Medan, a mid-sized city on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is smoggy and crowded. The thrum of motorised rickshaws and the sizzle of street food carts dominate the auralscape. But what draws the eye is the wild pluralism of the religious architecture. The crush of retail shops and boxy apartment buildings is regularly punctuated by the domes of mosques, steeples of churches and elaborate doorways of Hindu temples.
Many parts of Indonesia are resonant of its maritime neighbour, India. In Java’s great cities, ancient Hindu-Buddhist temples like Borobodur and Prambanan are testament to the civilisational links between the two countries. But there is a more contemporary Indian flavour to Medan than other Indonesian cities.
Medan’s busy central market is flecked with Indian restaurants and clothing stores. A gurudwara attached to a Khalsa school is adjacent to a techni-coloured Mariamman temple. Masjid Taj Ul Madras, a mosque, is a short walk away. The entire neighbourhood is referred to as Kampung Madras, or “Madras town.”
I pass a local high school where a banner with a large image of Ganesha wishes students success in the upcoming exams. The hotel bellhop, a young Muslim woman from a nearby town, tells me she loves Indian music. I get ready for her to sing one of the Shah Rukh Khan Bollywood numbers so beloved across Indonesia, but instead she sings Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram , followed by the Indian national anthem. It is quickly obvious that Medan has a special connection to India. Even the name, Medan, is believed to have been derived from the Hindi word maidan , meaning ground.
North Sumatra, the tip of which is only 100 miles from India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands, was one of the first areas in the Indonesian archipelago to convert to Islam, as early as the 13th century. The influence of Indian Hinduism and Buddhism on Indonesia from the first century AD, is well documented. But less known is the role of Gujarati Muslim traders in taking Islam to the country that is today the world’s most populous Muslim nation.
Nuruddin ibn Ali ar-Raniri, an Islamic mystic from Surat, lived for several years in the Sumatran court of the Sultan of Aceh. His work is considered among the oldest Islamic scholarship of Southeast Asia. Although few traces of Islam’s Indian connection to Indonesia remain today, in Padang, a city in western Sumatra, the tradition of Serak Gulo continues to highlight this historical association. This is a ritual in which small sachets of sugar, packed in cotton bags are scattered from the rooftops of mosques every March, to celebrate the birth of Sahul Hamid, another Indian Islamic preacher credited with introducing Islam to Sumatra.
In the mid 19 century, Dutch companies began to import Indian labour, the majority from south Indian cities like Nagapattinam, Madras, and Karaikal, to work in Sumatran tobacco and rubber plantations. There are few records that tell their story. In a musty library set up by a former local royal, Tuanku Luckman Sinar, a pamphlet on ‘The Indians of North Sumatra’ written by Sinar himself, is the only literature to be found on the community.
The Dutch contracted Indians, many already working in Malaysia, to construct roads, trenches and dykes, since local workers were thought to be lazy, “their whole nature to revolt against constant application to one particular routine” (Arnold Wright’s 20th Century Impressions of Netherlands India ). The Indian diaspora in North Sumatra also included “free” Indians, mostly Chettiars and Chittis, who worked as traders and moneylenders, as well as Sikhs who found jobs as security guards and dairy farmers.
The first Gurudwara in Medan was established in 1911 and the first Indian Catholic church in 1912. The Mariamman temple dates even further back to the 1880s. Today, there are more than 15 Tamil Hindu temple organisations in North Sumatra alone.
One of the most intriguing characters I read about is a former Indian boxer called Young Sattar, who during the course of the Second World War helped organise a unit of the Indian National Army in Sumatra to fight against the Allied army.
Basir Ahmed, the Indian Consul General in Medan, does not have more information about Sattar, but he says there are around 60,000 people of Indian origin who live in Sumatra. Muslims from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have intermarried and integrated into local society. The other groups have retained stronger ancestral identities.
An Indonesian employee of the Indian consulate tells me that the village he grew up in had many Indians. “They were poor like us, and looked like us, unlike the Chinese.” (The Chinese are the other substantial minority in Sumatra.)
Julius Raja, a Tamil who heads one of Medan’s Indian Associations, explains that he is a fourth generation Indonesian, his great grandfather having emigrated from Salem in Tamil Nadu. Raja works for the tax office and is unusual in having a government job. There are only around 20 Indians in Sumatra who work for the government. Most remain poorly educated.
Sukhdev Singh who represents the local Sikh community, describes how his Kapurthala-born father came to Sumatra aboard a ship from Calcutta in 1942. (That north Indians usually travelled to Indonesia on ships from Bengal goes some way in explaining why all non-Tamils in Medan are referred to as Bengalis.) The father began trading in ghee before moving into cosmetics and textiles. Today, like most Sikh families in Medan, Singh owns a sporting goods store. He says there are around 850 Sikh families in the city.
It is striking how stratified the Indians are, dispersed across autonomous Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Muslim and Buddhist organisations. The Buddhists are Dalits who converted after being denied entry to caste Hindu temples. They now worship at Vihaaras that are funded, in part, by Chinese Buddhist associations. I meet two women of Tamil origin who say that caste prejudice persists among the Indians of Medan and that the entry of Dalits into Hindu temples remains barred, although it is illegal.
Rita Relia, an anthropologist at the University of Sumatera Utara, who researches Medan’s Indian community, explains that unlike the Chinese, the Indians lack a single “community”, which goes some way in explaining why they remain economically backwards. Ironically this poverty might have protected the Indians from the kind of racist attacks that Indonesia’s Chinese community (resented for its ostensible wealth) has often been at the receiving end of.
My last meeting is with a group of fifth generation Indian Muslims. Dressed in local-style clothes, the men in skullcaps and the women in hijabs tell me that intermarriage with Sumatran Muslims is common. A toothless grandmother alone speaks a few words of Tamil. The rest, though, seem attached to their Indian identity despite not being able to name the towns of their ancestors in India. A young woman, the daughter of a restaurant owner, smiles shyly and begins recounting the Indian words she knows, “ biryani , paratha , daal , chawal ,” she giggles. “Do you know Shah Rukh Khan?” the girl’s husband, an ethnic Malay, asks hopefully.
Pallavi Aiyar has spent over a decade reporting from China, Europe and Indonesia and is a Young Global Leader with the World Economic Forum.