From the Coromandel Coast to the Straits – Revisiting Our Tamil Heritage

This year marks 200 years of the Tamils in Singapore. However, Tamil connections with Singapore can be traced as far back as the 11th–13th centuries CE based on recent interpretations of the Singapore Stone. From the Coromandel Coast to the Straits: Revisiting Our Tamil Heritage presents a compendium of narratives that recount the experiences of Tamil diasporas in Southeast Asia and Singapore from pre-modern to contemporary times.

Among the South Asian languages, Tamil is perhaps the only example of a very ancient language that still survives as the mother tongue of millions of speakers in south India, Sri Lanka, and of diasporas in many parts of the world. Singapore’s Tamil community is distinct as they have adapted and integrated with local cultures. Primarily born out of the colonial enterprise, the Tamil community is today a vibrant part of Singapore’s multi-ethnic fabric.

This exhibition is presented in two parts: part one enumerates the odyssey of pre-modern Tamil diasporas in Southeast Asia while part two offers glimpses of lesser known 19th century pioneers and some of the oldest Tamil families in Singapore. Bringing together collections from around the world and treasured possessions from the community, this exhibition seeks to present an uninterrupted history of Tamils in Singapore. It also includes digital showcases featuring holograms of artefacts in the collections of other museums and institutions.

Museum

Indian Heritage Centre

Exhibition date

23 November 2019 – 30 September 2020

Location

Special Exhibition Gallery

From the Coromandel Coast to the Straits

Cholamandalam to Coromandel

Coromandel was a region known around the world for its trade textiles and goods from ancient times. The term “Coromandel” is the European derivative of Cholamandalam (“the realm of the Cholas” or “the land successfully conquered by the Cholas”). Also known as Chola Nadu or “land of the Cholas”, Coromandel referred to territories under the Chola dynasty in south-eastern India which included parts of present day Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh.

The earliest reference to Cholamandalam can be found in an inscription located at the Brihadishvara Temple in Thanjavur dating to the 12th century CE. The oldest European mention of Coromandel appears in Roteiro de Vasco da Gama (Journal of the First Voyage of Vasco Da Gama) as Chomandarla. As a toponym, Coromandel first appears in Portuguese maps at the start of the 16th century.

The Coromandel coastline was a significant trading region in the Indian Subcontinent. It was home to a network of ports such as Pazhaverkadu, Nagapattinam, Parangipettai, Arumugam etc. which were unified by their participation in the Indian Ocean trade. By the 17th century, established mercantile communities were concentrated around ports along the Coromandel Coast.

For instance, in Southeast Asia Tamil Muslim trading communities from the Coromandel Coast such as Lebbai, Rawther, Marakayyar and Kayalar achieved fame as the Chulia merchants. These traders were engaged in commerce primarily with Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the Melaka Straits and other parts of Southeast Asia, although this trade gradually declined by the 19th century.

050000134 Hondius Hendrik map

Engraved Map showing the Coromandel Coast in relation to Southeast Asia by Galvao Antonio
1557, Published in 1707
Courtesy of National Library of Singapore

Masala

Masala
Kumari Nahappan
Bronze
2019, Commissioned by Indian Heritage Centre

 

Singaporean artist Kumari Nahappan is well known for drawing inspiration from and making spices the focus of her artistic works. In Masala, she recreates a spice garden to celebrate the historical importance of spice in the trade networks between the Tamil coast and Southeast Asia, as well as the centrality of spice in Tamil cuisine. 

The word masala, used widely among Indian communities, refers to a blend of spices. Uniquely composed, be it for use in traditional or modern cuisine, they represent an endless possibilities of flavours. 

In Masala, Kumari features three key spices in Tamil cuisine: milagai (chilli), krambu (clove) and jadikai (nutmeg). She further juxtaposes her bronzes of spices, made of edible and dried parts of plants, with fresh green patches of herbs to concoct a “masala” of the natural and artistic elements which continue to inspire and inform her practice.

Traveller’s Tales

Traveller’s Tales
by Lavanya Mani
Hand Painted and Embroidered Textiles
2019, Commissioned by Indian Heritage Centre

 

When the Portuguese captured Malacca in 1511, Tome Pires, the Portuguese chronicler, estimated that the annual value of Malacca’s textile trade was worth around 20 tonnes of silver. These Indian trade textiles comprised primarily of painted and block printed textiles from the Coromandel Coast, and woven cloths or Ikats from Gujarat. Known collectively as Chintz, these Coromandel textiles were embellished with ancient drawing and printing techniques like kalamkari and block printing. 

In Traveller’s Tales, Lavanya Mani recreates the magic of the coveted Indian trade textiles and “fabricates” her own visual narrative of the colonial interest and acquisition of trade commodities and trading ports along the Coromandel Coast. Through her installation, she suggests that early travellers to the East were crucial in the dissemination of information about new and unknown lands. In this work, Lavanya tells the story of four port towns along the Tamil coast—Pazhaverkadu or Pulicat, Chennai or Madras, Puducherry or Pondicherry, and Nagapattinam. Their famed merchandise are presented in this installation to represent Portuguese, Dutch, French, and British interventions in these trade networks. 

PART 1 TAMILS IN PRE-MODERN SOUTHEAST ASIA

Ancient Connections

Maritime links between South India and Southeast Asia date back to the late prehistoric period. During this period, Tamils acted as intermediaries in a trade network comprising the Roman Empire and the Mediterranean in the west to the other side of the Bay of Bengal. By the early centuries of the Common Era, pre-modern Tamil diasporas comprising seafarers and traders travelling to ports in Southeast Asian polities, had become common.

The early presence of Tamils in Southeast Asia is supported by epigraphic and archaeological finds that include medieval Tamil inscriptions, coins, pottery, ceramics, beads and bronze artefacts. The oldest inscription in the Tamil language dates to the 2nd or 3rd century CE on a potsherd found at Phu Khao Thong in south Thailand bearing the word turavon, meaning “ascetic”.

A 3rd century CE touchstone inscription of a perumpattan (Tamil goldsmith) from Khuan Luk Pat in Krabi Province points to the presence of pre-modern professional diasporas. The Takua Pa inscription indicates that a manigramattar (Tamil mercantile guild) operated in Thailand in the 8th–9th centuries CE. The Lobu Tua inscription also mentions the Ayyavole trade guild who established a permanent outpost on the west coast of Sumatra.

In addition, the Sangam anthologies contain the earliest literary references to Tamil contact with Southeast Asia. The poem Pattinappalai, dating to the 2nd century CE, describes the import of foreign merchandise from Kedah to the Chola port of Poompuhar, while Chithalai Satthanar’s Manimekalai written in the 5th–6th centuries CE makes reference to Java.

Jeevaka Cintamani

Jeevaka Cintamani

by Tirutakkatevar with commentary by Dr UV Swaminatha Iyer

Published in 1931

On loan from Sri Thendayuthapani Temple Library

 

Jeevaka Cintamani is a Jain Tamil poem which is considered one of the five great Tamil epics of the Sangam period. It was composed under Chola patronage and points to religious diversity in ancient Tamil country. The poem tells the story of Jeevaka, who through his merit becomes a king, yet renounces his station to attain spiritual salvation.
Manimekalai

Manimekalai

by Chithalai Satthanar with commentary by Dr UV Swaminatha Iyer

Published in 1931

On loan from Sri Thendayuthapani Temple Library

 

Manimekalai is an ancient Tamil Buddhist epic from the Sangam corpus. It is the sequel to the epic Silappadikaram, and follows the life of the heroine Manimekalai who becomes a Buddhist. Manimekalai offers some of the earliest glimpses of Mahayana Buddhism in Tamil country. In Manimekalai, Sathanar describes the island kingdom of Java or Cavakam as central in the Buddhist world.

