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Who are the Chetti Melaka? Discovering a Hidden Culture at Indian Heritage Centre

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Heard of the Peranakan Indian community in Singapore, mama? Learn all about them at Indian Heritage Centre’s newest multi-sensory exhibition

We’re sure that when you hear ‘Peranakan’ you immediately think of terms like nonya, baba, kebaya, and dishes like babi pongteh. But have you heard of the term Peranakan Indian, or Chetti Melaka? Neither had I, till I visited the Indian Heritage Centre and was blown away by the fascinating history of this small, lesser-known community in Singapore.

Chetti Melaka of the Straits: Rediscovering Peranakan Indian Communities takes us through the culture, history and legacy of the Chetti Melaka, a community of descendants of Tamil traders who first settled in Melaka during the reign of the Melaka Sultanate in the 15th to 16th centuries, some 500 years ago (before even the Portuguese or the British!).

They married local women of Malay and Chinese descent, and eventually adopted the local language and developed their own, dubbed Chetti Creole – predominantly Malay with a mixture of Chinese and Tamil words. At the exhibition you’ll discover some words that are commonly used, and you may even recognise them if you come from a Malay-speaking family!

When the British arrived and found that the Chetti Melaka community were also English-educated, they brought them to Singapore to become civil servants and the rest was history.

The exhibition begins with Who are the Chetti Melaka? In search of the Lost, a specially commissioned short film by K Rajagopal which follows the heartfelt stories of Singaporean Chetti Melaka youths as they find out more about their community’s history in the hopes of strengthening their sense of identity. Through visiting the iconic Kampung Chetti village in Malacca, Malaysia, learning from their elders and meeting other Chetti Melaka in Singapore, we find out more about how the community in Singapore is keeping their unique traditions alive.

The Chetti Melaka are mainly Hindu, and connect most of their culture to the religion. While they pray to various Hindu deities, they do so in Malay and even adopt Chinese prayer practices like using joss sticks and providing offerings.

Indian women in kebaya were a common sight at the time – their traditional dress reflect influences from Java, Bugis, Aceh, Batak and India. Men had their own unique version of the Malay songkok called the talapa, made of colourful batik much like the skirts of the women’s kebaya.

As you walk through the exhibition you’ll discover there were many pioneers of the Chetti Melaka who made significant impact to their community in Singapore. Their legacies live on and are celebrated by their families, together with the support of the Peranakan Indian (Chetti Melaka) Association Singapore whose members have contributed to the exhibition and loaned various artefacts that add to the immersive experience of the exhibition!

While the exhibition will run till May 2019, the Indian Heritage Centre CultureFest 2018 wraps up this weekend, with activities like curator’s tours, panel discussions, dance workshops and performances! Check out all the programmes here.

Tip: We recommend popping over to The Malayan Council on Dunlop Street after your visit for a spot of ondeh-ondeh cake – one of the best on the island!

Chetti Melaka of the Straits: Rediscovering Peranakan Indian Communities is now on till 5 May 2019 at Indian Heritage Centre, 5 Campbell Lane, Singapore 209924. Admission is free for Singaporeans and Permanent Residents.

Lead image and traditional outfit image courtesy of the author; all other images courtesy of Indian Heritage Centre

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