San Sebastian Church, Manila

San Sebastian Church is the only all-steel church in Asia and the only prefabricated steel church in the world. Located on a quieter side of Quiapo, the church site was first established in the 1600s, but earlier buildings were destroyed in a series of fires and earthquakes. The current one dates back to 1891 and features a Gothic Revival architecture style – quite distinct from other churches in Manila.

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Its mint green facade, coupled with twin spires, is an instant eye catcher. It was said to have been inspired by the Gothic Burgos Cathedral in Spain. 

I guess people were tired of having the church razed, so the new one was made to be fire-proof and earthquake-proof as much as possible. 52 tonnes of prefabricated steel sections were made in Belgium and shipped to the Philippines, while the stained glass was imported from Germany with local artisans putting on the finishing touches. All in all, this magnificent structure is the perfect example of European engineering married with Filipino artistry and culture.

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The church’s exterior actually reminds me of icing on cake lol trust Eris to see food in everything 😀

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Adjacent to the church is a college managed by the church committee. established in 1941.

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Stepping inside, I was impressed by the design, which reminded of Gothic churches in Europe. They had just finished mass so the mini chandeliers, dangling in two rows above the church pews, were lit up – casting a warm and cheerful glow to the halls somber interior. Pillars rise to the ceiling, forming an arched shape, and at the back is a dome painted over with the original ‘3D’ style of painting or trompe l’oiel.

PS: The pillars are painted over to look like marble and jasper, but they are actually steel (!)

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The main altar has an image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, gifted by Carmelite sisters from Mexico City in the 1600s. The image withstood all the natural disasters that have destroyed previous buildings, but ironically, the ivory head was stolen (by people, always people are the worst culprits) in 1975.

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Colourful stained glass on the sides depict scenes and characters from the Bible. Some are so delicate that a simple touch with a toothbrush could cause the designs to fade away.

Sadly, this is not the only thing in danger of disappearing. The building’s materials have rusted over the years due to corrosion, and it’s structural integrity is in danger. Here’s hoping that conservation efforts will be put into place to prevent that from happening.

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A pulpit where the priest can deliver sermons. The elevated wooden structure is decorated with elaborate carvings and images.

