Indians in Malaysia
I have lived in Malaysia for over 20 years. During this time, I have developed a great appreciation for the cultures and customs that exist in Malaysia, which have inspired me to write more about the rich cultures of this nation.
Indian people have been migrating to this region even before the British colonised it, expanding their trading network, spreading their influence, and promoting their beliefs. After the British began their colonisation, they encouraged Indians to migrate to British Malaya, or what is known as present-day Malaysia and Singapore, to work in various sectors such as the police force, government administrative work or as labourers in plantations. During and after World War II (1936 – 1945), the Indian population in Malaysia started to decrease, as many Indians went to serve in the Indian National Army, and many British institutions began to leave British Malaya.
Today, we can see Indian influence in various aspects of Malaysia’s culture, such as in the Malay language, Malay cuisine, and Malay folklore. This article covers the history of Indians in Malaysia, their unique festivals, notable Indian personalities in Malaysia, and Indian influence on Malaysian cultures.
Indian Migration to Malaysia
Pre-British Colonial Rule
Prior to the arrival of the British Colonies, Indians had travelled to the Malay Peninsula (what is known now as West Malaysia) to trade, spread their religion, and expand their territory and influence. Indian influence can be seen in the ancient kingdoms such as Old Kedah, which was predominantly Hindu before becoming a Muslim sultanate. Kedah was often referred to as Kadaram at that time, and the state maintained long, fruitful relationships with several powerful Tamil kingdoms, such as the Pallava Dynasty (4th – 9th century CE) and the Chola Dynasty (9th – 13th century CE).
In 1025, Emperor Rajendra Chola I (r. 1014 – 1044 CE) led his troops to attack the Srivijaya Kingdom and other locations around present day Malaysia and Indonesia to weaken the region. As a result of this invasion, Tamil traders gained more access to nations in South East Asia, including Malaysia. The Chola Empire had large ships that travel to the present-day Ganges, Malaysia, and Sumatera, which helped facilitate the mobilisation of Indian traders and missionaries to these regions. Today, evidence of interactions between the people of Old Kedah and India can still be seen. In present day Tanjore, now a part of South India but formerly a territory of the Chola Empire, there is a village called Kadaram Kodan. In that village, there is an orange species, kadarangkay or kadaram-pulp that was originally brought from Malaysia.
During British Colonial Rule
In the 18th century, the British took control of the Malay Peninsula, and referred to the present-day Malaysia and Singapore as British Malaya. The British encouraged the migration of Indian labourers to British Malaya due to their general understanding of the English language, and they were employed as labourers, policemen, traders, government administrative officials, and soldiers. The Indians who migrated to British Malaya during this period were mostly men who left their families back in India. Therefore, the Indian population often fluctuated as the men came to British Malaya to work, and then left to visit their families or return home.
At the start of the 20th century, there were approximately 120,000 Indians living in British Malaya. That number increased by more than 433% in the span of 30 years, with around 640,000 Indians residing in the region by 1931. During World War II, the Indian population growth rate decreased considerably, as many of them had to serve in the army. From 1931 to 1957, the Indian population in Malaysia grew by only 28% to approximately 820,000 people.
After the unsuccessful attempt to set up the Malayan Union between 1946 and 1948, the British Administrators established the Federation of Malaya in 1948, which acknowledged the symbolic status of the Malay rulers. On 31 August 1957, the Federation of Malaya declared its independence from the British Empire, which marked the end of the British colonial rule. After the Federation of Malaya declared its independence, and the British administration and institutions left the country, the Indian population in the region decreased even further.
On 16 September 1963, the Federation of Malaysia, henceforth simply known as Malaysia, was established. Its members included the former members of the Federation of Malaya and three new members: Singapore, North Borneo, and Sarawak. Singapore exited the Federation two years later.
Post-British Colonial Rule
Today, there is still an influx of Indian migration to Malaysia. They consist of white-collar professionals, blue-collar workers who work in Indian restaurants, and foreign spouses who are married to Malaysian Indians.
