Little India of George Town
Not many visitors and tourists to George Town's famous Little India enclave know that the area's name was adopted by the local authorities only nine years ago.
But whatever it is named, visitors hardly fail to sense the remarkable nostalgic charm and almost innocent simplicity of the area. And no wonder. Little India breathes a rich living history that spans over two centuries. The culture here throbs with antiquity and tradition.
The area has now become a magnet for heritage enthusiasts, international conservationists and tourists. Little India, with its intriguing inner-city surroundings that comprise a copious collection of historic attractions of the colonial era such as a 19th-century fort, courthouse, church, mosques, Hindu temples and Chinese clan enclaves, entices a great deal of fascination and interest.
To the hundreds of residents and workers who ply here, the area bears a simple unspoken homeliness. For the people of Little India, the charming area has always been very much a part of their lives. The dynamism of the different trades renders a fascinating cornucopia of living activity depicting a rich, unique Malaysian culture.
Music stores blare movie songs in Hindi and Tamil next to shops bedecked with flowing silk sarees. Rows of pre-war terrace shophouses teem with seemingly everything Indian – from pottery and stainless steel cutlery to spices and sundries, from jewellery to flower garlands.
There are barbers and astrologers, millers and grocers, money changers and fruit sellers, South Indian restaurants and herb dealers. The sheer colour, vestige and energy make the community stand in romantic defiance against the waves of industrialisation and development that have swept through most parts of Penang over the years.
One of the most imposing landmarks in the area is the 167-year old Sri Mahamariamman Temple in Queen Street, probably better known for the scores of fluttering pigeons that flock its entrance than for the fact that it is Penang island's first Hindu temple. Tucked away at a quiet corner of Little India, the temple's ornate sculptures depicting Hindu gods and mythology, and its peculiar solitude lend it an instant, poignant air of solace.
"The area is not just important for heritage," says Penang Heritage Trust secretary Khoo Salma Nasution. "It contains a special living community that should not be displaced. What we have here is an existing historic community." "We have to adopt special incentives to encourage the community to stay on, or we risk having a special part of our culture and history disappearing."
Khoo's fears are not unfounded. Some say the recent repeal of the Rent Control Act on New Year's Day 2000 offers the most critical turning point for Little India. Many worry that the rentals in the shophouses will skyrocket, leading to an exodus of tenants from the area.
Both local traders and heritage conservationists are urgently addressing the issue. The repeal threatens to disperse more than just the local economy – it may destroy an entire tradition.
But many hope that the cultural and commercial draw of the area may still prove too robust for locals to risk moving away elsewhere. Little India remains an attractive place to invest in. There is almost always a ready and lucrative market here.
However, some senior citizens, such as 73-year old Harbans Singh Kalra, are apprehensive about the ability of Little India's current crop of young traders to maintain the rigorous business standards set by earlier generations.
Kalra migrated here with his father in the 40s as a spirited 25-year old from Bangkok. They operated a business, importing and exporting betel nuts, at an office in Beach Street for many years.
"In those days, people were willing to work hard and long for good business. But times have changed. Youngsters today are different. They want instant rewards and are less willing to work hard."
Traditional herbal medicine dealer P.P. Govindan, who has operated in the area since 1962, also has a word of caution for Little India's new generation.
"Youngsters today indulge in excessive drinking and smoking. Such activities are harmful not only to the body but also to mind and spirit," he says.
Govindan offers "Ayurvedic" medicine for various ailments from his small ground-floor shop house premise in China Street. Many people come to him, he says, because they find modern western medicinal treatment ineffective.
"Foreign tourists and locals, including the Chinese, come for cures on ailments such as asthma, cough, heart failure, sinus, migraine and eye problems." Govindan is proud to make available an ancient science of healing to modern islanders from his old shop crammed with shelves of bottled medicines.
"Ayurvedic medicines have been used by our people for thousands of years. They contain no chemicals and do not cause side-effects," he stresses, forefinger lifted in an arresting pose of elderly wisdom.
Few of Little India's myriad personalities over the ages can match the striking character of the late Jivatram Binwani, a traditional palmist more affectionately known in the locality as "Kakaji" till his passing away last year.
Enchantingly eccentric, Kakaji used to sit in an office stacked with scrapbooks of newspaper clippings, old magazines and astrology books, on the first floor of a creaky wooden shophouse in Penang Street.
His clients, who included businessmen, housewives, lawyers and lottery seekers, were usually caught rooted to their chairs as he delivered advice in forceful, robust spurts.
"If the government is serious about preserving Little India," he once said. "It should allow more Indian stalls and hawkers along the streets. The area must have a carnival mood at all times."
"We should have more dance and music schools, fortune tellers and Ayurvedic centres. These are riches we have inherited from our forefathers."
"So long as we do not forget our culture, our roots, Little India will always be very, very special in our hearts."
Written by Himanshu Bhatt, 1 October 2000
Photographed by Adrian Cheah, updated 16 October 2021
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