A 'spicy' story

A 'spicy' story

If it wasn’t for Malaysia’s Penang, India would have been different. This struck us when we were there, in a beautiful resort on a beach known as Batu Ferringhi: literally ‘the Foreigner’s Rock’. And thereby hangs a fascinating historical tale.

Almost 600 years earlier, an English captain named James Lancaster had hidden his ‘shabby old vessel, the Edward Bonaventure’ in this secluded spot. He intended to pounce on Portuguese spice ships, which is exactly what he did, very successfully. He waylaid many of them, loaded his ship to the scuppers with spices, and happily prepared to sail back home with his aromatic loot. Later, the English would legalise such criminal acts by authorising private ships to carry arms as privateers and attack ‘enemy’ vessels: the marine version of James Bond’s Licence to Kill! At that time, however, it was illegal, even in flexible Elizabethan England.

According to author Raymond Flower, writing in his entertaining The Penang Adventure, spices alone made the roast beef of old England palatable during the long winter months, when for lack of fodder,  most of the cattle had to be slaughtered.

Lancaster’s dreams of ill-gotten wealth were shattered because he lost his cargo to a mutinous crew who, in turn, were captured and butchered by the Spaniards. But his appetite had been whetted. He managed to find his way back to his misty isles where he was able to convince the determinedly amoral Queen Elizabeth I to set up a company to engage in this lucrative trade. It was registered on December 31, 1600, as The Governor and Merchants of London trading into the East Indies. It is better known as the East India Company (EIC). Captain, now Sir James Lancaster,  was its first director. Very clearly, he put his ‘Rule Britannia, Britannia Waives the Rules’ stamp on his company.

Propelled by its shady business ‘principles’, the EIC was able to trump all its competitors established by other European powers. In its heyday, the company was the world’s largest commercial enterprise. Even today, no multinational can match the reach it had then. Or the authority of its officers like Thomas Raffles of Singapore and Robert Clive of India.

In remembrance
One of its dedicated, profit-driven officers was Capt Francis Light. His statue stands in the restored battlements of the trading fort he built in Penang to protect the spoils he regularly amassed before shipping some of it to his directors in London. He, and the other officials of the EIC, encouraged Indian and Chinese families to bring their traditional professions and entrepreneurial skills to develop Penang.

Chinese women married local Malayas and created the proud Baba-Nyonya community, with its own mores mingling the cultures of the two communities. Then came the neighbouring Thais and Burmese who built their resplendent temples and put down their own roots in this welcoming place. At the fringes of the ethnic groups, there was more intermingling of bloodlines, and even Francis Light had married a woman of Portuguese origin brought up in a Malay sultan’s court.

For us, the kaleidoscope of cultures was exciting. In George Town, the Thai temple was a resplendence of gold, green, red and blue with towering guardians resembling our dwarapalakas, and an enormous reclining Buddha with a pink face and gold robes. Across the road was the slightly less assertive Burmese Temple where a blue-bodied Buddha stood radiating serenity.

Interestingly, souvenir-sellers outside the temple offered a variety of statuettes,  including little ones of Rama and Sita. In a jetty restaurant, we dined on hopping-fresh seafood and wok-roasted chestnuts from the cool mountains of China.

Some dishes had the evocative flavour of lemon grass; others were almost tandoori relished with the South-East variation known ubiquitously as roti-prata. “But a paratha is a bread, a roti,” we argued. The Sino-Indian-Malay hawker grinned benignly, flashing gold teeth. “Yes-yes,” he bobbed his head in affirmation, “but this is Penang!” and he proceeded to break an egg onto the sizzling roti-prata.

Fortified, we moved on and marvelled at the cool serenity of the Floating Mosque rising above its reflected image: the original architecture of the three Semitic faiths, born in arid West Asian lands, tended to be more minimalist than those of religions nurtured in the lush tropics. St George’s Anglican church was as immaculately white as it had been when Captain Robert Smith of the Madras Engineers had built it in 1818. Then, we boarded two umbrella-shaded pedicabs and toured Little India.

People in mundus and saris strolled past and, in the Mahamariamman Temple under a towering gopuram, banana leaves, garlands, the fragrance of incense and temple bells were a vignette of distant Chennai. One of our Chinese pedi-cab drivers said, “We celebrate every festival of every religion.”

We left our pedalled transports, tramped down a lane redolent of Chinese kitchens, and stepped into a small square.

On one side, sanctuary lights flickered at the base of a spreading tree protecting a Taoist shrine. A little further on, there was a Taoist temple. Absolute Tao is the reality that is the source of all things and can be appreciated intuitively only if one lives in complete harmony with nature. It is mystical and inexplicable, but mankind needs images to focus their devotion.

Golden lighting
Inside the temple, votive lamps threw a golden glow on dark statues of Pao Sheng Ta Ti, God of Justice, and Ma Chao, Goddess of the Sea. The Chew Clan believed that justice had been given to them by the sea after their arduous ocean voyage from China to Penang. Here they had built their village on jetties along the Weld Quay reputedly because they did not want to pay land taxes. Their maritime village, standing on pilings driven into the tidal flats, is linked by wooden walkways open only to pedestrians and motorcycles. Every house we looked into had its revered altar with venerated Taoist icons.

We took a trip on the funicular railway to the peak. Penang Island spread at our feet, a cobweb stretch of steel bridge linked it to the mainland, all around was the Andaman Sea. It was cool and misty at this height, and as we buzzed around in a sight-seeing hill buggy, we spotted cottages set in their own little gardens. Our driver remarked, “Only British houses. Very expensive. Now no British; only local.”

Our Sino-Malay driver slowed the auto and turned back. He said, “Air Force there. No allow!” This was an excellent place for a radar and electronic surveillance station. The successors of James Lancaster would no longer be able to sneak into Penang undetected.

We descended in the funicular and drove out to our last intriguing destination in Penang: the Chor Soo Kong Snake Temple. Here, highly venomous pit vipers, with patterned green bodies, had draped themselves on dried branches within easy reach of visitors. In this temple, we were told, they are under the soothing influence of a departed seer. Clearly, Penang weaves magical spells over its inhabitants. As it did on us.

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