The estimated total Malaysian population as per July 2016 is 30,949,962 people. Amongst this, Indian ethnic groups accounted for 6.7% of the whole population, or approximately two million people. 90% of Malaysian Indians are of the Tamil ethnic group. The remaining 10% consists of Telugu, Malayalee, Punjabi, Gujarati, and Sindhi ethnic groups. The Indian community in Malaysia speak several dialects depending on their ethnicities, such as Tamil, Telugu, Malay, Hindi, and Punjabi.
Pre-colonial and colonial Indian settlers in Malaysia were predominantly Buddhist or Hindu. However, today due to the assimilation with other ethnicities, some Indians have embraced other beliefs, such as Islam and Christianity.
Indian Influence in Local Malaysian Culture
Several of the local Malay folklores are heavily influenced by Indian mythologies, such as Mahabharata and Ramayana. The oldest of these tales were originally written in Indian languages such as Sanskrit and Pallava, such as:
- Hikayat Seri Rama – an adaptation of the Indian mythology of Ramayana, with slight modifications in the characters’ circumstances and personalities.
- Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa also known as The Kedah Annals – a piece of Tamil literature that tells a story of a Tamil Prince and his relationship with the state of Kedah. The tale also describes how the traders from the Chola Empire came and their transactions in Kedah.
- Hikayat Panca Tanderan – adapted from Panchatantra, a collection of animal fables from India.
- Hikayat Bayan Budiman – adapted from Sukasaptati, an Indian literary work where a parrot tells a story to her mistress to prevent her from going the wrong way.
Indian influence is also apparent in the Malay language, as some Malay words are derived from languages such as Hindi, Sanskrit and Tamil:
Several Malaysian words which we originated from Indian vocabularies:
|Malay Words||English Translation||Original Words||Original Language|
Festivals Associated with Malaysian Indians
Thaipusam – Festival of the God of War
Thaipusam is the festival to honour the god of war, Lord Murugan, also known as the son of Parvati and Lord Shiva. The festival is celebrated during the full moon in the month of Thai on the Tamil calendar (between January and February). On the eve of Thaipusam, the devotees of Lord Murugan perform Kavadi Attam, or the Burden Dance, where the devotees show their gratitude to Lord Murugan through acts of penance. The devotees often carry pots that contain milk as offerings to Lord Murugan, and they may also pierce their body parts. It is not unusual to see Lord Murugan’s followers in a deep trance throughout the festival.
Thaipusam is celebrated in many Hindu temples in Malaysia, but the biggest events are usually held in the Sri Subramaniar Swamy Temple in Batu Caves.
Deepavali – Festival of Lights
Deepavali or Diwali is the Festival of Lights that is celebrated annually on the 15th day of the month of Kartika on the Hindu calendar (between October and November). This festival is to honour the Goddess Laksmi, who is believed to be the deity that bestows wealth, fortune, and prosperity. Before the festival, Lakshmi’s devotees clean their homes to prepare for her arrival. Many shops and stalls, such as those in Little India, Brickfields, sell Indian ornaments for home decoration. In addition, visitors can find many beautiful Indian traditional clothes and jewellery. On the eve of Deepavali, the devotees pray to the Goddess either at home or in the temples. Then, they gather with their relatives for a feast, and light oil-filled clay lamps, which is a symbol of good triumphing over evil.
Vishu is the new year of Malayalee ethnic group. It is celebrated on the first day of the month of Medam on the Malayalee calendar (around the second week of April). For the Malayalee, Vishu is the most auspicious occasion to pray and make offerings to Hindu holy deities. During this happy occasion, it is common for Malayalee elders to give kaineetam or money offerings to the younger generation.
Onam is a Malayalee harvest festival that is celebrated in the month of Chingam on the Malayalam calendar (between August and September). Onam is a harvest festival that celebrates the end of the rice planting season, and the return of King Mahabali, the benevolent demon king, from the underworld.
Ugadi is the New Year celebration for Telugu ethnic group. It is celebrated in the month of Chaitra on the Panchanga Indian calendar (between March and April). Before the eve of Ugadi, the Telugu clean their homes, purchase new clothes, and decorate their homes with mango leaves and colourful rangoli, floor patterns made from coloured rice, flour, sand, and petals. On the eve of Ugadi, the eldest person in the household leads the family in a prayer ceremony to the Hindu deities, asking for blessings, good health, wealth, and happiness in the coming year.
