Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Penang Thaipusam & The Chettiars



A Malaysian Indian politician based in Penang recently expressed his unhappiness over the Chettiar community for dominating the Thaipusam celebration in Penang. 

The points raised by the politician is highlighted in Yellow. My comments will be in the usual White. I have also included some supporting documents. So after you read the comments, scroll down to view the attachments.

You can then judge if that politician should have said such things.

Chettiars, an exclusive caste group?
There is growing resentment amongst ordinary Indians in Penang that the Chettiars of the Sri Balathandayathabani (Murugan) temple, Waterfall Road, Penang, should cease organising the annual Thaipusam silver chariot procession. Public donations from this procession are meant for their own sub-caste or sub-community!

We have no evidence to support any allegations that the Chettiars are using public funds for their own caste purpose. If there is evidence, then it should be taken up legally. I believe the Penang Hindu Endowment Board can do it if they are 100% sure about it.


It was the Tamil labourers who organised the chariot procession when the Arulmigu Balathandayathabani (Hilltop Murugan temple) was established more than 100 years ago. However, why and how this was taken over by the Nagarathars or the Nattukootai Chettiars remains a mystery until today.

The Vel was planted by Tamil workers. Vel worship was conducted even during Francis Light's era. There was a shrine for this Vel. There were kavadis and this was mentioned by James Low in the 1800s. However, the Balathandayuthapani temple was only constructed in 1855 after the British allocated land to relocate the shrine. 

It is indefensible to say that the Chettiars were the first to organise the silver chariot procession in Penang.

The Chettiars were the first to organize Silver Chariot procession. This started in 1894. The chariot was purchased from their native Karaikudi region and was shipped into Penang in the SS Ronna vessel. Prior to this, they organized Wooden Chariot procession beginning 1856. There is no record of any Silver Chariots in Penang before 1894. The Wooden Chariot was made from Burma teak. In that era, Chettiars were the only ones who were financially capable of purchasing chariots made from Burma Teak or Silver. The Wooden Chariot was then given to another Chettiar temple in Medan, Indonesia. 

The Chettiars, a caste or sub-community amongst the Tamils have a quite a high profile due to their economic and financial success. During the British colonial days they were involved in money lending activities in places like Malaya, Burma and Singapore. Following political independence and nationalization of foreign properties in Burma, Chettiars lost their property and many fled to India. Similarly in Malaya they were mainly involved in money lending activities as far back as the late 19th century. In fact, it would not be incorrect to say that they nearly owned nearly half of the lands in Malacca and had considerable land ownership in states like Perak, Negeri Sembilan, Selangor and Penang. Again fearing that their properties would be nationalized in Malaya, many of them sold their properties and left for India.The Malay Reservation Act was introduced by the British in the early 20th century mainly to curb the non-Malays especially the Chettiars from acquiring Malay lands by way of money lending activities. This fact has been well demonstrated in the historical works on British colonialism and the role of immigrant communities.

I agree with this :)


The Chettiars although they are Tamils, speak the same language and observe all the rituals and customs of Tamils in relation to religious and cultural practises, they think themselves as a class apart from ordinary Tamils, especially those who are members of the working class. This is not only true in Tamil Nadu but also in Malaysia and other parts of the world.

The Tamil society has its own diversity. Some customs are only observed by the Chettiars and nobody else. There are some differences in the rites. You can Google about their marriage customs or even their cuisine. This is why there is even a separate Tamil cuisine known as Chettinadu Samayal. Although we are Tamils, we have our differences.


Due to to their sheer economic and financial success in comparison to the larger Tamil population, they always want to remain distinct and seek to differentiate themselves from the larger proletarian Tamils through various ways. The choosing of marriage partners is always within their community. Marriages outside their sub-caste are quite infrequent. 

The choosing of marriage partner from the same caste is done not only by the Chettiars but also other castes. This is a normal practice and not something new. I wonder why the politician singled out the Chettiars as though they are the only ones who do it.


