Uncovering Kuala Lumpur's Little India

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At the heart of Kuala Lumpur, trains and travellers bustle past one another on their journeys through the city. Sentral station may be a hub for international travel,and a stone’s throw from high-rise hotels and shining office blocks, but just a few steps away from the station you’ll find a very different kind of neighbourhood. This is a place where people chat over curry, shop for saris, and change their money from rupees to ringgit. Welcome to Little India.

Stretching from Jalan Travers to Jalan Tun Sambanthan, Little India is hard to miss. Amongst the more muted surroundings, the main boulevard stands out with bright orange and yellow arches lining the street and a backdrop of buildings mostly painted in lilac. Walk along the street and your senses will be bombarded with every step: Bollywood music blares from shops, fresh flower garlands waft their fragrance in the air, and traditional fabrics of all colours and textures hang artfully in windows.

The Brickfields neighbourhood has been an Indian settlement for decades and has a rich history dating back to when workers arrived to take up jobs on Kuala Lumpur’s colonial railways. However, it was only recently that the area became the capital’s official “Little India”: the area around Masjid Jamek was the city’s main Indian district until 2009 when the government undertook a new development in order to provide more space for shops and eateries. Today, Little India is a social hub for Malaysian Indians as well as recent South Asian immigrants.

On Saturdays, you can learn more about the history of the area by going on a free guided walk run by Kuala Lumpur City Hall. Starting at 9am, the two hour walk begins at the Vivekananda Ashrama; a beautiful colonial house that has existed since 1904 and is a centre for promoting the teachings of the 19th Century Indian mystic Ramakrishna. The ashrama, or “refuge”, is named after Sive Vivekananda, the mystic’s most prominent disciple. A statue of Vivekananda stands in the front of the house, greeting visitors and passersby with an impressively wise countenance.

However, should you prefer to make your own way around Little India and Brickfields, it’s very easy to do so. There’s a lot to see in the area, and one landmark you can’t ignore is the water fountain at the crossroads of the main street. Edged with elephants and birds, this bright, three-tiered structure is 35-feet tall and has claims of being Malaysia’s tallest water fountain. If this is rather too garish for your tastes, you may prefer the contemporary steel sculpture next to the fountain. Made by a local design studio, this striking cubist work represents a dancer, and its twin can be found at the other end of the street.

As with anywhere in Malaysia, food is one of the first things on everyone’s mind. In Little India you’ll find favourites from all over South Asia cooked up with a sizzle in roadside kitchens. Banana leaf rice is one of the most popular dishes: steamed rice is served up on a flat banana leaf and doused in your choice of curries, with accompanying side dishes. If you’re in the mood for something lighter, try the pancake-like thosai or some pani puri – crispy pastry shells filled with potato and onion, served with a refreshing sour sauce. There are also plenty of shops selling sweet treats in the form of Indian cakes and biscuits.

Once you’ve eaten your fill, it’s worth wandering beyond the main stretch of Little India to find some of the neighbourhood’s more hidden treasures. The quieter area around Jalan Tebing is home to the stunning Sri Kandaswamy Temple. This large Hindu temple is over a century old and was constructed in the Sri Lankan Tamil style. The temple features a vamana – a pyramid structure – and its outer walls are lined with intricate, colourful reliefs. Inside, there’s a sacred pond and garden, as well as elegantly decorated halls that house various deities. Today, the temple is active with worship and festival celebrations all year round.

Just around the corner on Jalan Scott, art lovers should seek out the Wei-Ling Art Gallery. As well as displaying works by leading Malaysian artists, the gallery is a beautiful building in its own right. Tucked above a small antique shop, there are three separate floors, adjoined by creaky wooden staircases that are testament to the building’s long heritage. Entry is free, and the selection of contemporary art is excellent. Besides, it is rather lovely to find the secluded doorway and ring the doorbell for entry: it’s almost like uncovering a secret.

Brickfields is, after all, full of surprises. Each time you visit the neighbourhood, you will discover something new. Despite being the city’s official Little India, this area is a melting pot of different cultures. You are just as likely to see locals dining at Chinese hawker stalls as curry houses, while Hindu shrines share a postcode with Buddhist temples and Lutheran churches.


At the end of the day, this is not India, but Malaysia: diverse, mixed, and a little contradictory. There may be many “Little Indias”in the world, but the surprises are what make Kuala Lumpur’s version so very special.

This article was written by Elise Low for The Expat magazine.
Source: The Expat July 2012
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