Built in 1805 in the memory of the renowned Chinese monk Chor Soo Kong, the Snake Temple is situated in the small town of Bayan Lepas and is famous for the fact that it has pit vipers living on the temple ground. Legend has it, that Chor Soo Kong, who was also a healer, gave shelter to the snakes of jungle. After the completion of the temple, snakes appeared on their own accord. Today the snake population of the Temple of the Azure Cloud is very small, due to the urbanization of the area, but you can still see them coiled up on the altar tables, and touch them if you are brave enough. Originally the snakes were said to be rendered inoffensive by the smell of the incenses, but just for good measure, today the resident vipers are devenomed.
The origins of snake temples and snake worship go back thousands of years. According to the Columbia Encyclopedia, the snake represented many things to different religions – he was Apollo (the moon god) to the Grecians or Ra (the sun god) to the Egyptians.
The snake has also been variously described as a phallic deity, as a solar deity and as a god of death. The ancient Toltec and Aztec peoples worshiped a colourful feathered serpent called Quetzalcoatl, a half-divine, half-human being who was the great teacher of mankind.
In the field of medicine, the staff of Aesculapius with a coiled serpent became the traditional symbol of medicine and healing. It is told in Genesis that Moses held up a bronze serpent on a staff to cure the Jews of snakebite.
Closer to home, the Hindus, Burmese and Siamese people worshiped the snake as a demon who also had good aspects. The present-day worship of Krishna and Vishnu includes elements borrowed from primitive Hindu snake cults. The shedding of the snake’s skin is interpreted by Buddhists as a form of regenerative power.
In China the serpent assumes the form of a dragon, a mythical being which is both fierce yet protective. In Penang, the so-called snake temple was actually built to honour a human deity – the snakes appeared soon after completion of the building.
A monk journeying to Penang from China in the 1800s had in his possession the statue of a famous deity called Cheng-Swee Chor-Soo or Chor Soo Kong, whose name means “an eminent historic figure who is continuously revered by a community generation after generation”.
The monk also brought with him myths and legends of this particular deity’s power in healing sickness and granting favours to believers. Thus when British resident David Brown (owner of Glugor Estate) heard of this deity and was subsequently cured of an illness in 1873 after praying to him, he donated a tract of land so a temple may be built in homage of the deity who healed him. It is on this land which the Snake Temple has stood for over a century.
The architecture of the temple is a design commonly found in Southern China. Three dimensional sculptures constructed using a technique knows as Chien Nien (cut and paste) from shards of coloured porcelain decorate the roof.
Legend has it that after the temple was built, snakes from the surrounding forest mysteriously appeared in the building. Sensing this phenomenon as a good omen, the monk immediately gave shelter to the snakes and allowed them to take up residence in the sacred halls. They were even allowed to breed. A 600 pound bell made in China during the Manchurian Dynasty (1886) still hangs in the main hall.It is rung on the 1st and 15th days of every month of the Chinese calendar to invite the denizens of heaven and hell to pray.