In a fast-paced, multi-cultural world, one of the oldest Hindu communities of Southeast Asia struggles to keep their unique heritage alive

By Kamalavali Nagappan, Malaysia

 The melaka chettis are descendants of the true adventure seekers of long ago who traveled by ship from the Coromandel Coast of Tamil Nadu to ports throughout Southeast Asia. Historical records of their trading go back as far as 600ce. The Chettis distinguish themselves from the modern-day Chettiar caste of bankers and financiers. They were sea traders. One group of them settled along the Strait of Melaka between Java and Malaysia, one of the most important shipping lanes in the world. Though among the wealthiest people of Melaka during the 1400-1500s, the Chettis turned to agriculture after the Dutch invaders restricted their trade. Kamachee Pillay, 84, says her father was a farming plantation supervisor. She reminisces how her husband used to sell cow’s milk and would rent out their bul­lock carts for transporting people and goods as well as for temple functions, pongal and weddings. 

Today the community of Chettis number less than 2,000 (see Most are in Melaka state, with relatives throughout Malaysia, Singapore and as far away as Australia and New York. Surrounded by a diverse ethnic landscape, the Chettis have adopted many Malay and Chinese traditions; but despite deep acculturation in matters of food, dress, language and even burial customs, they were never assimilated. They remain staunch Saivite Hindus to this day.  

Melaka resident Kannan Pillay, 55, relates, “My father always used to say, ‘You were born a Hindu. You must die as one.’ I will always remember this advice and have passed the same advice to my son. This community will always preserve its culture.”

The secret to the Melaka Chettis’ undying bond with their Hindu faith can be found in the power that comes to them from their ancestors and a small network of temples. The virtue of filial piety is a primary pillar of the community’s culture. The Hindu precepts mata, pita, guru, deivam (mother, father, guru, God) are central to their life.

Burial of the Dead 

Unlike most Hindus, the Chettis bury their dead. The origin of this custom is unclear. According to Sundaram Palani Padiachee, committee member of the Sri Poyyathar Vinayaga Moorthy Temple and head of the committee’s cultural preservation and promotion group, “When our forefathers came down from Tamil Nadu, they brought the pre-Vedic practices, which included burial of our loved ones.” Others believe that because the early Chetti sailors and traders, all men, married local women, this assimilation led to the practice of burying the dead. 

The villagers say that centuries ago they had a burial ground just beside the Jalan Gajah Berang, Melaka Chetti Kampung (village) in Melaka. It was a highland. Thus an annual observance honoring the ancestors is called Naik Bukit, “Climbing the Hill” (naik, ascent; bukit, elevated location)

Sundaram explained, “The graves had to be relocated because of development. The land was not ours, because in the earlier centuries there was no landmark to say this is your land. Only when the Dutch came in did they subdivide and give you the land. So in 1970, the developers approached us and told us they were giving us an opportunity to remove the graves. At that time, we already had our own ten-acre burial ground in the hills of Jelutong about eight miles from Melaka, so we transferred the graves there.” Among the fifteen graves transferred was an ancient Chetti clan grave with the guru buried seated, believed to be from around the 16th century.

Naik Bukit­—Climbing the Hill

The Naik Bukit observance, akin to Chinese Qing Ming and Catholics’ All Souls’ Day, draws the dispersed Melaka Chettis from all over the world back home to Melaka to participate in this ceremony. Through the ancestral rites, their prayers and food offerings invoke the ancestors at the graveyard, and then they invite the ancestors into their homes. The joyous and pious feasting of ancestors feeds their faith from deep within through a thread going back to ancient times. 

Every January, whole families set out for the hills of Jelutong to observe Naik Bukit. Every member participates if possible, regardless of difficulty. In 2020, Kamachee came with her family even though she tired very easily, as she was diabetic and had problems walking. She was brought by her daughter, Rani, 53, and her husband Panniruky Perumal, 53, who had come up from Johore Bahru very early in the morning. 

On their way to the graveyard, Rani and her family stopped at the Indian shop to pack their favorite foods. “As far as I remember, from the time of my grandfather we used to do this. They, too, bought the idly and dosai or roti canai from the shops, as our forefathers loved these foods. Coming for this function is also a means of inviting our ancestors to our house for our parchu nasi lemak ancestral prayers, when we offer rice cooked with coconut milk accompanied with a variety of fried stuff, vegetables and curry.” 