Empires and Faith

The earliest reference to Tamil religious beliefs can be found in Sangam literature. Each of the Sangam thinai (poetic landscape) was represented by a specific deity: Kurinji or hilly regions by Seyon or Murugan; Mullai or pastoral lands by Mayon or Vishnu; Marudam or agricultural areas by Senon or Indra; Neydal or coastal zones by Kadalon; and Palai or arid regions by Korravai.

Jainism and Buddhism also co-existed with Hindu practices during this period. For instance, Kanchipuram, Puhar or Kaveripumpattinam, and Madurai were known as the three ancient Tamil centres of Buddhism. Even the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang visited the court of Narasimha Pallava in the 7th century CE and noted that there were 100 Buddhist monasteries and over 10,000 monks.

From the 7th century CE onwards, a devotional movement revived the Hindu sects of Siva and Vishnu as well as the worship of the mother goddess or Shakti. The classical form of Tamil temple architecture evolved after this period with the rise of the Pallava, Cholas, and Pandiya dynasties. Echoes of these art and architectural styles can be seen across Southeast Asia as remnants of its Hindu-Buddhist past.

Tamil folk versions of the Ramayana and Mahabharata also grew popular in Southeast Asia. For instance, the Ramakien’s inclusion of Mayil Ravanan, a character unique to Kambar’s Ramavataram, points to the Tamil influences in the narrative.

Miniature Shrine Roof

Miniature Shrine Roof
Kedah, Malaysia, 7th century CE
Bronze
On loan from Asian Civilisations Museum

 

This miniature shrine roof was unearthed at an archaeological site at Bujang Valley, a Srivijayan trading port which reached its peak in the 7th through 9th centuries CE. Scholars have suggested that the roof bears close resemblance to a Pallava period monument constructed in the 7th century CE, known as Bhima Ratha at Mahabalipuram, an ancient Tamil port. The Pallava influence is also evident in early Hindu-Buddhist art and architecture at the Angkor Wat and Asram Maharosei complexes in Cambodia, and at the Dieng Plateau temples in Central Java.

Standing Buddha

Standing Buddha
Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu, India
13th century CE, Chola period
Bronze
Collection of Indian Heritage Centre

 

The district of Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu is mostly known for its production of Hindu bronzes. However, production of images of Buddhist and Jaina deities by artisans was also prevalent in the Thanjavur region from the 11th–16th centuries. The port city of Nagapattinam was an important and flourishing Buddhist centre for the production of Buddhist art, and over 350 Buddhist objects have been recovered from Nagapattinam, belonging to the early Chola (871–1070 CE) and late Chola periods (1070–1250 CE).

This is a characteristic Nagapattinam figure of Buddha dating to the 13th century CE. The standing Buddha rests on a double-lotus base, with his right hand in abhaya mudra (gesture of protection) and the left in vitarka mudra (teaching gesture). Clad in a samghati (robe) draped over his left shoulder, the figure has a serene face, and the tight curls of hair and the flame-like ushnisha (cranial bump signifying divine knowledge) are in accordance with the mahapurusha lakshana or physical characteristics of the Buddha.
Siva Nataraja

Siva Nataraja
12th century CE, Chola Period
Tamil Nadu
Bronze
On loan from National Museum, New Delhi (India)

 

Nataraja (dancing Siva) is quintessentially Tamil and the patron deity of the Tamil town of Chidambaram. This form combines Siva’s roles as creator, preserver and destroyer of the universe, and conveys the Indian conception of the never-ending cycle of time. The four-armed Siva is holding a hand drum and fire, and assuming the gesture of abhaya (protection). The energy of his ananda tandava (cosmic dance) makes his hair fly to the sides. Since the cire perdue (lost wax) process required the mould to be broken, each sculpture is one of its kind and unique.

Nataraja bronzes appeared as early as the 5th century CE, and continued to be produced during the Pallava era. It was during the Chola period that prolific production of this deity’s icon took place. These magnificent bronzes were used for worship at temples, and served as emblems of the powerful Chola kings and queens. The Cholas were principally Saivite, and following their attack of Kedah in 1025CE, the formerly Buddhist kingdom of Kedah adopted Hindu-Saivite practices.

Larger Leiden Grant

Larger Leiden Grant
circa 1006 CE
Copper
Digitally reproduced with permission from Leiden University Library

 

This copperplate grant contains an edict issued by the Chola king Rajaraja Chola in 1006 CE. It serves as the last primary evidence for the mention of Srivijaya and as a record of the cross-cultural relationship between Tamil and Southeast Asian polities.

The edict is in two parts with the first part written in Tamil and the second part in Sanskrit. The Tamil plates, comprising 332 lines, state that construction of a Buddhist complex had commenced at Nagapattinam under the aegis of the King of Kadaram (Kedah), Maravijayatungavarman in the name of his father Chudamanivarman. The Sanskrit plates, comprising 111 lines, were likely added during the reign of Rajendra Chola, the son of Rajaraja Chola, and contain the genealogy of the Chola dynasty.

Coromandel Trade

Mercantile activity between the Tamil country and Southeast Asia was well in place long before the arrival of European companies in the region. For instance, Sultan Mansur Shah of Melaka (1459–1477 CE) sent emissaries to the Vijayanagara Empire in the 15th century to strengthen commercial ties, and the ships of the Sultan of Melaka sailed to Pazhaverkadu or Pulicat regularly.

Tamil traders such as the Marakkayars, the Mudaliars, and the Chettis were held in high esteem in the courts of Southeast Asian kingdoms and were made shahbandar (harbour master), bendahara (official) and saudagar raja (king’s merchant). They hailed from port towns such as Pazhaverkadu, Mylapore, Kunimedu, Cuddalore, Parangi Pettai, Nagore and Nagapattinam, and exported rice and textiles from the Coromandel in exchange for gold, copper and tin; spices such as nutmegs and cloves; and Chinese raw silk.

Nayinar Chetti, a native of Pazhaverkadu, was a leading textile trader in 16th century Melaka and appointed shahbandar by the Portuguese. Tome Pires in Suma Oriental mentions Nayinar Surya Deva, a well-known merchant who was engaged in trade from Melaka to the Moluccas. The Sultan of Banten appointed a Chetti merchant from Mylapore as laksamana (supreme commander of the navy). In the early 17th century, the Sultan of Pasai appointed Nayinar Kuniyappan, a Hindu merchant from Kunimedu as shahbandar.

However, the influence of these Tamil trading communities declined by the 19th century.

Arikamedu

The Coromandel Coast included ports located across present day Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Arikamedu was one of the most important ports in this network, and had connections with Southeast Asian centres such as Khao Sham Kaeo in Thailand and Sembiran in Indonesia. Rouletted pottery and beads made in and/or by communities from Arikamedu recovered from these sites serve as evidence of these early connections.

The Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, in the early centuries of the Common Era, mentions Arikamedu as the port for Colondiphonda (an unknown type of ship) bound for Southeast Asia (Cheryse). Arikamedu was a significant production centre with strategic access to the Indian Ocean trade network.

