Chetti Melaka of the Straits - Rediscovering Peranakan Indian Communities

Situated at the crossroads of the Indian Ocean region and the Far East, the Malay Archipelago has always been a region of cultural confluence and diversity. The region experienced an influx of migrant communities which brought with them their unique socio-cultural traits ranging from language to religion, fashion to cuisine. Over time, these traits adapted to the multicultural milieu of the local society and resulted in polyglot environments best exemplified by the Chetti Melaka.

The Chetti Melaka (or Chitty Melaka) are descendants of Tamil traders who settled in Melaka during the reign of the Melaka Sultanate (15th – 16th centuries) and married local women of Malay and Chinese descent. Predominantly Hindu of the Saivite (followers of Shiva) denomination, the community speaks a unique combination of Malay, Tamil and Chinese, which has been called Chetti Creole by scholars. They trace their roots to Kampung Chetti in Gajah Berang, Melaka, and it is estimated that there are 5000 Chetti Melaka in Singapore.

The Indian Heritage Centre (IHC), in collaboration with the Peranakan Indian (Chitty Melaka) Association Singapore, proudly presents Chetti Melaka of the Straits – Rediscovering Peranakan Indian Communities, the first of IHC's community co-created exhibitions.

Museum

Indian Heritage Centre

Exhibition date

7 September 2018 – 27 May 2019

Location

Special Exhibition Gallery

people

Who are the Chetti Melaka?

The Chetti Melaka community is fast becoming scattered and diluted. Their story is elusive and underexplored. Where are the Chetti Melaka? Who are they? What is their story? Discover the answer to these questions through this introductory film.

Play

Who are the Chetti Melaka?

The story of the Chetti Melaka community is relatively unexplored and waiting to be discovered and documented. Who are the Chetti Melaka? Where are they located? What is their story? Discover the answers to these questions through this introductory film produced by the Indian Heritage Centre.

Shot in Singapore and Melaka in documentary style, this film presents the journey of two Chetti Melaka youth in search of their roots, and unearths lesser known facets of the Chetti Melaka in Singapore. On a quest for their identity, the protagonists re-examine the importance of their heritage as many young Chetti Melaka have lost touch with their root culture.

The film also contemplates the future of Singapore’s relatively unknown Chetti community and documents how the Chetti Melaka are struggling to preserve their identity, heritage and culture. Through the use of oral history interviews, archival photographs and stylised re-enactments, the film provides a succinct overview of Singapore’s contemporary Chetti Melaka community, its history and heritage.

Early Beginnings

During the 15th century, Malacca (now Melaka) was a bustling entrepôt and attracted traders from across the world. South Indian traders arriving from the Coromandel Coast intermarried with local Malay and Chinese women, and established a Chetti Melaka community that survived the Malacca Sultanate and centuries of Portuguese, Dutch and British rule.

While these traders gradually absorbed local influences including Straits language, food and dress, they continued to adhere to their root religious practices. Over time, the descendants of such locally-settled traders from the Coromandel Coast came to be known as the Melaka-born Hindus or Chetti Melaka. Due to assistance rendered to them at the time of the conquest of Malacca, the Portuguese favoured the Chetti Melaka.

However, the fall of Melaka to the Dutch in 1641 and the ensuing Dutch trade monopoly forced the Chetti community to take up other occupations. The Dutch granted agricultural land to the influential Chetti community in the late 18th century outside the city walls. Over time, the area including Gajah Berang in Melaka became a designated village for the Chetti Melaka.

The 18th and 19th centuries marked a significant decline in the prosperity of the community. With the arrival of the British in 1795, the community found employment in the civil service, especially in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and other emergent towns outside Melaka.

A Grant of Land for Sri Poyatha Venayagar

A Grant of Land for Sri Poyatha Venayagar Moorthi Temple

20 August 1781, Dutch Period, Melaka, Malaysia

Paper

On loan from Sri Poyatha Venayagar Moorthi Temple Trust

This is the title deed for the land given by the Dutch to Jentiefs Tempel (Dutch: Hindu Temple) upon which Sri Poyatha Venayagar Moorthi Temple was built.

