Growing Roots: The Story of Tamil Communities in Penang.

(A summary of the original paper in Tamil)
P. Rajavelan (P.Krishnan)

There is reference in the Tamil literature of the Sangam Period that Tamils had been seafarers travelling far and wide to countries like ancient Greece and Rome as well as to the Southeast Asian countries for the purpose of trade. During the Chola period there have been contacts between Malaya and the Tamil country and references are found to the military campaign of Rajendra Chola the first, son of the great Raja Raja Chola.

Rajendra Chola is referred to as Kadaaram Kondaan or the conqueror of Kadaaram, the present Kedah. He was described as having conquered Kadaaram and the territory of Aceh in Sumatra, and later gave back Kadaaram to its original ruler. Evidence to the presence of Tamils during this period is found in the Bujang Valley and Gunung Jerai in Kedah.

In the 15th century, there had been trade contacts between Melaka and the Tamil country. (This fact is referred to in Malaya Desa Sariththiram (The History of Malaya), a book in Tamil by Swami Sathyanandha, the founder of Pure Life Society in Kuala Lumpur.)

The later contacts between Tamils and Penang start with Captain Francis Light during his visit to Kedah in 1763 as a representative of the East India Company. It is said that he later acquired a lease on Penang island from the Sultan of Kedah for a price of 6,000 Spanish Dollars.

In 1786, Light built the first four roads in and around where the Fort stood. On 10th August 1786 he named the little town that developed there George Town. During this period Chulias, Chinese and Christians settled in this town rapidly. Light noted that they fought among themselves to acquire plots of land and built their houses. The Chulias referred to were Tamils from South India, a term that is derived from the Cholas. This note indicates that Tamils were in Penang as soon as Light arrived.

From 1795 to 1806 British India used Penang Island, then called Prince of Wales Island, as a penal colony. In 1805 there were 772 such convicts brought from India as well as Andaman Island as political prisoners and banished criminals.

One group of convicts from the Tamil region, a batch of 130, were brought here in 1801 by the East India Company, to lay the roads now known as Bishop Street and Church Street and to build houses and other buildings. They were given an allowance of 40 paisees a month.

There is an interesting episode of one of the princes of Tamil Nadu being captured and brought to Penang as a convict.

Among the various small princely states which waged fierce anti-colonial battles in India was the state of Sivagangai in the Tamil country. The rulers of Sivagangai lost the battle and the two brothers of the ruling family, the Periya (big) Maruthu and Sinna (small) Maruthu, as they were called, were hanged by the British in Thiruppathur on October 24, 1801. 73 others were captured and banished to the penal island of Penang and were known to have boarded a ship at Thuthukkudi on February 11, 1802. Among them were 15-year old Thuraisamy, a prince, and son of Sinna Maruthu.

Captain Welsh who served the British at that time, developed friendship with the Maruthu family and was particularly close to Sinna Maruthu. This was revealed in a book of Captain Welsh published later.

In 1818 Captain Welsh visited Penang where he found and spoke to Thuraisamy, the son of his old friend, and moaned the prince’s fate in his book. Thuraisamy asked Welsh if he could take a letter to his family. But Welsh, under orders from the British, could not help. It is not known what happened to Thuraisamy after that.

Captain Welsh is said to have later married the daughter of Francis Light, Sara. He has also described, in some detail, the Suffolk House in Penang.

Penang grew to be an important port in this region, and the East India Company was keen on developing many of its facilities. Roads were built and water supply facilities were developed. A municipality mode of city administration was instituted. Workers were needed for all these as well as transport and sanitary industries. As a result, many Tamils were brought from the Tamil country as indentured labourers.

They were followed by traders and businessmen, including Gujaratis and Tamil Muslims. Their activities were mainly confined to the township of George Town. They were involved in the export of areca nut, medicinal and aromatic herbs as well as spices. They imported from India, clothes and foodstuffs.

To serve these trades, koottams, or gangs of workers were formed. Each gang consisted of 30 to 50 workers. There was a supervisor and a clerk for each. It was estimated that up to 2,500 workers were engaged in this way.

There were Tamils working in the departments of sanitation, water, electricity, engineering, veterinary, transport, public works and telecoms. In pre-independent Malaya Tamils dominated these industries as manual labourers.

The descendants of this early population are still found in Penang and in the mainland. Many of them have become educated and moved on to the middle-class of Malaysian society.

Initial labour unions were also formed by Tamils. The Penang Municipal Labour Union in Jalan Siam today was one such. The opening ceremony of the union was officiated by the then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1946, during his visit to Malaya. The ceremony was held in the Kampong Jawa Baru field. The first president of the union was Mr. Viranndi. Likewise, the Harbour Board Labour Union was headed by Mr. Appadurai.

