TRAVEL | The magic of Malaysia's Melaka

TRAVEL | The magic of Malaysia's Melaka

Explore the rich trading history and multicultural heritage of Melaka in Malaysia that also has an Indian connection

Melaka Straits Mosque

Our genes tell the real ethnic tale. Those little inheritance markers assert that we, the people of India, had a vast and varied ancestry, in spite of what some blinkered people would like us to believe. In fact, it has been a two-way flow. Many Malaysians believe that an Indian laid the foundations of their nation in a beautiful town called Melaka. The founder was a PIO.

Impressive beginnings

This Prince of Indian Origin, named Parameshwara, had been ousted from his beleaguered kingdom in Sumatra. Landing here, he, his followers and their ferocious hunting dogs, had camped under a Melaka tree. At that time, so the legend says, a little mouse deer appeared, snapped at the hounds and frightened them so much that they turned tail and fled. Parameshwara was impressed. “There must be something magical about this land,” he said to himself. “If I make my kingdom here, my forces will also be able to repel the most fearsome invaders.”

From that small beginning, Melaka grew, mentored by Chinese, Indians, Portuguese, Dutch, British; and the father of free Malaysia: Tunku Abdul Rahman. All of them fell in love with Melaka, and left their indelible marks on this beautiful World Heritage town.

In the tourist-alive heart of Melaka, the superbly recreated Sultan’s Palace looked like a replica of the Zamorin’s Court in Calicut. Even the wooden glare-diffusing louvres shading the interiors of the palace were typical of Kerala architecture. More obvious Indian connections have been established in other parts of Melaka.

Maritime Museum

We drove to the teeming Jalan Hang Jebat, more popularly called Jonker Street. There, on a parallel road, we visited Malaysia’s oldest temple. A bare-chested pujari informed us that the Sri Poyyatha Vinayar Temple was the property of the ‘Chetty Malaka Community’. A government pamphlet claimed that: Chittys are Straits-born Indians and offsprings (sic) of Indian Traders from Panai.

No one, not even the pujari, could tell us where exactly in India ‘Panai’ was. Later, however, we visited the Kampung Budaya Chitty in the suburbs and met a Chitty named Raja, and his family. He said that they had migrated from the Coromandel Coast when the Portuguese were the dominant colonial power, and settled here. He distinguished his community from the Nattukotai Chettairs who returned to their mansions in India and were here only for trade: they did not settle here. Raja had collected the traditional artefacts of Chitty culture in this home-museum. Their Muthu Mariamman Temple at the end of the street affirmed their Indian origins.

Indian and Chinese traders have been traditional rivals in Southeast Asia for centuries. Back in the Jonker area, on the street on which the earlier ‘Chitty’ temple stood, was the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia. The resplendent Cheng Hoon Teng is revered by Buddhists, Taoists and Confucians alike. It was busy with worshippers wafting blue clouds of fragrant incense: young women in jeans, men in business suits and old men with wispy white beards who could have stepped out of Chinese engravings. Chinese and Malayans, together, created the prosperous community of the Peranakans, also known as the Baba Nonyas, with their own dress, customs and cuisine.

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A treasure trove

We crossed a bridge into a labyrinth of ancient streets and lanes. Here we were conducted through the Baba Nyonya Museum. This mansion, in particular, was a treasure trove of their eclectic Sino-Malayan heritage. Interestingly, not far from here, and near the Indian and Chinese temples was the Kampung Kling Mosque sequestered by a high wall. We were told that its multi-tiered roof, the absence of a dome, and its strange, pagoda-like minaret indicated that it had been built by Muslims from Sumatra.

Jonker Street and its environs reminded us of Delhi’s Chandni Chowk in a Malaysian setting. Tourists and locals shopped for food, fabrics, trinkets, even glimpses into the future: there were fortune tellers, paper replicas of gifts for those who had passed on, and singing birds in beautiful cages. In our walkthrough Jonker, we had a rich, multi-sensory experience of traditional Malaya before the Europeans began to plunder Asia.

Then we drove to Melaka’s carefully-preserved colonial heritage. Very astutely, Malaysians have realised that European tourists will pay to relive their imperial past. Destroying such monuments might give brief moments of retributive satisfaction, but they will not reverse history. The best way to do that is to restore and, if necessary, even reconstruct that heritage and then make the descendants of those former conquerors pay to revel in their bitter-sweet nostalgia for a time that will never return!

Melaka has tapped into this yearning excellently. From India, in the 16th century, the Portuguese had come to Melaka where they erected their town-dominating fort, A Famosa. The British demolished much of it when they occupied the town but the stone entrance, Porta de Santiago, was saved. Also standing, accessed by a flight of railed steps, are the ruins of the fort’s church, where St Francis Xavier’s body was interred before it was taken to Portuguese Goa. In St Peter’s Church, near Melaka’s historic central square, there is a stained glass window of the saint who then became the patron of Portugal’s Goan possession.

Also informally referred to as the Red Square, it stands assertive and stolid with terracotta-red buildings dating back to the age of the Netherlanders who, as in India, had replaced the Iberians. In the 259-year-old Christ Church, the pastor was once hoisted up in his chair to spout Reformist fire and brimstone from high above his trembling parishioners. Today, trishaws, festive with paper flowers, perambulate tourists in front of the church, around the square, past a reconstructed windmill to evoke a Dutch ambience, and the Stadthuys, once the administrative centre of Dutch rule since 1645, now The History and Ethnography Museum. A plaque on the wall recalls that after the East India Company ousted the Dutch, Malaysia became part of Queen Victoria’s Indian Empire.

Freedom at no price

Malaysia didn’t have to fight for its independence. After we became independent, Tunku Abdul Rahman brought back Britain’s promise of independence to Malaya, announcing it at the end of a triumphal procession in Melaka in 1956. There’s a picture of that cavalcade in the Proclamation of Independence Memorial, formerly a starchy British Colonial Club, not far from the Sultan’s Palace.

It’s a reflection of the self-confidence of Malaysians that they have made a full-scale replica of the Portuguese ship, Flor de la Mar, and installed it in their Muzium Samudera or Maritime Museum. Clearly, they do not suffer from a denial of their history.

In the heart of Melaka rises a 130-foot-high tower with a doughnut-shaped, glass-sided observation pavillion on it. We took a ride to the top. It was exhilarating. We saw how the town had grown outwards from the river, becoming more crowded, rising higher as it expanded. There, beneath us, was the reconstructed Portuguese ship, a huge replica of the original wooden water-wheel, and the historic fortified hill of the Portuguese fidalgos.

Casa del Rio

Sadly, we had no time to take the amphibious Quacker Duck Tour, and drive-cruise from Melaka into the waters of the Straits and back. But there’s always another time to recreate some of Parameshwara’s voyage and the multi-ethnic history of Malaysia.

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