Kapitan Keling Mosque is arguably the most popular mosque in Penang. It stands on the corner of Buckingham Street and what used to be Pitt Street but was renamed Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling after the iconic mosque. It is also the largest among the historic mosques in Georgetown.
The name “Kapitan Keling” pertains to a real person who bore the title Kapitan Keling. He was Caudeer Mohudeen, an Indian Muslim merchant and the captain of a South Indian Muslim community that was credited to have built this majestic mosque in the 1800s. He brought in workers and stones all the way from India to complete the mosque. “Kapitan Keling” literally means “headman” or “leader” of an Indian group. “Keling” was derived from “keling-na”, which was a term used by a local Hokkien community to refer to Indian people in general. “Kapitan” is quite clearly a corrupted translation of “captain”. During those times, the leaders of Chinese communities were called Kapitan China.
Kapitan Keling himself was the mosque’s first superintendent. The place of worship was then much simpler. It used to be a single-storey rectangular structure with a sloping roof and stone benches all around. Also, there used to be surrounding shophouses that had access to the mosque through a narrow gateway.
In November 1801, Sir George Leith, then Lieutenant Governor of Penang, granted an 18-acre wide land to the Indian Muslim community and on which the mosque, then pertained to as “Mohammedan Church forever” would be constructed. After Kapitan died in 1834, however, the city of Georgetown developed rather very quickly and so the city government needed to buy back portions of the land from the mosque. Subsequently, the social amenities for Penang were built on these reclaimed portions of land.
Through the years, the land originally belonging to the mosque further shrank in size. Due to encroachment and poor management, the 18-acre wide mosque area was reduced to only 8 acres by 1903. Private homes were built only a few feet to the actual mosque.
In 1905, local government set up the Mohammedan and Hindu Endowment Board, and finally the mosque and its land got the attention and protection it deserved. In 1910, the mosque got its first renovation. It was given a major facelift following the style of British Moghul Revival. Mughal domes and turrets, a large minaret, and an Islamic school (“madrasah”) were built and completed around 1916.
The mosque received a second renovation in 1930. The management decided to give it a new look since the old design was deemed impractical. They decided not to rebuild the mosque but to simply enlarge it. Major reconstructions were done. The central prayer room doubled in height, ventilation system was improved, and more natural light was allowed to enter. The ceiling was raised and white marble floorings were laid. Horseshoe arches with King Edward’s plaques were placed to decorate the interior aisles. The exterior was painted ochre yellow, while the façade were decorated with geometric designs. Human and animal figures are prohibited in mosques. The interior also bore geometric designs. The 1930 renovation resulted to pretty much what the temples looks like today.
In 2003, Kapitan Keling Mosque was refurnished. The drainage system was improved, Calligraphy was added to the interior of the main dome and walls, and a walkway and women’s ablution area were built, as well as an Islamic Information Center. Muslims come here to pray five times a day. It is open to visitors every day for free, as long as tourists are dressed properly.