Temples owned and managed by the Chettiars are exclusively meant for this own community although they do not bar other Hindus from entering and worshipping the gods.

The politician once posted a picture of himself visiting his ancestral temple in India. That temple is also managed by their own caste people and it is not open to public. At least the Chettiars allow other people into their temples. By the way, the practice of ensuring that temple ownership and management is kept within their own caste is done by almost every caste in Malaysia. Can the politician guarantee that his caste people don't do it like the Chettiars?

Although the Chettiars collect donations from the public through temple activities, however, these are never given back to the poor Indian community. These donations are very often channelled to the Chettiar community in Malaysia or repatriated for their members in Tamil Nadu or elsewhere.

Again, if there are facts to support that funds have been mismanaged, then it must be taken up legally.

Given the exclusivity of the class and caste basis of the Chettiar community, the rank and file Tamils do not have a positive or healthy respect for them. This is precisely the reasons why Tamil in general do not attend in large numbers to Hindu festivals organised by the Chettiars in the country.

Speak for yourself. I have no issues with Chettiars. The Chettiars have successfully organized Penang Thaipusam for approx 160 years. The crowd never seem to be reducing. So it is wrong to say Tamils in general do not attend it. 

In Penang, this is the reason why many Tamils think that the Chettiars should not organise the annual Thaipusam procession and collect public donations. This is simply due to the fact that public donations are not used for educational and welfare needs of the larger and poorer Tamil community.

Again, speak for yourself and please take it up legally.

Historically speaking, it was the Tamil labourers who used to organise the annual Thaipusam silver chariot procession even before the coming of the Chettiars to Penang. The PHEB which manages the Arulmigu Balathandayathabani (Hilltop Murugan temple) wants this procession to be "returned" to the rightful temple!

How can the Tamil labourers organize Silver Chariot procession when the first Silver Chariot was introduced in 1894 and that too by the Chettiars? Please show evidence that there was a Silver Chariot prior to the one purchased by the Chettiars.

In sharp contrast to the Chettiar's Murugan temple, the temple under the jurisdiction of the Penang Hindu Endowments Board (PHEB) caters for all Hindus, irrespective of their caste or linguistic background.

Good. Well done. Baleh!

Given the differential orientation of these two temples, it is only fair and just that the PHEB be given the responsibility to organize the silver chariot procession from next year onwards. This will also mean that the Hilltop Murugan temple started by the poor Tamil labourers is restored its original right.

Ah! So your aim is to take over the Silver Chariot procession. 

Indians in are beginning to wonder as to why the Chettiars are immune to the sensitivity of the larger Indian community in Penang. Money collected from the public in the name of Lord Muruga only goes to serve the interests of their own caste-based members.

Don't wish to repeat the same comment again and again. I just began to wonder why PHEB is not taking any legal action if the Chettiars are mismanaging public funds.

Even though the Chettiars, I mean the temple committee, promised to give a donation to the PHEB last year, a portion from the public funds, they have not done so yet.

I cannot comment on this as it looks like some "hidden deal"

Regretably, during the recent Thaipusam, there was hardly a crowd to welcome the Penang Chief Minister at the Chettiar's temple. Those who came in to the hall the last moment were those who followed the Chief Minister. The Chettiar temple committe not only insulted members of the Penang state government but also the Penang Chief Minister. This was the feeling of those who attended the gathering inside the temple compound.

It is Thaipusam. The main hero is Muruga. So it should not matter even if the CM was not welcomed unless you think that you politicians are bigger than him and you deserve a grand welcome. Usually, devotees get annoyed only when they see these politicians getting special treatment by temple committee. I am yet to see any true devotee who gets angry because some politicians didn't get the red carpet. 

