The Best George Town, Penang Festivals

The origins of the multicultural Penang festivals was partly caused by British colonists. As a result of their agricultural interests in British Malaya, the British began to import labor from their other colony in southern India.

Additionally, the Chinese had been immigrating to Penang for many years to work in the tin mines on the mainland and at the seaport in Penang. The result was a large Chinese and Indian population that remained here after Malaysia received independence from colonial rule.

Ethnicity                                                   Population                                     Percentage
Chinese                                                       689,800                                                41.5%
Indian                                                         166,000                                                 10%
Malay (Bumiputra)                                       693,100                                              41.7%
Others                                                          4,700                                                     0.3%
Non Malaysian Citizens                                103,300                                                6.2%

The Best Penang Festivals

Therefore, the lasting legacy of the British colony in Penang is cultural diversity. Additionally, the three primary ethnic groups of Penang all remain devoted to the cultural practices of their forefathers. As a result, there is an eclectic mix of ethnic holidays every year.

However, the four primary Penang festivals are Wesak Day, Thaipusam, Chinese New Year and Hari Raya Aidilfitri. Ironically, 3 of these celebrations carry strong religious implications. Thaipusam, Wesak Day and Hari Raya are all centered around religious themes. The primary religions being Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam respectively. Additionally, this religious diversity is further divided along ethic lines – Tamil Indian (Hindu), Chinese (Buddhist) and Malay (Islam).

ISLAM + HINDUISM + BUDDHISM = PENANG MALAYSIA

To be clear, Malaysia is a multicultural country and the religious themed Penang Festivals are for everyone who wishes to join in. Nonetheless, the celebrations are still heavily divided along ethnic lines just the same.

Below, is a short description of the 4 main Penang Festival celebrations. Please note that the list is not all inclusive and there are many additional celebrations here throughout the year.

Thaipusam Penang Festival

The word Thaipusam can be broken down into 2 words. Thai which means the Tamil month of January/February and Pusam is the name of a star. Pusam is a star that reaches it’s highest point in the night sky on the day of the Thaipusam celebration. Additionally, this Penang festival is held during the full moon that occurs during the month of “Thai”.

Thaipusam is predominately celebrated by Tamil Indians in countries that have a large Tamil population. Malaysia has a large population of Tamil Indians, therefore the Penang festivals definitely include the Thaipusam celebration.

The ancient theme of the celebration was the giving of the spear “Vel” to Lord Murugan by Parvati and he then used it to vanquish the demon army of “Asuras”. Therefore, the Thaipusam celebrations in Penang, Malaysia are centered Hindu temples dedicated to Lord Murugan.

The 2017 celebration attracted over 1,000,000 visitors to the location of Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani Temple which is dedicated to Lord Murugan! The Thaipusam festival is amazing and should be included as one of the best Penang festivals to attend annually.

Penang Malaysia Thaipusam Festival

Hindu statue of Lord Murugan with his “Vel”

Chinese Spring Festivals in Penang

Also known as “Chinese New Year Celebrations“, the Spring Festival is the most significant Chinese holiday of the year.  Therefore, every year in January/February the Chinese celebrate the change from winter solstice to spring equinox. The Chinese new year falls on the new moon that begins annually between January 21 and February 20.

The Chinese Spring Festival celebrations start on the eve preceding the new moon and end on the 15th day of the following calendar month. In China it is a national holiday and it is also devoutly celebrated by other countries that have large Chinese populations. Therefore, Chinese Spring festival is one of the most spectacular Penang Festivals.

As a result, there are fireworks displays nearly every night during Chinese New Year celebrations. Additionally, there is the annual Chinese New Year Street Party event. During this event the city of Georgetown closes off a large section of the city to vehicle traffic.

Throughout this closed off area there are many stages set up for performers. There is also a large selection of Chinese food delights to indulge in. Plus, there are the stage performances featuring traditional music and dance including the dragon ance and also the lion dance.

Year of the Rooster CNY Penang Festival Celebration

Year of the Rooster 2017

Pai Ti Kong Penang Festival

The 9th day of the Chinese New Year is a very special day for the Hokkien population of George Town. As a result, this day is commonly referred to as the Hokkien New Year. Specifically, the Hokkiens are honoring the “Jade Emperor” also known as the “God of Heaven”.