On the evening before Naik Bukit, Rani had prepared the bunga rampeh­—a potpourri of perfumed flowers­—by cutting the screw pine leaves. In the morning, she took apart the rose petals, orchids and chrysanthemums, button shaped flowers, the red jungle gernium, bread flower, cape flower and cananga flower. Getting all this together is considered a real feat! But any perfumed flower is good. Then next she added whole jasmine with the shredded screw pine leaves. Lastly, she sprinkled the flowers with a touch of perfume. 

On reaching the burial ground, the family cleaned the area and decorated the graves. Rani strewed the bunga rampeh over all to give the air an aromatic smell, then unpacked the foods and drinks for the offering and lit the incense, and all waited for the ancestors to partake of the meal.

A Unique Culture Evolves

Kamachee sat quietly as her daughter Rani unpacked and arranged the breakfast offerings at the foot of her grandfather’s grave. She has seen the times change. Her father was an estate plantation supervisor. Upon marriage, she moved to the Chetti village in the town of Melaka, where she learned the secrets of baking sweet desserts from her sister-in-law. She became quite successful selling these for weddings and dinners.

Because of its trading ports, Malaysia is one of the oldest cultural melting pots in the world. As well as the many Chetti family clans,there were many Chinese whose relatives had married the Melaka Chetti descendants and whose ancestors were also buried at the Jelutong site. 

Rani, who works as a teacher and supervisor at a child care center in Johor Bahru, used to live in a village surrounded by Chinese. The Chettis there picked up Chinese easily. They spoke Malay at home and could speak only a smattering of Tamil. “We loved to go to the cinema when there was a Tamil movie playing. We also took up Tamil lessons later on to learn some basic words,” she said. “We pray to the Hindu Gods, but we also adopted the Chinese kitchen God. So, alongside Deepavali, we also celebrate the dumpling festival and the mooncake festival.”

Nirmala Devi, the honorary secretary of the Sri Poyyatha Vinayaga Moorthy Temple committee and Melaka Chetti community, said, ”Ours is an assimilation of centuries of local culture and Hindu practices. Similarly, our food reflects the same cultural assimilation. We are different from the Chettiars. The only similarity we have is our Hindu faith and the related celebrations. Other than that, our language, attire, food and traditions are different.”

The Chetti Temples 

There are a total of nine temples that belong to the Melaka Chetti community. Eight of these are within walking distance of the Chetti village. Three main temples guard the village: Sri Kailasanathar Temple (1887), Sri Muthu Mariamman Temple (1823) and Sri Angalamman Parameswari Temple (1887). The five open-air or gramanggal (village) temples are Sri Amman Temple, Dharmaraja Temple, Sri Ayyanar Temple, Sri Lenggadari Amman temple and Sri Kathai Amman Temple. All these are the property of the Sri Poyyatha Vinayaga Moorthy Temple (SPVMT) of the Melaka Chetti Community.

The SPVMT was built in 1781. “The land where SPVMT is located was granted by the Dutch colonial government. The temple was believed to be under the trusteeship of the late Tevansyan Chitty, who was a leader in the Chetti community,” said Sundaram. The temple is dedicated to Lord Vinayaka, the Elephant-faced Deity. It is the oldest Hindu temple in Malaysia. After 239 years of worship, it is believed to be one of the oldest functioning Hindu temples in maritime Southeast Asia.

With development works going on near Jalan Gajah Berang, the community was concerned their village would also be engulfed. Sundaram and his brother Shunmugam Padiachee Palani were instrumental in getting the Melaka state government to categorize the Melaka Chetti Village as a cultural village. The temple itself is endorsed as a Malaysian heritage temple by Warisan Negara (Department of National Heritage in Malaysia). 

Nirmala said properties are held in trust by Chetti trustees through a court order of 1962. “Our trustees are responsible for the assets, temples and shrines and the well-being of the Melaka Chetti community.” This includes the 10-acre graveyard.

