks (it wasn’t as touristy, yet there rooms one can rent to stay at the temple and to learn about the faith).  We sat for a long time at the top of a Pagoda, with a Buddha before us and the city below, by ourselves, talking and spending time in silence, listening to the bells chime in the wind and watching a storm build on Penang hill.  The peacefulness of the temple complex was wonderful.  At the first floor of the pagoda, there were marble carvings depicting the various ancient Buddhist traditions around Asia.  I took a photograph of the relief carving for Afghanistan, knowing that those Buddhas were destroyed by the Taliban.. 

Sadly some of these monuments have been destroyed by the Taliban

Cyclops enjoying lunch

We had lunch at a vegetarian restaurant beside a traditional arts gallery and workshop.  While there, the heavens opened and it rained hard.  Afterwards, we headed to Little India, where we spent time in shops selling fabrics and clothes (the colors were wonderful and I’m sure stood in contrast to my “earth tones” clothing I had packed for the trip).  Then we visited a South Indian Hindu Temple that Cyclops knew of (Cyclops temple is in his hometown, near the Thailand border).  I appreciated the patience he showed as he instructed me on various meanings of the faith as seen in the attributes expressed toward God in the statues and artwork that adored the temple (and I hope that if I got any of this wrong, he will correct me). 

According to Cyclops, the Hindus believe in one God, who is expressed in many attributes.  This was different that what I’d always assumed.  “If God is defined,” according to Cyclops, “it is not God.”  That, I agree with.  He explained the Hindu “trinity”: Braham the creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the destroyer.    He noted that it takes all three attributes to have any comprehension of God.  In Hindu theology, the feminine aspect of God is also lifted up and the temple we visited was dedicated to the Mariamman or the “Great Powerful Mother.”  There is no “prescribed way of belief,” instead the faithful are encouraged to pick out aspects of the deity to worship base do their temperament. 
In pointing to depictions of Shiva dancing on a demon, he noted the crescent moon held by Shiva is a waning moon (as opposed to a new moon), reminding us that all that all will cease to exist.   Shiva also has a cobra, which he used to heal those bitten by the snake in a mythological story where he intervened to help people.  I’m reminded of the story of Moses and the snake when the Hebrew people were in the wilderness.  Cyclops also points to the elephant, another common symbol of God.  The elephant supposedly has a long memory, like God’s.  He also has big ears, like God’s, who is always open to hear our prayer.  Furthermore, his trunk is capable of drawing water from a dirty stream and filtering it, just as God is able to filter our lives.  And finally, the elephants are often shown with a broken tusk that was used to write a message to humans, reminding us of God’s sacrifice for us and of our need to be willing to also sacrifice.    Although there are lots of differences between Hindus and Christians, there are some similarities of stories (such as the great flood) and there is much we could learn from their mythology.

After the Hindu temple, we stopped at Kaptain Keling Mosque.  Cyclops reminded me that in Malaysia, temples can’t be higher than the local mosques (the same goes for churches, there steeples are not to be taller than the local mosque).    This was Cyclops first time at this mosque and he asked around and found a “doctor” of the mosque who was willing to show us around and to answer my questions.  This doctor explained about the washing before worship, and how Muslim men should visit the mosque five times a day to prayer.  The times are set by the local mosque, based on the position of the sun.  When I asked about women, he pointed to a screen area but insisted that women really should pray at home, if possible.  This doctor was patience with my questions and good at making sure that I understood him, but then a jack-leg tour-guide type came by and asked to show us around.  Instead of asking questions, we had to listen to this guy babble on about legends and myths and stories, much of which I (and I assume Cyclops) had no idea of what he was talking about.  He took us to another local mosque, just a block or two away, that is dedicated to the victims of the Aceh tsunami of 2005.  As soon as we could get away, we left this guy behind and stopped by Cyclops work, where he showed me around the center for Cerebral Palsy (two days later, before I left Penang), I got a chance to go to visit the center while in operation and was blessed to see the special students with whom he and Denise and others work.  Then it was dinner and, after a long day of touring, bedtime! 

