Multi-cultural Malaysia is what it is because of the immigration of workers and traders from different parts of Asia centuries ago, their descendants congregating in enclaves dotted about the country. Rather like Southall in UK, in Penang, the Indian diaspora meet up in Georgetown’s bustling “Little India”.
Situated just off Penang’s fi nancial district of Beach Street bordered by Leith Street, Chulia Street and Pitt Street (now Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling), this is the rich, seething, throbbing heart of Penang’s Indian community. Standing at its centre, you might be forgiven for thinking that you got off the plane at Bombay or Kolkatta by mistake, surrounded as you are by the exciting sights and smells.
Lively Bollywood music blares out as different shops vie to outdo each other, enticing you inside to inspect their wares. If you don’t really know where to go, just follow your nose – the rich smells of the spices fuse into a heady, aromatic blend of all that made Penang into a famous port centuries ago.
In the many grocery shops, you will see huge gunny sacks piled high with cardamoms, pepper, star anise, cinnamon, cloves, chillies, nutmegs and a whole plethora of other spices used for cooking, flavouring and preserving, all at very reasonable prices. It’s a great place to stock up your spice rack for the next year or so.
You can fi nd anything here, from herbalists and ayuverdic practitioners to astrologers and palmists. It also offers a traditional practice popular with men from every culture: the Indian barber. If you feel like a hair cut or a close shave, literally, then this is the place to go. It’s an experience you won’t forget, as they will give you not just a haircut but a de-knotting, de-stressing back and scalp massage. Some even offer an “ear de-waxing service” using a miniature long-handled spoon with a tiny scoop at the end – unheard of in the west but under the hands of these skilled men, considered quite safe. And all for a fraction of what is charged in a trendy hairdresser’s.
There are shops which sell all manner of household items: clay incense burners, woks and cooking implements made from all sorts of material, in all shapes and sizes. Clothes shops abound with elegantly flowing saris in gorgeous fuschias and peacock blues; brilliant reds, ambers and greens. Matching sexy little Indian tops are available to go under them. There are trendy Nehru shirts and embroidered muslins. However, if nothing catches your fancy, step into one of the many textile shops and you will be able to purchase material in hundreds of stunning colours and textures.
The Indians love adorning their bodies, whether it is with scent, colour, flowers or jewellery, and I adore the many stores which sell a hundred and one different items specifically for this purpose, ranging from natural henna to colourful trinkets or gold jewellery. Young Indian maidens used to signal their unmarried status with a mark on their forehead made from special dyes. Tradition has moved with the times, and now they use trendy ready-made stick-ons of all colours and shapes.
Of course as any self-respecting Penangite will tell you, no trip is complete without a meal to round off the expedition, and if nothing else, this alone makes the journey downtown a must. There are many eateries serving anything from northern Indian cuisine to typically Malaysian “Mamak” (Indian Muslim) food. Eat tandooris or curries served with naans, chapattis, rice or dhalls. One of the most popular is “Banana Leaf” where you literally eat off just that – a banana leaf – and waiters come round with huge serving dishes and dollop different types of rice, curries, vegetables and condiments on it. Try eating it the “proper way” – with just your hands! Some claim it really does make everything tastier.
Work off the huge spicy meal with a leisurely stroll, so arm yourself with a parasol against the blazing sun and have a look around, as historical buildings abound here too. Apart from the pre-war buildings which house all these businesses, Chinese clan houses and churches, Penang’s first Hindu Temple, the 170-year old Sri Mahamariamman Temple is tucked away in a quiet corner in Queen Street.
Little India, although only recently so-named, is a “living historic community” according to respected historian and writer Khoo Salma Nasution, but fears that the recent repeal of the Rent Control Act in 2000 would put an end to the thriving area appear to be unfounded. “Little India has actually flourished – although some of the original traders were pushed out, new Indian businesses with access to capital have moved in,” she explained.
Whatever you choose to go there for, whether it’s for great food, cheap groceries, amazing clothes, or simply to soak up the atmosphere, one thing is for sure: Little India is well worth a visit to when you are next in Penang. By Helen Ong