A break of a couple of weeks to help a grandson celebrate his first birthday and discover that he was more likely headed for the NBA or the Premier League than into journalism or history had me spending my spare time meeting many associated with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. And what an impressive Institute that is.

In its 44 years of existence, it has published over 2,000 books connected with the economic, political and social issues of the region and has hosted numerous scholars from abroad who have spent their time there working on such subjects using, among other sources, the fine collection of research material the ISEAS houses in its splendid library. Books, library and scholars give me the opportunity to stray a bit this week.

In Nagapattinam to Suvarnadwipa — Reflections on the Chola naval expeditions to Southeast Asia, I found further confirmation of something I had mentioned in these columns before: a Hindu, probably Tamil settlement in Quanzhou (once Canton). Risha Lee categorically states that in the late 13th Century, a Tamil-speaking community in southern China's coastal city of Quanzhou built a temple devoted to Lord Siva. The temple no longer survives, but over 300 fragments of it are in museums in and around the city and built into the Kaiyuan Temple, Quanzhou's main Buddhist shrine. The granite carvings reflect the workmanship and style of temples built in the heyday of the Cholas, the 11th to the 13th Centuries.

The second Chola era coincides with China's Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1279-1368) dynasties, the latter springing from Genghis Khan's conquest of the Songs by capturing Quanzhou in 1279.

In its capture of the great southern emporium, Lee posits that it had the help of the many foreign trading communities, including ones from Tamizhagam and West Asia, who had settled in the Quanzhou area.

Whether connected with this aid or with the previously mentioned temple finds is a stone block in the Xiamen University Museum with a bilingual inscription — in Tamil and Chinese. The inscription records the consecration of a Hindu temple in Quanzhou in 1281. The temple in praise of Lord Siva was, according to the inscription, raised by Sambandhaperumal to ensure the welfare of the Mongol ruler Chekachai Khan.

Not clear is whether the remains now preserved in Quanzhou are from this temple or another, but Lee believes most of them were found in 1947 near the Tanghwai Gate when the old city wall was being demolished.

The wall and the gate, in the southern part of the city, were raised during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and it could well be presumed that the Mings put an end to the Hindu settlement that once thrived in Quanzhou.

Researchers also point to remains of ancient Chinese settlement being found in the Nagapattinam area. And that needs investigation too.

The Melaka Chitties

Another reference of mine to Indian settlers overseas in ancient times was a recent one to the Malacca Chetties (Miscellany, December 26, 2011), and this had a couple of readers informing me that their presence in Malaya predated the Portuguese (1511) by nearly a century. As luck would have it, one of the persons I spent time with in Singapore was Samuel S. Dhoraisingham who has written a book on the Peranakan Indians of Singapore and Melaka, correctly calling the ‘Chitty Melaka' ‘Peranakan' Indians. The Malay ‘peranakan' derives from ‘pira' (T) = ‘other' and ‘naakku' (T) = ‘tongue' and would mean those speaking in a foreign tongue.

Both Dhoraisingham and others who have written to me speak of centres of trade between South India and China with Melaka (Malacca) a half-way entrepot and that, therefore, some Indian merchants would have settled there.

Dhoraisingham goes on to stress that after Sumatran prince Parameswara founded Melaka c.1402, he developed it into a “thriving port” and welcomed Indian and Chinese trade and settlement. And when he became a Muslim, he encouraged Indian Muslims to trade and settle there. All these settlers in the early 15th Century were the ‘Chitty Melaka' — as in popular usage — or the Peranakan Indians, as more correctly called by Dhoraisingham.

In the context of what I wrote last December and what Dhoraisingham has stated, much more work needs to be done on the ‘Chitty Melaka' to arrive at a more accurate history. But a couple of points seem clear. The ‘Chitties' / Chetties are a merchant / trading community.