SAN SEBASTIAN CHURCH

Plaza Del Carmen, Quiapo, Manila, 1101 Metro Manila, Philippines

Oldest Taoist Temple in Singapore – Thian Hock Keng, Chinatown, Singapore

Singapore has a significant Chinese population (74%). Long ago, when the first Chinese immigrants arrived on the island republic with nothing to their names but hopes and dreams, Chinatown was the epicentre of everything. Today, it spans several blocks within the Outram district and houses numerous heritgae sites and old buildings – an important reminder of the country’s culture and history.
For our Chinatown Tour, we had Shal from Ruby Dot Trails as our guide. And what a guide she was! Visiting places of interest is one thing but having a good guide is another: and Shal really elevated our experience by telling us loads of interesting stories and tidbits. It felt more like having a very knowledgable local friend bringing us around. 🙂
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Our first stop for the day was Thian Hock Keng, or the Temple of Heavenly Happiness. Established in 1839, it is the oldest and most important Hokkien/Taoist temple in Singapore. Shal pointed out that the temple sits on Telok Ayer Street, which was so called because the area where Chinatown is right now was actually by the sea (now it’s not due to land reclamation).
Dedicated to the Goddess of the Sea and patron deity of seamen, Ma Zu, the temple was originally a simple shrine located close to the shoreline. Sailors arriving after a long voyage from China would offer their prayers as thanks for safe arrival to Singapore. Eventually they brought over a Ma Zu statue from China and erected a proper temple in 1842, at a cost of 30,000 Spanish dollars.
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There are separate entrances to the temple. We entered through the side door, because the main one is only for VIPs. The side doors are painted over with images of two fierce generals, or the ‘Door Gods’, who guard the temple from evil.
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The main entrance, on the other hand, has different ‘door gods’, which, according to Shal, are eunuchs (since Mazu is a goddess, so it’s more appropriate).
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The main temple. It’s not very large, but it sure is grand. Just look at the elaborate details!
The structure is typical of Chinese temples, with a spacious courtyard and a huge ash urn for joss sticks. Shal pointed out some interesting fixtures for us. If you look up at the beams, there are Indian elements – figurines of Indian craftsmen alongside the usual dragons and phoenixes. During the temple’s construction, Indian craftsmen and workers were brought in to help. As a gesture of thanks, they were allowed to carve their images into the structure. It proved that racial harmony and tolerance were in place, even back in the days. How cool is that?
Even though it wasn’t a very big temple, it was surely an important one. Visitors looking up might notice a large scroll-like hanging at the top of the chamber, which was a decree from a Qing Dynasty emperor – a great honour for a temple in what was considered the ‘boondocks’. The decree has been stored away for safekeeping, but we can still see the replica at the temple today.
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Source: taoist-sorcery.blogspot.com note: NOT the Ma Zu statue at Thian Hock Keng temple.
Pictures of the main shrine housing the Mazu statue wasn’t allowed, but I wanted to illustrate the story with a picture, so yeah.
Mazu: The Goddess of the Sea
Like many Taoist deities, it was believed that she was an actual person before being deified (is that a word?) Her real name was Lin Moniang, and she lived in 900s Fujian province during the Song Dynasty. An excellent swimmer, she wore red garments while at the shore to guide fishing boats home, even in harsh weather. Her father and brothers were fishermen. Legend has it that a big typhoon arose while they were at sea, and Lin Moniang fell into a trance where she dreamed of them drowning and attempted to save them. She saved her father but her mother woke her up from her trance, thus dooming her brother. The father returned alive and the villagers believed a miracle had happened. It was said that Lin Moniang ‘died’ when she climbed a mountain alone and flew to heaven, becoming a goddess.
Mazu is often flanked by two generals, Cheen Lei Ngan (thousand mile eye) and Soon Fung Yee (with the wind ear), from the legend of the 10 Brothers. They are her eyes and ears, and lookout for sailors or fishermen in trouble.
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Chinese temple, but European-style tiles from Holland. The outside gate is Scottish steel.
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Side area, housing other deities. There are deities for everything you could possibly pray for – Mazu for protection and blessing, Confucius for kids who are studying, another deity for health, and one for matters related to love.
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Another interesting story is that of the Black and White guards of Hell, or the Heibai Wuchang. 
Legend has it that they were once two constables of justice, Xie Bi’an and Fan Wujiu. While looking for an escaped convict, they split up and promised to meet at a bridge. Fan Wujiu was on time but due to heavy rain, Xie got delayed. Not wanting to break his promise to his colleague, Fan waited, but the rains swept the bridge away and he drowned (hence the black colouration of the deity, due to decomposition). Upon finally arriving, Xie was so overcome by remorse and guilt that he hung himself (thus the long tongue). Looking down from heaven, the Jade Emperor was impressed by their loyalty and friendship, thus appointing them guardians of the Underworld.
At Thian Hock Keng, Shal explains that devotees pray to these deities if they wish for wealth from ‘unorthodox’ means, ie striking the lottery or such. A closer look at the statues reveal that their tongues and mouths are stained black from opium and more recently, cigarettes – since unorthodox wealth = unorthodox offerings lol. There was a small table with an ashtray and sometimes you’d see beer or alcohol as well. Those with very sick and old relatives also pray to the Heibai Wuchang, to strike the person’s name off the list, since they are soul catchers.
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After all that, stepping out from the temple to the sight of towering buildings was a bit disorienting. We are still in the middle of 21st century Singapore!
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Thian Hock Keng Temple 
158 Telok Ayer St,
Singapore 068613
Opening hours: 730am-530pm
Entrance: Free – but observe local customs and dress decently.
thianhockkeng.com.sg

Islamic Arts Museum Kuala Lumpur Pt 1 – Dala’il al-Khayrat Exhibition

This post is a few weeks overdue because I didn’t have time to sort out the (hundreds of) pictures, but here goes: my first trip to the Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur. I’ve read many good things about the place online, so I thought of checking the place out over the weekend. It is located within close proximity to several major landmarks, including the National Mosque (just across the road), the National Planetarium and the KL Bird Park – so if you’re a tourist, you can visit them all in one shot.

