by V. Jegatheesan
He looked Malay, he spoke Malay, but he is not Malay.
He looked Malay, he spoke an Indian dialect, but he is not Malay.
She looked Indian, she spoke an Indian dialect, but she is not Indian.
They look Indian, they look Malay, they look Chinese, they speak Malay, they speak Indian dialects and they are the Melaka Chitties.
They look mixed, they speak a mix of these languages and they are the Chitties.
When we speak or read of the ‘Peranakan’ community in Malaysia, we firstly think of the descendants of the Chinese who settled in Melaka during the Sultanate days. However, few Malaysians have heard of the Melaka Chitties.
These are the Indian descendants of those who also came to Melaka during the Sultanate days. Many moved on to Singapore and the community in Melaka was reduced. But why is it that most Malaysians do not know about them? Is it because the Chitties did not preserve their own culture too well, but instead dissipated into the other communities they married into? Is it because they did not ‘market’ their culture as did the Peranakan Chinese? This article endeavours to find out how or why the Chitties are not such a well-known community as well as take a peek into their life.
There is a fair bit of information on the Chitties today on the web and it is easy to summarise an article from these. But it would not give the spirit and reality, nor satisfy my own curiosity, so the best way was to meet and visit a Chitty family. I got in touch with Mr. Nadarajan Raja, the Chairman of the Chitty Living Gallery. He has also taken the task of being a historian of the Chitties. I had a ‘culture shock’ when I first saw him. I was somehow expecting an Indian looking man and so did not acknowledge this Malay/Chindian looking person who came up to me. Then I was put in place when I realised I was after all meeting a Chitty! “I am a Chitty, not an Indian!” he proudly told me.
He was very kind and helpful and took me to his house where he and his family were preparing for a religious ceremony and yet had the time to talk to me about his community. He is really representative of the Chitties.
He explained why the Chitties are not as well-known as the Peranakan Chinese. Chitties kept a low profile and this is largely due to the contentment of the people. The Peranakan Chinese also achieved success in politics and this may have helped to project them into the limelight. The later migration of Indians saw the Chitties as different and remained separate and did not associate themselves much with the Chitties. Perhaps this is a good thing as it might have made them disappear into the newer generation of Indians.
With tourism a major industry in Melaka as a result of the rich history, the Peranakan Chinese, being part of this history took advantage and created a ‘brand’. The food, which everyone enjoys, was the main attraction and this helped to project their image. They promoted their form of dressing as well and publicised their events.
Furthermore, presently, there are a few members of the Chitty community. In the British days, when they needed personnel to populate Penang and Singapore, many Chitties migrated to these places. This left a small community behind after all these years. Perhaps, intermarriage led to a diversion to the other races.
Family ancestry is not known because, though they bury their dead, only in recent years do graves have names.
While the original Indians who came in the Sultanate days were rich and influential being traders, administrators and even members of the royal court, the years of the foreign rule, has made a change in their status. With lost influence, they moved into farming, fishing and government jobs. In more recent years, many have found work in the private sector as well. Education was a drawback in the past years. Nowadays, they have joined the thirst for further education. In fact, a younger relative of Nadarajan is an economics graduate and is a lecturer in a private university. In time, the Chitties, will move to different occupations and the professions and with this, it may mean many will move away to work elsewhere, returning once or twice a year for festivals. This in turn could have a diminishing effect on the community numbers over time.
Presently, there is a Kampong Chitty (Chitty Village) built by the government. Water and electricity are provided free. There are 25 homes in the area, at the entrance of which is a plaque describing their community. There are however, many others who live elsewhere in Melaka and Malaysia. At one end of the settlement is the Angala Parameswari temple built in 1888.
Chitty food has an Indian base. Added on are Malay and Chinese influences to the point a dish is difficult to place. The average Chitty is now an average Malaysian and eats any kind of food, so it is not usual to eat traditional food daily. But on ceremonial occasions, the full range is prepared and laid out. Such food would include kerisik (grated coconut with fish), nasi lemak (milk rice) and lauk pindang, a fish dish. The traditional cakes, or kueh, are Malay. While ordinarily rice is just boiled, for occasions the rice is nasi lemak. Food is eaten with the hands.