Notable places associated with Indians in Malaysia
The following are two known places that represent Indian culture in Malaysia.
Little India, Brickfields
Little India is located within walking distance from the KL Sentral Station in Brickfields. The Malaysian government transformed a residential area in Brickfields into a hub for the Indian community and businesses, and thus the place was known as Little India. In October 2010, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Malaysian Prime Minister Mohammed Najib Tun Abdul Razak officially inaugurated Little India in Brickfields.
Today, Little India in Brickfields spans from Jalan Travers to Jalan Tun Sambathan. There are many vendors that sell Indian food, ornaments, accessories, jewelleries, garments, and ingredients. Little India is a lively area, with many vendors open till late at night. However, finding a parking can be challenging, so visitors can choose to take the train, get off at KL Sentral Station and walk to Little India.
Visiting Little India, Brickfields
There are many transportation options to go to Little India, Brickfields:
- Monorail – Visitors can take the KL Monorail and get off at the Tun Sambanthan station
- Light Rapid Transit (LRT) – Visitors can board an LRT on the Kelana Jaya Line and get off at the KL Sentral station.
- Train – Visitors can take the KTM Komuter Line or Express Rail Link (ERL) and get off at the KL Sentral station.
- Bus – Visitors can choose to take any RapidKL buses that go through Brickfields. Visit the RapidKL site for more information at http://www.myrapid.com.my/
Should you prefer to stay around Little India in Brickfields, the following are available accommodations in the area (please do further research to find the most suitable accommodations for your needs):
- OYO Rooms Brickfields Little India
My Signature Hotel Little India
130 Jalan Thamby Abdullah
Kuala-Lumpur, KL Sentral, 50470
Wilayah Persekutuan Kuala Lumpur
- Aloft Kuala Lumpur Sentral Hotel
No. 5 Jalan Stesen Sentral 5,
Kuala Lumpur Sentral
50470 Kuala Lumpur
Phone: +60 3-2723 1188
Batu Caves, also known as the Rock Caves in English, is a Hindu temple in Selangor located 13 kilometres away from downtown Kuala Lumpur. The temple was built to honour Lord Murugan, the god of war. Batu Caves attracts millions of devotees and tourists every year, as it is the main site for the Thaipusam Festival. Visitors can receive blessings from the Hindu priests in the temple.
The name of the cave was inspired from the Sungai Batu, a river that passes through a limestone hill and three major caves around the location. There are three other major caves in the area: Temple Cave or Cathedral Cave, Cave Villa, Ramayana Cave.
Sri Subramaniar Swamy Temple
Phone: +603 6189 6284
Fax: +603 6187 2404
Temple Cave or Cathedral Cave
Temple Cave is the largest cave in the area and especially dedicated to Lord Murugan. On the outside of the cave, visitors can see the world’s tallest image of Lord Murugan, a 42-metre tall, majestic, golden statue. To reach the Temple Cave, visitors must climb 272 steps from the foothill. There is no fee charged to enter Temple Cave, but if they want to, visitors can make voluntary donations.
Cave Villa is located at the foot of Batu Caves and it contains in an art gallery and a museum that display images and statues of various Hindu deities. To enter Cave Villa, international visitors should pay RM15 per person, while Malaysian residents can pay RM7 per person.
Ramayana Cave is located to the left of the limestone hill. On the way to Ramayana Cave, visitors will see a 15-metre tall green statue of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god from the Ramayana mythology. The statue was possibly built on that location because of the many monkeys residing in Batu Caves.
In addition to the statue of Hanuman, visitors will get to see a temple dedicated to Lord Rama, the seventh avatar of Vishnu. The wall inside the Ramayana Cave is filled with the drawings that depict the story of Ramayana. To enter Ramayana Cave, visitors must pay RM5 per person.