A Property Deed for Transfer of Land

A Property Deed for transfer of land to Poyatha Venayagar Moorthi Temple

July 1786, Dutch Period, Melaka, Malaysia

Paper (Reproduction)

On loan from Sri Poyatha Venayagar Moorthi Temple Trust

This deed formalises the transfer of land belonging to a widowed Hindu woman to Sri Poyatha Venayagar Moorthi Temple (listed here as "Malacca Booiada Moerti Tempel") and establishes the fact that the ownership of the land dates back to 1757.

Kampung Chetti: Roots in Melaka

For the Chetti Melaka, Gajah Berang is the only known home town since most Chettis are unaware of the places of origin of their forefathers in India. The majority of the Chetti families live in Land Lots 28, 94, 118 and 138, in clusters around Gajah Berang, Bachang and Tranquerah which constitute Kampung Chetti. This clustering of the community in Kampung Chetti has resulted in the preservation of the community’s distinct lifestyle and cultural heritage.

The community’s affairs and temple properties are managed by the community’s headman in the style of the Indian panchayat (Hindi: village council) system. In accordance to Hindu practice where devotees donate properties to the service of the deity, a number of Chetti Melaka have donated lands to the Sri Poyatha Vinayagar Moorthi Temple Trust.

By the 1980s, scholars estimated that there were around 400 families living in Melaka. Since then, the size of the community has dwindled considerably and Melaka is home to fewer than fifty Chetti Melaka families today. However, Chetti families from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, who are now second or third-generation diaspora, still visit the kampung regularly, and in doing so, maintain their connections with their hometown.

A photograph of the residence of N Somasundaram located at 174 Jalan Gajah Berang

A photograph of the residence of BS Naiker located at No 5 Kampung Tujoh, Gajah Berang

Early 20th century, Melaka, Malaysia

Paper

On loan from S Kathai Devi

A photograph of the residence of N Somasundaram located at 174 Jalan Gajah Berang

A photograph of the residence of N Somasundaram located at 174 Jalan Gajah Berang

1947, Melaka, Malaysia

Paper

On loan from S Namasevayam

Photograph of Sri Poyatha Venayagar Moorthi Temple

Photograph of Sri Poyatha Venayagar Moorthi Temple

1960s, Melaka, Malaysia

Paper (Reproduction)

Courtesy of Vengadesan Naiker

Located in Gajah Berang, Kaliamman Temple (1804), Muthu Mariamman Temple (1822), Kailasanathar Temple (1887) and Angalamman Paramesvari Temple (1888) were built by the community. In addition, five gramma kovil (village shrines) were established in Bachang where the community’s agricultural fields had been.

Photograph of Sri Muthu Mariamman Temple

Photograph of Sri Muthu Mariamman Temple

1960s, Melaka, Malaysia

Paper (Reproduction)

Courtesy of Vengadesan Naiker

Located in Gajah Berang, Kaliamman Temple (1804), Muthu Mariamman Temple (1822), Kailasanathar Temple (1887) and Angalamman Paramesvari Temple (1888) were built by the community. In addition, five gramma kovil (village shrines) were established in Bachang where the community’s agricultural fields had been.

Photograph of Sri Angalamman Paramesvari Temple, Gajah Berang

Photograph of Sri Angalamman Paramesvari Temple, Gajah Berang

1960s, Melaka, Malaysia

Paper (Reproduction)

Courtesy of Vengadesan Naiker

Located in Gajah Berang, Kaliamman Temple (1804), Muthu Mariamman Temple (1822), Kailasanathar Temple (1887) and Angalamman Paramesvari Temple (1888) were built by the community. In addition, five gramma kovil (village shrines) were established in Bachang where the community’s agricultural fields had been.