None of the family members I met were wearing traditional attire, all being in modern clothing. But for formal traditional occasions the ladies would wear the baju kebaya and the men the dhoti. The ladies baju kebaya is a Malay adoption and now common to the Nyonyas as well.
Nadarajan Raja is as current a name as you can imagine. Names have somehow been maintained and not changed over the many years. One would have expected the form and spelling to have changed, but the spelling is quite standard, at least for the current Chitties. The nameplate on his house is Kandasamy Raja, another example.
Among those who have become Christians, many retain their Indian name, such as Alfred Pillai for example. But today, names are found on the internet and tend to be more traditional and Sanskrit based.
Looks of course are diverse. They are Malay looking generally, but differ according to their marriages. One brother told me he has a problem eating lunch in a restaurant each Ramadan because of his Malay looks! Over the years, the original Indians married Chinese and Malays and perhaps Melaka Portuguese. It is not unusual to see very Chinese-looking (and speaking) person introducing himself as Prasanth Veerasamy Chitty! (another friend of mine). Marriage with other races is still common. But Nadarajan feels there are more marrying Indians and this will strengthen the culture.
The spoken language is Malay. But the accent is not the Malay accent as spoken by the Malays. Nadarajan says that since their grandfather’s time, some learnt Tamil and now many speak Tamil. Generally in this family, they speak Malay, Tamil and English interchangeably among themselves.
Language, being what it is, absorbs other words and over time, loses it purity on the one hand but enriches it as well. Even as they speak Malay at home, many words are unused in daily Malay today. For example, crabs are not ketam but kepiting. Box is kepok, not peti. Kopia is a cap. Words have been adopted too. From Chinese we have kuntow for a dustpan, loteng for upstairs and bimpo for handkerchief. They also refer to the grinding stone as batu belingan.
As for religion they are Hindus, following tradition closely. They observe festivals such as the Ponggal (January/February), Deepavali (October/November) and Bhogi Parchu (ancestral worship) in January. Fruit Parchu (Parchu Buah Buahan) is observed for a month between June 15th and July 15th. This is also an ancestral worship and the dates are fixed with local fruits being offered.
Hindus refer to the Hindu almanac for auspicious dates and times as they are crucial to any event. So do the Chitties in the case of weddings, engagements (parasam), moving into a new house and also when the deceased body is to leave the house for burial. They refer to the pandaram, the priest at the temple, who in turn would refer to the almanac.
Temples are many and the most famous is the Sri Poyatha Moorthi Temple dedicated to Vinayagar in Melaka town. This is the oldest temple built in 1780. This is despite the fact that the community came in the 1400’s. It is said that in the very early days, worship was in houses and any temple would have been of wood and so not survive the times.
Food offerings at ceremonies include nasi lemak, pulut inti (glutinous rice with sweetened grated coconut), penggat pisang (banana preparation) and others. Sandalwood ash (beehuthi) is also used with the pottu, the red spot, on the forehead.
Nadarajan was preparing a memorial ceremony for an aunt who had passed away a month ago, at the age of 96. This is the 31st day ceremony. At this ceremony, a large variety of their food was prepared as an offering. It gave me a chance to see this ceremony and as well as partake in the rich food culture.
The 31st day ceremony was the end of earlier ceremonies. They are vegetarians, featuring bitter gourd for the first 8 days after the bereavement. After the 8th day they can eat fish till the 15th day. On the 16th day, they have a cleansing ceremony, the puniathalam. They can then visit the temples. After the 31st day ceremony, meat can then be eaten again. What fascinated me is the ornate layout of the food, fruits and other offerings.
The food was on banana leaves. There were 14 varieties of curry, some mentioned above, around a serving of nasi lemak. Local fruits like jackfruit and salak were on a platter and another had wet cakes such as kueh lapis, pulut inti and doughnut made of tapioca and crusted with sugar. After the prayers, members of the family gather around the leaves and eat off it. Others would eat similar food at the table.
Nadarajan timed our interview to this 31st day ceremony so that I could observe the event, partake in the food and meet the family. Being a Tamil of a more recent migration, it was an eye opening occasion for me to meet some members of this historical community and be a part of it even for some hours. With traces of similarities, the differences were greater. It dawned on me that perhaps in a hundred years or so, the Indians of today will probably be just like them.
I wish to thank Mr. Nadarajan Raja, as well as his family, for hosting me at their home and making me feel very welcome.