Piring

Piring (Dish)
Romano-Indian Rouletted Ware
2nd–3rd centuries
Made in Arikamedu and found in Buni Site, Krowang, Northwest Java
On loan from National Museum of Indonesia

 

This piring (dish), made on a wheel, originated in Arikamedu. It possesses Romano-Indian Rouletted traits such as a brownish exterior with a grey interior; a smooth surface; and a flat interior decorated with concentric bands of rouletted patterns. These dishes were typically used to hold food and/or burial provisions. The presence of such Romano-Indian rouletted grey ware provides evidence of trade between India and Java during the first two centuries CE.

Indo-Pacific Trade Beads

Indo-Pacific Trade Beads

Kuala Selinsing, Perak and Malay Peninsula

Glass, Beryl, Carnelian, Stone, Agate

On Loan from National Museum of Singapore

 

Indo-Pacific beads were the most ubiquitous trade beads that have been in use for more than a millennium. The trade in beads and bead materials is itself tens of thousands of years old. They are typically found along the east and west African coasts, in the Persian gulf, across the Indian Subcontinent, in Southeast Asia and East Asia.

Major glass and stone bead making industries could be found in Arikamedu from 250 BCE. Arikamedu functioned as the nodal centre for the bead making industry and its Tamil bead makers travelled to other parts of South Asia. They also travelled to parts of Southeast Asia including Klong Thom in Thailand and Oc-Eo in Vietnam. After the fall of Funan in the 6th century CE, Kuala Selinsing emerged as an important bead production centre. These beads were exported from Kedah, first through Sungai Mas and later through Pengkalen Bujang.

Kedah

Kedah was an important trade centre and ancient kingdom in the Malay Peninsula. Early south Indian navigators often relied on latitudinal readings, and their ships would sail in a straight line from southern India or Sri Lanka across the Bay of Bengal and make landfall at the Isthmus of Kra or at Kedah. Known in Chinese sources as Jiecha and as Kadaram in Tamil country, it was an ideal midway point for traders and pilgrims awaiting favourable monsoon winds to take them to their ultimate destinations in India and beyond or China.

The earliest references to Kedah can be found in Sangam literature composed in the second half of the 2nd century CE. Called Kazhagam in Pattinapalai, this term is derived from the Tamil word kazhk meaning iron or black rock. This type of iron was typically used to forge steel weapons which were then exported out of iron factories. Archaeological excavations in Kedah have led to the discovery of iron factories at the Sungai Batu dating back to the 3rd–6th centuries BCE.
Tuyere (Tube)

Tuyere (Tube)

3rd–6th centuries CE, excavated at Sungei Batu, Kedah

Burnt clay

On loan from Centre for Global Archaeological Research Universiti Sains Malaysia

Iron Ingots

Iron Ingots

3rd–6th centuries CE, excavated at Sungei Batu, Kedah

On loan from Centre for Global Archaeological Research Universiti Sains Malaysia

Iron Ingots

Iron Ingots

3rd–6th centuries CE, excavated at Sungei Batu, Kedah

On loan from Centre for Global Archaeological Research Universiti Sains Malaysia

2009-02053_Tuppotiya (Skirtcloth)

Tuppotiya (Skirtcloth)
18th century, made in the Coromandel Coast and collected in Sri Lanka
Cotton
On loan from Asian Civilisations Museum, Previously in the Roger Hollander Collection

 

In the second half of the 18th century, the southern part of the Coromandel Coast emerged as the predominant centre for superior painted cotton cloths made for export. Primarily exported to markets in Sri Lanka, many of the painted and printed cloths made for the Sri Lankan market were similar in design to those made for Indonesian and Malay markets.

The cut edges at either end of this textile suggest that it was produced as one of many with a repeating pattern. The tumpal (serrated projections) at the border are characteristic of cloths produced in Nagapattinam and San Thome for Malay markets. This cloth probably served as a tuppotiya (long skirt) in Sri Lanka, similar to the Southeast Asian sarong.

Bell

Ship's bell, with inscription in Tamil characters translated as "Bell of the Ship Mohideen Bakhsh"
17th – 18th centuries
Made in Tamil Nadu, discovered in New Zealand
Bronze
Collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Bequest of William Colenso, 1899

 

The Coromandel Coast was home to many maritime Muslim communities operating out of major ports such as Nagapattinam, Nagore, Karaikal, and Tuticorin. They were engaged in trade primarily with ports in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Southeast Asia, a trade that gradually declined by the 19th century. Mohideen Bux appears to have been a common name for ships owned by such mercantile communities along the Coromandel Coast.

This bell fragment, popularly known as the “Tamil Bell”, was discovered in New Zealand, in 1841 when missionary William Colenso came across Maori near Whangarei using the bell as a cooking pot. He was informed that their ancestors had found it in the roots of a storm-felled tree. The fragment bears a Tamil inscription stating Mohideen Bux udiya kappal udiya mani meaning the bell belonging to Mohideen Baksh or Bux’s ship.

Scholars have dated the bell’s inscription to the 17th–18th centuries. Could the bell’s inscription make reference to one of the ships that traded between the Coromandel Coast and a Southeast Asian port? For years, mystery has surrounded the bell’s presence in New Zealand – did a south Indian ship visit the shores of New Zealand or was the bell brought there at a later date?

A bell being inscribed at Kumbakonam in contemporary Tamil Nadu

A bell being inscribed at Kumbakonam in contemporary Tamil Nadu.

The Singapore Connection

Archaeological finds since the 1980s in the riverfront area strongly suggest that maritime networks connected India to the kingdom of Singapura, a prosperous regional port for much of the 14th century CE. Situated at the access points of both the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea, this port was of strategic significance and was central in the lucrative India-China trade.

Sang Nila Utama, of the Srivijayan dynasty, founded the kingdom of Singapura in the late 13th century CE. He and his descendants ruled Singapore for five generations until Iskander Shah fled, driven out by Majapahit forces. He later founded the kingdom of Melaka. As attested in the Sejarah Melayu or Malay Annals, these kings of Singapura claimed descent from Raja Chulan of the Chola dynasty.

The victories of Chola kings in the Malay Archipelago are listed in inscriptions of the era. Thirteen place names are provided, of which four are unidentified till date. Some scholars have recognised one of these names, Valaippanduru, as Singapore, as Pancur was the placename for Fort Canning Hill at the heart of Old Singapura.

The name Singapura itself has Indic roots and it was likely adopted due to connections with South Indian polities. For instance, Singapuram was a common placename issued in the Chola territory while Singai Nagar was the capital of the Arya Chakravartis of Jaffna. Singapura was also the name of places in Tra Kieu, Vietnam as early as the 4th century CE.    

Singapore stone

Singapore Stone
11th–13th centuries CE
The only extant part is in the collection of National Museum of Singapore.
Hologram recreated by IHC based on facsimile of the inscription provided by Asiatic Society of Bengal.

 

Tamil connections with Singapore can be traced to the 11th–13th centuries CE based on evidence presented in the form of the Singapore Stone. Formerly located at the mouth of the Singapore River, the inscription on the stone attracted curious visitors before the British dynamited it in 1843. When dynamited, the inscription split into several pieces. Three of the largest pieces were recovered by Lt Col James Low of the East India Company and sent to the Asiatic Society of Bengal.

The sandstone was about 3m high and 3m wide in size with 50 lines of an inscription. H Kern in 1908 identified that the inscription was written in Kawi, a Southeast Asian script derived from Southern Indian Brahmi. While he identified some Sanskrit sounding phrases, no interpretations on the inscription’s content was offered.

Singapore Stone 02

Singapore Stone
11th–13th centuries CE
The only extant part is in the collection of National Museum of Singapore.
Hologram recreated by IHC based on facsimile of the inscription provided by Asiatic Society of Bengal.

