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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Melaka (Malaysia) 4 (Concluding)

Authored by
PN Sampath Kumar,
Cochin Shipyard, Kochi

The rule by the English East India Company, Calcutta, attracted Indians to Melaka and other parts of Malaysia to be employed in Plantations and Tin Mining and also to work in the Harbour. They reached Melaka and other parts of Malaysia through the Madras-Penang route. Their second and third generations are the people having Indian connections and still maintaining their contacts with India and are owning number of trading establishments and restaurants.

The Migrants of Parameswara era / or even prior to that were seafaring traders who controlled the Trade / banking in Melaka are limited in number and have no connection with India except their religion, i.e. Hinduism. They are the Melaka Chetties.

It is said that these Chetties who were controlling the trade along with the Chinese, supported the Portuguese in their war against the Sultanate. It would have been a retaliation against the possible attempts of Sultans to control the community including religious conversion.

The biggest beneficiary of the Portughese invasion was the trading community, the Chetties of Melaka and it would have been the golden period for them. It is astonishing that the Portuguese, who were notorious for religious conversions, spared the Chetties. But this supremacy was short lived. History has its funny ways of keeping the checks and balances. When the Dutch attacked the Portuguese to take control of the port, the first thing that they did was to demolish whatever the Portuguese had created including the business controlled by the Chetties. The Chetties had to abandon their profession and shift their base to other territories to engage themselves in Agriculture in the fertile lands of Melaka to cultivate rice, groundnut and sugarcane. It was during this period, they built innumerable temples to protect them as part of their agrarian culture.

The next day, after finishing our rounds in the temple circuit, and the Sai Baba Temple, we proceed on foot to the Chetty Street, in the outskirts of the city. We continued walking and decided to take a public transport en route, but unluckily, the views on both sides of the road prevented us from taking one. Roadside eateries are aplenty. We bought three polythene cover full of sugarcane juice from a lady extracting and selling sugar cane, opposite to a recent Chinese temple paying one ringit (about Rs.18) each. Further down, we misunderstood one huge Hindu temple dedicated to Kartikeya and Shiva to be the Chetty area. There was some meeting going on to sort out issues of parking space in the temple premises. Speaking in Tamil, they were complaining of non cooperation of members and their lack of interest even in attending meetings. After offering our prayers, we proceeded further.

At Gaja Street (Gaja = elephant) again a small temple welcomed us at the entrance. You have temples on both ends of the Tamil Streets. The street resembled some old Tamil Agraharams in Palakkad. The only difference is that they are all independent houses having sufficient space on all sides.

All houses are neatly maintained and roadsides are cleanly with flowering plants and flower pots.

Walking through the road, out of curiosity, we just knocked at the gate of one of the identical houses. A youngster came out to enquire what we wanted. When I told him that we were from India and had come to know about their culture, he welcomed us inside. I did not know how to begin and what to speak. There is a sit out, an elevated platform for the men at home and guests to sit and chat, typical of the Tamil Nadu houses. Sitting their I introduced me and my family to him. The youngster apologising for his inability to speak in Tamil, introduced himself to be Mr Jagan, a college student. While generally explaining to me about the Malayan architecture and he mentioned about the elevated platform on which we sat to be the THINNAI ( a tamil word)

By the time, his aunts, Janaki and Meenakshi, came out and took us inside. Other members of the house who then had gone out were Jagan’s parents and one sister, who is in law school.

Mr Pillai’s mother is of Srilankan origin. The grandparents at the maternal side are originally from Jaffna.

Inside the house, the furniture and interior resembled a decent old Tamilnadu house. They have preserved passionately items used by their predecessors and also collected from neighbourhood, big utensils made of bell metal and brass, idli makers, coffee filters, appakkarais to make pancakes, etc, to name a few.

Meenakshi took us even to the kitchen where we found a big fish is getting cooked in a Chenna Chatti (Chinese Frying Pan) by her elder sister Janaki. On enquiry about their food habits, suddenly came the invitation for lunch but we declined with due respect for being vegetarians. They cook Malay food - Rice, vegetables curry and fish are commonly liked food items. There was a time when the Chetties could not bring in brides from India due to ban on their travel of women to cross the seas. It was then these men were allowed to adopt Malayan women in to their community in marriage and caused the changed food habits.

