INDIAN PERANAKANS : THE CHITTY MELAKA

The Melaka Chitty community, also known as the Malacca Straits-born Hindus or Indian Peranakans has been in Malacca, Malaysia since the reign of the Malacca Sultanate in the early 15th. century. Years before Parameswara the founder of Malacca in 1401 became the first sultan, Hindu traders had already come to Malacca. Trading between the West and East had long been established before then. Due to the distance and weather conditions, traders had to make several stops along their trading route the Straits of Malacca and Malacca was seen as the best location. It was exactly the ideal choice for these traders as it was stragically located and food supplies were easily available. As Malacca gained its popularity, more and more traders including the Hindus from the Corromandel Coast, Southern India thronged its port.

Inter-marriages between the Hindu traders and the Malays, Chinese, Javanese and Bataks were then unavoidable. Through the process of assimilation, these traders had gradually adapted themselves to a new lifestyle. Thus the term 'Melaka Chitty' was born. As staunch believers of the Hindu faith, the Melaka Chitty community still uphold their religious ceremonies and beliefs but with a unique blend. In Malacca, one can easily notice this unique community in Kampung Chitty, Gajah Berang which is situated about 2.5 kilometres from the city centre. It consists of a few castes namely; Pandaram, Pillay, Neiker, Raja, Pathair, Chitty and Padaichi.

They strongly resemble the Malays and Baba Nyonyas the Malacca Straits-born Chinese in terms of clothing, spoken language, food and appearance. No doubt they are inarticulate in Tamil but they still maintain their Hindu names and customs. As of material importance, need to assert that the Melaka Chitty community is different than the other Hindus, especially the Chettiars the Hindu money-lenders, in many ways. They had lost all forms of relation with their descendants in India a long time ago. Today, they pledge their loyalty to the Ruler of Malaysia. Most of them are wage earners and lead a simple life. Some have ventured into other types of occupations. A handful of them are living in other parts of the country and some can be found in Singapore too. During festive seasons, most of them would return to Kampung Chitty and they will have lots to talk about.

"PLEASE don't confuse us with the Chettiars. They are moneylenders and we are the traders who came here in the 14th Century like the Babas & Nonyas." So pleads Chitty village elder V. Ramasamy Pillai. "After all these years, more than 600 years to be precise, Malaysians are still unable to differentiate between Chittys and Chettiars," he says smiling and shaking his head. History books and Ramasamy, 83, will tell you that the Chittys are actually Indian traders who came to the Malacca in the early 1400s from the southern part of India, namely Kalinga in the Corromendal Coast, during the days of the spice trade. Many married local Malay women like the Chinese Peranakans & adopted the cultures and languages of the region while retaining their own religion – Hinduism.Seafaring Chitty traders went on to become farmers and settled down in many parts of Malacca, eventually moving to Kampung Tujung in Gajah Behrang. You will notice from the below picture that the Indian Peranakan Wedding Ceremonies and styles of dressing abd wedding garments are very similar to that of the Chinese Peranakans. Also notice the "Ranjang Kemanten" in the background on the picture of the right to that of a Peranakan Chinese "Ranjang Kemanten".

It is in Kampung Tujung where many of the Chittys now live. There are 19 homes amidst three temples and a newly constructed museum that awaits its official opening. When many of the Chittys married and settled in Malacca, they didn't keep in touch with their families in India, thus making it virtually impossible for their predecessors to trace relatives in Kalinga.While their Indian relatives might be a permanently closed chapter, the Chittys in Malacca are a fascinating group. Daily but more so on weekends, scores of visitors come to Chitty village. "Most Chittys look like Indians while others have fair skin like the Chinese Peranakans and have made Bahasa Malaysia their official language. Many here only speak Tamil haltingly as Baba Malay is the language spoken by the community," says K. Nadarajan Raja, who is secretary of the Cultural Society of Chitty Malacca.

"What we wear differs from our counterparts in India. The Chitty woman usually wears the kebaya panjang or kebaya pendek, depending on her marital status, with a sarong, like the Nonyas. The handkerchief or binpoh is usually worn on the shoulder like a shawl," he informs. The men are normally dressed in a dhoti and shirt for religious functions while for traditional events, it is usually the sarong or kain pelekat with the lose Nehru jacket and cap. A piece of colourful cloth is often draped on the left shoulder. As for festivals, the Chittys celebrate all three days of ponggol, the harvest festival in January, and Deepavali on a grand scale. Temple festivals are also celebrated by following a strict vegetarian diet for 10 days during which the Chittys living elsewhere in the country, congregate in Malacca for the celebrations. One festival celebrated with much ado is the Bhogi Parachu, usually falling in January. Chittys make offerings to ancestors on this day. Chitty delicacies such as pulut tekan/nasi lemak, ginggang and other homemade specials are served then.

On this occasion, nasi lemak is patted down onto banana leaves and salted eggs are embedded in the centre along with raddish. Some 13 other dishes such as friend mutton and chicken, soup and sweets are also placed on the banana leaves. "This is one festival celebrated in every household in the village. Ancestral worship is very important to us because we want the blessings of our forefathers," says Nadarajan. "It is also a time when everyone in the village visits one another." The practce of Ancestor Worship is alien in other Indian communities. This shows us that the Indian Peranakan community has adopted many Chinese Peranakan customs and traditions through intermarriage as intermarriage with Indian Peranakans were common in the past. The below photo shows you how similar the Indians Peranakans are to the Chinese Peranakans.

