The Deep Legacy of Indian Immigration to the Malay Peninsula

loading Indian rubber estate workers.

The ties between India and Malaya go back millennia. Silappadikaram, 1 a second-century Tamil epic, highlighted that Tamil merchants were operating from a Malay Peninsula port called Tondi, and they used to barter Indian textiles with spices and jungle products. Pattinappalai, 2 another important work of Tamil literature, also mentions the regular travels of Tamil merchants to the peninsula.

In the pre-modern period, there was brisk trade as well as religious travel in the region. Ancient ports such as Kaveripoompattinam, Mahabalipuram, Nagapattinam, Korkai and Alagankulam were not only important port hinterland connectors, but also played a vital role in the establishment of Hindu kingdoms and culture. Traditions like the worshipping of mountains as the abodes of gods – as attested to in Lord Siva and Brahman belief – could have influenced Malay-Indonesian cultural practices and beliefs; for example, Mount Seguntang Mahameru in Sumatra was thought to be sacred, and that the Malay kings descended from there.

Modern Indian immigration into the Malay peninsula dates from the founding of Penang in 1786. Stream ports such as Cuddalore, Karaikal, Nagore, Negapatam, Mahabalipuram and Porto Novo played significant roles in the arrival of the indentured workers to the plantations, as well as supplying manpower to the construction industry and the maintenance of transportation lines including roads, railways and ports; the outpouring of workers correlated with the increase of the poorer class among the Indian population.

By the mid-nineteenth century, almost all of India had come under British political and economic control. In 1814, Act 54, George III, C134 was passed by the British government, restricting Indian shipping activities and ships from employing Indian sailors, causing the decline of Indian ocean shipping, and industrial, commercial and financial enterprise in India. This decline resulted in the Indians losing their traditional source of income and investments, affecting the “intelligentsia” class of Indians. The Great Famine that afflicted the Madras Presidency from 1876 to 1878 increased distress among the populace, forcing people to move out of the country to look for other sources of livelihood.

The Journey to Malaya

Batu Caves.

The majority of indentured workers came to Malaya under the kangani system to serve as sugar planters. Public Works Department employees and railway construction labourers were hired under the non-kangani system.

Under the kangani system, as an employee of the estate, the labourers were expected to do his best for his employer. The kangani, or foreman, would normally be the village headman or a senior family member; he would be sent back to hire friends, family and relatives from his home village or taluk.

Predominantly, the untouchables, or the Adi-Dravida, were hired under the kangani system. There were also voluntary labour immigrants such as thitti-surat and puthal surat holders who worked under the supervision of the kangani system.

A thitti-surat holder had to provide identification certifications to their employers, who would give them leave letters and promised the labourers work on their return by a certain date; they were also allowed to bring their families along with them.

Under the puthal surat system, invitations were sent to the labourers by their employers for employment.

Apart from indentured labourers, convicts were also employed in the hospitals, public offices, Public Works Department, road construction and any other work that contributed to the development of the country.

Most of the indentured labourers that came to Malaya were from South India, and consisted largely of Tamils, Telugus from Andra Pradesh, and Malayalis from Malabari coastal areas. South Indians were largely preferred as they could easily adapt to the climate in Malaya, which was not very much different to theirs.

Work in the sugar, coffee and rubber estates was very arduous, and the selected indentured workers needed to meet certain physical standards. Among the South Indians, the Tamils were favoured as they were perceived as reliable labourers, and for their aptitude and temperament towards agricultural work.

Group of Tamil Women, Province Wellesley

Diasporic Deities

A coconut plantation in Singapore.

Sojourners of Malayan plantations were largely rural Hindu Tamils who did not only bring Tamil culture along with them, but also Hindu folklore from their villages, creating a transnational community within the enclosed and isolated plantations and pioneering the polymorphic character of “Malaysian Hinduism”.

There is an old Tamil saying: Kovil Iella uril kuti irrukka vendam – “Do not live in a town where there is no temple”. The establishment of British settlements provided the impetus for the arrival of South Indians into Malayan estates, encouraging the establishment of shrines and temples to serve the Hindu migrant communities.

It was an important factor that helped recruit more Hindu Tamils. An estate would have at least one temple maintained financially by the workers as well as through public donations. The temples allowed the migrants to create their own social structure and community network; after all, most of them came from the same village or taluk under the kangani system. They would also share the same village tutelary deities known as kaval deivam or grama deivam.

Grama deivam is the patron deity of the village. They are also known as kaval deivam, or guardian spirits, and some of them would have specialised functions such as curing diseases, safeguarding childbirth, and bringing rain, health, wealth and a good harvest. Each village in India has its panchayat, court of law, festivals, celebrations, dialect, and kaval and grama deivam. These kaval deivam are worshipped as kula deivam – or family deity – by various sects of the community and clan groups, associated to their generation, and based on their village of origin; kula means “lineage” or “family” and deivam means “god”.

An estate shrine or temple would normally be a simple structure; the deity would be in the form of a stone pillar, mound of earth, trident, anthill or tree. There would be also terracotta horses, dogs, clay dolls and bells represented in a huge, fierce statue. The popular deities were the goddess Mariamman, the goddess of smallpox and rain; the goddess Kaliamman; and the guardian deities of the plantation workers – Muniandy, Mathurai Veeran and Periachi.

The high influx of immigrants and the lack of proper sanitation, healthcare, diet and hygiene practises, coupled with a reluctance to invest in public healthcare due to shortages in colonial medical care funding, led to continuous outbreaks of disease. Indian labourers perished in great numbers from malaria, cholera, dysentery, avitaminosis as well as tainted and insufficient food and drinking water. Most of the earnings of the transitory Indian estate workers were remitted to their home country by the colonial bosses, and little was invested in the colonies.

Indian jugglers, Singapore

The workers were also subjected to obscene brutalities during the Japanese Occupation – they had no water and food and were forbidden medical treatment from European medical officers.

The estate-based diasporic deities travelled and moved with the plantation workers, offering solace – indentureship was no different from slavery. But the religious life of an estate worker was not one of intense devotion due to their hand-to-mouth existence;3 they could, at best, only afford processions and other religious ceremonies to fight off epidemics.

Maintaining the rituals did not only re-establish their historical identities; it also represented the ones in their new home. The temples and shrines in the estates are symbols of the slavery, toil, caste degradation, exploitation – and also hard work and determination – of the Indian labourers, especially the Tamils, who contributed immensely to the country’s development. It would be sorry to see these go in the name of development.

Preveena Balakrishnan is based in Penang. She runs her own research studio, Vamssa Research Studio, which researches and documents the heritage of the Indian community in Malaysia.


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