Our National Museum is a little…outdated, so I was pleasantly surprised to find everything new and squeaky clean at the Islamic Arts Museum (it opened in 1998). Tickets are priced at RM14 for adults, RM7 for students with proof of ID as well as senior citizen.

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I was immediately directed to the special gallery on the first floor, where the museum is having an exhibition titled Dala’il al-Khayrat: Prayer Manuscripts from the 16th to the 19th century. 

What is the Dala’il al-Khayrat? 

Written by a Morrocan Sufi and Islamic scholar dubbed Muhammad Sulaiman al-Jazuli Sh Shadhili, it is a famous collection of prayers praising the Prophet Muhammad, and is popularly recited in many parts of the Islamic world – from North Africa to Turkey and South Asia. The prayer book is divided into sections for daily recitation. Inside, one will find the ninety nine names of God, and a collection of over one hundred names of Muhammad.

 

The Islamic Arts Museum Collection features numerous copies and details the history, as well as differences between the books of each country/civilization through the ages. Most of the copies are produced with exquisite detail, illustrations and calligraphy.

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A 19th century copy from Morocco.

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Different versions of the book. The top left, for example, comes from the 19th century Malay Pattani kingdom and depicts the recitation for Tuesday; while the top right comes from Uzbekistan and shows the recitation for Wednesday (all in Arabic, of course). Then you have a version from Kashmir (bottom left) and an illustration of the Minbar (like a side plan for a mosque) from Ottoman Egypt/Turkey.

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Part of The Salawat and Dua Kha’tm, which divides recitation into 8 azhabs (days).

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Depictions of the holy Kaaba. Kinda like an ancient floorplan for the mosque. You can clearly see the big black box-like structure in the center, surrounded by minarets and other structures.

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(Top left) A map of the two holy cities, Makkah and Medinah, from the 17th century Ottoman Provinces. (Top right) 16th century Safavid Iran era ‘guidebook’ to pilgrimage, written in Persian.

(Bottom left) Another Ottoman version of the Dala’il, and (bottom right) a wooden carving.

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All the artwork/illustrations are distinct and very colourful. I really like the colour and patterns on this 13th century tile from Kashan, Iran, which translates to Salla ala al-Siraj, or Praise Upon the Light as a reference to Prophet Muhammad.

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There’s a whole wall dedicated to the many names of Prophet Muhammad, as you can see above.

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Explanation detailing the differences between the Dala’il from different regions, such as North Africa, Turkey, Uzbekistan,

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Calligraphy done to resemble dancing Turkish men.

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Moving on to the second floor was another special exhibition with photographs related to Muslim culture/community from all around the world. Here, visitors will find colourful images of communities breaking fast, doing prayers and going about their daily lives.

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Also on this floor is a spacious courtyard with a fountain. Adjacent to that is a restaurant and a souvenir shop.

More in the next post, there are still loads to explore! 😉

ISLAMIC ARTS MUSEUM MALAYSIA 

Jalan Lembah Perdana, 50480 Kuala Lumpur, 50480, Malaysia

Open daily: 10AM – 6PM

Phone: +60 3-2092 7070

 

Journey to Enlightenment @ Chin Swee Cave Temple, Genting

TRIGGER WARNING: This post contains images that may be disturbing for some. Reader discretion is advised. 

….I don’t know, they always put that on TV shows. Anyway, if you’re the easily offended kind, here is a nice picture of flowers, and you can safely proceed to the X button. If not, read on.

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I blogged about visiting the Chin Swee Cave Temple in Genting in my last post. It’s a beautiful place up in the hills, with giant deity statues and amazing views of the valley. But there’s a section in this Taoist temple that chronicles the ‘Journey to Enlightenment’, which explains the different levels of hell one has to go through before rebirth. In Chinese diyu or hell, there are said to be 10 ‘courts’ where souls go to face their judgment and subsequent punishments (similar to Dante’s Inferno).Discounting the brutality of the punishments, the exhibit is actually a very interesting insight into Taoist/Chinese culture and mythology.