Kampung Chetti

Kampung Chetti

Courtesy of Indian Heritage Centre

Kampung Chetti

Kampung Chetti

Courtesy of Indian Heritage Centre

Kampung Chetti

Kampung Chetti

Courtesy of Indian Heritage Centre

Sri Muthu Mariamman Temple

Kampung Chetti

Location

Courtesy of Indian Heritage Centre

Sri Muthu Mariamman Temple

Sri Muthu Mariamman Temple

Courtesy of Indian Heritage Centre

Our Chetti Melaka Pioneers

By the time of the British occupation of Melaka, the port city was significantly diminished in importance. Conversely, by the early 20th century, Singapore had started to flourish as a cosmopolitan city and became a popular destination for Chetti Melaka migrants leaving Melaka. During this period, Singapore was under British rule and employment in the British civil service presented Chetti Melaka with opportunities for further education and economic advancement.

The migration of many young Chetti Melaka from Melaka to Singapore was further fuelled by the ease of travel and access to education, and they often found employment as accountants, clerks and administrative staff in the colonial service. Many Chetti Melaka also joined the police forces and held high ranking positions.

These early waves of migration were also made possible by pioneers such as Muthukrishnan Tevanathan Pillay, Arumugam Supramaniam Chitty and Arunasalam Sithambaram Pillay. After arriving in Singapore before World War II, these early migrants held influential posts and played a key role in facilitating the movement of other young aspirants who were seeking opportunities outside Melaka.It is believed that about 50 per cent of the Chetti community in Melaka migrated to Singapore to take up employment in the private sector or in the colonial government service.

Many of the early Chetti Melaka in Singapore became lawyers, teachers, government clerks, military, and/or police personnel. They included Mr Sandy Gurunathan Pillay, a successful lawyer and advocate as well as the President of the Indo-Malayan Association; and Mr Apoo Pillay (or Dollah as he was known), brother-in-law of Mr Pillay, who was employed in a legal firm.

Other early Chetti pioneers included Mr Ramasamy Suppiah Naidu who migrated from Melaka to Singapore around 1920 and joined the police force; and Mr Francis J Pillay who fought in defence of Singapore during World War II. After the war, Mr Pillay was transferred to the Executive Service in Singapore and later had an illustrious career in the Marine Department and Education Ministry.

A photograph of Arumugam Supramaniam Chitty and Sivagamee

A photograph of Arumugam Supramaniam Chitty and Sivagamee

Mid-20th century, Singapore

Paper

On loan from the family of Letchemee Chitty

A photograph of Francis Odiang and Janet Pillay

A photograph of Francis (Odiang) and Janet Pillay

1957, Singapore

Paper (Reproduction)

Courtesy of Gerald Francis Pillay

Odiang Pillay or Francis Joseph Pillay started his career in Singapore as a Deputy Shipping Master in the Marine Department. He was subsequently posted to the Education Ministry where he retired as a Higher Executive Officer in 1957. Odiang and his family lived at 167 Bukit Timah Road before moving to 46 Crowhurst Drive, Serangoon Gardens.

A photograph of AS Pillay and his wife Suppummal

A photograph of AS Pillay and his wife Suppummal

26 January 1945, Singapore

Paper

On loan from SM Pillay

Arunasalam Sidambram Pillay (fondly known as Ambigol) arrived in Singapore in early 1945, and found employment as a clerk with AP Jodhi & Company, a private freight forwarding firm. He was well known among the community for rendering assistance to various family members and acquaintances arriving in Singapore from Melaka.

A photograph of Nellachi Pillay and David Row

A photograph of Nellachi Pillay and David Row

20th century, Singapore

Paper (Reproduction)

On loan from Nellachi Pillay

Teaching aids for visually handicapped children created by Nellachi Pillay

Teaching tools for visually handicapped children invented by Nellachi Pillay

20th century, Singapore

Wood and plastic

On loan from Nellachi Pillay and David Row

A handcrafted doll made by Nellachi Pillay as part of her volunteer work at Tan Tock Seng Hospital

A handcrafted doll made by Nellachi Pillay as part of her volunteer work at Tan Tock Seng Hospital

Late 20th century, Singapore

Paper, fabric and plastic

On loan from Nellachi Pillay and David Row

Nellachi Pillay (later known as Nellie Row) was the daughter of Ardy Pillay, a clerk in the Treasury Department. She migrated to Singapore in the 1950s where she attended the Teachers Training College and graduated in 1953. She taught at a primary school before she was seconded to the Social Welfare Department.