I had planned to spend the next day hiking and visiting some secluded beaches on the northwestern shore where there is a national park and a lighthouse.  But it was raining so hard in the morning that I waited for a longtime, reading the English Penang newspaper as I drank coffee.   Finally, it let up that I decided to go ahead with my plans and I caught Bus 101 to the north end of the island.  There, I had a quick dinner at a food stall and entered the park.  I was surprised there was no fee, but they did have you sign in and give your destinations, which was probably good since it seemed I was the only person hiking on the trail that afternoon.  The trail started out nice and I thought I’d be at the lighthouse in no time, but then the “handicap accessible” trail gave way to a more primitive one, and I found myself climbing over wet and slippery roots and boulders as the trail made its way up and down, roughly paralleling the shoreline.  At times, the hum of insects drowned out the sound of the crashing waves below me.  I saw lizards and even the tail end of a black snake (was it a cobra as a species of them is black, or so I’m told).  I’d hear and later see monkeys as well as see all kinds of insects.  Luckily, nothing was biting.  The rain had pretty much stopped but the trees continued to drip water and, deep in the jungle, there wasn’t a breeze.  Soon, I was drenched from sweat.  Occasionally, the trail would come out of the jungle and run along the side of the ocean on a small beach, only to once again climb back into the jungle.

The last big beach, before the trail headed inland toward the lighthouse, was Monkey Beach.  It was there that I saw her again.  She looked at me for just a second then diverted her glaze, as she’d done a few nights earlier, this time dropping her eyes toward the water that swirled around her feet.  Was it the same women?  I don’t know, but I had never truly realized how seductive a fully clad woman can be.  Her black abaya appeared to have been fitted and showed off her slender figure.  She wore a niqaab that covered all her face except for her dark and mysterious eyes that were highlighted by long lashes.  Her husband (or at least that’s who I assumed he was), didn’t seem overly happy to have me pop out of the jungle where he and his wife were enjoying the solitude.  Most likely they were on vacation from the Persian Gulf, for the local Muslim women only wore a tudung or head scarf.  He’d hired a boat to bring them to these secluded beaches, away from the crowds at the hotels on the north shore.  There were a few other groups along this beach and a number of the women, in full dress, were wading out into the water.

The next day on the train, when I was explaining what I’d seen on these beaches to Allen, an Australian, he noted that how Australia also gets some vacationers from the Persian Gulf region and every so often a woman drowns.  First of all, few of them can swim and even if they can, the amount of cloth around them makes it difficult, especially if they get caught in the current or a riptide. Of course, her modesty is still intact. 

At the far end of Monkey Beach, the trail leaves the coastline and heads inland and upward, toward the lighthouse for the Malacca Straits.  It’s a steep climb (the light is 242 meters above sea level).  Again, I found myself sweating like a dog and wondering if I would ever get to the top.  But when I did, it was worth it for the top of the lighthouse looked out over the forest and way into ocean, giving me a 360 degree view.  Furthermore, above the trees there was a breeze that cooled my sweat-soaked body.  I watched eagles soar high above the water below.  A sign by the guest book claims that this lighthouse is the most difficult “mainland” lighthouse to reach in all of Asia.   I drank half of my remaining water and soaked up the views, before quickly making my way back down.  It had taken me longer that I’d expected to reach the lighthouse.  When I got back to Monkey Beach, I asked one of the boatmen how much for a lift back to the park’s entrance.  He suggested 60 MYR and I countered with 40 and he agreed.  Soon, we were skimming across the water, his boat propelled by a 4-cycle Yamaha outboard motor.   He took me by the fish farms in the bay and by the local fishing marina, before dropping me off just a short walk from the bus stop.  Soon, I was riding the bus back to Georgetown, where I quickly showered and cleaned up in order to join Cyclops for one last dinner. 
Cyclops at the entrance to his center

1 comment:

  1. How nice that you could be with Cyclops for this part of your adventure.