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We begin in the First Hell Chamber, which is overseen by Qin Guang Wang. he manages a book which dictates birth and death in the mortal realm, determining if they’ll live a long life or die a premature death. He’ll also do ‘sorting’: so if you’ve done a lot of good deeds, you’ll go to the Heavenly Realm (ie heaven/ like a Chinese version of Nirvana). If you’ve done both good/bad, you’ll be sent to the 9th chamber to be reborn into the mortal realm and if you’ve been a real rotten egg… well, you know what awaits.

The ideal is, of course, to achieve Nirvana and go to heaven, but unlike in religions where you only get one shot at life, Taoists believe that you can be reborn many times over. As devotees, one should strive to do as many good deeds as possible not just to avoid hell, but be finally free of the rebirth cycle.20160731_090159-tile

Taoist hell is a terrifying place with Hell guards and loads of suffering. Some of the prominent characters here are the ‘Guai Chai’ or Black and White Ghost Guards (picture above) who escort prisoners to the Underworld. Like Yin and Yang, they represent opposing forces of good and evil, balanced as a whole entity.

**More info here: Heibai Wuchang 

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In the right chamber there will be a mirror which shows the prisoner their past misdeeds. The Hell Guards will be there to keep an eye on the prisoners. They are depicted as fierce-looking demons, ready to mete out punishment with swords, spears, whips and chains. Two prominent Hell Guards that feature in every folklore is the Ngao Tao (ox head) and Ma Meen (horse face).

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The second chamber of Hell is ruled by Chu Jiang Wang and is dubbed Reviving Hell. Kidnappers, doctors who intentionally caused harm through malpractice, those who caused disabilities in others, adulterers, and those who have committed suicide will be punished here after death, according to the placard written next to the exhibit.

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It gets worse from here. Third chamber of Hell is ruled by Song Di Wang, and is called the Black Line Hell. Cheaters, disloyal and dishonest individuals, those who harmed others for self benefit, robbers and thieves will receive punishment here.

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This is the fourth chamber of Hell, or the Rounding Up and Crushing Hell. People who evaded taxes, cheated in sales, disrespected the elderly, bullied poor folks, did not abide by the law, were prone to vanity, etc are punished here. I don’t know why the ‘rules’ are so specific that they would have punishments for people who didn’t pay taxes (??) but sometimes things get lose in translation from Chinese to English. Also, bear in mind that these are based on folklore and belief blended with religion.

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Moving on, we have the Fifth Chamber of hell, or the Howling Hell. Those who haggled over fame and fortune, rapists, liked to fight and gamble, was jealous of the kind hearted, those who shot poultry and birds, wrested away farm land or destroyed water sources will be punished in this chamber. For their sins, prisoners are tied to a fiery rod to burn.

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The Sixth Chamber of Hell is controlled by Bian Cheng Wang, and is dubbed the Great Howling Hell. It’s not enough to call it Howling Hell, so they added a Great – so you can bet the punishments are really severe. Those who disregarded the gods and their teachings, violated ethical practices and wasted staple food will be punished in this hell.

I understand the part about wasting staple food. Ancient China was an agricultural society and food sources were not always easy to come by, especially during famines. My bro and I were taught never to waste food, and we even have sayings to deter food wastage, like “if you don’t finish every grain of rice in your bowl, your spouse is gonna be pockmarked.”

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This is the Seventh Chamber of Hell, or Heating Hell. No points for guessing what they do to prisoners there – they boil them alive. And saw their heads. Those who lived lavishly, gambled, practiced abortion , bullied the weak and fabricated truths will receive punishment here.

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Filial piety is a pillar of Chinese culture, and those who disobeyed, disrespected or treated their parents badly will suffer in the Eighth Chamber of Hell, called Intense Heating Hell. They’ll be crushed by heavy slabs, or thrown into a pit of fire.