Visiting Batu Caves
Batu Caves is located around 13 kilometres north of Kuala Lumpur’s city centre. During the Thaipusam festival, a special bus service will be available from KL Sentral Station to Batu Caves to transport devotees and visitors. Visitors can also choose to use taxi services. Another option is to use the KTM Komuter line (Batu Caves – Seremban route) or, if visitors are travelling from Kuala Lumpur City, they can choose to take the KTM Komuter line from KL Sentral to Batu Caves, which cost RM2 each way.
Indian Cuisine in Malaysia
Indian influence can also be seen in Malaysia’s cuisine. Since 90% of Indians in Malaysia are of Tamil ethnicity, some Malaysian cuisines have been influenced by South Indian cuisine, and have created what is now called Mamak cuisine.
Generally, Malaysian Indian dishes contain curry leaves, spices such as cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, and fresh coconuts. Some examples of Malaysian Indian cuisine include accar, appam, avail, banana leaf rice, briyani rice, roti canai, chapatti, and many more.
If you prefer to have authentic Indian food, there are several Indian restaurants in Malaysia that you can try:
- Spice of India
Level 4 Suria KLCC, Suria KLCC
50088 Kuala Lumpur
Phone: +60 3-2164 9221
9B-2, Jalan Kemajuan
Phone:+60 3-7931 3106
- Namaste Indian Restaurant
4, Jalan Datuk Sulaiman
Taman Tun Dr Ismail
60000 Kuala Lumpur
Phone:+60 3-7724 1195
- Sagar Restaurant Sdn. Bhd.
4, Lorong Maarof, Bangsar
59000 Kuala Lumpur
Phone:+60 3-2284 2532
Hours: 12–3PM, 6–10:30PM
Prominent Personalities of Indian heritage
Throughout their long history, Indians have played major roles and contribute to the betterment of Malaysia. The followings are selected well-known personalities of Indian heritage.
Tun Fatimah was the only surviving daughter of Tun Mutahir of Malacca. She was married to a man named Tun Ali before becoming the third wife of Sultan Mahmud Shah, after he killed all her family members. She had miscarried many times during the first several years of her marriage to Sultan Mahmud Shah due to her grief. The Sultan then promised her that should she bear a male heir, her son would be the heir presumptive to the throne. After that, Tun Fatimah managed to give birth to two sons and two daughters.
Tun Fatimah was a popular and charismatic queen consort. During her tenure, she made sure to punish everyone who was involved in murdering her family members, except for her husband. After Malacca was invaded by Portugal, two of her sons moved on and established their own sultanates. Her first son, Raja Raden Ali established the Perak Sultanate and her second son, Sultan Alauddin Riayat Shah II established the Johor Sultanate.
Tun Ali of Malacca (in office: 1445-1456)
Sri Nara Diraja Tun Ali was the fourth Prime Minister of the Malaccan Sultanate who was of Tamil ethnicity. He was such a powerful personality in within the Malaccan Sultanate that after the death of his master, Raja Sri Parameswara Dewa Shah, also known as Sultan Abu Syahid Shah (r. 1444 – 1446), he enthroned his nephew, Raja Kassim as the new sultan of Malacca and bestowed him the title of Sultan Muzaffar Shah (r. 1445 – 1459).
Tun Mutahir of Malacca (in office: 1500-1510)
Tun Mutahir was the seventh Prime Minister of the Malaccan Sultanate. He was of Tamil descent and a Muslim leader. During his tenure, he installed many Muslim officials, who happened to be his relatives, in key government positions. This practice of nepotism provoked opposition from Raja Mudaliar, the then leader of the Port of Malacca, who accused Tun Mutahir of plotting to take the throne. Upon hearing this news, the ruler of the time, Sultan Mahmud Shah ordered that all family members of Tun Mutahir be killed, except for one person, Tun Fatimah, whom the sultan opted to marry.
Tan Sri Anthony Francis Fernandez, known better as Tony Fernandez, was born on 30 April 1964 in Kuala Lumpur to an Indian family. He famously saved AirAsia, a former government affiliated airline, from the verge of bankruptcy, and turned it into one of the most lucrative low-cost airlines in the world. In addition to AirAsia, he is the founder and shareholder of the Tune Hotels chain of budget hotels, as well as the Caterham F1 Formula One team.