INDIAN CHITTY PERANAKAN CUISINE

Chitty cuisine, a blend of Malay local influences, Nonya and the Indian art of blending spices, is little-known. There is no Chitty restaurant, not even in Malacca, and hence their food can only be sampled in the community's enclave in Kampung Tujuh Gajah Berang. "The Chittys' most famous food is nasi lemak. We serve it as offerings during prayers,'' says G. Meenachi, 70. Unlike the other Indian groups who usually offer rice with vegetarian dishes during prayers, the Chittys serve nasi lemak or plain rice with a variety of fish and meat accompaniments.

"Chitty nasi lemak is usually steamed. First, we steam the rice for about 20 minutes before it is left to cool. In the meantime, we will boil thick and thin coconut milk separately over a low fire. The pandanus leaf is boiled with the coconut milk so that it'll be fragrant. "Stir the coconut milk into the steamed rice. Leave the rice for a few hours or until all the coconut milk has been absorbed by the rice. Then steam the rice again for 10-15 minutes,'' Meenachi's daughter, Amuthavathi, narrates the painstaking preparation of nasi lemak, as taught by her mother.A good nasi lemak must be fragrant, and the grains fluffy and separate, and must even have a shiny sheen. The secret to getting the shiny sheen, says Chitty S. Kathai, is by adding on some lemon juice to the rice during the steaming process. Unlike the Northerners, ginger is not added to their nasi lemak.

"Nasi lemak is only cooked in a rice cooker when there are unexpected guests. We call this nasi lemak terkejut (surprise nasi lemak).'' Offerings to Ancestors a Chinese Peranakan trsdition such as rice accompanied by 13 dishes are served by the Chittys to honour their ancestors. Traditional Chitty cooks such as Meenachi suffer no shortcuts or half measures in their kitchen, holding firm to elaborate details that give their food a delicious edge.

When she makes chillied fried fish, she wraps the fish with turmeric leaf which lends the dish a subtle aroma. For pulut tekan (glutinous rice cake steamed with coconut milk), Meenachi uses leaf only from the pisang batu or pisang nipah tree ... "leaves from other banana species would darken the white pulut.''Spices are not blended in electric blenders, but are ground on the batu giling (a granite pestle and mortar slab). Meenachi's youngest daughter, S. Amuthavathi, recalls handling the heavy granite roller from young as her mother was adamant that her children learn to cook well.

"My mother called this morning to instruct that I pound the shallots, ginger and garlic, and not use an electric blender,'' says Amuthavathi who cooked one of the Chittys' signature dish for us, armed with her mother's detailed instructions and secret tips. One of the Chitty's more unusual dish is nasi kembuli. Not many Chittys still know how to cook it although it was once served to brides three days after the wedding, and as offerings during prayers. "The ingredients in nasi kembuli are Indian such as ghee, cumin and coriander. However, one of the most important accompaniments, pineapple pachedi, is Malay in origin,'' says Amuthavathi.

A popular Chitty everyday dish is lauk pindang which bears strong Malay influences. "Lauk pindang is fish cooked with a blend of shallots, garlic and turmeric, in a tamarind and thin coconut milk gravy,'' describes Amuthavathi. The best time to sample Chitty delicacies is during festivals such as Ponggal or Bhogi. Bhogi, which falls on the eve of Ponggal, is the day that Chittys hold ancestral rites and honour deceased family members. "On that day, we lay out seven banana leaves of offerings for our ancestors. In my family, there will be three leaves of nasi lemak, three leaves of nasi kembuli and a leaf of white rice. There will be 13 accompaniments to the rice, a salted egg, and coffee,'' says Meenachi.

The accompaniments include sambal ludang (fish roe and prawns cooked with belimbing (sour starfruits), lemon grass, ginger, shallots, chilli, turmeric and coconut milk), dry chicken and mutton curry, pineapple pachedi, spiced fried chicken, brinjal pachedi, udang goreng asam garam (prawns fried with tamarind and salt), cucumber relish, lauk pindang and krill sambal. Other festive Chitty food is putu, which is Indian in origin. Putu is traditionally served during the Sadanggu, a ceremony for young girls who have reached puberty. "Only women are invited for this ceremony, and they must finish all the food prepared to ensure that no man eats the food. It's considered bad luck if food for the Sadanggu is eaten by a man. Notice the Sembayang Dato or Offering to the Ancestors Ceremony in the middle picture below. Notice the two red candles used. This is a Peranakan Chinese tradition, not an Indian Tradition as only the Peranakan Chinese use Red Candles for offering and prayers to the Ancestors.

"It is also best to serve tea with sugar and pandanus leaf to go with the putu, which is made from scraped coconut, palm sugar syrup, fried green beans, cardamom and rice flour,'' says Meenachi. Although many Chitty dishes are still prepared, there are fears that some recipes may be forgotten as the young marry out of the close-knit but small community. Meenachi's four daughters hope to document the Chitty recipes their illiterate mother remembers so vividly.

Meenachi does not only list down ingredients and cooking methods when passing recipes, but also the little details that matter.For certain dishes, use only the pink shallots. A pinch of salt must be added when pounding sambal belacan to mute the chillies' rawness. Boil salted mustard for itik tim in a brass wok, and it won't turn yellow but remain green. Recipes aside, Chitty Baba Malay terms used to describe cooking methods are also interesting. Some of these terms include masak atas darat which means to fry spices in hot oil away from the fire, and kare which is to use a chopstick to gently separate the rice grains without breaking them. It is estimated that there around 50,000 Indian Peranakans in the whole of Peninsular Malaysia and another 5,000 in Singapore alone. The overwhelming majority of Peranakans however are the Chinese Peranakans.


 
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