The final chamber is called Ultimate Torment Hell. Crimes: Abortionists, men who raped young girls (apparently there are separate hells for rapists and rapists of young girls, the latter considered more severe?) and ‘those who enticed young men’… whatever that means.

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We’re almost at the end of the long and arduous journey. In the final Chamber, prisoners who have gone through their punishments will then be sorted to be reborn into the mortal realm. Even after punishments, if your sins are too severe, you might be reborn into an animal’s body in your next life. Else, you’ll become human again.

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Prisoners will drink a liquid called ‘Mang Po Tong’ (Blind Woman’s Soup). The Blind Woman is a figure who helps souls pass on to the next life. Her elixir will wipe out all your memories, so you won’t have any recollection of who you are in the past and can start afresh.

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Souls pass on through bridges into the mortal world. There are several categories that you can be reborn into, including Human, Mammal, Bird, Aquatic creatures (fish, turtles, etc) and Insects/invertebrate. The higher realm is of course, the Heavenly Realm resided by gods and deities.

…and that was the Journey to Enlightenment exhibit, although it was more a journey through hell.

I can’t say I agree with everything, but it’s not for me to judge. Different cultures/religions have different beliefs. Understanding is more important than judging, I say.

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Less trigger-ing pictures. Gorgeous mountain views.

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From Hell to Heaven – ‘Fairies’ on clouds, pulling a carriage in which the Heavenly Mother or Wong Mo is seated. The scene shows preparations for her birthday celebration, where all the gods and deities come together in heaven for a feast.

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Fook, Look,Sau – three deities that represents prosperity, wealth and status, and longevity.

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Wong Mo’s birthday always features giant peaches, which grow in heaven and promises longevity. In the Chinese classic Journey to the West, Sun Wukong the monkey wreaks havoc when he steals into the garden and eats all the peaches meant for Wong Mo’s birthday celebration.

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Part of the temple complex.

Chin Swee Cave Temple is a great place to visit for the views, culture and architecture. Entrance is free, but donations are welcome. If you stay at their accommodations, the money is donated to charity.

HOW TO GET TO CHIN SWEE CAVES TEMPLE

The best way to get to Chin Swee Caves Temple is by taking a cable car from Awana Skyway at the base of the mountain, near the Genting Highlands Premium Outlet. The temple is one of the stations where you can hop off at no extra charge.

Thean Hou Temple, Kuala Lumpur

 

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One of the most popular (and most beautiful!) Chinese temples in Kuala Lumpur is Thean Hou Temple, dedicated to the Heavenly Mother or Thean Hou Mo. Built in the 1980s, the sprawling complex is still well kept – with arching orange roofs topped with dragons and phoenixes, whitewashed walls and quaint side gardens.

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I’ve been here a couple of times, and the place is especially festive during Chinese New Year or religious festivities. At other times, it’s a great place to meditate in the prayer chambers or sit and admire the architecture, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. The editor and I were around the area for an assignment so I brought her for a quick visit.

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The ground floor is used for functions; the main shrine is accessed by stairs. Once up, visitors are greeted by a spacious courtyard that commands a scenic view of the Kuala Lumpur skyline. Pillars written with auspicious words and blessings line one side of the compound, accentuated by vividly coloured ceilings of blue, green and gold. Clouds, phoenixes, patterns, water and dragons are common decorative motifs.

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A sea of yellow lanterns.

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Prayer urn where devotees can place their joss sticks.

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Inside the hall, photography is allowed but visitors are required to be respectful when taking pictures. The prayer area houses three deities; namely the Heavenly Mother, Goddess of Mercy (Gwanyin) and Waterfront Goddess (Swei Mei) . Smaller deities sit at the bottom of the large golden statues, which are surrounded by prayer light towers. The walls are lined with pictures of small Bodhisattvas, donated by devotees to accumulate merits (or karma).

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What I really like about the space is the ceiling. Right in the middle is this beautiful dome inlaid with blue, red and gold patterns on top of each other, with a dragon on clouds in the middle. The craftsmanship is superb – rivalling those of European churches.

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Thean Hou Temple is definitely worth the visit if you’re ever in KL –  for the culture, architecture and beautiful sights. Entrance is free.