 

In the Indian Heritage Centre’s publication Sojourners to Settlers: Tamils in Southeast Asia and Singapore, Dr Iain Sinclair offers an alternate reading of the stone. He identified the phrase “kesariva” and suggested that this may be part of the classical title Parakesarivarman, adopted by several Chola kings, including Rajendra Chola I. This is significant as it is the first interpretation of the inscription, and suggests early Tamil presence in the Straits of Singapore.

One of the mysteries surrounding the stone is the whereabouts of the two missing parts. While one part is on display at National Museum of Singapore, the missing parts have long been rumoured to be in the collection of the Indian Museum in Kolkata. However, this rumour was put to rest following a joint search conducted by IHC and the Indian Museum in 2018. In fact, the stone was never accessioned into the collection of the Asiatic Society of Bengal collection inherited by the Indian Museum.

Fortunately, in 1848, the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal published a rubbing of the stone taken by JW Laidlay. A large format print of the rubbing was scanned by the Asiatic Society Library in high resolution. The two missing parts were then recreated based on this scan and are presented here as 3D holograms for the first time. A 3D scan of the extant part of the stone is also reproduced here.

Singapore Stone

Singapore Stone
11th–13th centuries CE
Collection of National Museum of Singapore

Hologram recreated by IHC.

Headless Horseman

The Headless Horseman
14th century CE
Digitally reproduced with permission from National Museum of Singapore

Sejarah Melayu

Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals)
Copy inscribed in 1896
Paper
On loan from National Museum of Singapore

 

Sejarah Melayu is perhaps the earliest literary work in the region to cite the term Keling or Kling in the context of Singapore. Also known as Sulalat al-Salatin (Genealogy of Kings), providing the antecedents of the Malay kings of Singapura and the Malacca Sultanate.

As identified by Dr Iain Sinclair, in this literary work, Sang Nila Utama, the founder of the kingdom of Singapura is said to have stood in front of Raja Chulan’s ancient will and testament in the form of the inscribed Stone. The word Keling was used positively in Sejarah Melayu, and made reference to a glorious kingdom with established commercial, political, and even marital alliances with the Malay Archipelago.

The Cholas inspired the tales of Raja Chulan enshrined in Sejarah Melayu. Raja Chulan, identified with Rajendra Chola I is linked to the Singapore Stone in Sejarah Melayu. It provides the story of the creation and installation of the Singapore Stone, and mentions the stone in relation to Badang who had achieved fame after his defeat of a Kling rival.

It must also be remembered that the Chola king Parakesari Varman Rajendra Chola I’s invasion of Kedah took place in the year immediately succeeding his conquest of Kalinga and Bengal. Kalinga was an important port, and it was with the strength of Kalinga’s fleet that he was successful in his attack of Kedah.

Odyssey of Tamils - From the Coromandel Coast to the Straits

Odyssey of Tamils, a specially commissioned documentary film, dwells on the pre-modern connections between Tamil regions, Southeast Asian polities and Singapore. Utilising evidence of Tamil connections in archaeological sites, museums and other institutions, this film presents the rich legacy of Tamil heritage in the region during pre-modern times. It also shows Singapore’s contemporary Tamils visiting sites of historical importance, and reminds us that our heritage is all around us, waiting to be re-discovered.

This film uses authoritative accounts presented by historians Iain Sinclair and Sureshkumar Muthukumaran on the role of Tamil diasporas in Southeast Asia and Singapore. From surveying early literary references to a toponymic review of cross-cultural interactions, the film features aspects of interactions between south Indian and Southeast Asian societies from ancient times.

It also investigates traces of the Cholas in Singapore through Dr Iain Sinclair’s survey of 14th century archaeological finds and the Singapore Stone in conjunction with narratives presented in Sejarah Melayu. Using a combination of re-enactments, interviews and contextual imagery, this film presents the odyssey of early Tamil diasporas in Southeast Asia and Singapore.

PART 2 TAMILS IN 19TH CENTURY SINGAPORE

Merchants: Naraina Pillai and his Contemporaries

The early Indian mercantile community in Singapore was diverse in ethnicity and religious affiliation and Tamils were influential merchants, traders, shopkeepers and small vendors. The Chulias were among the earliest Indians to settle permanently in Singapore, and by the 19th century, they had become one of the most influential sections of the Tamil community as leading operators of lighter and harbour boats, as well as shopkeepers and labourers. As early as 1827, Tamil Muslim migrants, led by Anser Saib, were given land for the construction of a mosque along South Bridge Road while Mohammed and Haja Mohideen constructed the shrine Nagore Dargah between 1828 and 1830.

Between 1823 and 1826, Sir Stamford Raffles introduced regulations to select and appoint headmen based on their respective community’s customs and social practices to deal with disputes. In 1822, William Farquhar, the Resident of Singapore nominated Sangra Chitty, a Hindu native of Malacca, as the overall headmen for the Indian community and Naraina Pillai, and Mayapoory or Viapoory, as the headmen for Coromandel Coast natives. In addition, Mahomet Lebbai, Fakir Tyndall and Ibrahimutto were nominated as headmen for labour while Mahomud Hussein, Ismail Lebbai and Sheikh Mahomet were nominated to represent the Tamil Muslim community.

Petition submitted by Naraina Pillai

Petition submitted by Naraina Pillai
October 1822, Singapore
Paper
On loan from National Archives of Singapore

 

Naraina Pillai, a native of the Coromandel Coast, arrived in Singapore from Penang in May 1819, and is the earliest Tamil arrival recorded. He started out as a clerk in the colonial treasury but soon ventured into business, setting up a kiln producing bricks. He also set up a shop at the market place at Cross Street selling cotton goods.

Pillai played a crucial role in the establishment of Sri Mariamman Temple by providing the funds for the purchase of the temple site and installing the main deity when the temporary structure was completed in 1827. Pillai’s signature can be found in two petitions addressed to Sir Stamford Raffles. In this petition, Pillai sought Raffles’ permission to erect a shop in the location of his store that burnt down.

Petition submitted by Naraina Pillai with his signature appearing in Tamil together with Viapoory's signature

Petition submitted by Naraina Pillai with his signature appearing in Tamil together with Viapoory’s signature
December 1822, Singapore
Paper (Reproduction)
Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

XXXX-01332_N(20161011)_Rare hand coloured wood engraving of Masjid Jamae Chulia and Sri Mariamman Temple at South Bridge Road

Rare hand coloured wood engraving of Masjid Jamae Chulia and Sri Mariamman Temple at South Bridge Road 
1860
Drawn by Peter Bernhard Wilhelm Heine
Paper
On loan from National Museum of Singapore

Scribes, Poets and Publishers: Munshi Abdullah, Makhdoom Saibu, and Others

19th century literature attests to the diversity of early Indian residents in the Straits region. Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, better known as Munshi Abdullah, arrived in Singapore from Malacca in mid-1819, and served as a scribe and interpreter for Sir Stamford Raffles. The first historical accounts on Indians in the Straits Settlements were available in the 1920s and 1930s following the publication of Saravana Muthuthamby Pillai’s Malaya Manmium on Tamils in Malaya, PNM Muthupalaniappa Chettiar’s Happy Malaya and RB Krishnan’s Indians in Malaya.