Friday is the temple day for them and they don’t eat non vegetarian food on that day.

While chatting, having fruit juices and cut fruits, the father of Jagan, Mr Pillai, who had gone out came home with his Chinese wife and daughter. According to him, Melaka Chetties consists of not only Chetty community in Tamilnadu but also other castes like Pillais, Mudaliyars, Pandaram, etc, to name a few. After the fall of Melaka, many of them migrated to Penang and Singapore and gather together during festivals like Pongal, etc.

They cant speak Tamil, they shifted their food habits but are still maintaining their religion, Hinduism and Hindu names to their children.

They are patronising number of temples in Melaka. There are a dozen temples dedicated to different deities in Melaka.

The Poyyatha Vinayaka Temple, oldest Hindu Temple in Malay peninsula is the presiding deity of the Melaka Chetties.

It was time to leave. We walked to the end of the street to survey the temple at the other end (which was closed as it was noon) marking the border. While coming back we found Meenakshi at their gate with packet full of fruits as a gift to us as they could not feed us properly as per our choice. We were overwhelmed and had no words to express.

Now we have one more family friend outside India.

The Melakan authorities have done a wonderful job in conserving their heritage. They have shown passion towards their culture and heritage and are able to project it with glory and pride to the tourists. They have succeeded in conserving the sites and also ensuring that the city succeeds in its role as a living city for residents and business.

All the modern day constructions are along the coast of the Melaka Straits, consisting of major hotels, shopping malls and residential buildings. There are options like hop-on-off bus service throughout the city, duck bus, which travels on both road and water and of course the famous colourfully decorated cycle rickshaws. We tried the hop-on-off bus once to have an understanding of he length and breadth of Melaka.

There are a few very good shopping malls in Melaka selling all sorts of domestic products. We tried in a couple of malls so as to have a feel of it.

At last it was the turn to try some authentic Malay food. We found one vegetarian Chinese restaurant (meant for the monks and vegans) where we tried a Malay combo food having some rice, spicy chutney made of tamarind, ginger & mint and a portion of fried potato and beans. It was not that great but was tasty and did not damage our digestive system.

And it was time to check out. We thanked our friend Chua, our Host in Melaka and proceed to the bus station by noon to catch a bus to Singapore with fond memories of the land and people.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Melaka (Malaysia) 3

Continued from previous Post
Authored by: 
PN Sampath Kumar,
Cochin Shipyard,

The best way to feel  Melaka is to undertake a river cruise. We reached the river mouth near the sea which is the point of embarkation. We set go our journey at around 6 PM. It is a ten kilometres to and fro ride in the same river taking about 1 hour. The buildings on both sides of the river are facing the river, some of them have been modified into restaurants with a touch of heritage in it, eying the tourists. The buildings are well lit and painted artistically, without losing the ethnicity. It is the reply of the east to the great boat cruises of Venice.

Melaka attains her full charm in the evenings and night. Well lit, with shops and restaurants open with fragrance of spices cooked, in the air, Melaka welcomes her guests till midnight.

On the other side of the river, Jonker Walk is a much sought after activity among the tourists. It is the weekend evening market. Spices, Chinese medicines, Chinese Tea, Malaysian Coffee, Malay food, Chinese food, handicrafts, furniture, fruits, flowers….everything. They say that the market place is the reflection of the culture of the land and one should visit the market atlest if nothing else is possible. We tried some street food and bought few souvenirs.

Melaka in daylight has its charm too, if you are ready to walk through the pricking heat. Melaka has no specific season. It rains whenever it felt like. But it did not rain all the three days when we were there.

After a quick breakfast, we were ready wearing shorts and T-shirts to explore the other side of the river Melaka.

This is used to be the commercial hub those days. The buildings stood as a testimony of that. We were proceeding to the Harmony Street (what a beautiful name), where the three major places of worship of yester years stood. The one that we visited first was a Buddhist temple.

