History & Culture

The Chetti Melaka community of Malacca

A traditional Chetti Melaka couple  

Over time, with influx of migrant communities, the world has witnessed many cultural confluences and diversity. These communities brought along with them their unique socio-cultural practices including their tradition and rituals. And in the course of time, these practices gained permanence and were followed by the migrants with much fervour. There has been a similar migration of a particular community from India that pervaded and remained in a Chinese and Malay setting, over the centuries. They are the Chetti Melaka, a small community of people living within a kampung, in Malacca.

The 14th century saw South Indian traders sail the seas for employment in strange lands and arriving in the Straits, Malacca became home to many of the fortune seekers. The desire for home-like comforts saw them compromise on the marital front — the Chetti Tamil traders married the locals, adopting new customs and religions, while not giving up on the old. Their descendants became the Indian Peranakan [local born]; Hindu gods were venerated, Indian clothes were worn blended with Malay style — the sari and kebaya, the lungi and the talapa, made of local batik. The women wore anklets and beaded footwear. Jewellery was a mix of Chinese and Malay, along with traditional Tamil pieces.

Henna was both a fashion and a wedding tradition, like in India. The groom wore veshti with a short coat and talapa, as well as a marakoo, the embroidered scarf, along with a silver belt and a large pendant. Sari, songket [sarong], marakoo, headgear and a padakam, along with the kasut makek, the beaded slippers form part of the bride’s traditional attire. The Naik tiang ceremony precede the wedding festivities. A very distinct South Indian touch adopted by the women was the chewing of betel leaf and nut.

The women [nyonya] excelled in home-making — nyonya cuisine attracted foodies from afar. Rice dishes took on local influences of lemon grass, ginger, chilly, coconut milk, shrimp paste and palm sugar, along with local spices hand-pounded into curry powders. Tamarind and pineapple were used in fish curries to give a tangish taste. Puttu and dosai were prepared on special occasions.

other artefacts used by the chetti melaka community

other artefacts used by the chetti melaka community  

The desserts menu included Kueh and cakes, and agar agar, the seaweed jelly. Herbs were grown in the Kampung home gardens, both for the kitchen, and for medicinal use. One great concession to the West was the ‘4711 cologne,’ — a firm favourite for everything from scent to healing colds and infections!

Indian festivals were combined with temple traditions — Thaipusam, theemithi, Navaratri and Deepavali. The Poyyatha Vinayagar temple, still run by the Nattukottai Nagarathar Chettiars, and the Mariamman temple draw people of the Chetti Melaka community back to the kampung each year. In line with the South Indian tradition, the deity used to be carried in a procession (on a bullock cart) through the town, with the devotees carrying the milk pot leading in front. Two figures called hantu, tetek will be carried before the deity, dancing to drums, in Balinese tradition. The temple reverberates with divinity when the nagaswaram is played, and the artistes used to come from Jaffna. An elaborate meal on plantain leaf will be served to everyone.

Customs including the ear-piercing ceremony and the wedding procession or the ‘varisai’ reflect more of the Tamil Nadu tradition. During the sadangu function, (celebrated when a girl attains puberty) the young girl in a sari is given gifts on seven trays—betel leaf, rice, fruit, cake etc. The roller of a grinding stone is also one of the gifts, a tradition which is adopted in the Rajapalayam community too.

stone grinder

stone grinder  

A blend of tradition can be seen especially when a death occurs in the community. The dead are buried, like in the Oriental custom. And for the language it is a mix of Malay, Chinese and Tamil. Cooking traditions are learnt from the grandmother or aunt.

The idli paanai or steamer has travelled from Tamil Nadu, as also various stone implements — batu giling [ammikkal], lesung batu [attukal] and batu boh [stone grinder]. Woven baskets are the unique art piece of Peranakan used to carry cakes and sweets.

The most endearing is the ‘pallankuzhi,’ the congak — the ancient game, played by the Peranakans, mostly in the ‘pyol’ of their house.

The lifestyle, tradition and rituals of the Chetti Melaka are being portrayed and displayed at the Indian Heritage Centre, Singapore, with well-sourced ancient exhibits.

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Printable version | Oct 15, 2021 1:32:45 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/the-chetti-melaka-community-of-malacca/article28177863.ece

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