By the late 1950s, Nellie joined the School for the Blind, and in 1959, she became one of the first women to receive the Colombo Plan scholarship when she was sent to New Zealand. On her return, she was promoted and became the Principal of the School for the Blind.

Motivated by her training in arts and crafts and using techniques such as copper tooling, she introduced special teaching aids for blind students. In 1986, she joined the Diversional Therapy unit of Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Singapore as Secretary and initiated programmes that used crafts for therapy.

A photograph of MT Pillay in a checkered sarong

A photograph of MT Pillay in a checkered sarong

20th century, Melaka, Malaysia

Paper

On loan from Nathan Pillay

Muthukrishnan Tevanathan Pillay (fondly known as Baba) was born in Melaka in 1897. He was educated at St Francis’ Institution and served in various clerical positions and later rose to become an executive in the Accountant General’s Office (until 1958). He was responsible for recommending many Chetti Melaka for government jobs in Singapore.

He migrated to Singapore in the 1930s, and was well established by the time of World War II. He owned a modern bungalow at 10 Ceylon Road and he was married to Papathy, another Chetti Melaka. In 1948, he purchased a new bungalow at Kim Eng Road and was well-recognised as an influential member of Singapore’s finance sector.

A portrait of Kanagasabai Arunaselam Pillay

A portrait of Kanagasabai Arunaselam Pillay

20th century, Singapore

Hand-coloured photograph, framed with glazing

On loan from Nathan Pillay

Kanagasabai Arunaselam Pillay (fondly known as Baba) was the son of Kanagasabai Pillay, a trader from Sri Lanka who settled in Malacca in 1860 and married a Chetti Melaka lady, Tulasi Amma. In 1915, he married Avirami Chitty, moved to Singapore and lived at Lorong M, Telok Kurau. He worked as a civil servant, and became a leading member of the Chetti Melaka community in Singapore.

A photograph of Sandy Pillay

A photograph of Sandy Pillay

1957, Singapore

Paper (Reproduction)

Courtesy of Singapore Press Holdings

Sandy Gurunathan Pillay was born in Melaka, and received his early education at Anglo-Chinese School and St Joseph’s Institution, Singapore. He studied at University College in London and in 1931, he passed his Bar exam and returned to Melaka where he practised as a lawyer. Five years later, he migrated to Singapore.

Sandy Pillay was a Fellow of Trinity College of Music, London as well as an Honours Diploma holder of London Polytechnic School of Speech Training and Dramatic Arts. He was also Assistant District Commissioner for Singapore’s central area. He had twin daughters who were well-known women during their time: Terry Pillay, a journalist, and Joan Pillay, a pioneer in the field of advertising.

A post-war studio photograph of Mariappan Pillay

A post-war studio photograph of Mariappan Pillay

Circa 1950s, Singapore

Paper

On loan from the family of Mariappan Kannusamy Pillay

A set of medals belonging to Mariappan Pillay

A set of medals belonging to Mariappan Pillay

1939-1945, Singapore

Metal and cloth

On loan from the family of Mariappan Kannusamy Pillay

Mariappan Pillay was born to Kannusamy Mariappan, a truck driver, in Penang. Mariappan Pillay migrated to Singapore and worked in the Police force from 1934 to 1958. He had 8 children and the family lived at the CID quarters on Robinson Road, then at the Traffic Police quarters at Maxwell Road, and finally, at the Police quarters at Whitley Road.

Pillay’s son, Letchemenon Mariappan also joined the Police force and served from 1961 until his retirement. He was also a bodybuilder and the Executive Secretary of Singapore Bodybuilders’ Federation. In recognition of his contributions, he was presented with the International Federation of Body Builders’ Association’s President’s Honour Gold Medal in 1987.