Progress in the Second Millennium

Hinduism Today reported on the Chettis thirty years ago ( How are the Melaka Chettis progressing in 2020? Nirmala shared, “Through social media we are reaching out to those living outside the kampong to help them stay connected to their heritage. We help them learn about the annual Naik Bukit, the graveyard cleaning ceremony to honor, invoke and pray for our ancestors, and the meaning of our parchu ancestral celebrations held in the home. This is also when the older members in the family point out the headstones of departed family members. For example, I can identify headstones and graves of five generations of elders before me.” 

Education of the young children ensures that they keep their traditions intact. But there are challenges. Rani’s grand nephew, 10-year-old Akesh Pillay, is enrolled in the Pay Fong Chinese school. “He understands Tamil but can’t speak it. His mother is from Sabah (East Malaysia), but he does follow Indian tradition. We hope this younger generation will shoulder the responsibility of moving our community into the next millennium.” 

Nirmala added, “The youth actively participate in our annual prayers at the Sri Muthu Mariamman Thiruvila. This is a highlight for the community; members from all over the country as well as Singapore make an effort to return for this festival, which is typically held in the month of April-May. The celebration is a form of appreciation as well as fulfilling of vows by devotees towards Sri Muthu Mariamman, who is known as the Goddess of rain and the curer of diseases, such as chicken pox. Many other communities, like the Chinese, frequent the temple. The management is also drawing youth into its fold to expose them to the Melaka Chetti cultural and religious practices and traditional beliefs, culture, etc. The youth learn how to tie a talapa (head gear).” 

On February 1, Kannan Pillay’s daughter Lochini, 18, will undergo the sadengu ceremony (coming of age). The family was excitedly preparing for the event and inviting relatives and friends for the function. Lochini has just finished her Form Five exams and hopes to become a nurse. She would like to continue the Melaka Chettis’ food, culture and dressing style into the future. The sadengu process will be the same as in India, but after the customary flower bath ceremony, Lochini will don Malay dress rather than a sari. Only at dinner will she wear her sari.

Rani’s husband, Panniruky, is head of security in a multi-national firm and an executive committee member of the Peranakan Indian Association Singapore. He explained, “There are many Indians of mixed heritage now, so we must be inclusive and not exclusive. That is why we added the word peranakan (indigenous, locally born Indian). The message to the Melaka Chettis is that you are unique, not only culturally but also in terms of your food and festivals.” The association hopes to double its ties with the Melaka Chettis. Panniruky says, “By showcasing our heritage, dance activities and food, documenting the Melaka Chetti way of life and getting the youth involved, we hope that these will keep the community afloat well into the next millennium.”

Mohan Shree Pillay, 23, son of Kannan Pillay, is a graphic art student at Management and Science University. He said he used to be enthralled watching the drama of Krishna fight Asuran Samharan when he was young. Unfortunately, because the younger generation has moved out, there are not enough participants and it is no longer being performed. But he says, ‘However far I go or wherever I am, I will continue to uphold the culture that I have learned from early childhood. It’s an undying bond, as my mother was a Hindu. We read all the Mahabharata and Ramayama as well, and sing Thevaram at home and in the temple.” 

P. Udaiya Shakti, 24 years old, and his cousin Reuben Pillay, 28, came from their home in Singapore to join Shakti’s parents, Rani and Panniruky, and drive them to Melaka. Shakti is also active as an member in the Peranakan Indian Association. He is a mass communication and public relations graduate and is currently teaching. “When I look at the graves of my great grandfather and my grandfather, I feel sad that I never met them, as I was born six years after my grandfather passed away. I am happy that my grandmother Kamachee is still around. She regales me with tales of both her husband and her father, so I feel that I almost know them.

“I look forward to the ancestral prayers function as it is an opportunity to meet up with all my relatives. My uncles and parents will inevitably talk about the ancestors when we stand in front of their graves. When I was young, one of my deceased uncles used to bring me with him to take the cows out to graze and to cut the grass for their feed. He also brought all the children for a ride on his bullock cart during the temple functions. I used to be so excited when I saw a cow, as it is a rare sight in Singapore.

“As I am a Melaka Chetti, the Naik Bukit function is important to me. It is my res­ponsibility to uphold our tradition, even if it requires me to travel far. Visiting the grave and then coming back the same day to prepare for the parchu nasi lemak ancestral prayers at home the next day is a rush, but it is important that we do it. At home we do the prayers for my paternal side ancestors. It is a very fulfilling experience. Celebrating this event, we ensure that our future generations will be educated in our tradition and understand the importance of it in our lives.” 

