Due to the booming economy in the Straits Settlements during the 18th and 19th centuries, many Indian migrants saw Malaya as an opportunity for a brighter future for their families. Thanks to encouragement from the British, the Straits saw an influx of Indian migrants, cutting across all social castes, hierarchies and backgrounds. Penang was the first to experience the arrival of the Indians who worked primarily in sugar cane and coffee plantations, and then later in the rubber and palm oil estates. One of the legacies of that era is the Hindu temple.
Hindu temples are a common sight in Penang, coming in varied shapes and sizes. Not many realise, however, that the existence of each temple – from its structure to its location – tells the stories of the Indian settlers who came to Penang long ago in search of a new life.
Each deity has its own distinctive rituals and origins that could be traced back to certain districts of India, thus helping to identify the settlers’ backgrounds, castes and places of origin.
The first Indian migrants brought with them their rigid caste system. Specific shrines and temples were built to only serve a certain caste. While Malaysian Indians no longer practice the caste system today, the temples still bear the traits of certain castes, such as the Chettiar and the Patthar.
“Chettiar” is a title for the trading community in South India. To date, the Chettiar remains the most successful and prominent trading community in both Tamil Nadu, India and here in Malaysia. Nattukkottai Chettiar – one of the Chettiar communities – is also known as “city dweller”. Today, the Nattukkottai Chettiar Temple a.k.a Arulmigu Sri Thandayuthapani Temple is one of the most famous Chettiar temples in Penang for being the final destination for the Hindu devotees during Thaipusam festival. The temple, located at Waterfall Road, is dedicated to Lord Murugan, a.k.a Thamizh Kadavul, God of Tamils.
Kamatchi Temple, nestled in the heart of George Town, is dedicated to the Sri Kamatchi Amman. Kamatchi Temple often has its gopurams (large ornate structures that adorn a temple's gateway ) covered in gold, as it is the temple of the Patthar caste, which is mostly made up of goldsmiths. Though it welcomes all visitors and Hindu devotees, the temple can only be managed by the Patthar caste community. Traditionally, the devotees of Patthar will perform early morning prayers at the temple before they start their gold trading business for the day.
The conditions of the temples
Hindus believe that God is everywhere. A temple also serves as a holy place where God resides and manifests in divine forms. The Supreme Being is especially manifested in the consecrated deities found in the temples. As one kurukal (priest-guru) put it: “Milk (the blessings) is present in the body of the cow (the deities), but we can only receive it by way of its teats (the temple)…” This metaphor reflected the importance of the temple, the primary source for devotees to seek guidance and salvation from the gods.
A proper place of worship was merely wishful thinking for the lower educated labourers that had just migrated from their motherland. Over the ensuing decades, some temples have managed to expand and grow through Kumbabishekam (consecration ceremony), but many still remain as smaller shrines.
The location of the temples can help to trace the dwellings of most of the Indian settlers. Most of the temples are hidden in estates, or what used to be estates. “The estates became ‘mini-Indias’ in which the codification and manipulation of rights and privileges for different groups was negotiated” (Mearn 1995, Willford 2007). Some temples originated with the upper castes and can be found in George Town.
There are still many temples in Penang that have yet to be discovered, mostly in the less developed areas of the state. The temples are usually taken care of by Indian estate workers and the minority Indian community that still reside in the area.