A photograph of the Ramasamy Suppiah family at Suppiah Villa in the Upper Serangoon area

A photograph of the Ramasamy Suppiah family at Suppiah Villa in the Upper Serangoon area

1940s, Singapore

Paper

On loan from Ponnosamy Kalastree

Ramasamy Suppiah Naidu initially lived with his brother-in-law, Arumugam Supramaniam Chitty, at Chitty Road, before moving to a large house named Suppiah Villa, at Highland Road, off Upper Serangoon Road. This photograph features members of the Ramasamy Suppiah’s family.

Seated in the back row are Ramasamy, his sons Kalastree and Rajoo (later known as Yusof), his sister-in-law Vangathammal (fondly known as Atha Sandy), his wife Kathai Amal (nicknamed as Mak Kechik, or Nenek Ki), and his daughters Janaki (called Akka Bai) and Letchemee. In the front row are Ramasamy’s youngest son, Narayanasamy (later known as Mustafa) and his daughters Krishnavaini and Patama.

A group photograph taken prior to the retirement of SI Abdul Ghani with Detective Ramasamy Suppiah

A group photograph taken prior to the retirement of SI Abdul Ghani with Detective Ramasamy Suppiah

16 June 1941, Singapore

Paper

On loan from Ponnosamy Kalastree

Ramasamy Suppiah Naidu was born in Melaka at the turn of the last century, and the first son of his Telugu father from Andhra Pradesh, India, who married a lady from the Chetti Melaka community. After finishing his studies in Melaka, he moved to Singapore with his wife in 1920 where he joined the police force and rose to the position of Detective Sergeant-Major. In recognition of his contributions, he was conferred a medal by then Governor of the Straits Settlements, Sir Cecil Clementi. He later became the contracting supervisor who built Frankel Estate during the post-war years, and his last enterprise was to own a fleet of 10 taxis before he passed away in May 1967.

Makan Chetti

Chetti Melaka cuisine is a fascinating blend of Indian, Malay and Nonya (Peranakan Chinese) culinary styles and offers a wide variety of delicacies for every occasion. For Chetti Melaka cuisine, traditional Indian spices are typically combined with Malay ingredients such as belacan (shrimp paste), serai (lemongrass), lengkuas (wild ginger), pandan leaf and coconut milk to create uniquely Chetti dishes.

Traditional Chetti Melaka favourites include ikan parang (fish curry), lauk pindang (fish in a tamarind curry), ikan sipat masek nanas (fish in a pineapple curry), and sambal belimbing (pickled sour fruit). The curry dishes are typically accompanied by rice dishes like nasi lemak (fragrant rice dish) prepared in a uniquely Chetti manner using cooled steamed rice boiled with coconut milk and pandan leaves.

For the Chetti Melaka, festivals and special occasions are marked by the preparation of specific dishes. For instance, Chetti Melaka prepare nasi lemak for prayer offerings and nasi kembuli (rice cooked with cashew nuts and spices) for new brides. Puttu, a traditional south Indian dish is served during the puberty ceremony while dosai (rice flour pancake) and fish curry, are associated with Deepavali.

As with many communities, food remains a central part of Chetti identity and brings the young and old together. For the Chetti Melaka, special occasions are marked by an abundance of sweets and cakes. These cakes are usually prepared using a combination of coconut, palm sugar and flour based on Malay recipes. Some popular Chetti Melaka cakes and desserts include pulot tekan, kwey wajek, kwey ondei ondei, kwey kanda kasturi, and penggat durian.

A batu giling (grinding stone)

A batu giling (grinding stone)

20th century, Singapore

Stone

Collection of National Museum of Singapore

Chetti Melaka recipes are typified by elaborate and labour intensive preparations. A variety of grinders would be used to make spice pastes for gravies or as accompaniments, and to prepare flour or lentils for cakes and breads. The batu giling was and remains a mainstay in many Chetti Melaka households. It has also been incorporated into ritual practices, such as in sadanggu or wedding ceremonies.