Tamil literature in Singapore, however, pre-dates the abovementioned publications and can be traced to the late 19th century. Examples include Munajathu Thirattu by Muhammad Abdul Kadir Pulavar, a compilation of Islamic religious poetry, which was published as early as 1872, and Singai Nagar Anthadi by Yazhpanam Sadasiva Pandithar in 1887. By the second half of the 19th century, Tamil Muslims and the Jawi Peranakans established the earliest vernacular presses in Singapore. These newspapers were published in Tamil and provided commentaries on subcontinental politics, social reform and local issues.

In 1873, CK Makhdoom Sahib established Denodaya Press which published Singai Varthamani, Singapore’s first Tamil newspaper in 1875. In 1876, the Jawi Peranakan company published Tankai Nesan, and in 1887, the Denodaya Press published Singai Nesan. In 1907, NR Partha founded and edited The Orient newspaper, and its Anglo-Tamil version Vijayan with a view to better understand the island’s residents. Other notable Tamil newspapers published during the early 20th century included Tamil Murasu by the Tamils Reform Association and edited by G Sarangapany.

Copy of Singai Nesan founded by Makhdum Sahib and Muhammad Abdul Kadir

Copy of Singai Nesan founded by Makhdum Sahib and Muhammad Abdul Kadir
27 June 1887, Singapore
Paper (Reproduction)
Courtesy of National Library Board, Singapore

Hikayat Abdullah

The Hikayat Abdullah

1849, Singapore
Paper

On loan from National Library Board, Singapore

 

The Hikayat Abdullah contains one of the earliest accounts of people of Tamil descent in the 19th century Straits region. In it, Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir (also known as Munshi Abdullah) recounts his own Tamil antecedents. Abdullah’s great-grandfather, Shaikh Abdul Kadir, a Yemeni Arab, migrated to Nagur (Nagore) in Tamil Nadu, and married a local lady, and his son (i.e. Abdullah’s grandfather), Muhammad Ibrahim, then moved to Malacca. Both Abdullah’s grandfather and father married local women. Abdullah, born in Kampong Palli (Kampong Masjid), the Tamil quarter in Malacca, was educated in a variety of languages including Arabic, Tamil and Malay.
Munajathu Thirattu

Munajathu Thirattu

by Muhammad Abdul Kadir

1872, Singapore

Paper

On loan from National Library Board, Singapore

 

Muhamad Abdul Kadir Pulavar was one of the most notable Tamil poets in Singapore in the second half of the 19th century, and could trace his roots to Nagore. This anthology of poems was composed in praise of Muslim saints and the Prophet Muhammad. Among them is a song written in praise of Sikandar Sahib Oli, better known as Sultan Iskandar Shah, who according to Sejarah Melayu was the last of the five kings to rule Singapore.

Bankers and Patrons: The Story of the Rm VLN Chettiar Family

Nattukottai Chettiars are one of the oldest Tamil communities in Singapore and they settled in Singapore during the 1820s. As a community of private financiers and merchant bankers, the Chettiars were the main source of private financing through medium and long-term credit, and their clientele was cosmopolitan. They were also keen advocates of education and established the Chettiar’s Premier Institution. In addition, the Chettiars built Sri Thendayuthapani Temple on Tank Road in April 1859, and the popular festival-procession of Thaipusam dedicated to Murugan was first celebrated at the temple in 1860.

The family of Rm VLN (Ramanathan Vellayappan Lakshmanan Nachiappan) Subbiah Chettiar has its roots in Kallal in Chettinad. Rm V Subramaniam Chettiar arrived in Singapore in 1892. He was a private financier and with his brother Lakshmanan Chettiar, co-founded his firm located at 56 Market Street. Lakshmanan adopted Subramaniam Chettiar’s son Nachiappan who continued in the financing business, and his son Rm VLN Subbiah Chettiar was the last of the private financiers in this family.  The practice of retaining the initials of several generations in their name is unique to the Chettiar community and provides a clue to a Chettiar’s genealogy.

This is one of Singapore’s oldest Nattukottai Chettiar families with a long history in Singapore dating back to the 19th century.

Kazhuthiru or wedding necklace

Kazhuthiru or wedding necklace
Mid-20th century, Chettinad
Gold
On loan from Rm VLN Subbiah Chettiar Family

 

This large-sized thali (marriage necklace) is used exclusively by the Nagarathar Chettiar community of Tamil Nadu. It typically comprises 35 pieces and is strung together by 21 lengths of twisted strings smeared with turmeric. The central pendant (ethanam), has four sharp spikes representing the four vedam (knowledge).

Incorporated in the pendant is an image of Subrahmanya standing with his parents, Shiva and Parvati, who are seated on a nandi (bull). In weddings, the groom would tie this necklace around the bride's neck after the exchange of vows. The kazhuththu uru is a ceremonial thali that is worn during weddings and on special occasions such as for the celebration of the husband's 60th birthday.

Passport of Rm V Subramaniam Chettiar

Passport of Rm V Subramaniam Chettiar

7 November 1920, Madras

Paper

On loan from Rm VLN Subbiah Chettiar Family
Photograph of Rm V Subramaniam Chettiar with his son Kumarappa Chettiar

Photograph of Rm V Subramaniam Chettiar with his son Kumarappa Chettiar
Early 20th century, Singapore
Paper (Reproduction)
Courtesy of Lakshmanan Subbiah

A Fleet of Carriages: The Story of Sangoo Thevar and Descendants

In the early 19th century, Singapore’s land transport system was comprised mainly bullock carts, horse carriages, jin-rickshaws and bicycles. Sangoo Thevar, Palaniappa Chetty, Sundra Daven, Meydin, Ismail Shah and Syed Ibrahim were some of the Tamil horse carriage contractors. Sangoo Thevar (Sangoo is Tamil for conch) arrived in Singapore in the 1850s with his wife from Mannargudi, Thanjavur. He acquired a fleet of horse carriages and leased them out.

In the succeeding decades, he amassed a fortune from this business and became a prominent member of the Indian community in Singapore. Sangoo Thevar had six children, Shanmugam Pillai, Parvathi, Regunath, Rajagopal, Lakshmi, and Meenachi Sundram. When Sangoo Thevar passed away in 1890, Shanmugam, the eldest, remained in Singapore and sent his siblings and mother back to India in 1895. Shanmugam subsequently became the Chief Clerk of Singapore Telegraph Office in 1912. Sangoo Thevar’s youngest son, Meenachi Sundram, returned to Singapore in 1912 with his mother and later became the first Asian Headmaster of Anglo-Chinese School in Singapore.

Sangoo Parvathi's daughter Anjalaiammal married Avadai Thevar, a construction contractor who arrived in Singapore in the early 20th century from Thanjavur, and their daughter, Avadai Dhanam, became the first lady of Singapore as the wife of the late CV Devan Nair, third President of the Republic of Singapore.

Photograph of Sangoo Thevar riding a gharry or horse carriage as identified by Pushpa Ramanujam

Photograph of Sangoo Thevar riding a gharry or horse carriage as identified by Pushpa Ramanujan
Late 19th century, Singapore
Paper (Reproduction)
Courtesy of National Museum of Singapore

Portrait of Valleyammal

Portrait of Valleyammal

Early 20th century, Singapore

Paper (Reproduction)

Courtesy of the family of Sangoo Thevar

Studio portrait of Shanmugam Pillai with wife Kamalambal and eldest son

Studio portrait of Shanmugam Pillai with wife Kamalambal and eldest son
Early 20th century
Paper (Reproduction)
Courtesy of the family of Sangoo Thevar

Studio portrait of Meenachi Sundram with wife Kamala aka Jessie sons Monie and Chellie Sundram

Studio portrait of Meenachi Sundram with wife Kamala (aka Jessie), sons Monie and Chellie Sundram
Early 20th century
Paper (Reproduction)
Courtesy of Susheela Croft

Photograph of Avadai Dhanam with her husband CV Devan Nair and sons Janadas and Janamitra

Photograph of Avadai Dhanam with her husband CV Devan Nair, and sons Janadas and Janamitra
Early 20th century
Paper (Reproduction)
Courtesy of Janamitra Devan

From Vaddukoddai to Singapore: Annamalai Pillai, JA Supramaniam and Descendants

Arumugam Annamalai Pillai was born in Vaddukoddai, Jaffna in 1839. He was educated at St John’s College in Yazhpanam or Jaffna and later graduated as a surveyor in India in 1868. He was appointed Government Surveyor at Galle where he met James Wheeler Woodford Birch. Birch later became the Colonial Secretary of Singapore and transferred Annamalai to Singapore to become its Government Surveyor.

