A silly truth about me is put me anywhere and I will tell you how it reminds me of another place. It seems an odd trait of a traveler to always be comparing a new place to a previous, but I find myself doing it time and again. I’m sure it’s done to provide a level of comfort anywhere I go (and it works).
Sometimes though the rug is pulled out from under me and my eyes open once again, as happened in a temple in Malaysia. There I felt immediately comfortable and then completely confused.
Penang has a wonderful offering of Chinese Buddhist temples, Hindu temples and Mosques. For each I typically dance around the edges, unsure if I should be passing through the gates to enter. I am unfamiliar with the rituals and their deities so am uncomfortable and nervous to intrude.
For Thai Buddhist temple though, my visits over the last year have made them feel familiar, so I entered Wat Chayamangkalaram with less of my usual trepidation. I happily took off my shoes and entered a small shrine to gaze upon the golden buddha with his two bronze attendants. The doors were ornately decorated in the traditional gold and red. All things familiar, fantastic!
We moved to the large temple with the sign warning of shoe thieves and again I smiled at the familiarity. But once inside, things subtly changed. Well subtle is incorrect for the difference was 33 meters long in the form of a Sleeping Buddha unlike any I’d ever seen before (for example, like at Wat Pho). The shocking difference was his face was a light pink tone, hair black, lips a darker pink and he had shiny toenails! Only the robe was golden in color. He looked well, human. Which is dumb to say for all Buddhas have a humanoid form but all previous Buddhas had been crafted out of metal or wood. Here, these tones made him look more contemporary instead of an ancient god as I realized had been crafted in my mind. It took me a moment to reset.
We walked to the side of the temple and additional flesh toned deities appeared towering over me. And unlike the sleeping Buddha, they looked even less Thai. Their faces were square and not long and lean. Likewise, their dress was completely different and golly they were tall. Were they even Buddhas? Who were they?
Signs with an english translation provided little explanation but did provide their name and “benefit” of worshiping to them. For instance, “Bhothisat – to Devotees who worship this god you will have beauty and happiness”. It was offsetting and wonderful for I love mythology. Here were new deities to learn about [I’ve not had much luck with this over the Internet though]!
And new symbols appeared, specifically a swastika on the wall made of small tiles and one set on the chest of a deity. While I knew that symbol is much older than the Nazi’s use of it, I hadn’t tied it to Eastern religion (only Native American) so it was a bit of a surprise to see it. [Just learned swastika literally translates to “it is good”.]
We made our way to a smaller shrine outside labeled “Nam Hai Kuan Yin Hood Chor”, which housed a goddess. Researching, I have found Kuan Yin is the Chinese Goddess of Mercy. In Thailand, I’d not seen many female deities depicted though and had not thought to ask about them, so this was interesting to me.
Our last difference was the mausoleum, long hallways lined with walls of urns. It was similar to Thai temples and yet I’d never seen such a large display of urns. I quietly followed James, noting pictures of those now deceased and their spans while on earth. The pictures occasionally disrupted my assumptions for some faces looked Indian. The room was quiet as expected though and we passed through silently.
I left the temple with my world expanded a bit.
A typical Thai phrase is “same, same, but different” and Malaysia seems to be frequently pointing out my need for this sameness, which is of course crazy. I question sometimes why I even bother traveling if I am always thinking stuff looks the same but my answer is for the days like this where my expectations are blown. When untouchable deities are brought down to earth and made new.