A murukku press

A murukku press

20th century, Melaka, Malaysia

Wood and brass

On loan from Meenachi Pillay

A variety of Indian snacks and foods were retained by the Chetti Melaka as part of their culinary practices. Some of these utensils and tools would have been used to produce murukku (savoury fried snack), idli (steamed rice cakes) and dosai (rice flour pancake).

An idli paanai

An idli paanai (idli steamer)

Mid-20th century, Singapore

Aluminium

Gift of Veni Knight, Collection of The Peranakan Museum

A tai bak press

A tai bak press

20th century, Melaka, Malaysia

Wood and metal

On loan from Sitha A/P Veloo Pillay

Tak bak is a popular Chetti Melaka dessert produced by first kneading a soft dough made of rice flour. The dough is then pressed through the holes of this implement. Once steamed, the inch long pieces of dough would be coloured red and blue, and eaten with a thin sugar syrup.

A cendol press

A cendol press

20th century, Melaka, Malaysia

Wood and metal

On loan from Sitha A/P Veloo Pillay

A putu piring steamer

A putu piring steamer

20th century, Melaka, Malaysia

Tin

On loan from Sitha A/P Veloo Pillay

This utensil would be used to steam putu piring, a saucer-shaped kueh typically served with gula melaka (cane sugar). The steamer would be placed over boiling water, and the funnels covered by the dish containing the putu piring batter for steaming.

Kueh Baulu mould and lid

A kueh baulu mould and lid

1940s – 1960s, Singapore

Brass

Gift of David Ng, Collection of National Museum of Singapore

This multi-shaped mould would be used to prepare kueh baulu, a fluffy cake made using flour and eggs. Traditionally, the mould would be filled with batter and closed. Hot charcoal would then be placed onto the lid to heat and cook the batter.

A bakul siah (food basket)

A bakul siah (food basket)

20th century, Singapore

Cane

Collection of National Museum of Singapore

Food baskets were used by Chetti Melaka to store and serve cakes, particularly during festive times. Children would be sent out to houses in the village or neighbourhood distributing cakes prepared for prayers such as Parachu Buah Buahan.

A bakul siah (food basket)

A bakul siah (food basket)

20th century, Melaka, Malaysia

Cane

On loan from Meenachi Pillay


Photograph of Papathy Pillay and a relative in the kitchen at their Kampong Batak Residence

A photograph of Papathy Pillay and a relative in the kitchen at their Kampong Batak residence

1950s, Singapore

Paper (Reproduction)

Courtesy of Nathan Pillay

Chetti Creole

The mother tongue of the Chetti community is a Malay-based creole which reflects the diverse roots of the community. Termed Chetti Creole by researchers JA Grimes in 1996 and Noriah Mohamed in 2009, it is a rare mixture of the predominant languages of the Straits comprising Bazaar Malay, Tamil and Chinese. For instance, the terms for grandmother are nenek (Malay), grandfather thatha (Tamil) and uncle mama (Tamil) respectively.

Chetti Creole shares similarities with several Malay dialects and creole languages spoken in Singapore and Malaysia, including the Baba Nyonya Malay creole language of the Peranakan Chinese, the Melayu Ambon creole language and the Jakarta Malay creole language (Betawi Malay). It is also similar to the creole language spoken by Sri Lankan Malays.

The Malay language plays a key role in Chetti Creole and this is evident in the fact that the Chetti Melaka still pray in Malay while retaining some common Sanskrit and Tamil religious terms used by the Hindu Chetti. Besides the use of Malay terms and phrases, the Chetti Melaka are also fluent in English due to British influence. English is also used as a common medium of communication for day-to-day interactions with other ethnic groups as well as by Chetti Melaka who have married outside the community.

