The North Indians – Rediscovering Roots in Penang


The North Indians, despite being a relatively small community, are a colourful, interesting and important part of the vibrant multi-racial population of Penang. This paper will deal with the history of the North Indians, how they made Penang their home and how they eventually became part of the fabric of this enchanting island. Communities covered in this paper are the Gujaratis, the Sindhis, the Punjabi Hindus, the Bengalees, the Uttar Pradeshis and a small mention regarding the Marwaris and Parsis.

Some of the information in this paper has been obtained from published research papers and documents. However, a large portion is from oral accounts given by elderly members of the community, during interviews conducted with them.

Migration, Settlement and Economic Activity
The Gujaratis were the earliest migrants from the Indian subcontinent and are believed to have reached the shores of the Malay archipelago during the times of Parameswara. They were also port and ship dwelling traders who plied back and forth between India and Malaya, dealing in spices and textiles.

The arrival of the Gujaratis in Penang is believed to have occurred only in the 19th century. The first Gujarati speaking migrants were the Parsis, of which only one family remains in Penang. The Gujarati Muslims (consisting of the Vohrahs, Khojas and others) arrived in the late 19th century and formed a large and enterprising business community in Penang. The Indian Chamber of Commerce was in fact founded by a Vohrah. After Malacca lost its appeal as a business centre, the Hindu Gujaratis moved to Penang and set up their businesses here. These groups of Gujaratis were mainly from the ports of Camabay, Kutch and Surat in India. The earliest Jain Gujaratis arrived in Penang in the early 1900s, and their first business interest was set up in 1910.

The Gujaratis were known as the ‘kings of textiles’ and made their name in the textile trade as well as the import and export of spices and goods from India. Gujarati businesses had affiliations in Singapore and West Malaysia. They also dealt with other commodities, including timber, palm and other cash crops.

Sindhis originated from the Sind Province, located in today’s Pakistan. The first Sindhi families arrived in the 1800s. Many arrived via Singapore and Indonesia, as their businesses already had affiliations there. Records show that the earliest Sindhi business was set up in Beach Street in 1860 by the Surtani family, now known by the surname Hassaram. During the 1920s, more Sindhis migrated to Penang and opened businesses in Beach Street and Bishop Street. Prior to partition of India in 1947, there were not more than a handful of Sindhi families in Penang. The greater portion of Sindhi migration occurred after partition, when Sindhi Hindus were left without a homeland. Many Sindhis left Sind – some stayed on in India, while many migrated to different parts of the world. Sindhis were mainly involved in the retail and wholesale of textiles and imported goods, and had a formidable network of business links throughout South East Asia as well as other countries because of their overseas Sindhi brethren.

The Punjabi Hindu community also had similar migration patterns. Most of the Punjabi Hindus arrived in the early 1900s. At least 20 Punjabi Hindu families have been identified as residing in Penang in the 1930s. However, unlike the Gujaratis and Sindhis, they were not all traders. A large portion of Punjabi Hindus were civil servants who served the government of the day in various capacities.

The Bengalee community, it is believed, also arrived in Penang in the early 1800s. The later Bengalee migrants came in the early 1900s and were of a substantial number. Unlike the Sindhis and Gujaratis, Bengalees were not traditionally involved in trading. They were employed mostly as government servants; many seemed to have left and returned to India at the end of their tenure. Today, there are only a handful of Bengalees in Penang with a larger number in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. There is a Bengalee association in Port Dickson.

The Uttar Pradeshis were also early migrants to Penang, most likely in the early 1800s. Not much is known of their migration and settlement in Penang. However, many other North Indians remember the Uttar Pradeshis as best known for their culinary skills. Many worked as ‘halwais’ or cooks and made their living by selling Indian sweets and savouries. Accounts also show that these halwais (also known as Beharis) frequented the Sri Kunj Bihari Temple along Penang Road and some lived in the rooms behind this temple. In fact the first temple priest, Shukool Thakur (1835), is believed to be from Uttar Pradesh.

Very little is known of the Marwaris, who hailed from Rajasthan. However, an early settler, Makhanlall Mahawar, arrived in Penang in the 1920s and established his own business dealing in spices and commodities.

On the whole the economic activities and businesses of the North Indian traders were centred around the port and the area known as the Francis Light grid (Beach / Bishop / Penang / King / Chulia Street). Families lived in shophouses in the area, either above their businesses or nearby.