Enough is enough! The Chettiar temple committee members have taken the Penang Indians for a long ride. Something must be done to ensure that their temple do not use the Thaipusam festival to collect public funds to assist their own caste members. Poor and ordinary Indians are not the beneficiaries of the public funds that flow into the Chettiar temple. This is in stark contrast to the PHEB which collects public funds during religious festivala and are used to give educational grants to poor Indian students and to those who are in need of medical assistance. There is also an allegation that those who are involved in the management of the Chettiar temple are not even citizens of Malaysia! If this is true, how can they manage the temple and collect public funds during religious festivals?

Again, public funds......take legal action la

Now, some additional notes from me.

The Nattukottai Chettiar community have been living in Penang island for a long time. Big migration would have happened after 1850s but there were also pockets of other Chettiar castes even before that. For example, in 1801, the British granted land for a temple to one Betty Lingam Chetty, a Gumudi Chettiar.

Muruga is actually the tutelary deity of the Chettiar caste. You may wonder how, since Muruga is known as God of War and Chettiars are merchants. 

Well, Muruga was not only the God of War but he was also the God of Kurinji landscape. The inhabitants of this landscape are known as Kuravars. Among the Kuravars, those who became involved with salt business are known as Uppu Kuravars. This Uppu Kuravars are also known as Chetty and they are linked to the Nattukottai Chetties. 

Muruga is also known as Chetty in the Palani temple. In fact Muruga is also fondly addressed as Chetty Murugan.  Muruga is also addressed as Chetty in the Tirupugazh, a collection of sacred hymns.

chetty enum or thiru namakkara vetri ayil thodu prathapakkara
Translation: You have a beautiful name called Chetti, Oh Lord! You have a lasting fame of wielding the triumphant spear!

The statue of Muruga in Palani is in the form of a young boy with the silambam stick. This form is known as Balathandayuthapani (Bala = boy, thanda = stick, ayutha = weapon). It is the same form worshipped by the Penang Chettiars as their caste deity. 

Now you would understand why the Penang temple is named as Balathandayuthapani Temple. 




When the Chettiars came to Malaya, they promoted Murugan worship. Although Murugan worship was present among other Tamils, it was the Chettiars who made it popular. They spent alot for Murugan temples. They organized many festivals related to Murugan. The other community which made Murugan worship popular is the Ceylonese community.

So prior to 1850s, there was Murugan worship at the Vel shrine near the waterfall. The procession is said to start from the Mariamman temple in Queens Road. 

Before I proceed further, keep in mind that the Mariamman temple did not allow members of the low castes to take part in the past. The doors of the temple was only open to the lower castes in 1935 after a conference lead by Dravidian movement start pressuring in 1933. So before that, members of lower castes were not involved in temple management.

The Chettiyars purchased a chariot made from Burma Teak. Since there was already a procession from the Mariamman temple, the Chettiars decided to introduce a new procession for themselves. This procession starts from the Kovil Veedu and came to be known as Chetti Pusam. 

Over time, people became more interested in the procession organized by the Chettiars because it was much more grand and lavish. 

Furthermore, it had a chariot made from Burma Teak. The Chettiars also organized fireworks display to entertain the crowd. They also gave free food for 3 days. This attracted more crowd. What the Chettiars organized then became the main event. 

Then in 1894, the Chettiars replaced the chariot with a Silver Chariot. The wooden chariot was given to another Chettiar temple in Medan, Indonesia. This new chariot attracted more people as nobody witnessed silver chariot at that time. 

Some people are claiming that Silver Chariot was hijacked by the Chettiars only in 1970s. This is not true. The chariot belongs to them. They used their own money to purchase it. So they kept it. 

The procession starting from Mariamman temple became less popular. In fact, the Mariamman temple purchased their own chariot only in 1916 but they were not able to match the one used by the Chettiars. You can't blame the Chettiars for this. 

The procession from the Mariamman temple was the original procession. The procession organized by the Chettiars, the Chetti Pusam, was later. But today's procession is a continuation of the Chetti Pusam and not the original one by the Mariamman temple. It was the Chettiars who introduced chariots in procession, not the Tamil labourers.