THEAN HOU TEMPLE 

65, Persiaran Endah, Taman Persiaran Desa, 50460 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Opening hours: 9am – 6pm

Getting There

Since the place is on top of a hill and at a dead end, buses or trains do not service the area. Best to take a taxi or Uber.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ash Wednesday @ Antipolo Cathedral, Rizal

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent for Christians, which includes 40 days of fasting that ends with Easter. In the Philippines, a major Catholic country, the practice of Ash Wednesday is even more pronounced.

E wanted me to experience it for myself, so we hopped into a jeepney in the early morning from Manila to Antipolo Cathedral, in neighbouring Rizal. Antipolo is also called Pilgrimage City, due to the high number of religious sites and attractions there. 

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I haven’t really done a proper post about Jeepneys. They’re colourful, loud, smoke-belching things. Most are painted in bright hues; some sport famous political figures such as Jose Rizal, others movie stars, angels, Jesus.. even Pokemon. This creative, outlandish and sometimes downright bizarre streaks make the jeepney so inherently charming. They are so entrenched in Filipino culture that it’s difficult to see them ever being banned, despite the obvious pollution from their diesel engines and the massive traffic jams they cause (from stopping and picking up passengers everywhere). It’s part and parcel of life in the Philippines.

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The ride took over an hour, even though Antipolo is only about 24 kilometres away. Well, that’s Metro Manila for you. 

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Like many churches in Manila, Antipolo Cathedral was built at the height of Spanish proselytisation in the 1600s and housed the Marian image of Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage. Set on fire by Chinese revolts, damaged in three earthquakes and bombarded in World War II, the new shrine was completed in 1954. Today, millions of people go on pilgrimage annually to seek blessings and pray.

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The building’s dome-like top reminded me of a mosque – if not for the stained glass windows and saint figures.

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E lining up to get his forehead blessed with ashes.

So why put ash on devotees’ foreheads on Ash Wednesday? There’s a very good, detailed description here. I think long story short, they are supposed to represent the repentance of the devotee and their willingness to start over in their devotion to God.

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The church was having mass (which runs hourly) when we arrived. The priest was reading the Bible (?) in Tagalog while everyone stood, listened, and uttered Amen periodically. There was a large gold tapestry flanked by two paintings and the Marian image of Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage encased in glass.

The statue, brought over from Mexico in the 16th century, is said to have miraculous powers. There is a peculiar story about how the statue, which is done in a medieval ‘Black Madonna’ style (where Mary is portrayed with dark skin), would vanish from its shrine and reappear atop a tipolo (breadfruit) tree: hence its location in Antipolo of which the name derives from the same tree.

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Just outside the church were rows of souvenir shops selling candles, prayer paraphernalia, incense sticks, snacks, keychains and touristy stuff.

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The place is apparently famous for their cashews, so we bought some cashew boat tarts to take home. Also tried these glutinous rice rolls cooked in bamboo.. which was exactly like the Malaysian lemang – except that Filipinos dip it in sugar instead of curry.

ANTIPOLO CHURCH 

Dela Paz Street, Antipolo, Rizal Province, Philippines

GETTING THERE: useful website here

Plaza San Luis / Manila Cathedral @ Intramuros Manila

After a whole day of exploring Intramuros, E and I were hungry and raring for food. We walked across the street from San Agustin Church and into Plaza San Luis, a white-washed building with Spanish colonial architecture. It was pleasantly cool as we stepped into the compound, which was lined with trees and wrought-iron lamps.

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The historical/commercial complex is home to five houses – namely the Casa Manila, Casa Urdaneta, Casa Blanca, Los Hidalgos and El Hogar Filipino – each representing different eras in Filipino-Hispanic architecture. There is also a museum, theatre, hotel, souvenir shops and eateries.

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Despite our tummies roaring in protest, we took some time to admire the beautiful compound within the complex. It was straight out of a periodical Spanish telenovela – the one where the heroine stands on the balcony listening to the hero serenading her at the bottom with musical instrument in hand (coincidentally, that’s a guy up there lol).

