It is a mere A4 piece of paper, yet it encapsulates the identity of Malacca. Pinned by the entrance to the salmon-red Christ Church, the leaflet details Sunday services.
There are four across the day in this Protestant church, carried out in English, Mandarin, Bahasa Malaysia and Tamil languages.
This bastion of multiculturalism resides in an Old Town also home to Catholic chapels, mosques and temples devoted to Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism.
A former Muslim Sultanate which was conquered by the Portuguese, Dutch and British, before eventually settling as a secular Malay state, few cities in the world have a more eclectic cultural character than Malacca.
This unique tale is illuminated in the halls of its myriad religious structures. Nestled around the Malacca River, 145km south of Kuala Lumpur, the city tells visitors more about Malaysia’s history than does the capital.
Just over 600 years ago, Malacca was a small fishing village. Its transformation began about 1400 when it became one of the earliest Malay sultanates.
The Sultanate flourished by exploiting its strategic position on the Malacca Strait, which was a thoroughfare for maritime trade and a focal point of relations between the East and the West.
Soon it became a grand port and marketplace for the trade of textiles. Malacca attracted people from across Asia who settled there to capitalise on its booming commerce. Up to 80 languages are believed to have been spoken in the city at the zenith of the Sultanate’s power.
As well as being a dominant economic centre, Malacca became a hub for the teaching of Islam, which had been introduced by Gujarat traders from the west of India.
The Sultanate fostered the growth of the Malay language and culture and in doing so gave rise to the country’s political system and many of the elements of what is now considered the Malay culture.
Atop a hill above the city’s harbour are the weathered remains of a Christian church which stands as a marker of the Sultanate’s demise.
Sheltered within the walls of a fortress, St Paul’s Church was constructed by the Portuguese in 1521, a decade after they conquered Malacca and abolished the Sultanate.
In an attempt to demoralise Malacca’s Muslim population, the Portuguese razed many Islamic mosques and tombs before constructing the intimidating A Famosa fortress which housed five churches, including St Paul’s.
With its roof long gone but its thick stone walls standing firm, the church is an atmospheric highlight of Malacca’s Old Town.
Its deterioration began when the Portuguese were defeated by the Dutch in 1641 and it was transitioned from a site of worship into a burial ground by Malacca’s new masters.
At the foot of the mound on which it stands is the vibrantly coloured church the Dutch erected to mark the centenary of their conquest.
Christ Church, the oldest functioning Anglican chapel in Malaysia, has become an icon of the city, forming part of the striking block of red-brick buildings in the Old Town’s hub, Dutch Square.
While Christ Church is not as imposing or grand as many of the European churches of the era, it is an alluring representation of 18th century Dutch architecture. Fortunately, it was not destroyed by Malacca’s subsequent conquerors, the British, who were in control of the city-state by the start of the 19th century.
Despite the consecutive rules of the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, who didn’t leave until 1946, Malacca maintained its fascinating melange of ethnicities and religions.
Malay, Indian, Chinese and Muslim cultures converged with the influences of their colonial conquerors and this is reflected in the city’s heritage architecture. Nowhere is this multiculturalism more evident than in its UNESCO heritage-listed Old Town, among a tight network of back alleys collectively known as Harmony Street. This moniker is indicative of the varied religions - Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism – which seamlessly co-exist within this small area.
Here, amid gracefully decaying shophouses, is one of the oldest Muslim structures in Malaysia. The whitewashed minaret of Kampung Kling Mosque looms above this timeworn, low-rise neighbourhood. Below, visitors quietly remove their shoes before entering though the mosque’s ornate wooden doors.
Gentle light filters through stained-glass windows into the mosque which was constructed by Indian Muslim traders in 1748 and still retains elements of its original interior design.
This Islamic structure is flanked by two similarly significant temples - the Taoist place of worship, Cheng Hoon Teng, and the Hindu centre Sri Poyyatha Vinayagar Moorthi.
Walking beneath the pitched roof of Cheng Hoon Teng’s intricately designed entrance, tourists and worshippers funnel in and out of the Chinese pagoda, which is the oldest functioning temple in Malaysia.
Built soon after the Dutch took Malacca, it has been a focal point for the city’s Han Chinese population for almost 370 years.
Further underlining the remarkable history of this district, just a brief walk away is the country’s most ancient Hindu temple, Sri Poyyatha Vinayagar Moorthi.
The temple, which remains active, was constructed on land donated by the Dutch towards the end of their rule. It became a religious hub for the many Tamil people who had made Malacca their home.
Rounding out the eclectic religious centres of Harmony Street is the Chinese Buddhist temple Xiang Lin Si. On the ground floor of this two- storey building, worshippers light incense sticks while offering prayers amid the dozens of Buddhist statues which adorn the space.
Perhaps, among the thanks they give, is gratitude at living in one of the world’s most multicultural and religiously tolerant environments. Malacca has undergone many upheavals and been influenced by countless cultures. The results are enchanting.
The grand Malacca Straits Mosque was built in 2006 on a manmade island connected by bridge to the coastline of the city. Built out over the ocean, it cuts a spectacular figure at sunrise and sunset.
Malacca’s Chinese quarter in the Old Town – highlighted by the famous Jonker Street – is always lively and is ablaze with colour and festivities during Chinese New Year celebrations.
Malacca has an international airport but travellers looking to reach it from Kuala Lumpur can catch a bus from several different stations throughout the city. The trip varies from two to three hours depending on which station you choose.
Published under license from Well Travelled