ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY attend Malaysia’s Merdeka Day celebrations in Kuala Lumpur and discover bits of India in a land of festivals and cultural diversity
“Merdeka, Merdeka!” (Free, Free), the crowds in Kuala Lumpur’s Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) roared, proudly 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 spectacular costume extravaganza representing Malaysia’s ethnic diversity. The word Merdeka comes from the Sanskrit maharddhika meaning ‘rich, prosperous and powerful’. Ironically, 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 Chola and Pallava times to the advent of Islam through Arab and Indian trade. We sat in the shadow of the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, its domed architecture inspired by Mughal designs. The KL Tower looming over the city was called Menara (after minar). Kuala Lumpur’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)! The very word for Malay language is Bahasa, derived from the Sanskrit bhasa. There was an air of familiarity about Malaysia, the way one recognizes a relative through a shared genetic trait.
In 1398, when Parameshwara, the last Hindu King of Singapura (or Singapore, literally ‘Lion City’) was defeated by the Majahapit 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 Malacca’s royal emblem.
Like Melaka 150km south, KL too 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% of the world’s tin, making it the largest producer.
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 and the first road and railway networks linked the mining towns, injecting much needed development.
Built in 1897, Sultan Abdul Samad Building was the first all-brick and electrified structure in Malaysia. Signifying the start of Kuala Lumpur’s modern era, this iconic colonial landmark, served as the administrative headquarters of the British and currently houses the Ministry of Heritage, Culture and Arts. It was the most photographed building in KL till the Petronas Towers upstaged it in 2004. The ground floor houses a Tourist Information Centre, which runs excellent city tours –Heritage Walks, KL Horse & Carriage Ride and KL ByCycle, covering heritage monuments and key attractions like KL Bird Park and National Museum.
After the parade, we clicked photos with performers backstage and walked to Jami Masjid, one of KL’s oldest mosques. Strangely, it was 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. Plans are afoot to renovate the historic waterfront with a river cruise and an entertainment quarter. Our guide Badrillah Jeevan explained that Jalang Ampang, where our hotel InterContinental was located, was once the legendary Millionaire’s Street, home to the who’s who and towkays (tin magnates).
While a visit to Royal Selangor Factory is essential to see how pewter is made, the perfect window to Kuala Lumpur’s early years is the musical ‘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 Kuala Lumpur. The venue is Panggung Bandaraya, another Mughal inspired building, site of important meetings that shaped early town planning.
Colonial vestiges are everywhere – the old fountain and Clocktower gifted by the British. The large padang (ground) once served as a cricket green for The Royal Selangor Club, discernible by its Tudor façade. British lifestyle entailed an evening game of cricket after work, drinks at the club and Sunday mass at St Mary’s Church.
Jeevan elaborated that since women and animals were not allowed into the premises of this white gentlemen’s 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. And that’s how the club acquired its local nickname, ‘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 – three things that kept Chinese workers happy. The market has come a long way since its shady antecedents.
Given an Art Deco facelift by the British, it is now a buzzing cultural and craft hub with shopping avenues dedicated to various communities – Chinese, Malay, Indian, Portuguese and Baba-Nyonya or Straits Chinese settlers who speak Malay! At Precious Old China, we enjoyed 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 Kuala Lumpur 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, dotted with banana leaf restaurants. 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.
Elsewhere, sounds of a temple festivity rang out from the Mahamariamman shrine. 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). Wherever we went, a festival was in full swing. Malaysia did seem like a land of endless celebrations…
Malaysia Airlines Berhad flies direct to Kuala Lumpur International Airport, 50km south of the city, in Sepang district of Selangor. www.malaysiaairlines.com
When to Go
Malaysia’s national day Hari Merdeka (Independence Day) is celebrated on 31 August. The Chinese New Year in Jan-Feb is held across 15 days with decorations, fireworks and lion & dragon dances. Thaipusam too is celebrated in Jan-Feb in the Tamil month of thai. Hari Raya (Eid-ul-Fitr) marks the end of Ramadan (the month of fasting) in August and is considered as the most important Muslim festival in Malaysia. For a detailed calendar of events, visit www.myfest2015.com
Where to Stay
InterContinental Kuala Lumpur
On Jalan Ampang close to Petronas Towers & Convention Centre, the 473-room hotel serves excellent Malay, Indian, Tao & Tatsu cuisine Ph +60-3-27826000 http://www.ihg.com
Opposite the new Sunway Putra Mall on Jalan Putra and 10 min from KL’s business district Golden Triangle
Ph +60-3-4042 5555 http://www.seripacifichotel.com
For more info, visit http://www.tourism.gov.my
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 31 January, 2016 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.