Thursday, September 23, 2010

Origins: Indian community in Malaya

by Vighneswaran Vithiatharan

The peninsula of Malaya, as it was known before the formation of Malaysia in 1963, has a long history of external social and cultural influence. Its strategic location on the sea route between India and China meant that it came under the direct influence of diverse social and cultural forces from India, China, Thailand, Cham (Vietnam), Indonesia, the Middle-East, and the West from the 16th century.

Estimates place the earliest arrival of Indians in the Peninsula of Malaya region as approximately 1,700 years ago. The Indian travelers are known to have referred to this area as Shuvarnabumi or land of gold. Indisputable evidence of early Indian presence can be found in the ancient Hindu relics and excavations at Takuapa on the Kra Isthmus, Candi Bukit Batu Pahat and Bujang valley in Kedah.
More significantly, the influence of the centuries-old trade-initiated relationship with India can be observed in Malay culture. The Sanskrit influence on the Malay language, the Hindu epic of Ramayana still exhibited in the form of shadow play (wayang kulit), some cultural rituals (e.g. shaving the head of a new born child) and the notion of kingship still preserved in the Malay courts are just some of the things that bear testimony to the Indian influence. However, Malay legends hold no memories of a Hindu or Buddhist conversion, like the dramatic depictions of the adoption of Islam, as the merging of Indian with Malay proceeded imperceptibly, deepening and enriching an already vital culture. These early Indian travelers did not settle in the Malay Peninsula.

According to scholar S.Arasaratnam, “with the decline of Hindu shipping and mercantile activity and the expansion of Islamic political and economic power in India, the number of Hindu traders coming to Malaya declined, giving place to the more powerful and better equipped Muslim merchants of Bengal,Golconda, Coramandel and Gujerat. These traders intermarried with the local Malay population and absorbed much of the Malay Muslim cultural and religious practices.

In contemporary Malaysia, the descendants of these traders identify more strongly with the Malay community rather than the Indian community. The Indian immigrants who came later, in the19th Century, as a result of British intervention in the Malay states were however largely Hindu.