I was born in India, so a Little India conclave of some form and size anywhere in the world always draws me. When in Singapore, I am glued to the famous Little India quarter that stretches along the Serangoon Road.
While there all my senses are hugely assaulted as I see the colourful saree shops, hear high-energy Indian songs, smell the fragrance of spices, taste hot samosa or idly and feel within me some intangible touches of my motherland. (Also read: Perth to Sydney: An epic train journey connecting two oceans)
I had a similar feeling when recently exploring an alike domain in Georgetown, the capital of Penang, an island state of Malaysia. Though not as elaborate and expansive as its Singaporean counterpart, Georgetown’s Little India had everything to fascinate me the same way.
Penang steeps with 500 years of history. Because of its strategic location in the Straits of Malacca, emerged in the late Middle Ages as a key outpost for traders from China, India, Burma, Thailand, the Middle East and Europe.
In 1786 British East India Company laid claim to the land through political negotiations with the Sultanate on the mainland. Penang, initially called by the British as Prince of Wales Island, became a Presidency under the British India regime, just like Madras, Bombay and Bengal.
Many professionals from India then moved to Penang for work. In addition, the colonisers brought in labourers from India, and even hundreds of Indian convicts were anchored there. Most of the arriving Indians were of Tamil background, though over time merchants, traders and workers from other parts of India migrated to Penang which remained with the British until 1957 when Malay was freed from colonial rule.
An area around Queen Street, Chulia Street and Market Street was then allotted to the Indian immigrants to settle and that’s where lies today’s vibrant Little India quarter as the nucleus of Penang’s Indian diaspora.
My staying venue, the newly built 162-room Prestige Hotel, was not far away from there, so could browse the quarter whenever I wanted.
As usual, there were saree outlets, jewellery stores, spice centres, garland shops and wayside eateries selling samosa, vadas and chai giving me the feeling of trundling along a thoroughfare in Chennai or Bengaluru.
The aroma of food emerging out of the kitchens of Ananda Bhavan and Woodlands Restaurants made me hungry. A Hindu temple dots in the vicinity and I could hear the jingles of the temple bells and the beating of the drums during prayer times.
The atmosphere gets more energetic in the evenings when the area is crowded with the town’s ethnic Indians either shopping, eating, or just socialising around a street corner as they do in India.
Penang is famous worldwide as a foodie’s paradise, particularly for street food. ‘Laksa’, a coconut curry soup and Char Koay Teow – a flat rice noodle dish made with prawns are two of their most favoured items. There is another popular cuisine variety called ‘Nasi Kandar’ which descended from the Indian Muslims.
It comprises of plain rice served with meat or vegetable curries. During early days of settlement, Tamil Muslims used to hawk on the streets cooked rice and curries contained in metallic pots slung on both sides of a wooden pole resting on the shoulder of the hawker. Now they are served from modest eateries some located inside Little India.
Another extraordinary feature of Penang is its unique street art on walls. Some are paintings while many are iron sculptures with descriptors which emphasize the heritage aspect of the site. There is one on ‘Nasi Kandar’ in Little India from where I picked up the story behind its evolution.
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