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The Casa Manila is a replica of an 1850s San Nicolas House, and was commissioned by infamous first lady Imelda Marcos in the 1980s. Modeled after Spanish colonial architecture, the three-storey building houses a museum which depicts the lifestyle of wealthy Spanish-Filipino families in 19th century Manila. We didn’t go in because the ticket was quite pricey and we weren’t allowed to take photos. D:

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By then the stomach rumbling could not be ignored, so we stopped by at a place called Barbara’s. They had a buffet lunch but we aren’t big eaters and it’d go to waste, so we opted for their ala-carte menu instead. Seating was open air at a nice patio area.

E ordered Pancit Canton without the veggies, which made the waiter roll his eyes. The portion was small but tastewise it was really good: noodles had a fragrant, soy-sauce flavour and there were bits of roast pork in it.

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My carbonara was quite disappointing; it was very different from carbonaras back home in Malaysia. (I learnt this is because they use condensed milk in place of cream) The sauce was liquidy in texture, and the pasta serving was small with a sad side of limp garlic bread.

Either way, there aren’t many restaurants within Intramuros – but there are fast food chains a short walk away.

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After filling our tummies, we resumed our exploration. Came across a park with a memorial statue dedicated to the 100,000 lives lost in the battle of Manila.

I often doubt the nature of God, even when I ask for his guidance. Because I do believe in a higher power – but it’s hard to question when you hear news of wars and suffering everyday in war torn countries. The innocent children who die. The lives that are lost in the name of religion, ideas, petty things.  Mostly, it comes back to the evil nature of man and why if there is a God, would he allow such cruelty and horror to happen.

I’m still at that stage where I’m soul searching for my own faith. I hope I’ll find it someday.

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Palace of the Governor, a grey and orange building resembling a hotel in front of Plaza Roma. Although sitting on the original site of the same name (destroyed in earthquake) , the current building was only constructed in 1976 and is used to house government offices.

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Our last (but not least) stop in Intramuros was the Manila Cathedral.Dedicated to Mary and originally built from nipah, wood and bamboo in the late 1500s, it was destroyed in fire and a stone one was erected instead. This was also destroyed in an earthquake in 1600 – but no worries, they rebuilt it. In this way, the cathedral was rebuilt 8 times; after destruction from fires, earthquakes and wars. The latest version was completed in 1958.

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The entrance was flanked by statues of saints sculpted in Roman travertine stone, along with Latin inscriptions.

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Unlike St Agustins, which was flamboyant and bright, Manila Cathedral seemed more subdued, with white-grey marble columns supporting a simple domed ceiling.

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There were smaller chambers all along the main hall, housing states of saints and other religious figures. Here we have a simple but beautiful statue of Mother Mary in front of a carved stone portrait.

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In one of this chambers is a replica of Michelangelo’s La Pieta, in which Mary is seen cradling the body of Christ.

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More beautiful works of art within the Cathedral.

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Long story short, the trip to Intramuros was an educational one – I learned a lot about Manila and its history, albeit a sad one.  As far as experiences go, I admire Filipinos because even though life is hard, they always have a smile on their faces, drawing strength from religion and family.

So take a break from those glitzy shopping malls to explore Old Manila – one that time has not forgotten and which has helped shape this country’s history to what it is today.

 

 

 

 

San Agustin Church & Museum, Intramuros Manila

 

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Image: Wikipedia

For some reason, my heart felt heavy as I stepped through the intricately carved doors of San Agustin Church in Intramuros, Manila. Maybe it was the imposing stone facade – a far cry from its once bright yellow front – but mostly I think because the church has a sad beauty about it. It has seen its fair share of wartime horrors, and was one of the only structures to have survived destruction by the end of World War II, while all others lay around it in piles of rubble. The British looted it in 1752, while the Japanese used it as a prisoner concentration camp – God must have turned his face away from the horrors that man inflicted upon each other in His holy place.

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The church started off as a monastery and was built by Spanish monks of the Order of St Augustine, whose teachings and way of life were based on St Augustine of Hippo. Completed in the 1600s, it is the oldest church in the Philippines and is now a major tourist attraction in Intramuros. 

