The Penang Snake Temple at Sungai Keluang in Bayan Lepas is probably the only temple of its kind in the world.

THE Scotsman lies motionless as the others shuffle around him silently, each trying their best to make him as comfortable as humanly possible. He has had a persistent fever for the past three days but there isn’t much the doctor can do for him anymore.

Ironically, despite all the recent advances in Western medicine, the source of his illness remains elusive. Occasionally, soft moans escape his parched lips. With his strength ebbing by the hour, his family members are at their wit’s end. Is there no one on this island who can save him?

Then comes word of three monks who have just arrived in Penang. These holy men are said to possess the ability to cure even those at their death beds with just herbs and the power of their prayers. Although these references seem far-fetched, the man’s condition has reached such a point that any hope of recovery is welcome.

A carriage is immediately dispatched to fetch the faith healers. It returns to the sprawling Gelugor estate with the monks, just before dusk, who set to work on their patient almost immediately.

For some inexplicable reason, David Brown’s fever breaks that very night itself. By the following morning, the wealthiest landowner in Penang is able to feebly sit up and consume some light broth. The strength that had forsaken him for more than a week seems to be slowly returning. He is told about the monks who have saved his life; Brown immediately summons them to his chamber. He thanks them profusely for their assistance and asks if he can do anything for them in return.


Portrait of David Brown dated around 1818.

The three holy men don’t take credit for themselves but instead explain that it was the Patriarch of Clear Water who had made Brown’s miraculous recovery possible. Their subsequent revelation about the difficulties in acquiring a permanent place for people to pay homage to the deity leads Brown to immediately offer a piece of land where the monks would be able to construct a temple.

This incident was said to have happened several years before Brown met an untimely death on Sept 25, 1825 while sailing on H.C.S. Windsor Castle en route to Melaka. He was only 47. The monks who took up his offer for the land only managed to build a simple hut when they first moved in. A fundraising drive began soon after and the richly decorated temple complex we know today was only completed 25 years after Brown‘s death.


The pit vipers are said to have been rendered harmless by the incense smoke.

THE PENANG SNAKE TEMPLE

Standing in the main prayer hall thick with the smoke of incense burning, I watch in amazement as man and beast coexist harmoniously. The devotees who are here to pay homage to Chor Soo Kong completely ignore the poisonous pit vipers which are virtually right next to them. They believe that the snakes are “officers” of the temple and would not harm anyone. Some even believe that the smoke has a paralysing effect on the reptiles, rendering them harmless.

Chor is said to be the head monk who played a pivotal role in Brown’s remarkable recovery. Legend has it that the former was serious about seeking spiritual attainment and was ordained at an early age. A skilled healer, Chor was also said to have a soft spot for snakes and his home was often a refuge for reptiles fleeing natural calamities such as droughts and forest fires. Strangely, the same phenomenon started happening shortly after the temple was consecrated in 1850. In just a few years, the place was teeming with snakes from the nearby Sungai Ara jungle. The temple, which was initially called Temple of the Azure Cloud soon adopted a new name to reflect the presence of the snakes.

The Penang Snake Temple at Sungai Keluang in Bayan Lepas is probably the only temple of its kind in the world. Leaving the hall, I venture into the inner sanctum hoping to see signs of what this place might have looked like when the monks first took ownership. There are several fruit trees growing in the open courtyard among the smaller shrines at the back. I try to get a closer look but a timely warning from the caretaker stops me in my tracks.


The snakes can be found all over the temple.

“Don’t go too near! There are snakes in the trees!” I take a few steps backwards and thank the man for his warning, then ask him about the temple. It seems no one actually knows how the temple first started as there are many conflicting stories.

“It happened such a long time ago. The early temple records disappeared during the Japanese Occupation. The only thing I know is that the snakes in this temple came here on their own accord,” he explains, before returning to his chores.


An 1821 engraving by Willian Daniell showing the Gelugor House and its surrounding plantations.

GELUGOR HOUSE

The fruit trees remind me of Brown who once owned swathes of land all over Penang. He first set foot in Penang harbour in 1800 after completing his law education in Edinburgh. He subsequently went into a business partnership with James Scott, who was also from Brown‘s hometown of Longformacus in Scotland.

Scott had invested heavily in a James Town project located somewhere in present day Bayan Lepas and Sungai Keluang, directly opposite Pulau Jerejak. He speculated that the place, which boasts a secure harbour, would be earmarked for a naval base by the British government. Unfortunately, that didn’t materialise and Scott lost a fortune. He was subsequently declared a bankrupt and died soon after, in 1808. Brown took over Scott’s estates and replaced Scott as the largest landowner on the island.

Among the many tracts of land that Brown owned was a 300 relung (about 150 hectares) plot in Sungai Keluang. It is said that he gave a small portion of this real estate to the monks; this is where the Snake Temple is located today. During Brown’s time, the place had nutmeg and clove trees and other crops deemed to be of commercial value.

About two years prior to Scott’s death, Brown used capital borrowed from Scott and other friends to clear a part of the Gelugor hillside. He planted coconut trees, pepper and nutmeg while experimenting with new commercial crops suited to Penang’s tropical climate. As his business flourished, Brown decided to build himself a home reminiscent of his Scottish Highlands.


A typical street in George Town during the time of David Brown.

Gelugor House, a large square mansion nestled amongst pepper vines and nutmeg groves in the Gelugor Estate was completed in 1812. Brown’s “Great House” marked his steady transition from an unstable pioneering speculator to one who’d achieved prosperity and permanence. In that same year, nutmeg became one of Penang’s major crops.

Gelugor House no longer exists today. In the years leading up to the Second World War, the British Army converted the property into the Gelugor Barracks. It was later renamed Minden Barracks to commemorate the Battle of Minden which took place during the 1759 English Seven Years War. The Japanese Imperial Army used it as its headquarters from late 1941 to August 1945. Minden Barracks was again put to use during the Malayan Emergency and the Indonesian Confrontation. Finally, it was demolished in 1971 to make way for Penang’s first university, Universiti Sains Malaysia.


A photograph taken in 1946 by a returning British officer soon after the Japanese Occupation

A GENEROUS MAN

During his lifetime, Brown was known as a prominent philanthropist. One of his greatest contributions to the people of Penang was a piece of land at Dato Keramat Road. Today, this 4.86 hectare plot bordered by Jalan Johore, Jalan Dato Keramat, Jalan Perak and Jalan Anson is known as Padang Brown or Padang Dato Keramat. Like many people in Penang, I frequent this hawker centre primarily for its tasty mutton and beef soup. Located just beside the eating area is a memorial erected by the residents to honour Brown’s numerous good deeds.

Jalan Brown is a rather quiet road that runs through a residential neighbourhood in George Town called Ayer Rajah Estate. This road is linked to Jalan Burmah on one end and Jalan Utama on the other. Along the way, this major thoroughfare is intersected by, among others, Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman and Jalan Scott. Brown and Scott are synonymous with the history of this area as they were once owners of the sprawling Ayer Rajah Estate.


The back of an old postcard requesting visitors to donate generously for the upkeep of the temple

“Dong! Dong! Dong”. The sound catches everyone by surprise as it resonates throughout the temple complex. I join the crowd as they make a beeline for the main prayer hall. The 272kg bell made during the Manchurian Dynasty is only rung on the first and 15th day of each lunar calendar month as a reminder for worshippers to pay homage to the deities.

As the faithful hold their burning joss sticks, gaze penitently at the deities and utter barely audible prayers, I decide to take my leave of this place that in all likelihood came into existence because of David Brown’s generosity many, many years ago.

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