An invitation to our lush Sarawakian Indian Culture through History, Culture and Food

Not so long ago, three different individuals made me reflect on my Indian heritage and how others perceive it. They all made reference to Bollywood movies and even said something in Hindi! And they were not even Indian. But when I asked them what they knew about Indian culture or anything about Sarawakian Indians, the answer I got was: “all we know is what we see on TV – Bollywood Movies”.

Here is a short potted history about Sarawakian Indians.  We have been here for quite a while and have contributed a lot into this big melting pot of wonderful and varied heritages that makes up Sarawak. For many of you it may conjure up nostalgic memories and for others, be a bit of an eye-opener about the Indians here.

It is thought that Indians started coming to Borneo at least as early as the 5th century A.D. as small groups of traders and missionaries.  From this time, reaching a height around the 11th century, the whole of South-East Asia was influenced by Buddhism and Hinduism.  These two great religions, both born on the Indian Subcontinent, had produced political structures social organisations and a way of life which Borneo Island and our Sarawak of today was an integral part of. There have been relics of Hindu temples and other artefacts found in Santubong area.

But the ancestors of the present day Indians in Sarawak come from the pool of Indian immigrants who arrived during the 19th century, during the Rajah’s reign. The Tamil South Indian Muslims came as merchants, the Punjabi Sikhs as the police force and the Tamil South Indian Hindus came as workers to run the  Rajah’s Matang tea estate.  There were even some brought in to tend the Rajah’s horses on what is now Green Road.  The main area in India where Indian influence came from in the past was called Kalinga – hence the word “Kling” or “Kelenga” for an Indian or Indian goods i.e. “Pisang Kling”.

                             A lot of us have walked down this passage linking India and Gambier streets without really
                            knowing the history of the place.

Around 1912 when the tea plantations were closed, the Indian labourers were given the choice to return home or accept other jobs.  Most chose to return home, with only around 40 families staying of which the majority of the Indian community in Sarawak are the descendants. Try taking a stroll up Mount Matang to see their legacy.  The Hindu Sri Maha Mariamman temple, built most probably around 1905 at the centre of the Rajah’s tea plantation, remains and was recently renovated – well worth a visit. A little closer to home is the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple at the junction of Batu Lintang and Rock Road in Kuching, built to replace the one in Matang. Next to the ‘rock’ of Rock Road, it is one of the oldest temples in Sarawak, even though an unimpressive structure architecturally.The deity inside, originally brought in from India in 1890, was transferred from the now abandoned temple in the Matang Tea Estate, though once a year the deity makes a trip back to the Matang temple and stays there for a month and then returns to the “plains”.  The Indian temple at Ban Hock Road is also believed to have been in existence for more than 100 years.

Though Indian Muslims have been coming to Sarawak for a long time, they were more transient in nature.  It is assumed that the Indian Muslim community in Sarawak began at least 175 years ago. By 1929, there were Indian Muslim merchants in Kuching, Serian, Sibu, Saratok, Betong, Mukah, Bintulu, Lawas, Miri and Limbang.  In the early days, they were mostly Tamil Muslims who were bachelors or left their family in India but since 1953 Indian Muslims have been bringing over their families and making more permanent homes in Sarawak. However, by 1840 there was already a prayer hut for the use of Indian Muslims. On 27th December 1871 Rajah Charles Brooke sold the piece of land on which the surau stood for sixty dollars to the Indian Muslim community for the purpose of building a major mosque for “inhabitants of Sarawak who profess Mohamadean religion not being Malays”. The mosque was reconstructed in 1876 and still stands today, tucked in between Indian Street and Gambier Street at the centre of the passageway linking the two streets. I’m sure lots of us have walked down that passage without really knowing the history of the place.

Let’s turn to present day and look at the contributions of the Indians to the cultural landscape of Sarawak, broadly divided into 3 categories – Textiles, Food, Education and Medicine.