The Hokkiens believe that the Jade Emperor saved their ancestors from a ruthless army in ancient China. Therefore, the Hokkiens pay tribute every year during the annual Spring Festival celebrations.

This celebration, also know as Pai Ti Kong Festival is held on the eve of the 8th day of Chinese New Year on Pengkalan Weld at Chew Jetty. This is considered to be one of the most politically important Penang festivals and every year the Chief Minister attends the celebrations. True to tradition, the Pai Ti Kong celebration in 2017 was attended by the Penang Chief Minister, Lim Guan Eng.

Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng

Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng at Chew Jetty 2017 during Pai Ti Kong Festival in Penang Malaysia.

Wesak Day Penang Festival

Wesak is a deviation from the Pali term Vesakha. Wesak Day commemorates the birthday, enlightenment and Paranirvana (death) of Gautama Buddha. Therefore, the celebration is very important to Buddhists worldwide. As a result, all nations with a sizable population of Buddhist devotees engage in the annual celebration.

Wesak Day celebrations are held every Spring although they typically are not held on the same day in every country. However, they are based on the same Theravada Buddhist traditions.

The Chinese population in Penang is mostly Buddhist and therefore Wesak Day is an important festival here. Other important symbols of Buddhist dedication include the Kek Lok Si Temple or “Temple of Supreme Bliss” in Hokkien.

Kek Lok Si is believed to be the largest Buddhist temple in all of Malaysia. There are several temples on the grounds that were built over a period of about 40 years. A popular attraction is the “Pagoda of Rama VI” also known as the “Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas”.

Kek Lok Si Temple Ayer Hitam Penang

Pagoda of Rama VI at Kek Lok Si in Penang Malaysia

Inspired By Buddha Statue Now

Wesak Day Procession Penang Festival

Wesak Day celebrations begin very early in the morning when Buddhist devotees flock to the local temples to meditate and pay tribute. Additionally, throughout the day acts of charity take place such as the distribution of free vegetarian meals and doves are also set free.

However, the celebrations don’t reach their apex until evening and the commencement of the Wesak Day Procession. The grand procession begins at the Malaysian Buddhist Association on 182 Burma Road and passes through the streets of George Town.

The procession includes beautiful floats covered with flowers, children singing, monks chanting and sprinkling holy water on devotees. This annual Wesak Day celebration has been held in George Town every year since 1949!

Eid al-Fitr Muslim Penang Festival

Eid al-Fitr is a Muslim holiday celebration that commemorates the end of the Ramadan fast. As a result, the celebration begins only after the conclusion of the month long fast of Ramadan. Similar to other Penang festivals, the day it begins can fluctuate.

The reason for the fluctuation is that observers wait until the arrival of the new moon which concludes the month of Ramadan and ushers in the new month. This is typically June/July on the western calendar. However, the arrival of the new moon must be verified by local authorities and therefore varies by locality worldwide.

In Malaysia, Eid al-Fitr is known as Hari Raya Aidilfitri. The Malay translation of Hari Raya is “celebration day”. Similar to the other Penang festivals, Hari Raya has great significance in Malaysia because it is a majority Muslim country.

Hari Raya Aidilfitri Penang Festival in Malaysia

Penang Hill Mosque “Masjid Bukit Bendera”

During Hari Raya Aidilfitri, Muslims in Malaysia greet each other commonly with “Selamat Hari Raya” which means “Happy Eid”. It is a time when workers in the city return home to the villages and visit family members. Additionally, it is common for Malaysian Muslims to wear traditional clothing for the celebration and to welcome neighbors into their homes.

Fireworks are used during the celebration however, their usage is not nearly as prolific as with the Chinese New Year Penang festivals. Traditionally, large fireworks have been manufactured out of bamboo although their usage has proved very dangerous due to the magnitude of the explosion. Therefore, authorities have banned their usage in many areas especially during early morning hours of Ramadan.

Additional resources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thaipusam
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kek_Lok_Si
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vesak
http://www.visitpenang.gov.my/portal3/penang-tourism-news/2253-wesak-day-2016.html