Annamalai arrived in Singapore in 1875 and became Chief of the Survey department. Annamalai introduced the practice of valuing land in Singapore by the square foot as he anticipated the rise in land value as the port city developed. He resigned from colonial service in 1883 and established a leading private practice in partnership with Alfred William Lermit. It is estimated that Annamalai was responsible for surveying three quarters of the land in Singapore. According to title deeds and historical records, Annamalai owned estates in Katong and Siglap by 1885. He also started buying tracts of land in Tanglin and the Bukit Timah area, and these surroundings were collectively named after him as Namly Avenue. Annamalai Pillai was also a founding member of Singapore Ceylon Tamil Association.

Annamalai Pillai’s nephew, Rev JA Supramaniam, married Harriet Navamani Joseph, whose lineage traced back to 13th century Jaffna royalty. Their son Dr JMJ Supramaniam was a pioneer in the management and elimination of tuberculosis in Singapore, and his son, Paul Supramaniam, has recorded his family tree showing five generations of his family in Singapore, and tracing their lineage to Kulasekara Singai Aryan Pararajasekaran Arya Chakravarty, King of Jaffna (1246-56 CE). 

Set of 8 title deeds for properties owned by Annamalai Pillai at Tank Road, Confederate Coconut Plantation, Siglap, Bukit Timah Road and Tanglin

Set of 8 title deeds for properties owned by Annamalai Pillai at Tank Road, Confederate Coconut Plantation, Siglap, Bukit Timah Road and Tanglin
1886–1913, Singapore
Paper
On loan from Lt Col Dato Paul Supramaniam and Elfie Eleza Kamarudin

Set of 8 title deeds for properties owned by Annamalai Pillai at Tank Road, Confederate Coconut Plantation, Siglap, Bukit Timah Road and Tanglin

Set of 8 title deeds for properties owned by Annamalai Pillai at Tank Road, Confederate Coconut Plantation, Siglap, Bukit Timah Road and Tanglin
1886–1913, Singapore
Paper
On loan from Lt Col Dato Paul Supramaniam and Elfie Eleza Kamarudin

Set of 8 title deeds for properties owned by Annamalai Pillai at Tank Road, Confederate Coconut Plantation, Siglap, Bukit Timah Road and Tanglin

Set of 8 title deeds for properties owned by Annamalai Pillai at Tank Road, Confederate Coconut Plantation, Siglap, Bukit Timah Road and Tanglin
1886–1913, Singapore
Paper
On loan from Lt Col Dato Paul Supramaniam and Elfie Eleza Kamarudin

Set of 8 title deeds for properties owned by Annamalai Pillai at Tank Road, Confederate Coconut Plantation, Siglap, Bukit Timah Road and Tanglin

Set of 8 title deeds for properties owned by Annamalai Pillai at Tank Road, Confederate Coconut Plantation, Siglap, Bukit Timah Road and Tanglin
1886–1913, Singapore
Paper
On loan from Lt Col Dato Paul Supramaniam and Elfie Eleza Kamarudin

Set of 8 title deeds for properties owned by Annamalai Pillai at Tank Road, Confederate Coconut Plantation, Siglap, Bukit Timah Road and Tanglin

Set of 8 title deeds for properties owned by Annamalai Pillai at Tank Road, Confederate Coconut Plantation, Siglap, Bukit Timah Road and Tanglin
1886–1913, Singapore
Paper
On loan from Lt Col Dato Paul Supramaniam and Elfie Eleza Kamarudin

Set of 8 title deeds for properties owned by Annamalai Pillai at Tank Road, Confederate Coconut Plantation, Siglap, Bukit Timah Road and Tanglin

Set of 8 title deeds for properties owned by Annamalai Pillai at Tank Road, Confederate Coconut Plantation, Siglap, Bukit Timah Road and Tanglin
1886–1913, Singapore
Paper
On loan from Lt Col Dato Paul Supramaniam and Elfie Eleza Kamarudin

Set of 8 title deeds for properties owned by Annamalai Pillai at Tank Road, Confederate Coconut Plantation, Siglap, Bukit Timah Road and Tanglin

Set of 8 title deeds for properties owned by Annamalai Pillai at Tank Road, Confederate Coconut Plantation, Siglap, Bukit Timah Road and Tanglin
1886–1913, Singapore
Paper
On loan from Lt Col Dato Paul Supramaniam and Elfie Eleza Kamarudin

Set of 8 title deeds for properties owned by Annamalai Pillai at Tank Road, Confederate Coconut Plantation, Siglap, Bukit Timah Road and Tanglin

Set of 8 title deeds for properties owned by Annamalai Pillai at Tank Road, Confederate Coconut Plantation, Siglap, Bukit Timah Road and Tanglin
1886–1913, Singapore
Paper
On loan from Lt Col Dato Paul Supramaniam and Elfie Eleza Kamarudin

Photograph of the JA Supramaniam family

Photograph of the JA Supramaniam family
Early 20th century, Singapore
Paper (Reproduction)
Courtesy of Lt Col Dato Paul Supramaniam

 

James Arumugam Supramaniam was born in Jaffna in 1880 and arrived in Singapore at the age of ten. He was among the pioneer batch of students at Anglo-Chinese School, and went on to become a prominent educator in his alma mater and a notable preacher in Malaya and Singapore. In 1909, he was appointed as First Minister of Short Street Tamil Methodist Church, and was instrumental in raising funds for the building and increasing its membership.

Harriet Navamani Supramaniam (née Joseph) was born in Vaddukodai West, in Jaffna, Ceylon, in March 1885. She married James Arumugam Supramaniam at Kokuvil Anglican Church in Jaffna in 1908 and travelled to Singapore in 1909. Harriet was the chairman of Teachers’ Aid Society and often gave lectures at Temperance Society.

From Mannargudi to Singapore: The Ramasamy Family

P Ramasamy and his wife Rengammal arrived in Singapore in 1886 from Thirumakottai in Mannargudi, Tamil Nadu. They belonged to a community known as the Agamudyar Thevars who were landowners. On their arrival, Ramasamy joined the Straits Settlements Police Force and soon rose to the rank of Sergeant. The couple had five children Vaithinathen, Angammal, Muthia, Manikam, and Rengammal. Angammal married her relative Kuppusamy, a cattle trader.

Kuppusamy and his younger sister Ponnammal jointly owned a thaan or shed with stables for cattle and horse carts at Rochor. The horse carts were primarily rented out for the use of guests at the nearby Raffles Hotel. Ponnammal was also an industrious female entrepreneur who ran a lucrative kootu or tontine business in Rochor. Lakshmi, the daughter of Angammal and Kuppusamy, was trained in classical music by her illustrious musician aunt Amballigay who had come to Singapore in 1933 as the fourteen-year old bride of Manikam. The first public performance by Amballigay’s musical troupe took place in May 1937 at Farrer Park when Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indra made a short visit to Singapore and Malaya.

