Malaysian Indians make up 8 per cent of the total population of Malaysia (21 million) – over one and a half million Indians whose ancestors originated from the different parts of the Indian Subcontinent. Most arrived around the turn of the century. Trading contact with India however began as early as the first century BC. Hindu and Buddhist elements also made their impact felt – evidence of these can be seen at temple sites at Lcmbah Bujang and Kuala Merbok in Kedah. Around the fifteenth century, Indian traders brought Islam to the Peninsula. But it was really only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that Indian immigrants arrived en masse to work in the thriving coffee and rubber estates in what was then Malaya. They were mainly Tamils from Tamil Nadu, in South India.
Subsequently, Indians from Kerala, Gujarat, Bengal and the Punjab arrived in substantial numbers. Sikhs from Punjab were recruited for police and military service in Malaya. Others arrived to fill professional, commercial and skilled labour positions. Many came from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and Pakistan. In recent times, large numbers of Bangladeshis have found work here. And so it’s not “Indian” that is the language spoken in Malaysia but the main Indian dialects – Tamil, Hindi, Malayalam, Punjabi and Telcgu.
When they arrived they brought their customs, cuisine and culture to blend with the cosmopolitan melting pot of Malaysia. The colour and diversity of Indian culture is still strong. Classical Indian dance is carefully preserved and practised at many schools, the foremost surely, the Temple of Fine Arts. Unfortunately traditional Indian clothes are seen less and less – the saree more evident at important social functions and less as everyday wear. Occasionally Indian men are seen in kurta (thin white cotton shirt) and dhoti (short white sarong).
Indian cuisine is enjoyed by all – Malaysians and non-Malaysians. Restaurants serve either Southern Indian (which is spicier) or Northern Indian (which is richer and more meaty) food. Banana leaf restaurants abound – where mainly Southern Indian food is served on banana leaves. The assimilation into Malaysian eating tastes has also led to the addition of certain dishes that are more Malay or Chinese influenced.
There are several colourful Indian festivals. The main Hindu festival that is celebrated is Deepavali, around the months of October/November. Otherwise known as the “festival of lights”, it commemorates the triumph of good over evil and is symbolised by the lighting of oil lamps to dispell the spiritual darkness. To mark a new beginning, devotees rise at dawn to have a herbal oil bath. For all it is a time for new clothes, lots of food and fun.
Thaipusam is a festival from Tamil Nadu associated with penance and atonement. Celebrations are carried out at important temples in Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and Penang around January/February. From Sri Mahamariamman Temple in Kuala Lumpur, devotees follow a silver chariot carrying the statue of Lord Muruga which wends its way through Kuala Lumpur to arrive at Batu Caves, just outside the city.
To the uninitiated, Thaipusam is a stunning, totally unexpected assault on the senses – hair-raising sights of human bodies covered in hooks which anchor huge kavadis (ritualistic yokes) balanced on heads and checks pierced with small spears, tongues with arrows. The most elaborate kavadi can sometimes weigh as much as 80 pounds, a platform ornately decorated with peacock feathers, Christmas decorations, even plastic dolls!
Thai Ponggal is a harvest festival, celebrated on January 14th amongst Tamils.
There are two Sikh festivals, the birthday of Guru Nanak, the religion’s founder on 22 December and Vesaklii, the Sikh New Year which falls on April 13.