Roadtrip Diaries: Dhammikarama Buddhist Temple, Burma Road, Penang

Burma Road in George Town is so called because the area was home to a sizable Burmese and Siamese population in the early to late 19th century. To cater to the needs of their respective communities, the Thais founded the impressive Wat Chayamangkalaram, while the Burmese built the Dhammikarama Buddhist Temple right across the street.

Both temples have existed peacefully next to each other for well over 200 years – a testament to the diversity and tolerance of the different ethnic groups in Penang. If you’re in the area, make sure to visit both temples, as they offer different experiences!

Having already explored the Thai wat and its magnificent reclining Buddha, we next headed to the Burmese temple.

Although Buddhism is a major religion in both Thailand and Myanmar, there are differences in how they practice it – and this also extends to the architecture and design of their temples. Similar to Thai temples, gold is featured prominently in Burmese places of worship – but the typical Thai mythical creatures such as apsaras are absent, instead replaced by elephants, chimeras, and chinthe (guardian lions). The roof of the entrance arch as well as the main shrine also boast multi-tiered stucco decorated with elaborate carvings.

The temple complex houses several shrines, monks quarters, as well as nicely landscaped gardens. This long corridor leads to one of the prayer halls, and features small shops on one side selling Buddhist paraphernalia. Hanging from the walls are beautifully painted portraits depicting Buddha’s birth, life, and enlightenment, arranged in chronological order as you move down the hallway.

In the garden area is the Arahant Upagutta Shrine, built on a platform over a pond. Upagutta is an arahant (an enlightened being in Buddhism), and is popular in Myanmar as a protector deity that wards off evil spirits and calamities. He is often associated with nagas (water serpents), which is probably why the shrine is surrounded by water.

This small structure is another prime example of Burmese architecture, the roof having seven tiers. The spires each feature a hti, a finial ornament which itself looks like a mini stupa and is decorated with bells that tinkle in the wind. The word hti literally translates to ‘umbrella’ in the Burmese language.

Walking further into the complex, we come across this wishing pond with a rotating mechanism shaped like a lotus flower. The ‘flower’ had steel hands branching out from its centre, each holding up a bowl with an auspicious wish on it, such as ‘prosperity’, ‘success’, and ‘happiness’. It was rather gimmicky, but we had fun trying to toss our coins into each bowl. The fish in the pond might not have been as happy, being pelted by coins that missed the mark lol.

There are a lot of cute cats within the temple. We came across a few chilling out in the shade, including this beautiful pregnant mummy with green eyes. She was very sweet and allowed me to pet her.

The garuda is a humanoid-bird demigod in Hindu-Buddhist mythology, known as Galon in Burmese. It is not exclusive to Myanmar, as countries such as Thailand and Indonesia (which was formerly a cradle of Hindu/Buddhist civilization in Southeast Asia before Islam became the dominant religion) use the garuda in its national symbols and icons. In all cultures, the garuda represents good over evil, being the natural arch nemesis of serpents.

Another interesting mythical creature you’ll find here is the pyinsarupa, aka the ‘Guardian Protectors of the World’. They certainly seem to be doing their job, as there are two of them holding up a large globe with the map of the world painted on it.

It feels like whoever created these creatures went the whole hog (no pun intended) during the ideation process, as they feature, according to Wikipedia, a mixture of elephant, bullock, horse, white carp (hence the scaly body), and tonaya, a mythical horned leodragon. The word pyinsa and rupa are from Pali, meaning ‘five’ and ‘looks’ respectively, and is meant to represent the most striking parts of each animal. The pyinsarupa is a popular creature in Burmese folklore, as it is used by the Myanmar Airways International as a logo, and is also featured on Burmese currency.

The temple’s stupa is the oldest structure within the complex, having been consecrated in 1805. It towers about two-storeys high and is gilded in gold, similar to the famous Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. The large stupa is surrounded by smaller stupas and recesses housing small Buddha statues within, one for each day of the Burmese week, which has eight days.

I’ve saved the best for last – the temple’s Sasana Vamsa Sima Shrine Hall. Originally built in 1834 as an ordination hall (where ordination rituals are performed), the building has undergone several renovations and expansions. Today, it’s the most beautiful structure within the complex.

If the Thai temple across the road has a reclining Buddha, then Dhammikamara has a standing one that towers magnificently over visitors entering the hall, its backdrop of gilded gold forming a magnificent visage. At the base of the statue are blooms, so that the statue appears to float as if on a lotus flower. The walls of the hall are also covered in hundreds of small white Buddha statues.

Behind the giant Buddha is a corridor lined with slightly larger-than-life Buddha statues carved from stone. They’re all done in different styles, with inscriptions overhead describing how each statue would look like from a particular region or era. The far right one, for example, is typical of 12th century Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

Wood carving is an ancient practice in Myanmar, passed down through generations of artisans since they first adorned the old temples of Bagan. The hall’s ornately carved, lacquered ceilings are a joy to look at, with life-like tendrils of plants, leaves, and flowers coming together to form a wonderful wooden tapestry.

As one of only two Burmese Buddhist temples in Malaysia, a visit to Dhammikarama is well worth the trip for its cool architecture and rich heritage. Entrance is free but donations are welcome.


24, Jalan Burma, Pulau Tikus, 10250 George Town, Pulau Pinang

Open from 9AM – 5PM

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