Lakshmi later married Rengasamy, the son of Kuala Lumpur’s wealthy Tamil merchant RM Davar, and the brother of the Indian National Army veteran Janaki Athi Nahappan. Lakshmi Rengasamy Davar was an educator and philanthropist who made charitable contributions to several Hindu temples and the Ramakrishna Mission.

The Ramasamy family trace their lineage in Singapore to six generations.

Portrait of P Ramasamy

Portrait of P Ramasamy
Late 19th century, Singapore
Paper (Reproduction)
Courtesy of Ananda Manikam

Family portrait of cattle trader Kuppusamy with his mother (sitting first from left), wife Angammal (in the centre) with her daughter, Lakshmi on her lap) and sister Ponnammal (on the right)

Family portrait of cattle trader Kuppusamy with his mother (sitting first from left), wife Angammal (in the centre) with her daughter, Lakshmi on her lap) and sister Ponnammal (on the right)
1925, Singapore
Paper
On loan from Vasantha Kumari Magadevan in memory of Lakshmi Rengasamy Davar

Photograph of Amballigai dressed for a concert at Victoria Theatre for a visit by VS Srinivas Shastri

Photograph of Amballigai dressed for a concert at Victoria Theatre for a visit by VS Srinivas Shastri

1930, Singapore

Paper (Reproduction)

Courtesy of Dr R Gangatharan Davar

Portrait of Lakshmi Rengasamy Devar

Portrait of Lakshmi Rengasamy Devar  

1963, Singapore

Paper

On loan from Dr R Gangatharan Davar in memory of Lakshmi Rengasamy Davar

Tambalam or tray presented by Indra Nehru to Lakshmi Rengasamy Devar

Tambalam or tray presented by Indra Nehru to Lakshmi Rengasamy Devar

1937, Singapore

Gold plated brass

On loan from Dr R Gangatharan Davar  in memory of Lakshmi Rengasamy Davar

They came from Jaffna: The Family of Eliyathamby

Jaffna (Yazhpanam in Tamil) is located in northern Sri Lanka (Ceylon in the past). Tamils from this region included descendants of the old Tamil kingdom of Jaffna, the Vannimais or descendants of chieftains. Most of the early Tamils from Sri Lanka arrived as colonial personnel to Malaya and Singapore. 

Born in Changanai, a market town in Jaffna, Eliyathamby worked as an assistant overseer for the British in Malaya. In this role, Eliyathamby supervised labour who cleared and built the roads that connected important towns. Eliyathamby’s grandfather Venasithamby and father, Muthuthamby had migrated from Jaffna to Malaya in the 1850s. They owned rice fields in Malaya and conducted trade with Jaffna. Eliyathamby subsequently married a relative Meenachi, from Chulipuram. 

Both Meenachi and Eliyathamby belonged to a community known as Vellalar and hailed from a line of chieftains. Meenachi and Eliyathamby travelled to Malaya in the 1890s by a sailboat, and their descendants eventually settled in Singapore. Meenachi was a skilled  culinarian , and brought with her cooking implements such as grinding stones, a wooden mortar and pestle as well as heirloom brass vessels that were passed through the generations. 

Venasithamby and his descendants have been in Malaya and Singapore for seven generations. 

Portrait of V Eliyathamby

Portrait of V Eliyathamby
1930s - early 1940s, Ipoh
Paper
On loan from Indra Iswaran d/o ES Muthu and Lavan Iswaran

Portrait of Meenachi Eliyathamby

Portrait of Meenachi Eliyathamby
1930s - early 1940s, Ipoh
Paper
On loan from Indra Iswaran d/o ES Muthu and Lavan Iswaran

Sothi coconut based curry serving vessel and a cooking vessel

Sothi (coconut based curry) serving vessel and a cooking vessel from the collection of Madam Meenachi Eliyathamby
1890s, Jaffna
Brass
On loan from Indra Iswaran d/o ES Muthu and Lavan Iswaran

Copy of Madam Meenachis dry mutton curry and appam recipes

Copy of Madam Meenachi’s dry mutton curry and appam recipes
20th century, Singapore
Paper
On loan from Indra Iswaran d/o ES Muthu and Lavan Iswaran

Tamil Women

Family accounts and oral historical sources have informed us that Tamil women have been in Singapore from the second half of the 19th century. As labour, as convicts, as wives, and as entrepreneurs Tamil women were diverse in the walks of life they occupied in Singapore. Alamayloo Pillay arrived from Mauritius with her father Sabapathy Pillai in the second half of the 19th century and in 1890, she married Koona Vayloo Pillay. Madam Ponnammal was a private financier with operations at Rochor in the late 19th century. These are but two names of Tamil women who were 19th century personas in Singapore. What of the others who remain anonymous? This section serves as a reminder of the stories of many Tamil women that remain obscure, waiting to be discovered.

Heart in Hand

Heart in Hand – a marriage of identities
Anurendra Jegadeva
Hand painted on wood
2019, Commissioned by Indian Heritage Centre

 

The story of the female Tamil migrant is often shrouded in anonymity and little is known of the lives of early Tamil female migrants to Singapore and Malaya. In response to this gender-imbalance, Anurendra Jegadeva attempts to recreate the journey of a contemporary diasporic Tamil girl by using his daughter as the central figure for this installation titled Heart in Hand.

The installation juxtaposes her Western oriented values against her ethno-cultural background inherited from her grandmother. The work further conveys the disconnect, even indifference felt by the children of migrants as they assimilate and negotiate their way through the same issues of identity and place, albeit twice removed, that was experienced by their grandparents. 

The central panel of the altar presents Anurendra’s daughter, and she is surrounded by paraphernalia of the migrant including cooking implements, a famous migrant ship, auspicious birds, and ancestral portraits. The six wings of the altar, inspired by a thali, are hinged to the main panel. Embellished on back and front, each wing contains miniature paintings that contribute to the narrative of contradiction.

The middle boxes within these hinged wings house light-boxes with reproductions of Migrant Letters, works that incorporate letters from migrants. On the top of the panel, is a gopuram (temple tower-like crown) that houses another light-box depicting an electric guitar-playing Saraswati, the goddess of learning.

Duality and Diversity: The Family of B Govindasamy Chettiar

In the 19th century, residents in the Madras Presidency were conversant in Tamil, regardless of their own linguistic backgrounds. Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam were spoken across the Presidency, and residents were receptive to these diverse influences in culture and tradition. Consequently, migrants who arrived from the Madras Presidency, while predominantly Tamil, included those who were well versed in both Tamil and their own cultural and linguistic practices.

One such example was B Govindasamy Chettiar who arrived in Singapore at the turn of the century. He was proprietor of the Indian Labour Company and supplied the harbour board with wharf and dockyard workers. B Govindasamy’s offices and the labour quarters were located along Keppel Road. He was well known for distributing free meals at his shed to port workers and to members of the community which earned him the moniker Kottai Govindasamy. After a short illness, he died on 6 April 1948 at the age of 59 and his funeral attracted attendees from all races. Throughout the 1940s, B Govindasamy Chettiar was involved in the management of Vadapathirakaliamman Temple, and after his death, his nephew SL Perumal oversaw major renovations and the temple’s expansion in the 1970s. 

