The Kuan Kung temple is gleaming red when I reach it. It’s barely an hour past noon and ironically enough, the deep red and gold inside offers respite from the burning sun outside. The temple has just been washed, as it is every Sunday morning, and an added shine comes from the fresh lick of paint it was given over the Chinese New Year in February. I first visited the temple a year ago — in the short window after the first lockdown ended in Mumbai, and before the second wave hit. It was my one ‘touristy’ excursion of the year. But the temple stayed with me, and this year, when Google Photos churned up the Memories, I decided to pay the temple another visit.
Located in a quiet, serene street at Dockyard in Mazgaon, near the eastern coast of Mumbai, the temple is set in an old two-storeyed structure that’s wedged between newer buildings. It has architectural elements seen across the Mazgaon chawl that it’s part of — a long balcony on each floor connects the rooms, a wooden staircase occupies a corner, and common bathroom spaces are on the ground and second floor. The temple gets its name from the shrine on the second floor, dedicated to the Taoist and Buddhist war god, Kuan Kung.
When I visit, I meet the caretaker, Kongchok Yangchen, who has been a regular at the temple ever since she converted to Buddhism (and changed her name). She’s a devout follower of the Taoist Buddhist goddess Guan Yin, and took up the responsibility of caring for the temple after its previous caretaker moved away. She tells me about how this temple came to be and how it’s changed over the years.
The temple was built over a century ago by what was once a bustling Chinese community that lived around this neighbourhood, most of whom were employed at the nearby dockyard. For a long time, the temple only comprised the second-floor shrine, and the lower floors housed Chinese-Indian families. However, some years ago, the temple’s then caretaker, Albert Tham, decided to convert the ground floor into a shrine for the goddess Guan Yin. The two shrines are markedly different: while Kuan Kung’s shrine on the second floor is airy and large, with everything — from the chairs to the high slanted roof — painted red and flecked with gold, Guan Yin’s shrine is more intimate, with intricate murals in sky blue complementing the red walls.
Tham and his family cared for the temple until last year, Yangchen tells me. “Mr Tham comes from a carpentry family,” she says. “His family were among the Chinese immigrants who worked in the dockyard before the Sino-Indian war in 1962, after which there was an exodus of the migrants. He built the shrine for Guan Yin himself, and painted the ceilings and walls with these murals.” This shrine, she says, is a place for reflection and meditation for anyone seeking it. The first floor continues to house a family who looks after the temple on weekdays.
Today, very few Mumbaikars of Chinese origin frequent the temple regularly, with most only congregating here during the Chinese New Year. Interestingly, and perhaps in true Mumbai fashion, the temple holds a mix of Taoist, Buddhist and Hindu elements. A fake marigold garland adorns Guan Yin’s statue, a Buddhist chant is painted on the walls in Chinese, Hindi and English, the Hindu ‘laxmi charan paduka’ motif symbolising prosperity can be spotted over the temple’s doorways, and in keeping with Taoist rituals, a wall on the second floor sports fortune-telling bills and a vessel to burn fake currency to appease the gods.
Until last year, the building was a shy, fading peach, and the existence of the temple was announced only by a pair of red swinging doors, flanked by tall potted plants at the entrance. Since then, it has graduated to a royal red, green and gold exterior and appears to tower over its neighbours. This renovation comes courtesy Vishal Bhardwaj, the Bollywood film director and producer, who shot a film here last December — Mumbai Dragon in the recent Modern Love: Mumbai TV series — and designed a facade to resemble a typical Chinese temple. The building now has a grand face with gold lattices, distinctively Chinese eaves that are curved at the edges, and the temple’s name carved in large, gold Chinese letters.
The tiny temple community has decided to retain this facade for as long as it survives, in the hope that it might give the temple more visibility and attract more people. (The temple is open to visitors every Sunday, 12:30pm to 3pm.) “While some people come here as tourists, look around and leave, some find something more and keep coming back,” says Yangchen. The temple community is clearly growing, and is no longer restricted to the Chinese-Indian community — anyone looking for a space of refuge and meditation, or just fistfuls of the orange candy given out as prasad is welcome here.
Find your way to the Kuan Kung Temple in Mazgaon, Mumbai via Google Maps here.
Jessica Jani is a multimedia journalist based in Mumbai, reporting on city culture, architecture and urban planning. She was formerly a part of the editorial team at Paper Planes. She’s on Instagram at @jessicajani_.
Aparna Bhardwaj, based in Mumbai, works in production and is also a photography enthusiast. She loves to capture architecture and colours around her. She is on Instagram at @_.aparnabhardwaj._.