The “Chen Hoon Teng Temple” is said to be originally built in 1645 using the Chinese materials, in conformity with the principles of Feng Shui, by some Kapitan (Kapitans were the community heads those days in Malaysia). Here we had a different experience contrary to the one that we had in Indian and Srilankan Buddhist temples, possibly they are practicing something called Taoism. There were no chanting by the priests. Disciples bring along incense sticks to be burnt in front of the deities. We prostrated before the son of the King Suddhodhana, in our own style.

The deity next room was an interesting one. He liked smoke of Cigarettes not incense sticks. Even liquor bottles were seen offered before him.The temples are cultural centres too. Buddhism is no exception. They have opera theatre built in traditional style.

The next temple we visited was a Ganesh temple, named Poiyatha Vinayagar Temple. This temple is said to be built in 1781 with the help of Dutch? and is the oldest Hindu temple in service in the whole of Malaysia. The exteriors and interiors differed from the traditional Tamil Style of temple architecture.
Built at the site provided by Kapitan Thaivanayagam Pillai, this temple is the presiding deity of the Chetties of Melaka in particular and the tamils in general of Malaysia and other Malaysian Tamils migrated all over the world. Many of the visitors to the temple are from Singapore who migrated in the past, in search of greener pastures.

We spent some time in the serene atmosphere and left after offering prayers to Ganesha, only after having the “Prasad” offered by the priests (tasty pongal having ingredients like rice, grated coconut and ginger in it).

The next monument, located at the end of the harmony street is Sasjit Kampong Kling. Again built in the Dutch era, and explained to be in the Sumatran Style, this is again considered to be the oldest mosques in Malaysia, having lot of interesting art objects inside.

Unluckily for us, this monument was under some repair and was not open to tourists. We had to satisfy ourselves with the magnificent views from the outside.

There are a number of places of worship throughout Melaka with contemporary construction. The floating mosque is one among them. There are other few other churches, many number of Buddhist temples with different faiths and practices , few other Hindu temples and even a Gurudwara, that are built at different periods.

We came across a (Shirdi) Saibaba Temple which is the meeting place for all he Indians in Melaka, who have kindly offered us lunch on one of the days of our stay in Melaka.

The Dutch are blamed for disturbing the commercial system prevaiing till the Portuguese ruled. They were not keen to maintain the Melaka Harbour as a commercial centre. The disturbance caused to the trading community would have aggravated the situations. They simply maintained the place as a military point and the fall of Melaka as a commercial port began.

The other theory is that the British who took possession of Melaka as part of a treaty, in the process of gaining importance to their own port city of Penang, demolished the Fortress of Melaka. They even shifted the Melakan trading population of around 15000 to Penang and made the Melaka Port City look deserted. Almost at the same time, development of Singapore by the British also caused  the fall of Melaka.

To be continued ....

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Melaka (Malaysia) 2

Authored by

P.N. Sampath Kumar
Cochin Shipyard, Kochi
Emal: sapath_63@redffmal.com

We proceeded to Melaka on a two day trip last summer from Kuala Lumpur in mid March. 

Melaka could only be reached by road.  Its location is about 200 km south West of Kuala Lumpur and located in between KL and Singapore almost midway, though one need not touch Melaka to go to Singapore.

The inter city bus stations in Kuala Lumpur are no less than an international airport in design systems and facilities.   One has to report 15 minutes in advance and wait at the air conditioned boarding area.  Buses could be boarded through assigned gates only upon arrival of the bus; very professional.

The journey was comfortable and took about 3 hours.  Malaysian landscape is full of oil palms and rubber trees and occasional patches of forest.

We landed at Melaka Central (Malaya language has no script of their own; they use English alphabets to write) at around 2.00 noon.  We hired a taxi, paid 20 Ringgits and safely landed in the ‘Old Melaka Guest House’, located in the heart of the city.    

After a quick shower we left on foot, in search of some food to begin with, with a city map gifted by our friend Mr Chua, the owner of the Guest House.