Chetti CreoleEnglish
Ijogreen
Mangkokcup
Kaloif
Pandesmart
Nyaritoday
Napasbreath
Lu orangeverybody
Bikin apaWhat to do

Fashion

The traditional attire of the Chetti Melaka is an indicator of cross-cultural influences over time and mirrors centuries of Javanese, Bugis, Achenese, Batak and Tamil styles. Within the community, the traditional attire for men comprises a checkered sarong like the kain pulicat or the batik sarong, a tunic and a headgear of knotted batik cloth called talapa (headgear). Chetti Melaka men traditionally wore wooden clogs with silver pegs although these clogs have since been replaced by leather slippers.

The traditional attire for women comprised the sarong kebaya and the baju kurung, fastened with three keronsang(brooches). Affluent Chetti Melaka women also wore brooches made with gold studded with diamonds for their baju panjang. These brooches and other accessories were often crafted by Tamil goldsmiths, and featured elements such as addiggai (a gold choker usually studded with semi-precious stones), thali (a wedding pendant), and silambu (anklets).

In addition to local and Tamil styles, jewellery and accessories for women also reflected British influence and 20th century British gold sovereigns were often worn as pendants. The women also wore their hair in tight buns called sanggul nyonya which are held together using a combination of three hair pins, and their footwear comprised beaded slippers known as kasut manek-manek, which were often painstakingly handmade over many weeks.

A studio portrait of a Chetti Melaka matron wearing sarong kebaya

A studio portrait of a Chetti Melaka matron wearing sarong kebaya

20th century, Melaka, Malaysia

Paper

On loan from Thanam Muthusamy

A photograph of Guramah, a Chetti Melaka matron wearing baju panjang and sarong

A photograph of Guramah, a Chetti Melaka matron wearing baju panjang and sarong

Early 20th century, Melaka, Malaysia

Paper

On loan from S Kunasehkaran

A studio photograph of Vengadesan Letchemee and Vengadesan Sithyahpama

A studio photograph of Vengadesan Letchemee and Vengadesan Sityahpama

20th century, Singapore

Paper

On loan from Panniruky Perumal

A pair of beaded slippers

A pair of beaded slippers

20th century, Melaka, Malaysia

Wood, beads, textile and leather

On loan from S Kathai Devi

A studio photograph of Avarami, wife of BS Naiker wearing baju panjang and sarong

A studio photograph of Avarami, wife of BS Naiker wearing baju panjang and sarong

1940s, Melaka, Malaysia

Paper (Reproduction)

On loan from Vengadesan Naiker

A pair of hair pins

A pair of hair pins

20th century, Melaka, Malaysia

Metal

On loan from S Kathai Devi

A pinding (waistbelt)

A pinding (waistbelt)

20th century, Singapore

Silver

On loan from Dhoraisingam and family

Theivanayagam Chitty

A photograph of Theivanayagam Chitty

18th century, Singapore

Melaka, Malaysia

Paper (Reproduction)

Courtesy of Vengadesan Naiker

A Talapa Chetti Melaka (Headgear)

A Talapa Chetti Melaka (Headgear)

Late 20th century, Melaka, Malaysia

Cotton

On loan from S Kathai Devi

Celebrating the Chetti Way

Traditionally, the Chetti Melaka community were staunch followers of Saivite Hinduism and key Chetti Melaka festivals coincide with major religious events in the Tamil Hindu calendar. These include including Punggol (Harvest Festival), Mahashivratri (Festival of Shiva), Puthandu (Tamil New Year), Navaratri (Festival of Nine Nights) and Deepavali. As the Chetti community also includes many Christians, Christmas and Easter are also important festivals for the community.

The most important annual festival, Sembahyang Dato Chachar or Megammay Thiruvizha, is dedicated to the goddess Mariamman. During the festival, thousands of devotees attend the festivities held at the Muthu Mariamman Temple in Gajah Berang. Other temples such as the Kailasanthar and Angalamman Paramesvari, also host festivals dedicated to their central deities, such as Mahashivratri and Theemithi, albeit on a smaller scale.

While some festivals are celebrated at the temples, there are also many home-based observances and ritual practices. The most notable Chetti observances are the parachu prayers that take place twice a year – Bhogi in January and Parachu Buah Buahan in July. Both prayers are dedicated to ancestor worship and involve the preparation of special foods laid out in odd-numbered banana leaves for the ancestors to partake.