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The old wooden doors were carved with figures of saints and religious symbolism, and employed high quality craftsmanship.

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For some reason there were lions outside the church, resembling Chinese fu-dogs that you usually see guarding temple entrances.

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We were immediately thrown into dark and quiet upon entering – it could easily have been hundreds of years ago. I think the lights were dimmed so as to protect important art pieces, so most of the time the only light sources came from sunshine filtering in through the windows.

The walls were lined with 18th and 19th century oil paintings depicting religious scenes: most were faded or intentionally painted in muted, dull colours (as was common in the style of that era). As we walked down the hallways (the structure is square shaped with a courtyard in the middle), I imagined Augustinian monks, gliding down the same paths we were taking with their oil lamps at night, 400 years ago.

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We entered the actual church area through a side door. It was different from the dark and sombre mood of the adjacent monastery. Soaring buttresses, arching doorways and carefully painted ceilings gave off a feeling of grandeur, while the red carpeted aisle going through the benches was decorated with white drapes and flowers. Adding a Filipino touch were traditional bamboo frames called Singkabans, placed behind life-sized saint statues.

It’s not an understatement to say that it was the most beautiful church I had seen in the Philippines so far. Everything about it reflected the riches of old Manila, married with European glory.

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A Santa Nino (child Jesus) statue.  20160209_111723-tile

There were many tombstones on the walls, and placed like tiles underneath our feet. Most were from the late 1800s.

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Gold crosses in wrought iron separate the main altar and the pews.

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Podium for sermons

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Staring up at the ceiling, you’ll notice that it gives off a 3-D effect despite being flat. This technique is called the Trompe-l’œil, and the ones in San Agustin church were done by Italian painters.

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The church also has 16 chandeliers imported from Paris.

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We returned to the monastery area. I told E about my trip to the York church in UK – how the place hadn’t needed any loudspeakers for their choir because the building itself had very good acoustics.

“It was so magical. The hymn music and voices just filled the whole hall,” I emphasised.

Meanwhile, a loud voice floated across the courtyard and I saw a man talking on the phone.

“There, our churches have good acoustics too,” E laughed.

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Stained glass art. Are those heads with wings!?

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One of the chambers was a crypt. Some of the slots were empty, but the ones that weren’t had flowers placed on them. It was colder and draftier here.. or maybe it’s just the air conditioning?

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Gallery of religious artworks – mostly paintings and wood carvings.

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Scenes from the Bible.

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More statues with missing hands.. idk why but a lot of the old statues at museums and churches here have missing limbs.

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One really has to marvel at how superb the craftsmanship was back in those days, even without the help of machines – just good old hands. These figures of Joseph and Mary flanking a baby Jesus were placed within glass jars, gilded in gold and sky blue. The detailing on their costumes, kindly facial expressions, down to their life-like hair – was nothing short of exceptional.

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Regal looking life-sized statue of Mary holding a child Jesus.

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Sometimes, old art can be scary/creepy looking, like this set of wooden panel depicting three martyrs. Idk, I guess it just has a very otherworldly vibe to them.

I’d hate to be stuck in this place at night, to be honest.

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Robes worn by priests, according to rank.

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We also explored the second floor,  which wasn’t much different from downstairs.Most of the rooms were not open to the public.

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20160209_115047-tile  Last but not least, we made a quick round of the courtyard. Simple and shady, and a good respite after the church’s dark and sombre interior.

To be very honest, I didn’t much like the church – it feels…. haunted, somehow. If not by ghosts, then by sad memories from all the horrors it has seen (fires, seven earthquakes, one war, a massacre and still standing).

I can’t deny that it’s one of the most beautiful ones I’ve visited so far, but it left me feeling depressed by the end of it. I don’t know if that’s a product of an overactive imagination, or something else. Either way, it’s still one of the must visit places in Intramuros for its history and architecture.

SAN AGUSTIN CHURCH

General Luna St, Manila, Metro Manila, Philippines

Phone: +63 2 527 4060