Patriotic jamboree

Patriotic jamboree

Patriotic jamboree

Merdeka, merdeka!” (Free, free) the crowds in Kuala Lumpur’s (KL) Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) roared, waving Malaysian flags. Invited for the National Day celebrations, we had prime seats next to the royal pavilion and watched colourful floats, performers, troops, a mock SWAT operation and a costume extravaganza representing Malaysia’s ethnic diversity. The word ‘merdeka’ comes from the Sanskrit ‘maharddhika’ meaning ‘rich, prosperous and powerful’.

The term was corrupted by the Portuguese and the Dutch to ‘mardijker’ and referred to former slaves from India. The Malay meaning of ‘free/freedom’ is derived from the same word.

Malaysia’s ancient links with India were palpable — from the influence of Sanskrit, presence of Tamil seafarers since the Chola and Pallava rule, to the advent of Islam through Arab and Indian trade.

We sat in the shadow of Sultan Abdul Samad Building, its domed architecture inspired by Mughal designs. Built in 1897, it was the first all-brick and electrified structure in Malaysia.

Signifying the start of KL’s modern era, it served as the administrative headquarters of the British and currently houses the Ministry of Heritage, Culture and Arts. The KL Tower looming over the city was called Menara (after ‘minar’). KL’s premier shopping destination, Suria KLCC, was named after the Malay word for ‘sun’. And the head of Government, among other dignitaries attending the parade, was the ‘perdana mantri’ (prime minister).

There was an air of familiarity about Malaysia, the way one recognises a relative through a shared genetic trait.

In 1398, when Parameshwara, the last Hindu King of Singapura (Singapore), was defeated by the Majapahit kingdom of Java, he embraced Islam as Iskandar Khan and sought newer pastures in west Malaya.

One day, a mouse deer outsmarted his hunting dog and escaped into the river.

Impressed by its bravery, he laid the foundation of a new kingdom, naming it Melaka (or Malacca) after the amalaka (gooseberry in Sanskrit) tree under whose shade he rested. Even today the mouse deer is part of Melaka’s royal emblem.

Like Melaka, KL originated on the banks of a river, in fact two. Behind the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, the frontier town first developed at the muddy confluence of the Klang and Gombak. ‘Kuala’ means estuary in Malay and ‘lumpur’ is mud. Besides an avenue for riverine trade, the waters brought in alluvial deposits rich in tin. With the arrival of Chinese immigrants in the 1820s, the tin mining and pewter industry took root. By the end of the 19th century, Malaysia supplied 55 per cent of world’s tin!

Such lucrative booty resulted in frequent wars between Chinese miners, Malay sultans and regional chiefs — a situation ripe for imperialist pickings. After the Portuguese and the Dutch, the British joined the fray and by 1874, key tin-mining Malay states were under colonial control. This ushered in a period of stability. The first road and railway networks linked the mining towns, injecting much-needed development.

After the parade, we walked  to Jami Masjid, one of KL’s oldest mosques, built by the British! Located at the confluence behind their headquarters, it was a strategic ploy to mediate between warring trade factions after Friday prayers.

While a visit to Royal Selangor Factory is essential to see how pewter is made, the perfect window to KL’s early years is the musical called Mud. Set during the 1880 mining boom, it traces the journey of three friends who come to the frontier town in search of opportunity. Their encounters with a host of colourful characters mirrors the cultural mosaic that’s KL. The venue for the show is Panggung Bandaraya, another Mughal-inspired building.

Signs of past
Colonial vestiges are everywhere. The large padang (ground) once served as a cricket ground for The Royal Selangor Club, discernible by its Tudor façade. Our guide, Badrillah Jeevan, elaborated that since women and animals were not allowed into the premises of the club, the Commissioner’s wife often dropped by to check on her husband. She would leave her two Dalmatians outside and passersby would know that she was on the lookout. That’s how the club was nicknamed ‘The Spotted Dog’.

In the old days, railway tracks came right up to the riverfront. Passengers and goods from the port were brought in smaller boats before heading to the ‘wet market’ nearby, which was developed into Central Market in 1888 by Chinese kapitan (community leader) Yap Ah Loy. The place gained notoriety as a hub of opium, gambling and women. Now, given an Art Deco facelift by the British, it is a buzzing cultural and craft hub with many shopping avenues. At Precious Old China, we enjoyed the delectable Nyonya cuisine, a combination of Chinese ingredients cooked with Malay herbs and spices.

By 1940, as Malaysia’s tin reserves dwindled, the pewter industry declined. Before KL could be forgotten as a boomtown, once again, its magical mud came to its rescue. The alluvium at the confluence was used to make bricks and the place where it dried was called Brickfields. Today, the area is known as Little India. Over time, immigrants to KL got centered around different pockets. Bukit Bintang became Arab Street and Petaling Street was called China Town.

We tried durian and satays at roadside stalls in Jalan Alor; haggled with vendors in China Town; watched worshippers burn incense at the Taoist Guan Di temple; and witnessed the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival. Amid prayers and food offerings, people burned ‘Hell Money’ (fake currency) to appease ancestors and wandering spirits so they could live more comfortably in the afterlife. Home to a large Tamil population, Malaysia celebrates festivals like Deepavali with great pomp and thousands throng Lord Murugan’s hill shrine at Batu Caves during Thaipusam (Jan-Feb). 

Malaysia did seem like a land of endless celebrations.

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