Although these festival related ritual practices were strictly adhered to in the past, few families outside Melaka continue to observe them when celebrating traditional Chetti Melaka festivals today.

From Cradle to Grave: Ceremonies and Rituals

The Chetti Melaka community’s lifecycle rituals and ceremonies closely follow traditional Tamil Hindu practices. They include coming-of-age ceremonies such as kaadhu kuthal (ear piercing) for both girls and boys, and the fertility ceremony sadanggu for girls to mark puberty. The latter 16-day long, female-only ceremony is held at home, and the girl is ritually bathed, given special foods and blessed by the women of the family.

The traditional wedding rituals for the Chetti community are elaborate, and the wedding typically takes place between four days to three weeks. The key components of a Chetti wedding include parisom (engagement ceremony), hantar sireh koil pathiram (delivery of the invitation card to the temple), berhinai (application of henna), menepah thali (making the wedding pendant), berarak (wedding procession) and the wedding ceremony itself.

The Chetti Melaka practice burying their dead and, according to traditional Chetti Melaka funerary practices, the deceased would be bathed, dressed and placed in a coffin, and carried by men to the cemetery. In Melaka and Singapore, deceased Chetti Melaka would be buried at Batu Berendam and Choa Chu Kang Hindu Cemetery respectively.

In Singapore, many Chetti Melaka life cycle rituals and ceremonies are rapidly evolving or even disappearing. Many Chetti families have forsaken traditional Hindu practices either because they have been assimilated through inter-marriage with other ethnic or religious communities, or because they have converted to other religions such as Christianity and Islam.

Family Ties

The Chetti Melaka in Singapore comprise a small community and they have been inter-marrying for several generations. Consequently, many of them are related or at least know each other. Due to its joint family system, the community has always been cohesive and share close relations. Till today, the elders in the family are very much respected, and some of the most important festivals for the community honour deceased ancestors.

The Chetti Melaka are conventionally orthodox with regard to naming practices, and they are given traditional Hindu names at birth. However, the Chetti Melaka also ascribe terms of endearment for all members of the family, and the meanings behind these nick names are known only to those near and dear. Nenek Jambol (grandmother with a special hairdo), Tok Puteh (a very fair lady), Krisna kechi (Krishnan who is short) and Mama Bulat (fat and round uncle) are but a few examples of Chetti nicknames.

As a result of migration, Chetti Melaka families were scattered across Melaka, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and across Malaya. Fortunately, the Chetti Melaka communities in Singapore and Melaka share close and strong bonds. For instance, several Chetti Melaka in Singapore continue to make donations to the temples in Melaka during festivals such as Sembahyang Dato Chachar, thus strengthening the bonds between the two communities.

The Way Forward

In spite of being one of the region’s oldest communities, little is known about the Chetti Melaka of Singapore. They are a very small community, whose numbers are steadily declining, and their uniquely Straits heritage largely rests in the collective memory of the older members of the community.

Many members of the community, especially amongst the younger generation, have lost touch with their Chetti roots and a general lack of ready information about the heritage of the Chetti Melaka community has caused many of them to distance themselves from with their ancestry. Furthermore, as a result of generations of marriages outside of the community, many families are now unable to trace their Chetti Melaka lineage.

To further exacerbate the situation, the community is also faced with the dilemma of diasporic emigration, with several young Chetti Melaka migrating to Australia, North America, Europe and the United Kingdom. As a result, these emigrant Chetti Melaka are susceptible to newer multicultural influences which further render the contemporary Chetti Melaka identity more complex.

In the face of these challenges, the Peranakan Indian (Chitty Melaka) Association Singapore has played a crucial role in the revival of public interest in the community, and the way forward may lie in more sustained efforts to document and transmit different aspects of Chetti Melaka heritage and to increase public awareness and appreciation of the community’s unique language, cuisine and social-cultural practices.