In 1948-49, many Tamil workers were deported to India on the suspicion of co-operating with the Communist terrorists.

When the East India Company was well established in Penang, they planned to publish a newspaper. This was the “Penang Gazette”. Since printing expertise was not available locally, they brought in workers trained in printing industry from in and around Madras (now Chennai). They were housed in areas around Argyll Road, Transfer Road, Penang Road and Northam Road. The area was also known as Kampung Kuil. The descendants of these printers still live in that area.

The development of the printing industry saw the arrival of Mr. V. Natesam Pillai, from his home near Tanjore, Tamil Nadu. In 1890 he had become news superintendent at the Penang Gazette and continued to serve the newspaper till 1933. He later found his own printing press called Mercantile Press. It was with his effort that the Hindu Saba was formed. The money to form this association was actually collected largely from the workers of the printing industry. Mr. V. Natesam Pillai was also the first Tamil to receive the title of Justice of Peace from the British Government.

Tamils also worked at the laying of the road to Penang Hill, which was completed in 1920. Prior to the laying of this road, the trip to Penang Hill was by a chair-palanquin, born by labourers and carried to the top via the Moon Gate track. The labourers who were engaged in this work, mainly Tamils, settled around the area of the present Waterfall Thandayuthapani Temple. They were headed by a thandal (supervisor) and were called the “Chair-Thandal”, and their settlement came to be known as the Chair-Thandal Kampong (currently called Mount Erskine). Their descendants are still found in Penang.

Some of the Tamils living around Argyll Road were apparently well-to-do. They seemed to have owned well-built houses and traveled in horse-drawn carts. One of these, Madam Thayammah, donated a chariot to the Queen Street Maha Mariamman Temple, which was used until recently. (The chariot has now fallen into disrepair and is not used anymore.) The descendants of Madam Thayaammah still live in Balik Pulau and Butterworth.

Dhobi Ghatt is also one of the earliest settlements of Tamils in Penang. A washerwoman made a good life out of washing clothes for the British and was later prosperous enough to be called Rani Dhobi (Queen of Dhobis). She built the Ramar Temple that now stands at Dhoby Ghatt.

In 1804, when the demand for water increased in Penang, the water from the Water Fall reservoir was channeled to a holding tank at the junction of Larut Road and Hutton Lane, and then sent by trucks to various parts of George Town. This area (now Abu Siti Lane and Nagore Road) was called thanni caalai or Water Street.

The workers engaged in this water distribution formed a small temple for Murugan with a vel (spear) just above the area of the present reservoir. When this area was later declared as a protected place, the vel was sawn off and was planted in the sanctum sanctorum of the present Water Fall Hill Thandayuthapani Temple.

The present day Youth Park was a quarry where many Tamils were engaged in quarry works. This community also patronised the temple. This temple later became the focus of Thaipusam celebrations in Penang.

Mohamed Ibrahim Munshi, the famous Malay writer who visited Penang in 1871, mentions in his “Kisah Pelayaran” a celebration, perhaps referring to Thaipusam, where “Tamil men and women, young and old, bathe, worshipping their temple, and celebrate their festival.”

Tamils had settled in Air Itam and Kampong Baru around 1800. There were settlements named Senthottam, Viiriyan thottam, Karuppan Thottam, and Puthu Kampam. They built houses with earthen walls in the traditional Tamil Nadu style with thinnai or raised platforms in front for people to sit and chat. The Kampong Baru Ambala Kaliamman Temple was built on a handful of earth brought from Ambalakaraththur, a village in Tamil Nadu, hence, Ambala Kaliamman.

All the plantations belonging to the Brown family also employed Tamils at Gelugor Estate (Periya Thottam) and Sungai Nibong and Sungai Dua Estate (Sinna Thottam).

Tamils were also engaged in the fishing industry from Tanjong Tokong to Telok Bahang. These fishing communities have come from Tamil coastal districts of Thondi, Namputhalai, Vattaanam and Sundara Pandiyan Pattinam. These communities have today almost disappeared.

The contribution of Tamil Muslims to the development of Penang is also considerable. Particular mention must be made of Kadir Maidin Marikaayar, later famously known as Kapitan Kling, and Mohamed Maraikan Noordin (M.M. Noordin).

It is also known that when Penang Free School was opened in 1816, Tamil was taught as a language by local teachers. This was probably the first formal school to teach Tamil in Malaya. In 1870, M.M. Noordin started Koran classes in the Malay, Tamil and Malabari languages.

Until Malaya attained independence, Tamils, along with other races, have contributed their share for the development of Penang, with blood, sweat and toil. Penang, of course, is today free from those oppressive conditions characterised chiefly by malaria and indentured labour of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The present day Tamils have, together with others, enjoyed the fruits of an independent nation built by their forefathers.