The curious case of the MALAYSIAN CHITTIS

In a cottage near Melaka, Hugh and Colleen Gantzer learn about a 230-year-old community of exiles — the Chettis of Malaysia, hailing not from Chettinad but Chennai, and distinguished by their richly merged bloodlines.

January 05, 2013 04:20 pm | Updated October 18, 2016 12:51 pm IST

The temple. Photo: Hugh and Colleen Gantzer

The temple. Photo: Hugh and Colleen Gantzer

When we spotted the entrance arch and the board, while driving around Melaka, we stopped. An inscription said Kampung Chetti: the Chetti Village. That was odd. ‘Chetti’ is the Malaysian term for the enterprising Chettiars of Tamil Nadu. But those great trading families had a tradition of sending their men to amass fortunes in Burma and South-East Asia, returning, periodically, to their families in Chettinad. There their families had lived in their ornate nattukottai mansions. Who, then, were these Malaysian ‘Chettis’?

The cottages lining the village street had a prosperous, middle-class look. All of them had verandahs, some behind prim picket fences, and they were all bright with potted plants. Nevertheless, we got the impression of a tight-knit community sequestered behind the flowers.

At the far end was an open-fronted temple.

From a distance the single storey structure had the colourful, accessible look of a Taoist shrine. As we got closer, however, we noticed, above the open entrance, a small version of the barrel-like structures that crown the towering gopurams of southern temples. Behind it rose the dome typical of the vimanas we have seen in Tamil Nadu. There was no mistaking its affiliation now. On the façade of the temple was the image of a goddess riding a peacock, alongside other, brightly painted icons from the Hindu pantheon.

A faint fragrance of incense wafted out from the hall beyond as a man in a white shirt and a sarong, standing before the sanctum, worshipped an idol of the same goddess with a peacock vahan . When he finished his devotions, he turned to us and said, “This is Kovil Shri Muthu Mariamma.” We asked him, “How old is this temple?” He smiled, shrugged, shook his head and pointing down the road said, “Please ask in Gallery: house with garden, grandfather’s beard.” Then he hurried away, looking at his watch.

We were intrigued. This was, clearly, a Hindu temple and our informant had followed the rituals of Hindu worship. But his features and body language indicated strong South-East Asian bloodlines: he had pointed down the street with his thumb on his clenched fist, not with his forefinger as we do. Was he a Chetti? But who were these Chettis? Those merchant princes of Chettinad seemed to have nothing in common with the simple folk who had settled in Kampung Chetti. And what did our informant mean by “house with garden, grandfather’s beard”?

As it turned out, his description was right.

There was only one cottage with a small patch of garden and a tree with a hanging basket trailing a beard of grey-green Spanish Moss. A sign identified the house as The Chitty Living Gallery and we were greeted by its owner K. Nadarajan Raja, his wife Wenila and their little girl Kashika. We took off our shoes, sat at their dining table, sipped coffee and learnt all about a 230-year-old community of exiles.

“Our ancestors came here from Chennai in 1781 led by Thevanagam Chitty,” Nadarajan explained. Framed photographs of ancestors, weddings and religious ceremonies hung on the walls. Polished utensils and artefacts of another age were displayed on shelves and tables. Traditional jewellery glittered in glass-fronted cabinets, and a glass donation box was half filled with coins and currency notes. These museum-like exhibits were in sharp contrast with the immaculate, almost austere, modernity of the polished floor, the sofa suite, the dining table and the faux-antique clock on the wall, ticking with electronic regularity.

Nadarajan said, “We set up our own Living Gallery to preserve our heritage.” His voice trailed away reminiscently.

“Are you called Chittis or Chettis: probably a short form of Chettiar?”

“Same thing. We say Chitti.” He sipped his coffee and dandled Kashika on his knee. Wenila refilled our cups.

“Why did your people come here?” we asked.

“They were traders, bringing things like gingelly oil and onions and sending back carpets from Arab traders. At that time the Portuguese were here. They liked us and so we helped them establish their rule and drive out the Sultan of this area.” The clock above the dining table chimed. “Then came the Dutch,” he shook his head slowly. “They took control of the spice trade and snatched it away from us. They settled us on tracts of land and we were forced to become farmers. But that was not the end. The British came and, slowly, we became clerks in their offices. Today, most of us work in offices.” He thought a while and then added, “Malayalees had come with the British: they are very learned people.” We thought of the great trading houses in Fort Kochi, slumbering in the “factory” architecture of the East India Company. Young writers fresh out of London would have needed “learned people” from their base in Kerala to show them the ropes at this outpost of the John Company’s empire. In Kochi, too, the Portuguese Church of St. Francis had been taken over by the Dutch and had then passed into the hands of the Church of England as priests followed pioneers.

“Did our ancestors bring their priests with them?”

“Yes. Our priests are called Pandarams ; the present Pandaram is Siva Subramaniam. We also have other communities among us: the Padiachees, Mudaliars, Naikars, Pathair who are goldsmiths, Rajas, Konars who are cattle herders and Pillays who are from Kerala.” Ethnic equations prevailing at home were clearly blurred in this alien environment, even though class distinctions seemed to have been reasserted as new castes.

“And did your ancestors also bring their wives?”

“No, they were not allowed to. Or, perhaps it was too expensive to go back and forth in those distant days. They married local Javanese, Malay and Chinese women, and never went back.” The grainy photographs of ancestors showed men with skull caps and wispy beards, others with obvious Malay features and wearing embroidered jackets and sarongs.

Wenila intervened. “I come from Sumatra.” Then she added proudly, “The people of Bali are not pure Hindus as we are.”

“From the age of 6 to 12,” her husband elaborated, “our children are sent to the temple to learn their prayers, a few Tamil words and some bhajans . We celebrate Veettu Pongal (house pongal), and Maatu Pongal (cow pongal).” He pointed to a picture of a decorated and caparisoned bull. “We never eat beef or pork: beef because of our religion, pork because our wives could have been Muslims. We also pray to our ancestors on a day before Deepavali.” We thought of the Chinese Festival of Hungry Ghosts, radiant with lanterns left over from the Moon Cake Festival. The ceremonial edges of neighbouring festivals and faiths often tend to merge.

Just before we left we asked our last question. “In India we visited the Nattukottai Chettiars. Are they part of your community?”

“No. They came during the British times as money lenders. They never married local women. They’re different!”

Behavioural scientists Desmond Morris and Peter Marsh, in their book Tribes , say “The sense of communality both binds the members of a tribe together and distances them from non-members of the tribe.” In spite of their richly merged bloodlines, the Malaysian Chittis have erected selective, sequestering, ethnic barriers around themselves.

This exclusivity is, probably, what we had sensed when we first saw the flower-bright bungalows of Kampung Chetti.

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