Melaka is famous for its food but it was not the right time to experiment.  So we tried the first Indian restaurant we found on our way.   The food was predominantly non vegetarian which is not to our liking.  We got satisfied with the limited options available.
The streets had shops on both sides varying from grocery shops, hardware shops, flour mills, restaurants, etc.etc., owned either by Chinese or Tamils.  Most of them proudly displayed in their shops portraits of their grand / great grand parents.  The footpaths of most of the roads were seen floored with the then famous decorative Chinese ceramic tiles.

This town is spread over either sides of the river flowing east-west, connected by bridge (only one bridge those days) which could be covered in two days time on foot.  (Subsequent land reclamation of course changed the course of the river and flows southwards towards the end) Northern side included the sultanate, which was later converted into a fort by the invaders.  Southern side of the river had the warehouses and trading / business / public establishments.

Walking towards the north we reached the famous bridge which played a major role during the Portuguese strike. (This bridge was knocked down by the Sultans to block passage of Portuguese warriors but was rebuilt by the attackers with the help of trading community, crossed the bridge and surrounded the palace.  The sultan had by then vacated the palace and fled to Johor on the back of his elephant)

We decided not to cross the bridge and turned to our left and walked through the banks of the river, guided by our son, who was holding the city map.  We ventured into the first monument sighted, a church.   Oh, this is the on seen in the Melakan tourism literature. My son exclaimed.  This (“Christ Church”) built by the Dutch, is said to be the oldest functioning protestant church in Malaysia.  Originally built by the Dutch in 1753, and subsequently taken over by the British and consecrated by the Archbishop from Calcutta. This Church, has in its front a beautiful fountain built commemorating the visit of British Queen in the early 20th Century.

Walking further up, following other tourists, we arrived at the hill top from where the sea and the surroundings are visible.  Here stands the historic St Paul’s church, built by Portuguese in 1521.    When the Dutch took over, they demolished it and created their own place of worship for some time.  When the British came subsequently, they used this monument as their gunnery and a strategic vantage point.


The church seems to have had a prayer hall, an altar, etc. but the major visible proofs of its past history are the graves.  Here is the European priest St Francis  Xavier lived for a long period and converted few thousand locals to Christianity.  He died, on his journey to China and was cremated in some island from where his body was brought back to Melaka and later to India.  The five hundred year old dead body is now preserved and kept on display in the Church at Panaji, Goa.

The Portuguese constructed a huge Fort, after demolishing the Sultan’s palace, around the Malaka hill, facing the river.  One of the monuments that withstood the test of time is ‘AFAMOSA’ (meaning the famous), the gate of the fortress, leading to the hill top, located on the foothills of the St Paul’s Church.  This claims to be one of the oldest surviving European constructions in Asia.

Excavations around Melaka are still on.   In some places, even the excavation sites are showcased with creative lighting and adequate safety measures where wall constructions of different period are identified.

Traditionally, Malaka has a unique architectural method.   Wood is used abundantly to construct buildings.

The Royal Palace of Parameswara and his successors is reproduced in its full size to the left of Afamosa.  It would have been a huge challenge before the archaeological architects.    Made of wood in traditional style, it is claimed that the palace has been assembled without using a single Nail. The mere sight of it from a distance itself is mind-boggling.    The palace acting as a museum is open to public, wherein the whole history of Melaka is displayed with great imagination and creativity.  The landscape surrounding the palace is recreated to suit the period.  Interestingly the forbidden gardens meant for the queens are reproduced (though not known exactly what type of plants and trees were grown), with rare species trees and plants.

Walking towards the river, a giant wheel was seen at a distance on the bank of the river.  We went closer.  It was a wooden water wheel, reproduced and erected, based on the information available.  This system was employed to keep the water at navigable level by drawing sea water to the river.

Thanks to the innovative work of the archaeological engineers to reproduce such structures.  Another such structure is the replica of a famous Portuguese ship which sank in the coast of Melaka.  This is now a maritime museum covering exhibits of various periods.

To be continued.....