Of the old and new

Homely Feeling

Of the old and new

Heritage : The Sultan Abdul Samad Building in Kuala Lumpur. Photo Janardhan roye Indians have been intrepid world travellers. In the third century BC for instance, coastal Andhraites sailed regularly to southeast Asia to trade, set up shops and eventually settle down overseas. When the East India Company arrived in India, they took hundreds of indentured labourers to all parts of the world.

In the mid-1800s, the company took workers en masse to the Malay peninsula to work in plantations or mines. Later, skilled, educated Indians sailed to take up jobs in the railways, road, bridge, waterworks, housing and other infrastructure projects. In recent times, highly qualified professionals are in great demand.

Today, when Indians travel to these parts, they are often surprised by the number of people of Indian origin they encounter, add to that, age-old Indian traditions and customs that flourish in these distant shores. On a recent visit to Kuala Lumpur, I had my share of double-takes as I walked in the footsteps of our compatriots, old and new, and got to see how this tin mine of yore has evolved into an alpha city — with desis chipping in heartily in its amazing progress.

Past and present

My visit to the stunningly advanced city began at Merdeka Square. On a cool, cloudy day, I crossed a wide swath of green, smelling the perfume of recently cut grass and rain-pelted ground. I was in an arena that once resounded with cries and sounds of cricket, rugby and other English pastimes, that old social bastion of the expat Brit, the Royal Selangor Club at the end of the Padang or old Parade Ground. Once a ‘white-only’ area, it today teems with an eclectic mix of the international crowd. Near the club is the quaint Anglican church, St Mary’s.

After the club-church visit, I returned to the gigantic, 100-metre flag post. The huge Malaysian flag fluttered heavily above me. In front was a beautiful heritage structure, the Sultan Abdul Samad building. Its charming clock tower, horseshoe arches and copper dome were once the seat of the colonial government that had a fair sprinkling of Indian inputs — officers, accountants, and staff. On the right was the Old Kuala Lumpur Railway Station designed by the prolific English architect, Arthur Benison Hubback. The design bears a close resemblance to the profusion of Mughal and Indo-Saracenic architecture that one sees in the VT station in Mumbai.

From the flag post, I crossed the busy Jalan Raja. “This area was once a thick rainforest,” explained my host-guide. “Under this road flows the majestic River Sungai Lumpur or the Gombak. Today it flows gently but not too long ago, its thunder and swell excited residents with both joy and fear,” he added. At the triangular end of the famous Masjid Jamek campus, the ‘river’ was hurrying on as a stream, and met up its cousin Klang, coming in from the other side. “The first tin mines of Malaysia were established near this spot,” said my guide. 

The Old Mosque is classic Hubback, complete with ornate onion-shaped domes, open, breezy interiors, and Moorish arches in red and white. Seated inside were people taking a break from the heat, many with white skullcaps and goatees. I stopped in my tracks when I heard them speak. They were talking in a mix of Tamil and south Dakhni Urdu, something out of North Arcot or Bangalore’s Lubbay Masjid Street. Standing at the confluence and looking around at the surrounding high rises, it’s hard to believe that this area was once a dense forest crowded with timeless vegetation and tall majestic trees competing for light and sun. 

But in the mid-1800s, all that changed. Machetes swished and whacked to clear a path to the rich resources hidden in the forest belly.

It was the time of the first industrial revolution. Demand for tin was insatiable. The archipelago was the pre-eminent supplier and John Bull seized the opportunity. With that came creature comforts of the first order — permanent brick, mortar and tile structures, and everything like ‘back home’. By 1857, the swampy frontier settlement had become an outpost of immense economic and global importance. 

A century on, the Union Jack was replaced at Dataran Merdeka or Independence Square. Better educated and trained descendents replaced the old colonial order, and in a burst of rapid and mind-boggling progression, ‘the old little tin town’, Kuala Lumpur, blossomed into an alpha city. People of Indian origin played a key role in this development. Today, they account for a tenth of the population and occupy important positions in the government, administration, judiciary, academics and research, defence, industry and trade. About a third of all lawyers and doctors in the country are Indian.

In the arts and entertainment fields, they shine on the marquees. Presently, some 1,50,000 expatriates work in the country’s IT and other industries, in joint ventures and subsidiaries. Indians figure prominently in the multi-cultural society, and are a model of the ‘1Malaysia effort’.

One morning, I went deep into Jalan Petaling and found myself surrounded by the heady scent of jasmine and other fragrant Indian flowers, the aromas of traditional south Indian filter coffee, vedic chants and the ringing of temple bells. This enclave, Klang’s Little India, was where the early Indians first pitched tent. To this day, the 19th century Sri Mahamariamman Temple continues to be an important Hindu pilgrimage centre and a symbol of cultural and national heritage.

Today, the muddy estuary is a space-age wonderland, an economic powerhouse and a popular tourist destination. One look at the city’s skyline says it all. Some of the world’s tallest and most recognisable buildings — Cesar Pelli’s Petronas Twin Towers, the Menara KL Tower and the Putra World Trade Centre — dominate the city skyline.

In addition to the variety and splendour of these futuristic structures, there are well-preserved heritage buildings. One can’t miss the general civic order and discipline, the eco-friendly efforts everywhere in the city — well-maintained lakes, landscaped gardens, avenues of tall shade-offering trees, garbage- and plastic-free locales, and such calming, pleasant sights.

I saved my last evening’s visit for something that catches everyone’s eye from the very moment they land in the city —  the breathtaking 88-storey Petronas Towers. On closer look, the skyscraper is a marvel of modern engineering. At its base is an upmarket retail podium featuring some of the world’s best known labels and luxury goods, restaurants, art galleries, a concert hall, an underwater aquarium, and a science museum. “The twin towers are a great example of our country’s forward thinking,” said Selvan, who I befriended on the lift, “This building with an eight-sided star floor plan represents the optimism and future of Malaysia.”

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