Social, Religious and Recreational Activities
Being a predominantly business community, the North Indians’ involvement in social activities was limited. The earliest North Indian social organisation was probably the Gujarati Seva Samaj, which was founded in 1950, to look after the cultural and economic interests of the Gujarati community. Other social organisations only came into being in the 1980s, with the setting up of the Penang Gujarati Association, as well as the Sanatan Dharam Sabha in 1986.

Many prominent North Indians were also involved in the Indian Chamber of Commerce, the Indian Association at Bagan Jermal as well as in cricket and hockey clubs since the early 1900s.

The North Indian community also frequented the Sri Kunj Bihari Temple in Penang Road. Prominent members of the North Indian community were involved in the management and running of the Temple, prior to as well as after the temple came under the auspices of the Muslim and Hindu Endowment Board in 1905. Festivities and meetings carried out at the temple also brought together the various communities from time to time. The Ladies Satsang was once such activity and has been carried out regularly since its inception in 1957.

The Geeta Ashram was then formed in 1976 following the introduction of teachings of the Bhagavad Geeta at the Kunj Bihari Temple in the 1970s.

The Durga temple at the residence of a prominent Gujarati family in Penang Street has also served as a religious and social centre for many North Indians, predominantly the Gujaratis, on a low scale since 1929 and more actively since the 1950s.

Many Punjabi Hindus had close ties with the Punjabi Sikhs, probably as a result of the common language, Punjabi. Punjabi Hindus frequented the Sikh Gurudwara at Bricklin Road.

No record is available as to whether any members of the North Indian community ever participated in politics.

Like most other Penangites, North Indian families frequented areas like the Esplanade, the beach at Tanjung Bungah, the Waterfall Gardens and once in a while Penang Hill, which served as places for recreation as well as social gatherings. During the early years, gatherings among the different North Indian communities were rare. Rather, each community, (Sindhis, Gujaratis, Punjabis) would organise outings among the members of their own community. It is only during the last 20-30 years that the different North Indian communities began to forge ties as a result of the efforts of far-sighted members of the community with the Sri Kunj Bihari Temple acting as a unifying force and common meeting ground, predominantly among the Hindus.

Most of the North Indian settlers were educated in India. However, their children were enrolled in local schools. Marriages were also arranged within the community, where children who had completed their education were taken to India to search for suitable partners.

Over the Years
The overall population of the North Indian community in Penang has not changed much since the mid 1900s. The number of families remains almost the same, although the number of individuals has increased in time.

Over the years, the Malaysian North Indians have adapted to and become part of the Malaysian culture and way of life. The younger generation, being educated locally, has a greater sense of belonging here. Education has also resulted in a more liberal atmosphere for women. Many work outside the home. Although the practice of arranged marriages is still entrenched in the community, a number of mixed marriages have taken place.

Many North Indians have moved out of Penang to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore in search of better business prospects. Many of the early businesses set up by the pioneer North Indians in Penang no longer exist. As a result of higher education, many young descendants of the early settlers have branched out into other professions and choose not to carry on the business of trading. Those still involved in trading have ventured into retail and wholesale of local goods and non-traditional lines of business. The passing of years has also seen greater involvement of North Indian women in these businesses.

Those businesses situated within the inner city are moving or may even close as a result of the major reduction of economic activity. The concentration of families residing in the inner city has also been considerably reduced. Many Sindhi businesses have converted to cater to tourists and are situated along the Batu Ferringhi stretch. The repeal of the Rent Control Act has also brought with it dire consequences to the economic activity of the North Indians in the Beach / Bishop / Penang / King / Chulia Street area.

Conclusion – Identity
Since the days of their settlement in Penang, the North Indians have utilised the Hindi language as a communication tool with the members of the other North Indian communities. The Hindi language has always served as a unifying force within the community, bringing Sindhis, Gujaratis, Punjabis, etc. together. As a result, the term ‘North Indian’, which indicates geographical location in the Indian subcontinent, seems now to be politically incorrect. This is more so as the members of these communities have become part of the mainstream of Malaysian society. The best and most appropriate description for this community would be the Hindi-speaking community, as Hindi is the common language utilised by all within the community.

Jessica Binwani