This is why Thaipusam in Penang is dominated by the Chettiar community. It was they who made it grand with their money in the past. So their descendants are now enjoying the privilege which we call as "Muthal Mariyathai". 

Think. Understand the root of tradition. Then comment wisely. Don't let this silly politicians take us for a ride. 

SUMMARY:

1786 - Francis light gets Penang from Kedah. Renames it as Prince of Wales Island. Notices that Indian workers carry water up the hill to bath the Vel.

1833 - Mariamman temple built in Queens Road. Original Thaipusam procession starts from here. There is mention of kavadi but no chariot.

1854 - Chettiars build Balathandayuthapani temple

1856 - Chettiars introduce chariot made from Burma Teak and start new procession from Kovil Veedu. They call it Chettipusam.

So since 1856 there were 2 procession. More people start to go Chettipusam instead of the one from Mariamman temple. Reason : Free food by Chettiars, much more grand, fireworks display etc

1894 - Chettiars replace chariot with a new Silver Chariot brought from Karaikudi. Wooden chariot given to another Chettiar temple in Medan, Indonesia.

1905 - Mariamman temple goes through management crisis. There was a power crisis.

1906 - Penang Hindu Endowment Board is formed. Temple comes under PHEB.

1916 - Mariamman temple gets their own chariot. Crowd still goes to Chettipusam.

Today's Thaipusam in Penang is based on Chettipusam introduced in 1856, not the earlier one introduced in 1833. The Silver Chariot belongs to the Chettiars as they purchased it using their own money. It was not purchased by PHEB.



Postcard shows the Chetties and chariot in 1940

Postcard shows the Chetties and chariot in 1930

Painting shows the Silver Chariot in 1910

The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), 12 February 1935, Page 2

The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), 26 January 1921, Page 6

The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), 26 January 1940, Page 6

The Straits Times, 3 February 1958, Page 7

The Straits Times, 11 November 1949, Page 4

The Straits Times, 13 January 1962, Page 9

The Straits Times, 26 January 1916, Page 8

- Comments

15 comments:

  1. Dear Sharmalan, thanks for forthright and fact based views. May Lord Murugan bless you for having called the bluff of this misguided politician. Om.

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  2. Thanks for showing us the truth behind this Thaipusam festival in Penang with all necessary proofs and photographs. This is a tight slap to all the power hungry politicians who are trying to hide the history and make their own fake stories without valid proofs. Their intention is to take the silver chariot procession under their control or their community's control and so they use the social media and other media to fake the history and confuse the general public. Special thanks for making all the people of Penang and thr whole Malaysia aware of the truth and the hidden agenda of such cheap politicians. Appreciate it !!

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    1. You are welcome. We must always uphold the truth.

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  3. Excellent narration of history. We as a community always believe in எல்லாம் நல்லதற்கே. இந்த கூற்றுகள் நிகழ்கால தலைமுறையினர் அறிய வேண்டிய ஒன்று. எழுதிய உங்களுக்கு நன்றி. எழுதத் தூண்டிய பிரமுகருக்கும் நாம் நன்றி கூற கடமைப் பட்டுள்ளோம்.

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  4. Who ever started or organize.. It should not be keep to single group as in our religion it self mention that all is equals when comes to GOD. Again a big blunder for even an educated Indians today is their caste .. Let's live as Human then as Hindu with unity. Of course the Chetiars has help the glory of Murugan in Penang.. Thanks and let's move to the next level with Murugan

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  5. If that is the issue then stop participating in Chetti Pusam. Go for the Mariamman procession..Simple.

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  6. Well articulated. Small correction if I may is that Betty Lingam Chetty was not a Nagrathar but from the Telugu speaking Gumudi Chetty Sub Caste. This particular caste were the main intermediaries when the East India Company was trying to establish its foothold in Corromandel Coast.

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    1. Thanks for the clarification. I will edit the article accordingly.