Tatparanandam Ananda Krishnan was born on 1 April 1938 to a Tamil family descended from Sri Lanka. After obtaining an undergraduate degree from the University of Melbourne and a master’s degree from Harvard University, he went on to own many companies in various industries such as Astro and Johnston Press PLC media services, the MEASAT and SES satellites, oil and gas companies Bumi Armada and Pexco, and telecommunications companies such as Maxis, Aircel, Axis, Sri Lanka Telecom. The 2016 Forbes Magazine named him the 158th richest person in the world, and the 2nd richest person in Malaysia.
Arts and Entertainment
V. Nagaraj is a notable movie producer and director in Malaysia, born on 20 November 1962 to a Tamil family. He has been working in the Malaysian entertainment industry for over 30 years and directed many Malay movies such as, Gila-Gila Remaja, Mati Hidup Semula, Sepi Itu Indah, Keluarga 99, and many more. V. Nagaraj won the Best Promising Director award for his movie, Ghazal Untuk Rabiah, and he also won the Best Director award in the Malaysian Indian Film Festival in Chennai.
Activists and social workers
Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan is a Malaysian lawyer and a human rights activist, born in 1956 to an Indian family. Dato’ Ambiga is the member of Women’s Aid Organisation Executive Committee, and the Director of the Securities Industry Dispute Resolution Centre. She was previously the 24th Malaysian Bar Council President from 2007 to 2009.
Tun Dato’ Seri Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad (1925)
Tun Dato’ Seri Dr Mahathir was the fourth Prime Minister of Malaysia (1981 – 2003), and currently serves as Chairman of Malaysian United Indigenous Party. Born on 10 July 1925 to a family of Indian descent in Kedah, his father was a school principal who inspired Mahathir to work hard in school.
Tun Dato’ Mahathir is one of the most prominent figures in Malaysian politics, and has held many key positions, such as member of Dewan Rakyat (1964 – 1969), member of Dewan Negara (1972 – 1974), 21st Secretary General of Non-Aligned Movement, Minister of Education (1974 – 1977), Minister of Trade and Industry (1978 – 1981), Minister of Defence (1981 – 1986), Minister of Home Affairs (1986 – 1999), Minister of Finance (2001 – 2003), fourth Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia (1976 – 1981), and as the fourth Prime Minister of Malaysia (1981 – 2003).
Devan Nair Chengara Veetil (1923 – 2005)
Commonly known as C.V. Devan Nair, was the third President of Singapore. He was born on 5 August 1923 in Malacca to a family who came from Kerala, India. When he was ten years old, his family migrated to Singapore. In 1954, C.V. Devan Nair entered the People’s Action Party (PAP) founded by Lee Kuan Yew, who later became Singapore’s Prime Minister from 1959 to 1990. From there, he became a notable figure in Malaysian and Singapore politics. During his lifetime, he held many important positions, such as the Secretary General of the Democratic Action Party in Malaysia (1965 – 1967), the Secretary General of the Malaysian People’s Action Party in Malaysia (1965), member of the Malaysian Parliament for Bungsar, Selangor (1964 – 1969), member of the Singapore Parliament for Anson (1979 – 1981), and finally, the third President of Singapore from 1981 to 1985.
V.T. Sambanthan (1919 – 1979)
Tun Thirunyanasambanthan s/o Veerasamy, also known as T. Sampatang, was born in 1919 in Sungai Siput, Perak. He was the fifth President of the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) from 1955 to 1973 and one of the leaders who played an important role in the Malaysian independence movement. V.T. Sambanthan was considered as the founding fathers of Malaysia together with Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tan Cheng Lock.
Sources of information
For more interesting information:
- Emperor Ashoka the Great
- Nice Indian Food
- Diwali Celebrations in India
- Thaipusam – The Festival of Lord Murugan
- 10 of the world’s best meditation retreats in India
- Jiddu Krishnamurti – The Freedom Fighter
- The Unwanted Widows of India
- Courtesans of Ancient India
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