Steadfast amidst the Diaspora

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the British found that some Melaka Chettis spoke good English. These were given prominent positions in Kuala Lumpur, and some moved to Singapore. Many others have migrated elsewhere within Melaka state or to other states in Malaysia. This exodus has left just 30 Chetti families in Gajah Berang in Melaka city now. It is believed that Singapore has about 5,000 Peranakan Indians. Whenever possible, they to travel to Melaka to participate in the Naik Bukit function. 

Nirmala elucidates the unique Chetti experience: ”Our culture is an assimilation of centuries of local culture and Hindu practices. Our food reflects the same cultural assimilation. Tamil is not our mother tongue. We converse with each other in Malay creole. However, we do have some members of our community who are able to speak and read in Tamil. Our long history as a community underscores our resilience. We are proud of our legacy and culture. With more members of our society coming together to strengthen our roots and the way we operate, I am optimistic about the future, the next chapter of our journey. We shall move forward into a new era without losing sight of our heritage and our religious faith.”

The Annual Feast for Ancestors at Home 

 O n the morning when the sun moves into the constellation of Capricorn (January 15, 2020), Hindus celebrated Thai Pongal in the South, Makar Sankranti in the North. On bhogi day (the day before Pongal), Chetti families observed parchu nasi lemak (worship with coconut rice) at home. Nasi is rice and lemah is the coconut milk in which it is steamed. The family had already visited the graveyard during the preceding days.

Nirmala relates, “Cooking is done at home, and a strict discipline is maintained. No talking is permitted while food preparation is being done. This silence is observed in reverence to our ancestors. Also, no tasting of food is allowed before offerings are made. Hence, food preparation is done by experienced womenfolk in the family. At dusk, the food and drinks are carefully arranged on banana leaves near the entrance to the home. Again, silence is observed.

“Unlike the typical Indian ancestral prayers where food is offered in front of a photo of the deceased, here the food is placed on the floor in the hall near the home’s entrance. One, three, five or more banana leaves—always an odd number—are placed on the floor as offering. On each leaf is placed a mound of coconut rice, surrounded by salads, fried chicken, prawns, fish and a variety of vegetables. For those who are poor or working people who do not have the luxury of time, a single leaf offering will suffice. Two coconuts are a must. A kuthuvilakku (oil lamp) is placed at one side and two huge red candles at the other.

“At 6:30 to 7pm, the kuthuvilakku and candles are lit, together with incense and sambrani. A bell is rung and incense is offered to the sky as a plea to Siva to let the dead ancestors come and partake of the meal. 

“The eldest male in the family invites the family ancestors by taking the sambrani and praying heavenwards at the home entrance. Words of invitation are uttered quietly, while calling our pitrus, ancestors. He then proceeds inside to where the food is laid out and moves the sambrani over the offerings. Each member in turn, according to age, invites the ancestors. 

“In my home, after the youngest has given respect and invited the ancestors to partake of the offering, we sit down together to sing bhajans and Thevaram. After the bhajan, we observe a few minutes of silence and reflection. Water is then sprinkled on the offerings by the eldest male in the family followed by everyone else. Coconut water is given as a final offering for the evening by opening a pair of coconuts near the candles and kuthuvilakkus. After the prayer, everyone sits on the floor and shares the food from the banana leaves, which has been blessed by our ancestors. Guests are also welcomed to share the food and blessings.”

Kannan’s neighbor Sithambaram Kanagalingam Pillay, 55, added, “These prayers have been going on since my forefathers’ time. Since we eat the food after offering it, we usually prepare the leaves according to the number of people in the house, but that depends on the family.” Rani said that when she used to stay in Jalan Gajah Berang, neighbors would visit to pay respect to the ancestors during this time.

Another ceremony honoring the ancestors is called parchu buah-buahan (“buah-buahan” means fruits). This is usually celebrated anywhere from mid-June to mid-July, during the fruiting season. This ceremony, which features sweet fruit desserts, is less rigid; residents can conduct the ancestral prayers any day during this period. There is also no necessity to go to the cemetery; the Naik Bukit function is done only once a year, in the days before bhogi day.