Photograph of the Indian Labour Company

Photograph of the Indian Labour Company
1935
Paper, 34x40cm
On Loan from the family of B Govindasamy Chettiar and SL Perumal

B Govindasamy Chettiar with his first wife

B Govindasamy Chettiar with his first wife
Komalavalli
1925-1926, Singapore
On Loan from the family of B Govindasamy Chettiar and SL Perumal

Wedding Photograph of B Govindasamy

Wedding Photograph of B Govindasamy
Chettiar and his second wife Sundaragi
1934, Singapore
Paper
On Loan from the family of B Govindasamy Chettiar and SL Perumal

Journey Across the Seas: The Adhynamilagi Family

When looking at Tamil heritage in early Singapore, it is important to remember that a large Tamil mercantile community had long been present in Malacca, Penang, Myanmar, Medan, and Vietnam. The mobility of these traders, influenced the pattern of migration undertaken by Tamil diasporas. The descendants of Adhyakonar, an agriculturalist in the village of Mahibalanpatti in Sivagangai District, Tamil Nadu are one such example. Staunch followers of the patron guardian deity Adhynamilagi Ayyanar at Maruthangudi near Pillayarpatti. Narayanan father of Adhynamilagi and his uncle Mangaipahan both travelled via Nagapattinam to Southeast Asia. Mangaipahan established himself as a successful textile trader at the turn of the century in Saigon and Hanoi and was a patron of the Sri Mariamman temple there. Adhynamilagi boarded a ship from Nagapattinam and sailed for Singapore, and then joined his uncle in Vietnam to help him in his textile business. He returned to Singapore in the mid-20th century and worked as a clerk with the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company. Adhynamilagi was English-educated and multilinguist, lived in Market Street. Later brought his son to Singapore with him, while his wife lived in India and visited occasionally. In his later years, by the 1970s, he became a guide for Japanese tourists visiting Singapore. The family of Adhynamilagi can trace their roots back to 4 generations in Southeast Asia.
Photograph of N Adhynamilagi

Photograph of N Adhynamilagi taken in Hanoi at Bae HO/Bac Ho studio
21 October 1949, Hanoi
On Loan from A Adhynarayanan, Menaka and family in memory of the late N Adhynamilagi and Mangayarkarasi

Silk jacket for the new born Adhynarayanan

Silk jacket for the new born Adhynarayanan, purchased in Hanoi
Silk and wool
On Loan from A Adhynarayanan, Menaka and family in memory of the late N Adhynamilagi and Mangayarkarasi

Mr Adhynamilagi, Mr Adhynarayanan and a family friend on board the SS Rajula

Mr Adhynamilagi, Mr Adhynarayanan and a family friend on board the SS Rajula, journeying from Singapore to Madras
1959
On Loan from A Adhynarayanan, Menaka and family in memory of the late N Adhynamilagi and Mangayarkarasi

Portraiture

European curiosity over Asian diversity is manifest in the emergence of portraiture and photography by the 19th century in Singapore. The commodification and exotification of Indian culture for western audiences was also achieved through the medium of photography. A Sachtler of Sachtler & Co and John Thomson of Thomson Bro shot some of the earliest portraits of Indians in Singapore between the 1860s and the 1870s. Later, the firm of GR Lambert & Co, which operated from 1877 until the end of the First World War, produced the single most important collection of images of Singapore in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

 

These carefully curated photographs capture people from diverse trades and professions ranging from hawkers to labour; the exotic fashion of matriarchal women; and the family as a unit. Photographs such as these, together with those of other migrants, reinforced the exotic and mysterious image of Singapore. However, it is unfortunate that the names of these profiles were never documented, and they remain anonymous to date. To reverse the colonial neglect surrounding these studies are portraits of Tamil pioneers from the 19th and early 20th centuries identified in family collections and/or commissioned for this exhibition.
Koona Vayloo Pillay

Koona Vayloo Pillay

In 1837, Seetharama Pillay and his son-in-law Koona Kotaiya, natives of Erode, Tamil Nadu, arrived in Singapore. Koona Kotaiya was a stone mason, and he found employment in the construction industry. Eventually, he acquired land and started a successful dairy farm business at the 9th mile estate around Dairy Farm Road.

 

His son, Koona Vayloo Pillay started working for a European, ER Koek. Noting his honesty and hardwork, Koek financed and supported Koona Vayloo Pillay in building a dairy business. Starting from scratch, Koona Vayloo Pillay begun his own successful dairy farm business at the 9th mile estate, and later expanded into investing in properties. He was popularly known as “Malai Vayloo Pillay” in Tamil, as his house was atop a hill at Bideford Road. He built a mansion called “Cashmere House” in Sophia Road, and had properties in East Coast, Chinatown, Little India, Orchard Road, Tanjong Pagar, Siglap and Fernhill.

 

Pillay’s grave is the only Hindu grave to be preserved at the Bidadari Memorial Garden. Alamayloo Sabapathy Pillay, also known as Allamelu aachi, migrated from Mauritius to Singapore with her father Sabapathy Pillai in the second half of the 19th century. In 1890, she married Koona Vayloo Pillay.

V Murugasam Pillay

V Murugasam Pillay

V Murugasam Pillay was born in Vaddukoddai, Jaffna. He arrived in Singapore in 1877 to work as a municipality road overseer.  He was appointed as a Chief Municipal road examiner in charge of the inspection of the city and forest roads that were being built. As Chief, he had 2000 employees under his charge. V Murugasam Pillay was very generous and brought children from Jaffna to Singapore and provided them education at his own expense. He also helped with securing jobs upon their graduation. He married Venkatammal and had a son named M Velu Pillay who became a prominent laywer in Singapore and Johor.

G Maruthamuthu

G Maruthamuthu

G Maruthamuthu was the son of Rama Govinda Pillai and Thillaikannamal. Rama Govinda Pillai was one of the founders of the Veeramakaliamman Temple and worked on municipal building works. G Maruthamuthu studied Tamil and English and worked in the government office. He eventually began working as a Chief clerk in Mr Mitter’s office. He was a member of multiple societies including the Singapore Vivekanandar Club, the Singapore Tamil Students Club and the Indian Football Association. He founded and ran an Indian elementary school for thirteen years providing free education for less fortunate children. G Maruthamuthu followed in the footsteps of his father and was a Patron of the Veeramakaliamman Temple. He was a generous man and was well remembered for providing food to thousands that were affected by the Municipal Worker strikes in 1936.

Revisiting the Past

Tamils in Singapore are a unique diaspora who have settled in the country, through continuous waves of migration, over a period of 200 years. It is evident that the roots of most present-day Tamil culture, customs, religious ideologies and affiliations in Singapore can be traced to the 19th century and that they have continued to evolve over the centuries. In fact, Tamil identity today is the product of a long history of traditional practices which have combined and incorporated local influences over time.

 

As early migrants became settlers, language and literature became useful tools that fostered social integration amongst the diverse groups of Tamils. Tamil language education was provided as early as 1834 in Singapore, and Anglo-Tamil schools were established in 1873 and 1876 to teach English through the use of Tamil. Today, Tamil is one of the four official languages of Singapore, and community and state-led efforts in the preservation and promotion of Tamil language continue unabated.

 

This exhibition traces the long history of Tamils in Singapore and highlights the stories of Tamil pioneers who played integral roles in the development of early Singapore. Since then, the Tamil community has continued to evolve, and the Singaporean Tamils of today are a vibrant and diverse community. They constitute an estimated 5% of Singapore’s population and yet continue to play an important role in shaping Singapore’s future.