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  7. there is a story behind why lord muruga became the prominent deity of chettiars in south east asia despite the fact that lord shiva is the first god and all chettiars are devout saivaites..
    the story goes like this... chettiars were involved in money lending which was considered in part as a "paava Thozhil"..so to atone for this they set aside a part of the income for religious activity and wanted to build a shiva temple in south east asia...when they consulted the shivachariars back home in india, the shivachariars said that even if the chetty's build a shiva temple, consecration cannot be done since shivachariars do not cross the sea (at that time)...so the shivachariars advised the chetties to do vel puja and if needed construct murugan temples where another sub sect of poojaris (by name pandarams) can do the rituals and they had no bars in cross the sea...so this is how murugan temples became very famous in entire south east asia...

    even in india, nattukottai nagarathar chettiars manage several temples (including the very famous pillarpatti temple) entirely by their own and the government is not involved in it... entrance is not prohibited to any other hindu,.however, management and mudhal mariyadhai remains with and for the chettiars...

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  8. Penang is a small island, with heavy traffic even on a normal day. I don't think the government can withstand the pressure from other society if they close down too many roads on the first and third day of Thaipusam- probably why routes are shared.

    Nattukotai Chettiar Temple is privately owned and the chariot is failing to fulfil it's core reason- to carry the veil from a Mariamman temple to the Murugan's temple (as what the legend suggest why Thaipusam is celebrated for). Legal actions on a funding cannot be taken as auditing a privately owned firm by the government may cause more turmoil that what is already happening.

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  9. An unbiased History of Chettiyars..Thank you.... Actually Chettiyars are peace loving people.they hesitate to involve in any local or national crisis or problem, their motto is concentrate on your trade and business...Well said Devare...

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  10. Imagine we are going for the festival with I family and generally will park in an open space as it would be the most convinient which may cost RM20(max). And we will walk for a distance while enjoying the sights of beautifully constructed panthals with free bewerages. And some with free foods as well. We may meet our long time friends and even relatives. Then we will enter temples along the way to Hill Temple. We will buy archanai chits which may cost RM20(assuming maximum). Once at the top with bottle or chombu of milk, we pray and be blessed by the The Great Lord. On the way down, we gets the opportunity to do some donating to those poor people down the stairs. Once down, we roam around and do shopping as well.
    Now, with RM40 or say RM50, arent we happy?
    We are questioning the funds that the committe took for the last 130 years. But why no one is questioning the car park charges other races are profitting on yearly basis?
    Hotels and other accomodation rates are being charged high as well.
    Some of the residences in the area are making use of the empty space near their house by renting them out.
    For the RM20 that we are giving the committee, arent we enjoying the festival with the price? Look at the arrangement that they have made. And there has been lots of improvement they have done for the devotees.
    Ok laa .... lets say there is some discrepancies in the accounts, so what?
    And who will be benefitting from that findings? Most of us will be talking about it for few months and will still be going to Thaipusam the following year.
    Please remember that we are talking about a religious event involving God worshipping. And HE is watching. No matter how smart one plays, he will never escape from HIS judgement. If there has been some wrong doings, do you think The Lord is is still watching for 130 years?

    Personally, I would suggest that instead of talking and arguing what has happened for the last 100 over years, please sit down together and discuss on how to improve towards the betterment of our community and the festival itself. We are getting more and more behind by trying hard to find our own peoples mistakes and wrong doings. And sadly this is happening everywhere including in SJKTs. It's truly amazing and confusing to see people are so busy in finding mistakes by others. For what??

    We have a powerful personel in the state government. No other states has this privilege for an Indian. And we have a financially strong group in the state. With the right planning, these 2 can do marvelous things once join hands together. Not only these 2 but also with a corporation of other NGOs, we can do lots of things if stay united.

    Finally, I am very sorry if my writing has touched anyone emotionally. I didnt intend to hurt or disgrace anyone. Just my thoughts.
    Thank You
    Valzha Valamudan

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