In a census of their families in Melaka, Dhoraisingham found only six Chitty families out of a total of 50. There were 25 Pillai families, and the rest comprised a few families each from the ‘Neiker', Rajah, Padayachi, Mudaliar, Pathar, Konar and ‘Kullen' castes. That's a caste configuration that does not point to a leaning towards trade; rather, it leans towards service, and that is what most of them have favoured and are still in.

Secondly, the 15th Century was when Vijayanagar was on the rise, but it was an empire not known for its maritime prowess. But the Muslims of the time were. And the Muslims of the Coromandel, Fisheries and Malabar Coasts, heirs to an ancient Arab heritage, are more likely to have settled in some numbers in Melaka than Hindus in the 15th Century.

It is, however, curious that Tamil / Malayalam-speaking Muslims are not accounted for in the Melaka story. Here are two other trading communities worthy of study.

What is clear, however, is that Peranakan Indians were much more significant players during the Portuguese and Dutch periods, from 1511 to 1818. It was during this period that the first Hindu temple in Malaysia-Singapore was built by the Melaka Chitties.

The Sri Poyyatha Vinayagar Moorthy Temple on Goldsmith Street in Melaka is today managed by the Nattukkottai Chettiars, though the Trustees and owners of the temple are the ‘Melaka Chitty Community of Malacca'. The Melaka Chitties remain devout Saivites and celebrate all the Hindu festivals and practise its rituals, but from the earliest times have married Malays and Peranakan Chinese. Their women generally wear Malay clothes, and everyone speaks in Baba Malay, which has quite a sprinkling of Tamil and Portuguese words. It is a community of declining numbers, but the survivors proudly retain the traditions of the ‘Old Country'!

The chronicler of Singapore

In Samuel S. Dhoraisingham, I found a kindred spirit. This teacher who retired as Assistant Director of Education, Singapore, is the chronicler of Singapore's Heritage. And his major literary legacy, Singapore's Heritage, published in 1991 when he was the President, History Association Singapore, is not too far removed from my Madras Rediscovered even to the subtitling: He recounts Singapore's Heritage ‘Through Places of Historical Interest' and I offered in the rediscovery of Madras “A historical guide to looking around.” Dhoraisingham offers in his guide the pictures and stories of about 160 heritage buildings and precincts, all of them protected by Singapore's stringent Heritage Laws.

Dhoraisingham's roots are in Madras. His father, Lechmenon Appaduray, was born in July 1890 in the Egmore Maternity Hospital. Lechmenon's grandfather Vengadasalam Pillay was a devout Hindu who worshipped regularly at the Gangadhareswarar Temple in Purasawalkam.

In narrating the story of his father's early education, Dhoraisingam is a bit unclear about the names of the schools, but I would judge from his information that Lechmenon studied in St. Paul's School, Vepery, and the E.L.M. Fabricius School, Purasawalkam. Then, coming under the influence of Grace Stephens, the Principal of the Methodist Mission School, he became interested in Christianity, and was 12 years old when he was baptised as ‘Samuel' in a ‘Church in Vepery', presumably St. Matthias'.

In 1905, he was adopted as their godson by the Rt. Rev. William F. Oldham and his wife Marie who were leaving for the Straits Settlements, where he was to serve as ‘Bishop of South Asia'. Bishop Oldham, quite likely an Anglo-Indian, was born in Bangalore and educated at Madras Christian College before becoming a Methodist priest. The Oldhams later sent Samuel back to Madras to study at the ‘Wesleyan College, 6 Pandaram Street'. This must have been some kind of training school for priests for the next we hear of L.A. Samuel is that he is a Tamil Pastor of the Methodist Church in the Federated Malay States.

The Rev. Samuel was to spend the rest of his life as a Tamil pastor ministering to flocks in various rural areas in the FMS. Dhoraisingham grew up benefiting from his father's love of Tamil, its culture, and the Indian epics. It was an upbringing that was to translate into a love of history — and the history of Singapore, in particular.

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MetroplusJune 28, 2012