Fabric of quality made for long lasting tailored outfits before it gave way to pret-a-porter

Textiles – So many of us remember going to India Street – all those Indian Muslim traders setting up shop got a whole street named after them –  to No 27, Salih Ahmad’s, either to get school uniform material or some fabulous piece to have our Raya, Gawai, Christmas or birthday clothes made. I always remember the excitement of going in and fingering the fabric and choosing something just for me to wear. Ready-made clothes were not so readily available here and the Chinese tailors were kept pretty busy sewing all our clothes from all the materials bought from India Street. Most of it was imported from India, China, Japan and Europe.  Interestingly, because of the small Indian population here, very few saris or other Indian costumes were available then – unlike today where Indian dress has crossed cultures and is worn by all in one form or another. The only saris I remember my mother buying in Kuching were the chiffon or georgette ones that were being manufactured by the Japanese Cloth mills – you bought a sari length of 5.5 meters off a roll and it had been printed in the way a sari should be: border all round and a larger design on the end that is to be hung over the shoulder.The other influence of Indian textiles has always been in the weaving.  Sarawak Pua Kumbu has very strong ties in its method of weaving with the Indian Patola weave – so somewhere in the past when the Indians moved over to South East Asia, they may have brought their skills and passed them on.

Food – We come to one of the bigger influences that the Indians have had here. Just walking down Gambier Street today, one can still see all the old spice shops plying their trade – and the customers are not just the Indians living here! Every wet market – Stutong, Petanak, Kubah Ria, MJC, 3rd Mile Market, Kota Sentosa (7th Mile) will have at least one Indian trader selling their spices. Mr Mahalingam used to have a Spice Factory in Pending and delivered spices to our home. That has closed down now but Gambier Street Spice Alley is still going strong.A lot of people are unaware that several common Malaysian dishes – Rojak, Soup Kambing, Roti Canai, Teh Tarik and Nasi Minyak – started life as Indian Muslim dishes. Actually in Sarawak before the late 1980s there were very few Indian restaurants in Kuching. I remember two in India Street, serving Indian Muslim food, and Bukhari Cafe in Satok, serving curries and great Biriyani. Roti Canai arrived into Kuching in the late 1980s as did Naan and tandoori. Today we can go to any suburb of Kuching and be near an Indian restaurant or cafe and get our dose of curry. Many of the places I go to today serving Roti Canai are not Indian establishments, but Malay. At any Open house during Chinese New Year, Gawai or Raya, Indian titbits like Chakali (murukku) are often part of the festivities.

Education and Health – We all have been taught and treated by Indians in schools and clinics and hospitals. When there was a need for skilled personnel in both Education and Health, these were brought in from India. The same service was available from developed European countries, but the cost was very high. But, for a lot of the educated people in India, jobs were scarce and salaries very low. Indians were ready to go to countries that were waiting for their services and of course the connection of all being British Colonies was an added bonus.

After WW2, contracted services and expatriates in mainly those 2 sectors started to come in large numbers to Sarawak.  My own father – a doctor – came here through the British Colonial Services and stayed, taking on Sarawak/Malaysian nationality as did many others. For many, medicine and teaching have become something of a family profession, as the next and next generations of now Sarawakian Indians continue in these professions.

A Sarawak Indian today is an integration of the Indians with the multiracial background of Sarawak, transforming them into a rather unique group of people. Intermarriage played a very important part but traditions remained and melded with all the other traditions found here. Other customs which have Indian influence abound: decorative leaves of coconut palms, the Lotus motif, the use of enai/henna in colouring hands and fingers, sprinkling of perfumed water, Bersanding ceremony, offering flowers, incense, josssticks, greeting with folded hands, lighting during Hari Raya. We are a rich and significant part of Sarawak’s cultural landscape, and it’s just not all “Bollywood”!

Anita Majumder is a Kuching born Indian Sarawakian. Many stints of  living and working overseas – including boarding school in India – gave her a greater insight and appreciation of what it means to be a “Global Indian”. She loves textiles, ceramics, beads and cooking. For the great outdoor, she chases a wee little white ball around a golf course…

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